In a curious way, President Reagan's embarrassment over his trip to Germany is a boon in disguise, perhaps the best thing that could have happened to make the 40th anniversary of the ending of World War II memorable and authentic to millions of Americans.
If all had gone as planned, a huge television audience would have seen a smoothly contrived sequence of nostalgia and remembrance. The audience would have wiped away the mist forming at the corner of its eye, and passed on quickly to other matters.
But because of the upset, a large section of America has found itself drawn into a distressing yet profound engagement with the very real and strong crosscurrents that characterize the country's approach to the convulsive event of the century.
Instead of passively watching a set piece, in short, Americans have been forced to think and argue, to run the event through their minds and feelings -- always a painful exercise, often a productive one.
It dismays Ronald Reagan's handlers and partisans that the European trip has become a political embarrassment, but others are entitled to take a certain grim satisfaction that the event has been retrieved from the PR types who wanted to pretty it up and whose first instinct, when things began to go wrong, was to treat it strictly as a political fire to be put out. The gaffes finally restored the event to the millions of people who do not want to pretty it up, who want to see it as it is.
So it is that the Holocaust has been presented to a broad public not as a television docudrama or as a particular of Jewish history but as a still-burning wrong for which moral accountability remains to be established in complex ways. The same broad public has also seen Germans as well as Americans struggling to come to terms with the ghosts of the not so ancient past.
To be sure, ceremonial moments have their place. They are nice; they are appropriate; they can leave their lilac shadow. This was the effect of Reagan's commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landing last June. He made it a tribute to Allied heroism, and it was marvelously dignified and touching. When he rose to salute the dead, many of us, watching, rose with him.
Hailing a single successful military operation, however, poses few of the difficulties of -- and offers fewer rewards than -- coming to terms with a full- fledged, multifaceted and in many ways still raw universal tragedy such as World War II. It was telling but perhaps not so surprising that the Reagan administration initially thought the two were so alike.
Did the success of the first ceremony dull the Reagan administration's sensitivities to the likely prickliness of a second necessarily built around very different themes? Was there any appreciation at all in the White House that the sense of occasion which carried the president through the reliving of Normandy needed to be augmented for the larger event by a sense of history? Was there not a failure to realize the risks of relying excessively on the president's formidable traits of sincerity and on his communications skills?
Memory and reconciliation: these are the values that have emerged in the current debate as the poles of American contemplation of World War II. Some of us wish first of all to remember the horrors, not least the horrors perpetrated on the one group of people Hitler turned against simply for what they were -- the Jews. Others of us wish, 40 years later, to turn a page on the war and move on to more contemporary requirements of politics and sentiment.
One can imagine a tidy little sequence of memorial observances in which Reagan, on his trip to Europe next month, could have served both purposes and come home in a pleasant glow.
Almost certainly, however, it would have been a phony, betraying the continuing life and unplumbable depth of the impulses still stirred by the war. All things do not have to be tied up nicely. Sometimes it is better to be rough, confused, even angry about it, and right.
Memory and reconciliation are not in fact elements that have to be regarded as alternatives or even complements. We live simultaneously in the past, present and future. We should be able to live with the natural tension between the different elements in our consciousness.
Justice requires memory and reconciliation too. So does healing. If the furor over the president's trip has made us all more alert to these demanding requirements -- and I think it has -- then we should be grateful for it.