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Ronald Reagan’s Imaginary Bridges


When Ronald Reagan entered politics in the sixties, most observers judged him a joke. When Reagan announced he was running for the Republican nomination for California governor in 1966, the Washington Star described the “air of furtive jubilation down at Lassie for Governor headquarters.” When he won that nomination, Esquire wondered whether the Republican Party was so “bankrupt that it has to embrace Liberace for leadership.” Two decades later, Reagan was hailed as the earthly embodiment of America’s transcendent values. How did he do it?

Part of the answer involves ideology, organizing, personalities: the stuff of conventional political history. But there’s another, more mystical part. As Nikita Khrushchev once said to Richard Nixon, “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Ronald Reagan built bridges like that.

The period to focus on here is the seventies. To understand why, return, for a moment, to the 1870s. Americans have been building invisible bridges for a long time, most assiduously after periods of national turmoil—like the one between 1860 and 1865, when more than 600,000 Americans slaughtered one another. Soon afterward, the combatants began carrying out sentimental rituals of reconciliation. Confederate soldiers paraded through Boston to the cheers of welcoming Yankee throngs. John Quincy Adams II proclaimed from the podium: “You are come so that once more we may pledge ourselves to a new union, not a union merely of law, or simply of the lips: not a union . . . of the sword, but gentlemen, the only true union, the union of hearts.” Dissenters were dismissed as intransigents. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison pointed out that the new systems of agricultural labor, which were growing all over the South and which were guarded by Ku Klux Klan terror, scarcely differed from slavery. The New York Times sniffed, “Does [Mr. Garrison] really imagine that outside of small and suspicious circles any real interest attaches to the old forms of the Southern question?”

Society expanded westward in violent thrusts, as industrialism wrenched yeoman farmers off the land, conscripted independent artisans into regimented factory work, and paved the way for Robber Baron fortunes, financial panics, and immigrant slums. 1877, the year Reconstruction ended, brought the worst labor strikes in American history. But patriotic societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution emerged as bulwarks against the threat of disunity. “Americanism” became the test of citizenship. “The man who would foment strife between East or West, North or South, between labor and capital or any section of our life, is the universal enemy,” a typical opinion leader thundered. Transcending strife—achieving consensus—was the meaning of the new nation.

America the Innocent, searching for totems of a unity it can never quite achieve. It is one of the structuring stories of our nation: “the union of hearts” proclaimed by J.Q. Adams Jr. on Boston’s Bunker Hill parade ground, the “return to normalcy” enjoined by Silent Cal after the Great War, the cult of domesticity that followed the ordeal of World War II. In 1973, after ten years of war in Vietnam, America tried to do it again.

When the prisoners of war returned, the White House and the Pentagon tried to orchestrate a good old-fashioned unifying ritual of patriotic renewal. Richard Nixon, speaking in the Oval Office to the Pentagon official in charge of what was christened “Operation Homecoming,” said, “It’s like a producer putting on a great play or a great movie. You have a hell of a bunch of stars in this one. It’s an all-star cast—even the bit players.” The Boston Brahmin Elliot Richardson, Nixon’s secretary of defense, put it more soberly: “The returning POWs have dramatically launched what DOD is trying to do to restore the military to its proper position.” Nixon summed up: “We now have an invaluable opportunity to revise the history of this war.” But this seventies turned out differently than the 1870s. The patriotic reverie kept getting rudely interrupted. Mike Royko, a popular columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, and a type that doesn’t exist any more—a tough, beer-chugging, regular guy and unreconstructed liberal—described his feelings after the announcement in January 1973 of the Paris Peace Accords:

It wasn’t like 1945, when the end of the war brought a million people downtown to cheer. Now the president comes on TV, reads his speech, and without a sound the country sets the clock and goes to bed. There is nothing to cheer about this time. Except that it is over. Why kid ourselves? They didn’t die for anyone’s freedom. They died because we made a mistake. And we can’t justify it with slogans and phrases from other times. If we insist on looking for something of value in this war then maybe it is this: Maybe we finally have the painful knowledge that we can never again believe everything our leaders tell us.

