Jewish World Review June 7, 2004 / 18 Sivan 5764
The Music Man: How a b-movie actor changed the world
Even in his death he strengthened us. The news that his long struggle was finally over has given us permission to celebrate his pivotal role in our history the way we should. With pomp and circumstance and gratitude.
Ronald Reagan himself had drifted away from us years ago into a twilight world of dreams and clouds, but his book of life couldn't be closed properly till now. At last, Nancy's long ordeal has been concluded.
To appreciate what Ronald Reagan achieved, you'd have to conjure up more than his genial smile and always upbeat presence. You'd have to go back to the drifting, demoralized America of the 1970s, the one that had made its peace with Detente and Decline, the America of stagflation at home and drift abroad, of gas lines and double-digit interest rates, and a general, even un-American defeatism. The challenge had become how to stave off defeat as long as possible, just to survive, not how to triumph. The spirit of that pre-Reagan America was as unnatural, as ungainly and 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 B-Movie about his story: Actor Changes World.
No wonder Ronald Reagan drove his biographer, Edmund Morris, to distraction. There was no conventional way to explain so unconventional a turn of events. It's as if the actor had decided to rewrite the script. Ronald Reagan just imagined America the way he'd always thought it was on the back lot, and, sure enough, it still was. It was like . . . a movie.
Specifically, a musical. Once upon a very different time, The New York Times decided to have a little fun with Ronald Reagan after one of his of State of the Union addresses. The good gray Times' idea of fun was to picture him in a musical comedy - namely, Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." Complete with all seventy-six trombones. Only this time with Ronald Reagan instead of Robert Preston in the leading role. It was the perfect role for him when you think about it. Listen to the patter that introduces him:
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 ratatat 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 straitlaced matrons in River City could have outdone the good gray, respectable Times in looking askance at this interloper, this "amiable dunce," as one of his many critics called him, this empty-headed cheerleader who promised to inject joy and beauty - music! - into American life once again. Impossible!
The great danger in using literary or even semi-literary allusions to describe political figures is that they may fit entirely too well. Because the Music Man of the show - more formally, Professor Harold Hill - wasn't the villain of the musical; he was the hero.
There may not have been much science 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 it worked. And he left River City a changed place. A very American place. A place where spirit conquers all. The man was an artist. So was Ronald Reagan - not on the screen maybe, but certainly in politics.
It wouldn't be the first time it happened. All of The Times' snippy references to "The Music Man" would have applied just as readily to another happy warrior, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Talk about a Music Man! What program besides hope did FDR have when he was inaugurated in the gloomy midst of the Great Depression?
If Franklin Roosevelt didn't save the country, he held it together, which was a remarkable achievement in the 1930s. He did it by offering something more than measurable progress: immeasurable hope.
So did Ronald Reagan, who had one clear, guiding vision: This was still Morning in America! Soon not even his gloomiest critics could disguise the comeback of the American Dream. For this Music Man was leading the whole country into a rousing march.
There will always be those Americans constitutionally unable to appreciate a Professor Harold Hill. Musicals aren't for them; they much prefer tragedy. Or inertia. Or a sophisticated malaise. Decadence they understand; vitality scares them. And optimism only enrages them. But America wasn't made for pessimism. Neither was Ronald Reagan. He proved a great president almost solely because he recognized America's greatness.
An actor in more than one sense of the word, Ronald Reagan refused to settle for what the intellectuals and establishment told him was reality - that economics is the dismal science, that the American Century had passed, that the Soviet Union and the Cold War were immutable facts of life, that the threat of nuclear war was a permanent feature of global politics, and that co-existence with an evil empire was the best we could hope for . . . none of which Ronald Reagan would believe, or let us believe.
Reality, he showed us, was so much brighter than we had thought, freedom so much greater a force in the world than we had realized. He made us optimists despite ourselves. This Music Man had enough optimism to supply the whole country - and, more impressive, he acted on it. He believed in good and evil, and they proved to be not such outmoded concepts after all. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the evil empire soon afterward.
This actor turned politics into a morality play, and even supplied the happy ending. By the end of the show, he had restored our faith, and, with it, a whole world. Ronald Reagan has finally made his exit, but those 76 trombones are still going strong.
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