Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ron and Lenny

Two icons who inspire selective amnesia

Ron and Lenny

Sen. John McCain claimed that as president, Ronald Reagan stood up for the Czechs during Prague Spring - but that event happened 12 years before Reagan took office. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file photo)
Sen. John McCain claimed that as president, Ronald Reagan stood up for the Czechs during Prague Spring - but that event happened 12 years before Reagan took office. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file photo)

 

 

Here they go again, with their rites of canonization.

One congressional Republican says that President Obama should crusade openly for the Iranian people, because "this is what worked for Ronald Reagan in the Cold War." Another says that "the Iranians would do well to remember the words of Ronald Reagan." Another says, "Ronald Reagan was strong in his rhetoric and forceful in his advocacy." Another says, "Ronald Reagan didn't say to Mr. Gorbachev, 'That wall is none of our business.'" John McCain has been on Fox News reminiscing about Ronald Reagan. And a former Ronald Reagan aide, Jeffrey Lord, writes that, with respect to Iran, "Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan."

You see where they're going with this. Granted, who else are they going to retroactively canonize - George W. Bush? The guy who mired us in Iraq to the tune of $12 billion a month? Hardly. Every political party needs an icon, and icons tend to grow more sainted with the passage of time. (Witness the Democrats and JFK.)

But what's most striking about the latest outbreak of Reagan canonization is the way his acolytes have willfully succumbed to amnesia. They were all adults during Reagan's reign, yet they choose not to remember what actually happened. For nostalgic Republicans, it's undoubtedly preferable to judge the current president against a standard of perfection that never existed.

Here's the factual reality: Reagan, while actually alive and in office, made all kinds of compromises that drove the conservatives nuts. At the time, they would joke to each other, "Its not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it's just that he does not understand the ones he has."

As Jack Pitney, a former Republican party official and Capitol Hill aide, once told me, "I remember sitting in meeting with those guys, when they were fuming about the president, and they always seemed to need a box of Di-Gel to get through the day."

Reagan riled conservatives by...get this...talking to the enemy. He decided that Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader he could do business with, particularly on arms control, and the GOP base went ballistic. The right was not happy about Reagan's tilt toward detente. One conservative leader, Howard Phillips, called Reagan "a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda." Columnist George Will charged that Reagan was furthering "the moral disarmament of the West." The Washington Times newspaper compared Reagan to Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain. Various conservatives called Reagan "a traitor to anti-communism."

Other Reagan deeds are conveniently being airbrushed at the moment. Saddam Hussein committed all kinds of heinous acts during the '80s, yet you'd be hard pressed to find a Reagan expression of outrage; on the contrary, Iraq was an ally of convenience, as vividly evidenced by the December '83 photo of Reagan special envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with the tyrant.

And the actual Reagan portraiture would not be complete without noting his '86 backdoor deal with Iran, whereby we agreed to ship weapons to the bad guys in exchange for the release of seven American hostages. Robert McFarlane, the national security adviser who personally participated in the attempted swap, told a Senate committee that Reagan approved the arms sale on Aug. 6, 1986. One can only imagine how the Fox News commentators, and the Reagan canonizers, would react today if Obama was caught trying to pull off a deal like that.

But the top prize for amnesia really belongs to McCain. The other night, while reminiscing about Reagan with Sean Hannity, the '08 presidential candidate had this to say: "You and I are both students of history and we've seen this movie before - when Ronald Reagan stood up for the workers in Gdansk in Poland, when he stood up for the people of Czechoslovakia in Prague Spring. And America did. And some good Democrats did too."

McCain might consider himself to be a student of history, but he just flunked. He claimed that Reagan stood up for the Czechs during Prague Spring, which was a brief period of enlightenment during the era of Soviet dominance; the problem is, Prague Spring happened in 1968. Reagan was finishing his first year as California governor in 1968 (he would raise taxes during his tenure). Reagan didn't even become president until 1981.