On February 12, the POWs began coming home. Another of those regular-guy liberal columnists, Pete Hamill of the New York Post, pointed out that most of the returnees were bomber pilots who had killed civilians in an undeclared war; they were thus “prisoners because they had committed unlawful acts.” He compared his feelings waiting for the POWs to arrive home to “waiting for a guy up at Sing Sing one time, who had done hard time for armed robbery.” No consensus there. Strikingly, such sentiments turned out to be prevalent within the armed forces as well. Military personnel, especially low-level personnel, are traditionally no-bullshit types. The annals of military history are filled with examples of their suspicion—emphatically and obscenely articulated—of the politicians and officers who send them into the meat grinder. Traditionally, however, this has been an underground history. Now it lay on the surface. Here is one of the New York Times’s first dispatches from Operation Homecoming headquarters at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines:

Few military people here felt that the return of the prisoners marked the end of the fighting. . . . “They’re sending out just as many as come back,” said a young Air Force corporal who works at the airport. “They’re all going to Thailand, they’re just moving the boundaries of the war back.”

On February 23 the paper editorialized that among the “succession of hand salutes, stiffly prepared statements, medical bulletins, and canned handouts concerning the joys of steak and ice cream,” the “hard-won lessons of Vietnam are in danger of being lost.”

Other outlets were less skeptical, at least at first. NBC News’s Jack Perkins signed off a February 18, 1973 dispatch: “The prisoners’ coming back seems the one thing about Vietnam that has made all Americans finally, indisputably, feel good.” Newsweek devoted eight pages to images of celebration. “The nation begins to feel itself whole again,” they concluded. Time speculated that “these impressive men who had become symbols of America’s sacrifice in Indochina might help the country heal the lingering wounds of war.” Readers, however, argued back. One Newsweek letter writer said it would take more than a “Pentagon pin-up picture” to make her forget “that these professional fighting men were trained in the calculated destruction of property and human life.” A Time reader wrote, “As an ex-grunt, I feel a certain churlish resentment about the solicitous attention the returning POWs are receiving. Why were we sneaked back into our society? So our country can more easily forget the crimes we committed in its name?” Soon the fiction of national unity began to be eroded even in the media that had originally propagated it. NBC rounded out its coverage of the first week of Operation Homecoming with a feature from the hospital bed of a Marine private, sad-eyed, fidgety, and nervous, who’d been paralyzed from the waist down by machine-gun fire, also complaining about being snuck back into the country: “You’re not going to show any body bags coming home, you’re not going to show any, um, amputees coming home, you’re not going to show any paraplegics.” Even Time, in the middle of March, featured the most devastating argument of the antiwar movement about Operation Homecoming: the fact that North Vietnam’s treatment of the 576 released U.S. prisoners was merciful compared with that of the 27,000 North and South Vietnamese prisoners held by our South Vietnamese allies, many for nothing worse than mild expressions of political dissent, in prisons that America had designed and built:

It is not really proper to call them men any more. “Shapes” is a better word. Years of being shackled in the tiger cages have forced them into a permanent pretzel-like crouch. They move like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms. . . . Things have been especially bad since the ceasefire. When told of the Paris settlement, the prisoners cheered, only to be stopped by doses of lye. . . . “We had hoped to begin the New Year with happiness,” said one. “But my New Year began when I was doused with excrement.”

It could not have been lost on too many of Time’s readers that the jailers dousing those prisoners with lye were agents of the freedom-loving government we had just spent 55,000 American lives and billions of dollars to defend. This was a time when suspicion of institutions was mainstreamed as never before.

Operation Homecoming coincided with the moment when Watergate began closing in on the White House. All through 1972, the scandal had made little impact on American politics. The Watergate trial began ten days before the inauguration, with hardly any press coverage. The indictment was limited to the Watergate burglars and their immediate supervisors, G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and James McCord, with the prosecution not even hinting at any involvement by the White House or the Nixon campaign. Then, at the sentencing in March, Judge John J. Sirica read an extraordinary letter from James McCord, the Nixon campaign’s chief of security, alleging that pressure had been applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent, and hinting that it came from very high up indeed. “Several members of my family have expressed fear for my life if I disclose knowledge of the facts in this matter either publicly or to any government representatives,” wrote McCord.

