Reality: Modern Living

The movie

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The daughter of a country's wrongfully executed leader returns to that country in triumph and wins her father's seat in a stunning electoral victory.

In one of his last official acts, the president of the United States grants a pardon to the owner of the New York Yankees.

Amid the glare of television spotlights, a former Miss America goes on trial in New York and wins her freedom.

Miniseries plots? Shakespearian historical dramas? Jacqueline Suzanne novels? Of course not. We all recognize them as real events with real people—Benazir Bhutto, George Steinbrenner, and Bess Myerson—in the starring roles. But, my word, hasn't real life gotten rather loopy? Don't the loose ends always seem to tie together in a goony sort of made-for-TV way? Hasn't reality taken on a docudrama flavor—almost as if life itself is based on a true story?

When the vice president of the United States argues for Stealth weapons technology because he reads about it in a Tom Clancy novel, when television preachers lose their pulpits in sex scandals straight out of a Jackie Collins miniseries, when Spiderman gets married before 55,000 people at Shea Stadium, and when Americans take their drinking-and-driving advice from a dog named Spuds, we can only come to one conclusion: the boundary between fact and fiction has been breached!

Fact and fiction intermingle, and Americans seem unable—or unwilling—to tell the two apart. Life no longer imitates art; life is art. Young Dan Quayle decided to get into politics after watching Robert Redford win a Senate seat in The Candidate. Last summer, Senator Quayle was tapped to run for vice president because he looks like Robert Redford. Now Ronald Reagan is set to play himself in an upcoming TV movie about former White House press secretary James Brady. The former actor turned president becomes the former president turned actor. Art imitates life imitating art—or is it the other way around?

We seem to prefer it this way. Even in our personal lives, we take solace from playing roles. Talk to anyone with a broken heart, and he or she will mention song lyrics or a recent soap opera plot. Life is easier to deal with if we think there are others in the same boat, all heading toward the happy denouement of a beginning-middle-end narrative.

Of course, some of it is just sheer confusion. Who would take medical advice from an actor? Yet the "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" commercials snowed a lot of Americans into buying a painkiller simply because a soap opera star endorsed it.

And then there are world events. Messy though they are, the media shoehorn them into clean, brisk narrative structures for our daily consumption. Part of the fault lies with the people who do the reporting. Most reporters and editors have that one big novel already in print or bursting out of the office word processor, and some of that preoccupation with writing fiction seems to leak into their writing of fact.

But the problem extends to those who make the news as well as those who report it. The list of public figures who have written fiction ranges from Gary Hart on the left to Spiro Agnew on the right. Barbara Bush once wrote an autobiography of her dog. That's how far down the political food chain this virus has spread.

Hart, author of two works of fiction, has wound up the sad, stricken embodiment of a third. It must have been Hart, after all, that The Who really sang about in "Behind Blue Eyes":

No one knows what it's like to be the bad man,
To be the sad man Behind blue eyes.
No one knows what it's like to be hated,
To be fated To telling only lies.
But my dreams, they aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be…

High officials' predilection for fiction has gotten us into trouble. Watergate was in part the fevered imaginings-made-real of spy-novel writer Howard Hunt. Oliver North and Robert McFarlane read too many Robert Ludlum novels. The result was a two-year binge of Swiss bank accounts, Arab potentates, suitcases full of money, code names, arms shipments, and ravishing blondes in document-stuffed boots—all to win the release of a CIA station chief held hostage. Until reality intruded on Thanksgiving Day in 1986, the administration's blueprint for foreign policy was The Bourne Identity.

Such activity could only have come from the Reagan administration, which made an art of blurring the distinction between fact and fiction. Born in a moment borrowed from a Spencer Tracy–Katharine Hepburn movie ("I'm paying for this microphone" was an artful and well-rehearsed steal from the 1948 classic State of the Union), the Reagan era went well beyond the standard political practice of melding truth and untruth and plunged into the deep end of fiction.

Most of that same blurring took place in Reagan's own mind. Aides admit that at times he actually seemed to believe he had gone to Notre Dame simply because he had played George Gipp in "The Knute Rockne Story." He seemed to think that he helped Allied forces liberate Nazi concentration camps, when in fact he had only seen footage of it while serving his military time on a Hollywood set. The list goes on. "I'm not the president of the United States," we can hear him saying, "but I play one on TV."

Now it falls to George Bush to take up the burden, and he is doing his level-best to present himself to the public as a larger-than-life character. This is not difficult, for Bush may be the first president to have been made into a fictional character before taking office. Lieutenant j.g. George Bush, youngest fighter pilot in navy history, is rescued from the waves of the South Pacific—just as in real life—by the crew of a submarine in the spy novel Kataki by Hank Searle.

But Bush may have another fictional paradigm in mind. Who among us has not heard of his hardscrabble days in the oil fields, wresting a fortune from the rocky earth before rising to untold heights of wealth and power at the head of a large, perfectly dentitioned clan. Now his sons stand ready to assume high office throughout the South and West in order to establish—dare we say it?—a "Dynasty."

T. Keating Holland is a pollster in New York City.

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