This is the problem with tethering one's mind to nostalgia. At some point, it's no longer sufficient to engage in highly selective amnesia; there is always the temptation to simply make stuff up. I question whether these Obama critics can credibly assess the current president if they insist on committing themselves to a willful misreading of reality a quarter century past.

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What follows has nothing to do with politics whatsoever. This is about baseball, and the tragic fall of an icon - someone who undoubtedly inspires a certain amount of selective amnesia.

Tonight, HBO is airing an updated documentary segment about former Phillies/Mets star Lenny "Dude" Dykstra, who is now reportedly close to financial ruin after a brief high-flying career as a financial hustler. He's the the target of 20 lawsuits, he lives in an unfurnished mansion on the brink of foreclosure, he and his wife of 23 years are divorcing, and he appears to be in serious denial about everything.

Lenny was always a compulsive (albeit entertaining) narcissist. I saw this first hand, when he was at the peak of his athletic fame; the tell-tale traits were already in evidence. One long day overseas in November 1993, I accompanied Lenny around Paris, where he was acting as an ambassador for Major League Baseball. I wrote a story; for interested sports fans, I am reprinting it below.

You may be wondering why I am doing this today, at the risk of Ignoring All The More Important Things to Write About. Two reasons: (a) Because it's summer. (b) Because I can.


Paris, Nov. 22, 1993 -

The Dude meets The Ritz. What a concept.

The most exclusive hotel in Paris has catered to the likes of fashion diva Coco Chanel, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, writer Marcel Proust, Arab princes, cinema stars - anyone, in fact, who feels no pain when plunking down $2,000 for a good night's sleep, including the guy who padded across the lobby on his way to breakfast yesterday.

Excuse me, sir, does The Ritz meet with your approval?

"Whoa. Awesome, dude. It don't get any better than this."

Paris, meet Lenny Dykstra.

Lenny is spending some of his postseason time serving as a foreign diplomat for big league baseball. On Saturday, he touched down in Duesseldorf, Germany; yesterday, he took Paris, and today, he is to hit Amsterdam. Baseball is played in all these places, more than ever, and Lenny's here to boost the game and spread his unique brand of inspiration.

But baseball hasn't exactly conquered France, a country where "homer" is a Greek poet and "strike" is a synonym for blocking the airport runways. Around here, your basic media star is an intellectual who can quote Celine, not somebody whose notion of eloquence is to declare that he "plays 'em one at a time."

Not that Lenny would ever let such things bother him. Clad in cuffed dungarees, he breezed into the Ritz dining room. The waiters - in black tie and tails - pretended not to notice his breaches of wardrobe etiquette.

"Hey," he said, "Can I have some eggs, man? And some bacon, link sausages and half a grapefruit? That's just to start with. And do they sell Excedrin around here?"

It had been an awesome trip already. In Germany, he bought a German shepherd. Most tourists buy beer steins, Lenny buys a dog. He tried to befriend another German shepherd on Saturday night. The Ministry of Justice is housed right next to The Ritz, and there was a German shepherd on guard duty.

"Saw that dog out there, man," said Lenny, his hands roaming the table for some sugar. "I tried to get the (Ritz) manager to let me take the dog up to my room so I could play with him."

No such luck. He also had a small problem with his room. "Couldn't figure out how to work that shower," he said. "Some water was comin' out of the nozzle, the rest was shootin' out sideways from another place. And there's two different toilets in there. One of 'em I don't pay any attention to."

At the table, Lenny was asked about his future. "I want to finish my career in Philadelphia," he said, tearing through his meal and firing up a Salem. "We both want the same thing. I kinda represent the city, the way I approach the game. We're talking about a long- term contract, at least five years."

He interrupted himself. This often happens with Lenny. His attention turned to the cubes in the sugar bowl. "Where's the real sugar, man?" he cried out. "I don't like the long melting process." Quickly, a waiter complied. Lenny turned the dispenser upside down, shook some sugar into his palm and spread it across his grapefruit.

"Baseball is the world's game," he said amid his labors. "That's why I'm sittin' in the Ritz, because of baseball. It's brought me fame and fortune, know what I mean? The money they pay us, it's unbelievable. I just wanna reap the benefits while I can. The bottom line in life is results. Everybody wants results. When you succeed in what you do, you get to reap the benefits."

