THERE IS A STORY, probably apocryphal (but who cares), about how when Ronald Reagan announced he would run for governor of California, the news was shouted to an aged movie mogul who shook his head in disagreement: "No," he said, "Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend." It was not the last time someone thought Ronald Reagan did not exist in real life.
Now it turns out that this is also the way his alleged assailant, John W. Hinckley Jr., saw him. Hinckley was in love, we are told, with Jodie Foster, an actress he had never met. He wanted to get her attention or avenge an imagined slight, so he attempted to kill a man he also had never met. Politics had nothing to do with the shooting. What mattered was that Reagan was a celebrity.
This is an American contribution to mankind's list of senseless phenomena. We are into the age of the celebrity assassination. They make no sense. They are neither about politics nor about grievances or revenge. This is not a land of nihilists and bomb throwers. It is a land of people rasied in front of the moonbeams of television sets and the twinkle of the movies, who think that celebrity is the most important thing. One way to becomne one, apparently, is to kill one.
Thus a kid comes from Hawaii with a gun and kills John Lennon because he thinks in some weird way that by killing Lennon he can become Lennon. This is the place where Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy and the world is still trying to figure out why. Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy and there was no motive there either. Arthur Bremer shot. George Wallace for reasons that remain obscure and two people drew guns on Gerald Ford -- a president of enormous affability and almost no politics.
To say this is nuts, is to say nothing. What it is, though, is a reflection of a country in which famous people have only one reality and that is as celebrities. They become one-dimensional, turned into nothing but entertainment or pictures or albums or posters. That is the way they are written about, and one of the enduring sins of the National Enquirer, indeed of all newspaper gossip, is not that mistakes are made from time to time, but rather that they treat the private lives of public figures as just more entertainment.
A man makes a movie, that's entertainment. His marriage falls apart, that's entertainment, too. Dean Martin sings, that's entertainment. He drinks, it's entertainment also. When a kid takes drugs, it's a tragedy. A rock star does the same thing and it adds to his allure. It's ridiculous.
In some terribly ironic sense, Ronald Reagan was the perfect target for the media assassin and he played his part perfectly. He got wounded like people get wounded in the movies and he had terrific lines. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he told his wife, Nancy. He came out of surgery with a W.C. Fields quip: "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." Before he went under the knife, he asked the physicians if they were Republicans. He was perfect.
If Reagan's desire was, in some fatherly fashion, to put the country at ease, it worked. If his intent was, even with a bullet in him, to think clearly and get outside himself, to look down from some presidential perch and see what had to be done and what needed to be said, he succeeded. He is, by God, a hit.
But life is not a movie. Life is a bit more complicated than that, and to confuse it with the movies, to see grace under pressure as the same thing as heroism or to equate it with heroic thought or imagination or even with the mundane task of reading bills, is to confuse reality with fantasy.
This is what has been happening with Reagan and the shooting will only reinforce this process. You have to like him. You cannot help admiring him. You cannot, if you are a modestly romantic American raised on movies, help envying him. He has been shot -- taken a round in the chest, as Generalissimo Haig put it -- and come out of the experience better in some ways than when he went into it. It is a wonderful thing to finally have a president who is a class act as a man, but to see him only as that and not a president demeans him. It reduces him to the cardboard figure that John W. Hinckley Jr. had in his sights. For all he cared, it could have been Jimmy Stewart.