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Unparallel lives
The ballad of Ronnie Reagan and Ray Charles

On the day Ronald Reagan died, I went to a pool party in the hills above Bel Air. Reaganís house was on the way up, and there were cops and news crews and unmarked Secret Service sedans crowding the curving, tree-lined streets. The sun roof was open, and we had the music blasting and our sunglasses on as we drove past the gates. By the time the motorcade carrying Reaganís body made its way down the canyon for its western processional to the sea, we were in our bathing suits drinking beer, our feet dangling in the deep end.

The house belonged to a Hollywood photographer, and the guests were all actors, models, or stylists, even if they werenít. Reagan was barely mentioned all afternoon, but it still felt like the perfect memorial for the star down the street who in his heyday was studio mogul Lew Wassermanís first million-dollar client. Reagan brought Hollywood image worship to the West Wing, and with it, a dedication to artifice. To an actor, "facts are stupid things," as Reagan once said. Itís the performance that counts. (Reagan wasnít there for the liberation of the concentration camps, but he said he was. His "objective" and his "motivation" were so good that believing him is still easy even though we now know he was actually logging film on a studio back lot.)

Reaganís life ended as it should, as a media event we couldnít escape from ó a blockbuster with a huge opening weekend and an even better first week, full of non-stop mourning and tributes from LA to DC. Most stations used the same shot of him in his cowboy hat and denim shirt. He was the actor who played the president who played John Wayne, the last great booster of the mythical frontier, where white guys on horses can still save the world even as they destroy it.

A few days into the Reagan marathon, the image got split, and Ray Charlesís rendition of "America the Beautiful" started playing as the faces of the two men shared the same screen. The timing of their deaths was about all they had in common. In his second inaugural address, Reagan said that he believed in "the American song," a tune of optimism that was "hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair." Charlesís music came from a different America, the one born of struggle and subjugation, the one that knows all too well just how much idealism can hurt. Although he was often credited with inventing rock and roll, Charles insisted his gospel transformations were always misunderstood. "My stuff was more adult," he once said, "filled with more despair than anything." And though Charles became a national icon beloved of white audiences, his roots as a church-going child of the segregation South, his addiction to heroin, and his time done on the chitlin circuit never vanished from his voice. He gave us the blues song that Reaganís optimism forced black America to keep singing in the face of social-service cutbacks, rampant inner-city neglect, and his veto of the Civil Rights Act.

Charles was the great communicator of American despair, "a hydrant of sorrow," as Julian Bond famously put it in a poem. He made palpable and hummable "a world never seen, molded on Africaís anvil, tempered down home, documented in cries and wails, screaming to be heard." Charles once said that what made him acceptable, despite all that, to white America was that white men thought his blindness made him less of a sexual threat to white women.

Charles well understood the role of the black entertainer in the American race game. When he switched labels from Atlantic to ABC (where he would release his popular C&W albums that hearkened back to his days in the hillbilly band the Florida Playboys), some criticized it as a move into commercialism, but actually it was a move into black self-ownership. The ABC deal gave him control over his own masters, an arrangement unprecedented in the í60s, especially for a black artist. Charles was one of the first black stars to own his own music, to ensure that the little power he had remained his own.

In 1987, Reagan invited Charles to the White House for a dinner in honor of his receipt of a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award. Charles, in turn, invited Miles Davis, who kissed Nancy Reaganís hand. In his autobiography, Davis recounts a limo ride to the dinner that he shared with a cast of characters that could have come only from the meeting of a Hollywood president and a black pop icon: Billy Dee Williams, Willie Mays, Fred MacMurray, and the widow of Fred Astaire. Davisís mom gets called "mammy" before he even makes it to the dinner, where he gets into an argument about the artistic merits of jazz with a politicianís wife. "Now tell me, what have you done of any importance other than be white?" he asks her.

Charles would never have asked this question himself (at least not at a White House dinner), but his music certainly did. Iím sure Reagan didnít understand that difference. Which is probably why, sitting at a table with Ray Charles and Miles Davis, he had nothing to say in response.

Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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