I CAN ONLY GUESS what Alzheimer's looks like on Ronald Reagan: his deathly pallor confused by California sun-flushed nose and cheeks, his shoulders less optimistic in structure. I picture him on a ranch seeing, but not recognizing, his own land. As usual he wants to be a cowboy; he is wearing a cowboy hat. I suspect that the walk across the desert floor from the house to the stables is like walking on the moon. Memory is without gravity now. Every day is space travel.

Do you think Reagan is having difficulty focusing his eyes on the people in front of him? Does he look at nothing specifically when he reviews his living room? When Nancy unloads the groceries from their bags (let's just say she performs such mundane chores) in the kitchen, does he confuse her for a burglar and call the police? Perhaps he acts out scenes from his life. If so, does he act out his acting life? Maybe he enters the room as Drake (one of his few leading roles, as a man whose legs are amputated) from King's Row, pleading, "Where is the rest of me?"

A party on the Ranch, a couple years before Reagan's handwritten letter to the public about his disease: Heads of state, diplomats, and the generically famous mingle as in his glory days, and Reagan, ex-president, receives them happily. The party is going smoothly; Reagan keeps straight who is who. He squeezes cookie dough onto a pan. Soon he is circulating among his celebrated guests, offering cookies which they accept, chew and swallow. Pity the man who has handed uncooked dough to heads of state.

I heard this story at a party filled with academes and artists. Everybody laughed. For the liberals I know, Reagan is and has always been the enemy. In his encroaching twilight, there is something undeniably mytho-logic to Reagan's decrepitude. Having finally begun to wane in our collective memory, he is fading from his own memory as well. Cosmic justice is being meted out, right this second, to a man we were all around to loathe, and we, his former subjects, are witness to it.

How strange, then, that Dutch, the recently released biography of Reagan by Edmund Morris, completely fails to attend to this last act in Reagan's life. Morris' brilliant biographic innovation is to create a fictional doppelgänger of himself, present throughout Reagan's life; this character named Edmund Morris eventually metamorphoses into the real author at the point in history that Ronald Reagan proclaims Morris his official biographer. Having insinuated himself into Reagan's past, I wonder why Morris shies from Reagan's futureless present. Maybe he is simply too overwhelmed by the scale of Reagan's unraveling.

If any American man has meddled with forces that would call down the wrath of the gods, it is Ronald Reagan. He constructed himself as a hero of and for the West, and played recklessly with the fundamental forces of our world -- nuclear, environmental, economic. To muster his power as president, he stole broadly from the future. And not just financially: Mortal environmental wounds and an immortal nuclear presence loom like dead suns in the place where the future used to hang. Through it all beamed the halo of Reagan's massive, genial ego, like the hyper-real colors of a smoggy L.A. sunset.

But now, at last, Reagan the mythmaker has met a mythological end. As in the archetypal Greek myths, Reagan must be punished for meddling with powers much bigger than he. His punishment, because it fits the crime, is gruesome: Alzheimer's disease, which dismembers the soul in pieces by unlinking the man from his memories. Like Chernobyl, Reagan has had a meltdown. What is the loss of memory to a man striving for immortality? Does it matter to Reagan that we will never forget his legacy, even if he himself can't remember it?

I have somehow inherited my family's reverence for the man, despite my adult opposition to his politics, social and economic. Had I written the biography, I too would want to insert myself into his life and fictionalize my experiences with this man. Fictionalizing a first-person narrator is the appropriate mirror to reflect this president: He was America's highest and most powerful model of self-fiction.

I was in second grade, in California, the first time I voted for Reagan in our mock elections. My family hoped enthusiastically for a West Coast president to corral us into the palace of a different decade. And when he was up for reelection, we were living in the palace he had promised: Our upper-middle-class taxes had been reduced; the whole state, the whole country looked ruddy with possibility.

The patriotism and triumph of voting for Reagan a second time, in sixth grade, is a memory swirled into the different memory of a terrifying film we watched twice that year: The Day After. From sixth grade until the Gulf War, I dreamt of my city burning from nuclear disaster. In 10th grade, I came out as a Democrat. I was still having nightmares most nights of images from this film when my 11th grade class flew to Washington, D.C. to witness Reagan transfer his presidential mantle to Bush.

Do you remember The Day After? Sweeping explosions, bodies knocking through the air, wildfire and gas explosions sucking the oxygen from the atmosphere. In my dreams, I was mostly afraid of nuclear winds. My teacher said that we were in a prime target location, so if there was a war, we wouldn't have anything to worry about: We'd be dead before we knew it. We were instructed in "Nuke-you-ler" Preparedness Drills, which seemed to be a variation on the earthquake drills we were already practicing: Get under your chipboard desk and wait for the earthquake or nuclear holocaust to pass. It was a private school. My teacher was excited that Reagan won the election in her class. We were on the winning side.

Does Reagan remember what he saved the world from? Does he remember how he used to boast that "we, the people" could blow up the world three, eight, 40 times over with the weapons he purchased? Does he confuse this memory now with his memories of being a young lifeguard who saved over 70 lives?

When Eric Davis, now a journalist, was in elementary school, he was chosen with a handful of other minority academics to spend an afternoon at the White House, visiting the president. Davis was flustered by the honor. Sitting in a circle at the president's feet, they listened as Reagan told them a war story: Young Ronald Reagan is monitoring traffic control for fighter pilots during the Great War. The specifics of where, and which battle, aren't necessary. The important detail is that a man's plane has been fatally hit by enemy fire. The man begins to panic into his radio. As the voice of ground control, young Reagan chides the man to sit up straight, breathe in the air of freedom he is fighting for, and dignify his own act of heroism and sacrifice for the greater good of his country. And before the plane began to spin uncontrollably and before the cockpit caught fire and the man's skin began to burn, he was able to stop his crying and die to the hummed tune of "God Bless, America." Reagan was responsible for this man dying with dignity.

At the foot of such a hero, Davis folded Reagan's story of patriotism deep inside his burgeoning identity. A decade later, up late one night studying at college, he paused to take a dinner break, and watch some TV. It was an old Reagan film. A tiny balloon of pride floated upward in Eric's chest. Onscreen, a young Ronald Reagan is monitoring traffic control. A man's plane has been fatally hit by enemy fire....

Reagan knew when he told that story that he was mis-telling it; he was ranging wide, crossing fences, on the landscape of truth-telling. He used to have a map with a legend denoting roles he played, stories he'd heard, and events he had actually participated in. But he bent the rules of memory and truth to serve his own ends, and now the signposts he once manipulated had all broken off or disappeared in the haze, leaving him stranded.

Or did it happen because he invoked its spell once too often: "I can't recall"? In November, 1986, a Lebanese newspaper disclosed the arms for hostages trading. Profits from the arms for hostages were supporting Nicaraguan Contras with illegal aid. In response to this negative publicity, Reagan came over the television to say to America, "A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me that it is not." His cheeks dropped like a basset hound's, his eyes watery. He was an old man, shocked that he had been sitting in a room with the light off. As an old man, he was never indicted for his crime.

When I try to picture the man who was once our president, I flash to the picture of Ronald Reagan waving from the top stair of Air Force One. Reagan strikes this pose in the last salute of leadership. His presidency is complete. His tan face is open in an easy smile of ego and power. He stands too tall for the small plane, fitted up in a dark suit and billowing white scarf -- that scarf the symbol of luxury and homemade American aristocracy. He is drenched in charisma. That day, he is a hero. He is The Hero: creator of opportunity, slayer of doubts, and a lavish spender above all, disappearing into the mouth of his own myth.

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