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Weathering Reagan: A Low in the '80s

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004

Then there are the people who, if they see that flag-draped casket on the front page for another dang day or hear any more tributes to the legacy of the Great Communicator, they will implode. You hear them saying it over and over, exasperated, forlorn:

Dude. It's Ronald. Rea. Gan. (Reagan! Come on! Central America? The AIDS epidemic? All that waiting for apocalypse? All those teenagers with all those asymmetrical green haircuts? All that great anti-Gipper, anti-Thatcher gloom-and-doom rock? And what about Phil Collins and Genesis as puppets singing in front of Ron and Nancy as puppets? Did it mean nothing?!)

They kept quiet all week long, and now, with the city shut down and a light drizzle falling and a certain former president joining the choir invisible over at Washington National Cathedral yesterday afternoon, these '80s survivors have washed ashore here, at Visions Bar Noir on Florida Avenue NW for a send-off party of their own.

"First round's on me," says Rebecca Orris, 36, arriving with five of her work pals for a long lunch at the theater's "Ray Gun: Remembering Ronnie," an all-afternoon happy (or unhappy?) hour and filmfest. Orris and gang shared a cab ride from downtown to the theater. "We needed this," she says. "I like the slightly irreverent tone of it. It's all just been too much to take all week. When I think of him, I just think of all the horrible things he started."

"It's been weird for me, too," says her co-worker, Chas Foster, 37. "I've been very bitter all week, and a big part of it is the media telling the country how to feel -- 'A Nation Mourns' and all that. We're drowning our sorrows. This week hasn't been relaxing in any way. You've got this mixture of [tribute] and then WFMU in Jersey City playing '80s hard-core for three days for their Reagan tribute. It's been strange."

"You've got unresolved father issues with Reagan," Orris tells Foster.

"My own father is actually grieving today," he says.

"See," she says, laughing. "There are issues."

These are the other children of the Reagan Age, the evil twins of Alex P. Keaton of "Family Ties." They still exist, but they've been lying low. Once upon a time in the United States, the cool kids were not all reading "The Official Preppy Handbook" and waking up to Morning in America. For them it was more of a white-hot glare (emphasis: white), and it was depressing, which also means it was wonderful to be alive in the '80s and jaded in your teens and wondering if your parents had turned into Republican zombies. It was a given: Reagan was for dorks. The music was better over here, in a cloud of clove cigarette smoke and hair mousse. Lest we forget, Reagan's great gift to Generation X (big cynical chunks of Generation X, anyhow) was to make its members feel marginal, isolated, punk, alone.

Is it possible to loathe and love him -- to love him for loathing him? Possibly, yes. To grow up anti-Reagan was to grow up certain there was no such thing as a future. Millions of youths turned to darker fare -- all those poor-me songs by the Cure, all that poli-pop poetry by the Smiths. Love that British angst. Anti-Reagan kids considered themselves smarter, and better informed, whether they were or weren't. They enrolled in (and then slept through) undergrad courses in Central American history and Marxism and, just in case, Keynesian economics. It was the thing to do. In any case, we'd all die in a nuclear blast.

But here it is the future now.

A few dozen people, most of them older than 35, show up at Visions for a drink, or a vegetarian "Wein-burger," or to sit briefly at back-to-back free matinees of two Reagan flicks: "Bedtime for Bonzo" and "The Killers." There are martini glasses filled with complimentary jelly beans at the bar, where they're serving Reagan-themed $3 cocktails -- the Bonzo (Skyy berry vodka, sour mix, raspberry liqueur and soda) or the Gipper (orange vodka, OJ and Sprite) or the Jeane Dixon (rum, pineapple and grenadine).

"We aren't bashing Reagan, necessarily," says Heather Huston, the marketing director for Visions, who says the idea was cooked up earlier this week by theater owner Andrew Frank. "We just wanted people to have someplace to go if they weren't interested in the funeral and had the day off from work anyhow."

The people who show up are not necessarily gloating or rejoicing in the slow, agonizing death of an old man. (Though it's possible.) They are just remembering, like the rest of the country, if a bit more archly.

After "Bedtime for Bonzo" wraps up in one of the main theaters, the crowd gets heavier, the Gippers are served and someone cranks up "Anarchy in the U.K." by the Sex Pistols, played against a trippy video montage of Reagan administration images. The day's music videos were compiled by a 25-year-old multimedia artist, who, because of his day job, asks to simply be called "Noskilz," part of a local group of artist/deejays who go by the name of Noskilz Sound Syndicate.

"History is being rewritten in front of our eyes," Noskilz complains, standing outside the theater, around the time Reagan's body was headed for Andrews Air Force Base. "Most of the people here today are off work and don't want to be in front of our TVs [at home] watching all this. We're here to reflect on Reagan. Most of the country is in mourning. Just remember everyone who isn't."

Eddie Becker, 54, who works with the D.C. Independent Media Center, brought what he thought was the perfect entertainment for the afternoon: Old videotapes of documentaries about the Sandinista revolution and the ensuing saga of the contra rebels.

Becker is the first to show up, and immediately insists that Liz the bartender take out the Clash video montage and instead play "this really terrific documentary that first aired on Grenadan television." Liz does, and it goes on forever: We see jungles, and revolutionaries, and ditch digging, and jungles, and activist nuns. The Hasenfus plane. It's as boring as it ever was. "I have hundreds of hours of this stuff," Becker says. "But it's all in three-quarter-inch. . . . I had to borrow a deck because I didn't have the right machine to play it. But look at it," he points to the big screen. "It's still in good shape. . . . These were hard times, back in the Reagan administration. People were struggling for their lives. It's amazing for me to look at it like this, and realize I've kind of aged. None of this exists anymore, except it exists on this outdated format."

Becker wonders if maybe he should donate these video gems to the Reagan Library, but only "if they promise to let the people see it."

But the people at Visions aren't really wild about it.

"Mu-sic, mu-sic, mu-sic," Rebecca Orris begins chanting from her corner of the lounge, unmoved by watching the 1986 clip of Bernard Kalb resigning from the State Department all over again, and soon enough, it's back to the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Reagan is dead, but the beat goes on.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company