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  1. Politics
2 October 2000

All hail, King Daddie Poo Pants

. . . or how a book of Ronald Reagan's letters threatens to rewrite recent American history. Scott L

By Scott Lucas

Dear Mommie Poo Pants,
The plumbers finish today . . . The slab gets poured next week . . . The carpenters start July 5 . . . We should move in by Dec 1 – “That’ll be the day!”
Daddie Poo Pants

(Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan, Autumn 1955)

It may have been the most grotesque moment in US television history. Three so-called legends of the American media – the hard-hitting investigative broadcaster Mike Wallace, the publisher Katherine “Kay” Graham of the Washington Post and the entertainment tycoon Merv Griffin – sat for an hour on CNN with the venerable talk-show shot Larry King. For an hour, as heads of state met at the millennium summit at the United Nations, UN workers were being killed in West Timor, British soldiers held hostage in Sierra Leone, and Bush and Gore traded slogans in the US presidential campaign, these four read us the love letters of Ronald Reagan.

They read them with straight faces and serious voices. They recited: “Dear Nancy Pants, yesterday I went directly from the train to rehearsal, only stopping to check in here, then suddenly it was 2pm and rehearsal was over.” “Dear First Lady, as president of the United States, it is my honor and privilege to cite you for service above and beyond the call of duty: in that you have made one man, me, the most happy man in the world for 29 years.” “Dear Mommie, the star in the East was a miracle, as was the virgin birth. I have no trouble believing in those miracles, because a miracle happened to me and is still happening.”

“My God, this is poetry,” Larry exclaimed. Merv interjected: “Don’t forget he was called ‘The Great Communicator’, and his greatest one, I guess, was with Nancy.” Mike piped up: “She’s in his head, in his heart, beside him.” While Kay, the owner of the paper that brought down Richard Nixon, offered a hard-hitting lesson: “I’m worried that technology has wiped out the letter . . . Somebody is going to have to pull up their socks and make sure that writing is in school and in the education of kids.”

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THANK YOU

Funny, but no one mentioned that Nancy was Ronnie’s second wife. The name of Jane Wyman, the actress who became the first Mommie Poo Pants, was never uttered. Nor, when they gazed at a picture of the Reagan family, did anyone remember that Maureen and Michael Reagan, Ronnie and Jane’s children, were not on speaking terms with Stepmom Nancy.

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And no one seemed to mention the 1980s. Oh, there were loads of video clips. Nancy singing to the president – “Our love is here, our love is here, our love is here to stay”. Nancy talking to Larry: apparently Ronnie asked her father for her hand in marriage before he asked her! The corporate extravaganza in 1988 that was “A Tribute to Nancy Reagan”, with Ronnie delivering the lines: “Nancy, in front of all your friends here today, let me say thank you for all you do. Thank you for your love. And thank you for just being you.”

Nope, no one mentioned Iran-contra or Oliver North or supply-side economics or Nicaraguan contras. No tribute to Nancy’s “just say no” war on drugs. No recollection of US troops getting blown up in Lebanon and fighting Cuban construction workers in Grenada.

Then again, Larry and his friends weren’t alone in their blissful ignorance. The book they were reading from, I Love You, Ronnie, entered the New York Times bestseller list at No 5 and rose to No 3 in a week. USA Today raved: “If men took more time to write to their wives, they might have better marriages.” Readers’ reviews carried notations such as “A truly classic couple!” and “By reading this book you really get the feeling for how a woman should be loved by her husband”. In a show of transatlantic unity, the Sunday Times threw a lot of money and a page of its News Review at this momentous publication.

At conference, Little Willie Hague and his minions will no doubt pay tributes to kindred spirits across the Atlantic. When you’re bashing the superstate of Europe, there’s no more glorious vision than the superstate of America: vigorous and ready to share all its economic goodies with the England that brought it into existence. Moreover, when Little Willie goes Stateside, he always gets his ego stroked by some fringe Republican politicians.

In such company, Willie might not have time to watch CNN. So, before he goes further down that yellow-bricked Nafta road, here’s a tiny note of caution. It is not just Ronald Reagan who is slipping away because of Alzheimer’s disease; the US nation is in its grip. The difference is that the former president is an unwilling victim, while his subjects have freely chosen the condition.

This is not to belittle the tragedy of Reagan’s decline and the suffering that his wife is enduring. It is not to denigrate the donation of part of the book’s profits to the Alzheimer’s Foundation. But there is something going on here far beyond the loving commemoration of one man’s love letters to his wife.

You might think that Americans, with their “We’re No 1” chants, would want to remember the decade when they kicked the Soviet Union’s butt. But the 1980s didn’t bring ultimate victory. Twenty years after Nancy’s “just say no”, the US fights the drugs war by spraying Colombia with more and more crop-killing chemicals and military advisers. Reagan and his contras supposedly brought democracy to central America, but Fidel Castro is still chortling in Havana. If the poor got their “trickle-down” share of the economic goodies, they haven’t been very appreciative, rioting on occasion and persistently remaining poor. And, in homage to the Great Communicator’s own brush with a gunshot, Congress continues to refuse to pass the token legislation named the Brady Bill after the Reagan aide who was paralysed in the attempt on the president’s life.

Once or twice, Nancy slips up and, amid the love letters, talks politics just to set the record straight. For example, she explains how Reagan sacrificed his high-flying television career in 1962 hosting General Electric Theater: “When GE told him to stop talking politics and start talking product, Ronnie simply refused. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said. ‘When people ask me to speak, I can’t switch lines completely and talk about appliances.'” (Funny how she omits that GE may have fired Reagan because he was appearing in Christian Anti-Communist Crusade rallies and was under investigation for taking pay-offs while president of the Screen Actors Guild.)

More disturbingly, Nancy excuses Reagan for the Iran-contra scandal because “people who were supposedly under his command were off doing things he knew nothing about, and no one ever saw fit to tell him”.

At one point, Nancy describes how, in 1983, the Queen visited her in California and they were “sitting on a couch after dinner . . . talking the way any two mothers would talk about their children”. (Given Nancy’s far-from-cordial relations with her and Ronnie’s offspring, that must have been one heck of a conversation.)

Two women talking as equals, Queen Liz and Queen Nancy – because what is being prepared here is the commemoration of a king. Not any old king, but one who really loved his wife, not like that future King Charles or that wannabe King Clinton with his interns. A king fit for a country where, in the year 2000, the presidential election may turn on the moment that Al Gore gave his wife a full-on smackeroo.

Another news item: a few days after Nancy unveiled the book, a congressional committee passed a bill authorising a memorial to Ronald Reagan on the Mall in Washington. A national commission had pointed out that one of the prerequisites for even a great president, such as Lincoln or Jefferson, to get his own building was being dead.

All hail, the King and Queen of Amnesia. All hail, King and Queen Poo Pants.