Televised hearings began two months later; and every week, sometimes every day, for the next fifteen months came mind-blowing revelations about high government officials behaving like mafiosi. Each new revelation pointed inexorably upward, until the involvement of the president of the United States in some of the most serious crimes in the statute book became all but undeniable. What else was happening around that time? For one thing, the shocking prospect surfaced that American abundance itself might be coming to an end. That winter, Des Moines homeowners almost ran out of heating oil, and Denver high schools closed two days a week to conserve fuel. That spring, energy-starved factories closed in West Virginia, Illinois, and Mississippi. As Memorial Day approached, rumors spread of fuel rationing at gas stations. In June, 2,000 service stations shut down, and thousands of others imposed a ten-gallon limit on each purchase. Utility officials in San Antonio—the nation’s eleventh largest city—cut gas allotments by 67 percent; but for a mercy mission of loaned out-of-state fuel trucks, the city would have gone dark. All this occurred before the Arab oil embargo of October 1973, when Nixon went on TV to announce “a very stark fact: we are heading into the most acute energy shortage since World War II.” Here’s more from 1973–1974. Custodians at the Sears, Roebuck flagship store in downtown Chicago were cleaning offices by flashlight. The public safety committee of the Milwaukee City Council held an evening meeting by candlelight. New York City banned the illumination of outdoor advertising after 9:30 p.m. A Los Angeles Times reader from Whittier (President Nixon’s hometown) proposed a moratorium on energy-wasting Christmas cards. Others debated whether the eternal flame that burned at the gravesite of President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery ought to be doused: Since the 2,200 cubic feet of natural gas it consumed each month cost $37, “wouldn’t it seem logical,” one letter writer asked, “to put that gas to a better use, such as heating homes or office buildings, rather than just burning it for no real purpose whatever?”

Time magazine’s cover article “A Child’s Christmas in America” offered some vignettes. In a Texas town that had banned Christmas lights, a child wrote “Peace on Earth” in many languages and taped it up with a peace symbol on a big plywood sheet. In St. Louis, ten-year-olds suited up for karate class, one of them murmuring, “Gonna teach ’em not to rip me off, like in Clockwork Orange.” In Brooklyn, a boy scarcely old enough to go to school sprayed a graffito on a handball court: “NIXON,” with the X in the form of a swastika. In Anaheim, a group of preschoolers pondered the wonders of Disneyland. “I’m going to live here when I grow up,” one of them vowed. “Not a pollution anywhere.”

One of the political consequences of this new culture of dread was paranoia that the energy crisis was caused by a conspiracy of the powerful. It wasn’t just crazy people with sandwich boards saying so; it was senators and Supreme Court justices, too. In June, Adlai Stevenson III thundered that the administration “was acting in concert with the major companies to produce a shortage.” Justice William O. Douglas said the energy companies had invented the oil crisis for their own purposes—and refused to recuse himself from a case involving price abuses in the natural gas industry nonetheless. Henry “Scoop” Jackson said the White House knew the crisis was coming but deliberately did nothing about it because “for the major oil companies the shortages were good business.” It was this mood of anti-institutional fervor that sent a new generation of young Democrats to Congress in 1974, many of them from traditionally Republican districts. Once empaneled, they got to work on their mandate to reconstruct every corrupt American institution they could get near—especially the defense establishment.

On December 22, 1974, the New York Times ran a front page article by Seymour Hersh detailing what the CIA called its “family jewels”: the secret record of its assassinations of foreign leaders, coups against foreign governments, and spying on U.S. citizens. Historians call the year that followed the “Year of Investigations.” Hearings in the Senate led by Idaho’s Frank Church and in the House by New York’s Otis Pike repeated the Watergate investigatory pattern: eye-popping revelations, unimagined by American citizens who had once presumed their nation innocent. The most interesting part of the Church Committee hearings was not their revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency had been trying to assassinate Fidel Castro via an exploding cigar, but their effect on Frank Church’s political career. He had just spent the year rubbing the American people’s noses in the fact that their nation was the world’s outstanding international lawbreaker. What to do next, except run for President? Today that might sound crazy. In 1976 it did not. Running a badly disorganized campaign, Church won primaries in several heartland states, including Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, and his own Idaho. For a brief moment he seemed to embody the political spirit of the age. The other Democratic candidates for the 1976 nomination also pretty much campaigned on the proposition that America needed a thorough reboot. One of them ran on the slogan that America deserves “a government as good as its people.” Jimmy Carter won the election. He did not win the age.