By now, some of the benefits had vanished from his plate. "How do you say s'cuse me in French?" he whispered. He didn't wait for an answer. This often happens with Lenny. "S'cuse me," he called out. "Can you bring me a fresh plate of sausages?" Six sausages arrived on cue. He plunked his ashtray into the waiter's gloved hands with a half-smoked Salem still burning.

Soon it was time to leave. Next stop was the Eiffel Tower, where he would pose for photographs in full uniform. He went upstairs at the Ritz to change clothes and returned downstairs in Phillies pinstripes.

"Get me some Rolaids for my stomach," he announced. The flinty-eyed, thin-lipped Ritz staffers didn't like it that he was padding around in his socks.

Later, at the Eiffel Tower, Lenny posed on a ledge with stunning latticework as a backdrop. "Whoa!" he cried, peering at a distant bronze statue that fronts the Palais de Chaillot. "Who's that dude?" Nobody seemed to know, but Lenny had already switched gears, gazing at the tower itself.

"Whoa," he said to a journalist. "What's that up on the tower?"

"A restaurant," the journalist answered.

"What kinda food they got up there?"

"French."

By now Lenny was thinking about what he might buy in Paris. "I was thinkin' maybe I'd try to buy the Mona Lisa," he deadpanned. "Besides that, I don't know. It's my first trip to Europe. But you can go to New York and buy anything in the world that you want. I go there 12, 13 times a year. Maybe I can find somethin' here, though. Somethin' very French."

At the curb, his six-door Mercedes-Benz awaited him. Lenny was soon whisked to a sports complex. He was slated to talk to a group of minimes, the French equivalent of Little Leaguers, along with some adult members of a Paris team that competes in a national amateur league. Lenny eased out of the Mercedes and immediately asked for a hot dog.

Lenny was hungry....His handlers - driver, business manager, interpreter - all went into action. The word went out by car phone. Inside a gym, the kids awaited him. This was the championship team, and Lenny was there to say a few words of encouragement - and to award the medals, one boy at a time.

"Hey, man," he whispered to Chris Stuart, a baseball official who was doubling as Lenny's interpreter. "How do you say congratulations in French?"

"Felicitations," said Stuart, enunciating so that it came out sounding like fe-lee-sitass-iyohn.

Lenny looked as though a curveball had just frozen him on a 2-2 count. "All those words, man? To each dude?" he asked.

So Lenny stuck with the English word. "Where the sandwich?" he bellowed while signing autographs. "Don't wanna throw up from all the gas."

One youngster chattered at him, in perfect English, about Lenny's earlier career with the Mets - then switched to French. "Sharp dude," smiled Lenny. "Probably gonna cure some incurable disease some day."

Two ham baguettes were rushed into Lenny's hands, along with Volvic water and a Coke. The kids dispersed. He chewed happily and watched the big guys hit in an indoor cage. One cursory glance at the team slugger, and Lenny had sized him up: "That dude's swing is (messed) up. Look how he jumps at the pitch, lifting his front leg. You jump, your head moves. Your head moves, your eye moves. Your eye moves, you can't see the ball."

The athletes were herded into Lenny's presence. He paced the floor, gnawed at the baguette and dispensed wisdom: "You gotta have a plan each time you go to the plate. Look at me, I'm little. But I led the league in (both) walks and hits. Babe Ruth never did that."

Then it was back for one last photo session at the Eiffel Tower. No big deal. He was just happy to be there. So what if France's national amateur league draws crowds of 200 people for big games? So what if he couldn't shop because the best stores were closed on Sunday? Why sweat it? Why not just enjoy being Lenny in the prime of life?

So he barreled out of the Mercedes, chucked the half-filled Volvic bottle into the trash, lit a fresh Salem, eyed a voluptuously nude statue and exclaimed, "Whoa, dude! Take a look at that chick!"
 

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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All commentaries posted before April 18, 2008, can be accessed at www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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