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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2001 / 15 Shevat, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The Music Man
and his critics -- RONALD REAGAN himself has already passed into history, into a world of dreams and clouds, on this, his 90th birthday. But his presence among us remains as great as it was when he was fashioning his New Beginning, which was really only a rebirth of the old. In many ways, at home and abroad, we're still in the Reagan Recovery.

To appreciate Ronald Reagan's accomplishment, one would have to conjure up more than his always smiling presence. One would have to go back to the drifting, demoralized pre-Reagan America of the 1970s, the one that had made its peace with Detente and Decline, whose spirit was as unnatural, as ungainly, as unflattering as its fashions.

If it can ever be said that one man changed everything, he was the one man. And he did it the way he did everything -- dramatically. There was something almost eerie about it: B-Movie Actor Changes World.

No wonder Reagan drove his biographer, Edmund Morris, to distraction. There was no conventional way to explain so unconventional a president, so unexpected a leader. It's as if the actor had started writing the script. Ronald Reagan just imagined us the way he'd always thought Americans were, and then we were. It was like ... a movie.

Or maybe a musical. The New York Times decided to have a little fun with Ronald Reagan after one of his State of the Union addresses. The good gray Times' idea of fun was to picture him in a musical comedy -- namely, Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man.'' Complete with all 76 trombones. Only this time with Ronald Reagan instead of Robert Preston in the leading role. It was a perfect fit: He's a what? He's a music man, and he sells clarinets to the kids in the town with the big trombones and the rat-a-tat drums. ... And the piccolo, the piccolo with uniforms, too, with a shiny gold braid on the coat. ... The fellow sells bands. ... I don't know how he does it, but he lives like a king, and he dallies and he gathers and he plucks and he shines and when the man dances, certainly boys, what else? The piper pays him!

None of the strait-laced matrons in River City could have outdone the Times in looking askance at the interloper who promised to inject joy and beauty -- music! -- into life once again.

The danger in using literary or even semiliterary allusions as a rhetorical device is that they may prove too revealing. Because the Music Man of the show -- more formally, Professor Harold Hill -- wasn't the villain of the musical; he was a kind of hero.

Granted, there wasn't much substance to the professor's Reaganesque approach to teaching the kids music: "a revolutionary new method called the Think System where you don't bother with the notes.'' But he did leave River City a changed place. A very American place. A place where spirit conquers all.

It wouldn't be the first time that happened. All the Times' snippy references to the Music Man would be just as apt if applied to another happy warrior, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Why, talk about a Music Man! What program besides hope did FDR bring into office with him in the gloomy midst of the Great Depression?

Back in 1932, FDR had run on a conventional platform that promised a balanced budget, drastic cuts in government spending, a sound currency and an international monetary conference -- none of which proved the hallmark of the New Deal. He had spoken of government regulation of the economy "only as a last resort.'' It became the first. Because it felt right. Something had to be done! Now.

Walter Lippmann, even in 1932 a gray eminence, summed up Mr. Roosevelt as "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the job, would like very much to be president.'' Once that pleasant man made it to the White House, he put most of his emphasis on sheer experimentation and, well, the Think System. (''The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'')

No wonder Ronald Reagan quoted FDR admiringly. Their politics were generations apart, but they shared a vibrant spirit and a talent for communicating it.

Above all, both FDR and The Great Communicator gave the nation a sense of movement, of change, a feeling that the country was coming back strong. To his critics, FDR was only "That Man,'' unmentionable by name, a traitor to his class. To some, Ronald Reagan remains a mixture of Ebenezer Scrooge and the missile-slinging cowboy in the old Pravda cartoons.

Yet both presidents recast the country in their own, smiling image. Not even The New York Times could forever deny that Mr. Reagan was right about the inextinguishable spirit of America. What a contrast with his predecessor, poor Jimmy Carter, who seemed obsessed with a capital-M Malaise largely of his wn, fearful making. (It was as an ex-president that Mr. Carter would find his calling.)

Just what FDR accomplished is as debatable to the political cognoscenti as what Ronald Reagan left behind. But if Franklin Roosevelt didn't save the country, he held it together, which was a remarkable achievement in the 1930s. He offered something more than measurable progress: immeasurable hope.

If Ronald Reagan didn't offer the specific blueprints his dour critics wanted from him, if he kept stumbling into misstatements, still his spirit was an accurate reflection of the nation's rising hopes. Soon not even his gloomiest critics could disguise the comeback of the American dream. The Music Man was leading the whole country into a rousing march.

There were other presidential candidates back in 1984 who were no doubt more to the Times' refined tastes -- candidates with detailed blueprints and an engineer's control of the technical data.

There was such a candidate in 1932, too. He had the plans, the experience, and, lest we forget, a host of reforms to his name: the Federal Farm Board and its farm price supports, the Relief and Construction Act, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Federal Home Loan Bank Act. But after the campaign was over, Herbert Hoover was a broken man. He declined even to respond to the applause of the crowd as he was driven to his successor's inauguration. He could no longer offer hope. Nobody on that occasion would have confused the eminently practical Mr. Hoover, the Great Engineer, with a Music Man.

By 1984, The New York Times was still warning that the Reagan Recovery couldn't last, and that the nation's new vigor abroad was only the same old irresponsibility. The good gray Times had seldom done more to earn its nickname. In an editorial that could have been written by Chicken Little, it concluded that The End Is Near:

"America is upbeat now, mainly because the business cycle has gone from recession to recovery. Mr. Reagan is skillful at conveying an optimistic mood, but he has not shown how he's responsible for it. Worse, his deficit spending can hasten a savage new cycle of inflation and recession. The president offers no program to guard against that and no protection for the victims. Only music.''

Only music. But music may be what is most necessary. If it is the music of hope and aspiration, if its 76 trombones allow everybody who loves a parade to envision a bright future and start marching toward it, if each marcher can step off in the assurance that the dollars he earns won't turn into funny money, and the government he supports won't hold him back. What a parade it has turned out to be. Despite a dip here and there, we are still in the midst of the Reagan Recovery.

Only music. That's what must be most maddening of all to Ronald Reagan's critics, as it was to FDR's. How dare that man mobilize the whole country around nothing but words and hope when everybody was supposed to be fearful?

There are just some Americans constitutionally unable to appreciate a Professor Harold Hill. They much prefer tragedy. But America wasn't made for it. Neither was Ronald Reagan. He proved a great president almost solely because he recognized America's greatness. Wherever he is now, in whatever anteroom to eternity, amid whatever dreams and clouds, surely they still shine with hope. Happy birthday, sir. And thank you.

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