On April 30, 1973, Nixon gave his first televised speech denying involvement in Watergate. In the wake of this address, a consensus formed, even among the president’s defenders, that the scandal was the most serious happening in American politics in a long time. This consensus encompassed just about everyone in public life other than Ronald Reagan. Watergate, according to Reagan, was part of “the usual atmosphere of campaigning.” It was a “tragedy” that “men who are not criminals at heart and certainly would not commit criminal or illegal acts must bear the consequences.” And very soon, the single fact most Americans knew about Ronald Reagan was that he was the guy who believed the Watergate conspirators were not “criminals at heart.” Time ran an item on possible successors to Nixon. Reagan’s prospects were said to be the lowest of all.

For the next couple of months Reagan obeyed his political handlers’ strenuous advice to shut up about Watergate. Then, in June, he did it again, telling reporters, “I just think it’s too bad that it is taking people’s attention from what I think is the most brilliant accomplishment of any president of this century.” When John Dean set the political world on its ear by revealing to the Senate Watergate committee the existence of a White House “enemies list,” Reagan, practically alone among politicians, dismissed the news, his daughter Maureen explaining that “in the political lexicon the term enemies does not have the same connotation as the layman would use.”

Vice President Spiro Agnew was being investigated for taking bribes, and Republicans were rushing to distance themselves. Reagan once again did the opposite. “I have known Ted Agnew to be an honest and honorable man,” he said immediately. In August, he called the Watergate committee investigation a “lynching” and a “witch hunt,” even though the Washington Post had just reported that the White House had been spying on Reagan himself and had considered blackmailing him for unspecified—presumably naughty—activities at a party. Reagan’s response was trademark: a non-sequitur quip delivered with such glib confidence that it left his interlocutors confused about what question they had just asked him. “I don’t know what they’re referring to,” he told the Post. “You’ve really caught me here with mixed emotions, because I don’t know whether to get a sort of glint in my eye and let you think there’s a side of me that no one knows.” The Post followed up. The existence of the White House taping system had just been revealed. Didn’t it offend Reagan a little bit that his Oval Office meetings with Nixon had been taped? No big deal, he responded. “Matter of fact, they probably made me look good.” (No, they didn’t. On an April 1971 tape, Nixon worried, “With a Reagan in here, you could damn well almost get yourself in a nuclear war.”)

Reagan kept it up all the way to the eve of Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. That June, Evans and Novak argued that Reagan was on the verge of destroying his political career: “To the dismay of his political handlers, Gov. Ronald Reagan is no closer to a polite but clear break with President Nixon than he was a year ago and continues to resist that politically necessary rupture even as he prepares to run for President. . . . During a one-hour interview with us in his state capitol office, Reagan uttered not one discouraging word about Mr. Nixon.”

Something very important was going on—something opaque to every observer at the time, and even to the people plotting Reagan’s presidential campaign, who complained that he was self-sacrificingly obsessed with offering “Christian charity toward a fallen political comrade.” Another observation from that Evans and Novak column: “Although the outspoken Reagan did not hesitate to snipe at the President during Mr. Nixon’s first term, he has flinched from criticism since the Watergate scandal broke 14 months ago. . . . That Reagan has so far resisted this seems to be caused more by his own temperament than grand strategy.”

Was it strategy? That is hard to say. It certainly had something to do with temperament. In any case, it soon emerged as the dominant feature of his appeal.

