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Nothing's what it used to be 

The Reagan Library, political debates, the Republican party, and even this writer have changed

By purest chance, yours truly, a dyed-in-the-wool radical progressive activist, was visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley the day before the GOP presidential "debate" held there May 3. Okay, give me a break. I'm a history buff and political wannabe and, well, Ronald Reagan was the Republican Party's last great (white) hope (you have to go back to the '80s for that) a man who, except for a pesky scandal called Iran Contra, was kinda a Jimmy Carter look alike, with his great toothy smile and avowed calling to help everyone suffering from, uh, various misfortunes.

But let's back up a minute. Why was I there you mean, really? Well, my wife and I had an afternoon to kill, and I had seen the library when it was but a shadow of its present self and I do mean shadow. I didn't even recognize it from 10 or so years before, with its high tech interactive exhibits, Hollywood-town film clips in a studio-like atmosphere, well preserved and displayed documents everywhere, pix and statuary of Ronnie ad infinitum (especially the rancher Reagan in an oversize bronze casting at the library's entrance), and the new pavilion, which houses an earlier version of Air Force One where the "debate" actually occurred. Honestly, it's well worth an extended tour especially Reagan's Cowboy Cafe (not open way back when).

Eleanor really wanted to see the pavilion with the big Boeing, but it was off limits that day probably for the first time in the library's 15-year history. All of the docents and other museum personnel mostly little old ladies in conservative outfits and bunned-back hairstyles were profusely apologetic about that, one asking could I come back another day? Personally, the interiors of old planes aren't that exciting to me, so I didn't have a problem, especially since admission was cut in half (at $6 a head). I wanted the chance to evaluate Reagan from a decade before, when I could have pretty much cared whether he was a Whig or Libertarian.

President George Bush's politics of Try Everything and Universally Fail at Same have made more than a few of us blue stater types question how even a conservative, any conservative, could have had such a great start and mess up so very badly. (At latest count, his approval rating is in the basement, at 28 percent.) Bush would be noticeably absent at the "debate," probably because there was no candidate there, except possibly John McCain, who still thinks the "war" (i.e., invasion/occupation) can be won, or should be won (candidate Ron Paul).

By contrast, Ronald Reagan was extremely popular, accomplished some things like welfare reform, lowering taxes, and firing those awful striking traffic controllers. Even liberals can get behind some of that stuff. Plus, he was just one heck of a great guy, a rags-to-riches success story, onetime athlete and sports announcer, lifeguard (he saved hundreds of people as a young pool hustler), movie star (truly), and former California governor (lest you've forgotten).

But what I liked about him most was that he was born close to my birthday, Feb. 6, making him an Aquarian at heart: humanitarian, idealist, and people-person. But despite that toothy grin and comfortable-in-his-very-skin demeanor (unlike Richard Nixon, for example), Reagan was actually a pretty "simple" guy according to biographers. He was also considered a bit of a loner, and delegated frequently rather than get into confrontations an exception being telling Gorbachev to "tear down that wall!" (Yes, the Berlin wall fell under his tenure. He was stridently anti-communist.) There is a giant chunk of that graffitied wall on display, compliments of Carl Karcher (of Carl's Junior fame). In fact, Reagan even penned a self-effacing autobiography in the '60s, the one book I really wanted to read, and which I couldn't find anywhere in the displays of all-books-Reagan in the museum's gift shop. Probably too self-effacing for current public consumption .

Security was tight the day we were there, since the GOP's best and brightest were flying in as we casually walked the grounds. MSNBC, on which the 90-minute "debate" would be broadcast, was there in droves, with some 60 personnel and their own media "war" room. Giant satellite dishes were everywhere. I kept wondering if anyone would check my ID my hair that day was longish, and my Democratic registration card could have readily revealed that I was not completely to be trusted, but no.

The following day, back to Cambria in time for the broadcast "debate" (by now you're no doubt wondering about the quote marks well, the candidates do not argue with each other, they just present their versions of reality in three minutes or so in response to questions), I sat rapt in front of the boob tube. Giuliani squirmed over the abortion issue (he actually believes, unlike every other candidate that I could see, in a woman's right to choose). Romney took credit for a universal health care plan in his state of Massachusetts hard to fault that. McCain told everyone again that leaving Iraq would be suicidal (staying has been, too, at several hundred billion dollars and 3,500 American and possibly up to 100,000 Iraqi lives). What no one said is how the Republicans could possibly win in 2008 (but then how did they do it in 2004 and 2000? A gullible public, and Tricky Dick election shenanigans).

For myself, I'm waiting for Al Gore to declare his candidacy. Several polls show him ahead, or just barely behind, the Demo hopefuls.I'll activate algoreforpresident2008.org and algoreforpresident2008.us, and do some kind of informational blog on him. My guess is he's tiring of the global warming schtick, and can delegate that to others.

His new book coming out any time won't even be on that subject. Al, you can save the country (from itself). I'm counting on ye.


Bill Seavey writes for HopeDance on green energy issues, and is author of a forthcoming tome, Confessions from Generation Woodstock. He can be reached at www.powerfromsun.com.

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