The Case of the Missing Synapse : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

By Leonard Fein

Edmund Morris's new sort-of biography of Ronald Reagan adds little to our understanding of the former president, and, as has been widely noted, detracts considerably from Mr. Morris's own reputation. The fact is that we have had a pretty good grip on Mr. Reagan for some time now, at least since Peggy Noonan and Gary Wills offered us their interpretations. Still one important element seems to me to have been left out of the analyses we have. Specifically, it is the matter of Mr. Reagan's missing synapse.

It is difficult to decide whether Reagan was a nice person or not a nice person. His behavior towards his children strongly suggests that "not nice" provides the better fit. Yet in his public persona, he was not merely genial; he was downright nice - by which I mean empathic, attentive, kind. It may well be - it has been suggested by those who have studied the man - that these qualities were part of an act this actor believed he'd been called on to perform, that they were implied by the script that came with the office. But if so, then he was a better actor than Hollywood had ever discerned - or the Presidency is a less challenging role that Hollywood thought him inadequate to play. In either event, it is obvious that President Reagan played his assigned role with panache, and likely that by the time of his final curtain call, he was no longer sure where the man stopped and the role began.

I used to think, back during the Reagan years, that if he'd been a general practitioner of medicine back at the turn of the last century, and if there'd been a terrible blizzard when he was called to attend a birth deep in the woods, he'd have unhesitatingly hitched up the horses and braved the storm to lend a hand. He was a master of the gentle gesture.

And here's where the missing synapse enters the story, which, incidentally, is also about us and not only about him. The most striking thing about Reagan is that he could not make the connection between the stories that evoked his empathy and even compassion and the inadequate public policies that those stories implied. Through the blizzard to the delivery, yes; to Congress with a plan for expanding national health insurance, no. A tear shed for the hungry and the homeless, of course; no transfer from that tear to the Food Stamp program, much less to an assault on poverty.

Stories can be and often are moving; policy issues can be and often are dull. But one cannot (or, at least, ought not) live by anecdote alone. The stories of America's hungry people are cautionary tales, not (only) occasions for a cathartic cry. On encountering a hungry person, there are two questions that demand to be asked: How can I help relieve this person's pain? And: Why is anyone hungry in a land of such plenty?

Ronald Reagan asked only the first of these (if that); he did not see the connection between the first and the second, not at all.

That sounds like a serious indictment, and so it is meant to be. But by that measure, very many of us are indictable. How many times have I encountered people who eagerly volunteer in soup kitchens, jump to mentor inner city youngsters, gladly sign on to organ donor programs, and all the rest of such praiseworthy behaviors, but who have exactly no interest in the broad questions of hunger, poverty, or medical care?

We dare not hold those who suffer here and now hostage to policy solutions that will only affect those who come later. But that does not mean, not for a second, that we can be satisfied to deal with those who suffer today. A charitable instinct that produces a gift to Mazon, for example, means nothing - or just next to nothing - if it is not accompanied by action on behalf of an increase in the minimum wage. A congregation that mobilizes its members to build a Habitat house is doing a wonderful thing - but it owes it to itself, as also, obviously, to the people for whom it professes to care, to press for more affordable housing. Absent such pressure, absent a policy that addresses homelessness on the scale that is required to make a serious dent in it, the Habitat house reduces to a feel-good project. Yes, a formerly homeless family now has a decent home, and that is a good thing. But with Habitat's intensely retail behavior we will not solve the wholesale problem. Not solve it? We won't even make a visible dent in it.

Ronald Reagan may be excused of not seeing the obvious connection; he was, by all accounts, a man of rather limited capacity, and it is also possible that no one in his entourage (I think especially of David Stockman) bothered to point the connection out to him. But what excuse have we? How can we more effectively translate our laudable charitable instincts into a serious pursuit of social justice?

-- Debra (, September 18, 2000


Missing synapse? The guy has Altzheimer's for Chrissake.

-- Lars (, September 18, 2000.

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