Reagan’s talent for fabulism distinguished him even within his own family. His older brother, Neil, grew up an unsentimental man. He remembered being sent to the butcher in Chicago on Saturday mornings with instructions to buy a ten-cent soup bone to last the week and also to ask for a complimentary chunk of liver for the cat. “We didn’t have a cat,” he told a historian, with a touch of bitterness and shame; in fact, the liver was the big Sunday meal. His younger brother tells the story of his family’s circumstances differently. “Our main meal,” Reagan wrote in his post-presidential memoir An American Life, “frequently consisted of a dish my mother called oatmeal meat. She’d cook a batch of oatmeal and mix it with hamburger. . . . It was moist and meaty, the most wonderful thing I’d ever eaten.” In the fullness of time, the lesson suggested by this contrast between the brothers would play out in American national life. In the late 1970s, most pundits thought the country wanted politicians who shared the nation’s self-pity about the crappy meal that history was serving them—a politics of malaise. It turned out they preferred a happy meal. And Ronald Reagan, who every time affirmed that America—in any era—was the most wonderful thing ever, was who they wanted. The crappier things got, the more resourceful he grew in finding the possibility of redemption. In Nixon’s first term, when things were normal, Reagan had found it possible to criticize him. But in the second term, when Nixon had become the public’s symbol of a world that was falling apart, he defended him resolutely.

This was the logic behind everything Reagan said about Watergate: Nixon was one of the good guys, and good guys are innocent; but even if they weren’t, Watergate did not involve real crimes; but even if it did, it revealed nothing essential about the American character, which was a transcendent character, simply by virtue of being American. This performance of blitheness in the face of crisis was part of Ronald Reagan’s nature, and a large part of his political appeal.

What was not fundamental to his appeal was exactly what Reagan himself thought was, namely, his argument that government was the economic adversary of the middle class. History offered up a little experiment on the question in November 1973. That year, some bad accounting and an improving economy had left the state of California with a nearly $1 billion fiscal surplus. Reagan announced he would “return the money to taxpayers” and intended to write into the California constitution a cap on both taxes and government spending, an unprecedented attempt by a sitting governor to sponsor a ballot initiative.

The architects of the move included Reagan’s chief of staff, Edwin Meese, and an economist named Milton Friedman. “Proposition 1” was a template for the next generation of conservative movement appeals. As Reagan put it: “Are we automatically destined to tax and spend, spend and tax, indefinitely, until the people have nothing left of their earnings for themselves? Have we abandoned or forgotten the interests and well-being of the taxpayer whose toil makes government possible in the first place? Or is he to become a pawn in a deadly game of government monopoly whose only purpose is to serve the confiscatory appetites of runaway government spending?”

Reagan put everything he had into selling Proposition 1, and, indeed, he gave a brilliant performance. The leader of the anti-Proposition 1 forces, Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Moretti, said he was in favor of lowering taxes too, just as he was “in favor of motherhood” and “against sin,” but that it was madness to turn the state constitution into an iron corset. He marshaled statistics to demonstrate why Proposition 1 could not possibly do what Reagan said it was intended to do, and challenged the governor to a debate. Reagan refused. Moretti charged that Reagan was ducking him because in any tax limitation program like this one, with an expenditure ceiling, programs would have to be cut, and “[Reagan] knows he cannot answer the questions we raise as to which programs will be cut.” Moretti challenged the governor again and again to a public debate—and Reagan refused him, five times.

The Democrats threw up their hands. If Reagan wanted to cut taxes and spending, what could explain his seven years as governor? Jerry Brown, California’s secretary of state, who was the son of the governor Reagan had replaced in 1966 and who hoped to succeed him in 1974, pointed out that Reagan had increased both taxes and spending dramatically. (He had authorized a surprise tax increase for the Los Angeles school district just two weeks after Proposition 1 made the ballot.) He already had a line-item veto, which he had scarcely ever used. “How can a magic formula, written by invisible lawyers,” Brown asked, “do what Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to do?” Then there was the obvious point: If government employees were such money-sucking monsters, how did the state budget come to be in surplus?

But Reagan was playing an entirely different game. When he made statistical claims, he blithely let them contradict each other. His opponents said his plan would create deficits; Reagan responded that, on the contrary, it would produce $41.5 billion over fifteen years in new money—even though he claimed at the same time that the plan’s main purpose was to give the state less money to spend. His critics would scratch their heads and unveil another brace of statistics. Reagan would respond with rousing oratory, making them look like pedantic asses—which was the game he was playing. “When the advocates of bigger and bigger government manage to get their hands on an extra tax dollar or two,” he quipped, “they hang on like a Gila monster until they find some way to spend it.”

Government was evil; those opposing it were good. That was the game. On election eve, the Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek gave Proposition 1 a three-to-one likelihood of passing. Reagan’s aides made ready for a national tour to sell the concept to other states and to build support for his presidential bid.

Proposition 1 was crushed, 54 to 46 percent. What happened? Were the ideological conditions not yet ripe? In fact, the ideological conditions were quite different then. An editorial on Proposition 1, titled “Voters Smarter Than Reagan,” appeared in the Milwaukee Journal. It praised the Californians who “saw through the phoniness, and recognized the menace to the well-being of the commonwealth of this scheme.” The Journal continued: “The proposition had the surface appeal of the politician’s favorite, but false, homily that says government should live within its income like everyone else. Government in fact is not like everyone else, but uniquely different. It alone can, and must be able to, determine the level of its own income, through the taxing power. To equate its financial situation with that of a private household is utter illogic.” Here is a provincial newspaper, late in 1973, recognizing as “utter illogic” what is today conventional wisdom among liberal Democrats and President Barack Obama.

Five years later, a tax limitation proposal, Proposition 13, was written into the California constitution, for reasons entirely contingent on California’s peculiar fiscal situation at the time and having nothing to do with any universal rejection of government itself. Nevertheless, in the election of 1980 and subsequently, conservatives single-mindedly claimed Proposition 13 as a nationwide mandate for the radical reduction of taxes and government, passing budgets and laws supposedly in obedience to that mandate. But Ronald Reagan did not get elected to the presidency because he promised to dismantle big government. The Reagan Moment arrived less because of any popular shift in ideology about the role of the state than because of the kind of stories Ronald Reagan told—the kind of imaginary bridges he built.

After Reagan left the statehouse in Sacramento, he made a comfortable, and profitable, transition to sentimental radio personality, broadcasting homilies over hundreds of heartland stations. One of them addressed the greatest humiliation in the history of the United States: the fall of the American embassy in Saigon, when American personnel had to be rescued from the embassy roof by helicopter because they were unable to travel safely on the mighty public roadways the American military had built to wage the first war the American military lost.

More than the myth of American invincibility was at risk: the myth of America’s essential goodness was endangered. The revelations of My Lai and other atrocities had generated a tidal outpouring of national anguish; ordinary people wrote to Time magazine and their local newspapers to call American soldiers and pilots “war criminals.” The Church Committee hearings in 1975 had exposed decades of murder and subversion by the CIA. The country seemed on the verge of facing the fateful truth that America is a country like every other, with no unique virtue or wisdom.

What could Reagan possibly say about such a resounding rebuke to the core myth that undergirded every story he ever told—that America never lost, never could lose, never could sin, because America was, well, America?

“In these times,” he said, “when so many of us have a tendency to lose faith in ourselves, it’s good now and then to be reminded of the good-natured, generous spirit that has been an American characteristic for as long as there has been an America.”

There had been, he told his listeners, a tiny craft “adrift in the Gulf of Thailand with no fuel, no food, no water, barely afloat and with a cargo of 82 refugees. Towering over it was the aircraft carrier USS Midway. . . . Once on board [the refugees] had one question: Would they be handed over to an unfriendly government, perhaps to be eventually murdered? The executive officer of the ship told them this would not happen. He said, Our job is to make you as comfortable as possible, heal the sick, and feed you to your heart’s content. That was the official policy of our nation and therefore of the Midway.”

And what miracles followed! “A tiny baby with double pneumonia was cured. People without clothes were given American clothing. Sailors took the old clothing and washed them for their guests. Pretty soon homeless children were being given piggyback rides on the shoulders of American seamen, and Navy T-shirts bearing the Midway decal began appearing on the little ones. Ads went into the ship’s paper asking for toys. Charity begat more charity. There is a motto on the Midway—Midway puts it together. For the grateful refugees, that is the understatement of the year.”

Reagan’s homily soared to a sublime conclusion: “In the dark days right after World War II, when our industrial power and military might were all that stood between a war-ravaged world and a return to the Dark Ages, Pope Pius XII said: America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind. I think those young men on the Midway have reassured God that he hasn’t given us more of an assignment than we can handle.”

And the fact that the USS Midway had been a launching pad for the death-dealing juggernaut that took the lives of millions of Vietnamese? Never mind. Ronald Reagan knew how to build imaginary bridges.