Excerpt from The Forgotten Liars by Timothy Horrigan

"Morning in America"

Added commentary by Timothy Horrigan; February 2, 2011

Copyright © 2004, 2011

I went to Columbia around the same time as two Presidential candidates, one of whom has been elected (Barack Obama) and one of whom probably will never be elected (Wayne Allyn Root.) In a July 2010 blog posting, Root tells a lurid tale of the reaction on the Columbia campus on the day Ronald Reagan was shot— and he blames his classmate Barack Obama (who he didn't know) for it:

I wrote about the events leading up to March 30, 1981 in my novel The Forgotten Liars. The facts have been used as part of my made-up story, but Root's story is made-up too. The picture of my reaction and my friends' reaction to Reagan is truthful: we were deeply suspicious of him but not irrationally hostile, and the shooting troubled us. Also, we were not radical Marxists. I might add that the shooting took place very early in Reagan's Presidency, long before his tax cuts were enacted.

The Forgotten Liars

The Republicans, especially the Reagan Republicans, pride themselves on being the party of hard work and Christianity. I used to hear comments about this all the time by Reaganites I bumped into on the campaign trail: I head many remarks about how I should get a job, how "Freedom works, so why don't you?" and how Carter was the instrument of the Devil. And even though it was Carter who was a deacon and a Sunday school teacher, and even though it was Carter who was by far the most spiritual person of the three major candidates in the 1980 race, and even though Reagan seemed to have no interest in religion (aside from some dabbling with New Age spirituality) in his private life, it was Reagan who was the favored candidate of the Bible-thumpers. Ironically, as the ending of the hostage crisis demonstrated, Reagan was the most zen-like of Presidents, and he did his work with little or no visible effort— the instant Carter ceased his efforts to find a way to convince the Iranians to free the hostages, the Iranians (seemingly spontaneously) freed the hostages without asking anything at all from Reagan in return.

I wanted very much to hate Reagan, but I began to love him a little during the aftermath of the hostage crisis. Even though he had been disrespectful of Carter during his inaugural speech, he was extremely gracious during the celebrations after the hostages came home: even though Reagan was the sitting President, he let Carter be the star of the festivities. I joined in those festivities wholeheartedly: when the hostages had their ticker tape parade down Broadway, I simply stood on the sidewalk and cheered. I didn't help Tammi hand out her leaflets. [Tammi Honig had been handing out leaflets accusing the newly-elected Vice President George Bush of of conspiring to delay the hostage release until Reagan was President.]

I tried to defy Reagan by working hard on my master's in English. Most of my other friends seemed to be doing the same. The one exception was Athena Dilfer, who seemed to spend very little time studying— but even she was pulling down straight A's, perhaps because she was incredibly brilliant, or perhaps she was studying in secret. Once every week or two, I got a letter from Shoshana. She and Josh were pissed off by the result of the election, but they had both gotten jobs with lobbying firms which paid about four times as much as their old jobs with the Carter Administration. Josh was thinking about buying a condo in Rosslyn, Virginia, and Shoshana was thinking about moving in with him. I was jealous, but I understood.

The economy continued to be in bad shape, but I didn't care. I was happy because it made me feel less guilty about being in grad school (getting a degree of little or no economic value) instead of being out in the work force.

On the next-to-last day in March, I took the elevator up to the Classics Library on the Fifth Floor of Butler Library. I said hello to Kylie Tomczak, who had quit her job with the Japanese boutique and was now back at school full time (and working at the Classics Library part time.) "Billy! Have you heard?" she responded, smiling a grim smile.

"Have I heard what?" I said.

"The terrible news," she informed me. "Our President has been shot."

"President Sovern?" I gasped. Michael Sovern was the President of Columbia University. He was bland, but I liked him because I had a mild crush on his daughter. I didn't really know her, but she had a sexy voice and was a jazz drummer and hung out at the Green Dolphin Cafe a lot, and I thought she was cool. "Why would anyone shoot him?"

"No, dummy, President Reagan!"

"Oh, that President," I sneered. "He's not my President. I could give a shit."

I went into the small room off the main reading room where the books on William Butler Yeats were shelved. I pulled down Yeats' Variorum Poems, turned to the poem "The Second Coming," read a few lines, and then realized that Reagan was indeed my President. I decided to go find a TV. (This was in the days before libraries were equipped with internet-connected computers, so there was no way to monitor this national crisis from the library, unless you had a transistor radio with you, which I didn't.)

I raced back out of the Classics Library, and as I zoomed by, Kylie waved at me and said, "See ya later, Bill!" I raced down the steps, trotted down to the lobby, and literally bumped into Tammi Honig on my way out of the building.

"What's up?" she said.

"Our President has been shot!" I said.

"Sovern?" she asked.


"Futter?" she asked, referring to Ellen Futter, the President of Barnard College, which technically was a separate corporate entity from Columbia University.

"No, Reagan!"

"Well, you should have said so in the first place," she giggled. "This is scary. What if he dies? He becomes a martyr-- and Bush becomes President. That's not good." We began trotting towards the nearest TV. "I would offer you some cocaine, but you're anxious enough already," she commented as we trotted through the rain.

The nearest convenient TV was in the main lounge in Carman Hall. This was a handsome space half a level below the street, which was normally used very little because it was out of the flow of traffic. Today, however, the room was packed with students. There was a manic, and ironically joyful, energy in the room. At the time we thought that the President would probably die, in which case, today's date (March 30, 1981) would be one of those legendary dates like November 22, 1963 or December 7, 1941 (or September 11, 2001.) So we all made an effort to savor this spring day.

Chad Koenig, Dianne Forget, and Dylan Fyfe were sitting on the floor right below the TV. One of Chad's freshmen commented from the back, "I hope the old bastard dies."

Chad turned around and shouted back, "Don't say that! He's a human being!" The room fell silent for a while, long enough for Secretary of State Al Haig to make the famous statement that "As of now, I— am in control— here— at the White House— pending the return of the Vice President— and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course." Haig was trying to be reassuring, but even under the best of circumstances he was an edgy fellow, and today the circumstances were not at their best. Haig looked like he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Tammi and I were standing at the back of the room, far away from Chad.

Tammi leaned over and whispered, "Bush is the one who deserves to die. I hope his plane crashes." (Vice President Bush was on his way back from Texas.) Then we made our way through the crowd, and Chad and Dianne made space for us. Tammi sat on Chad's lap and I sat next to Dianne and held her hand for a while. After a while Dianne and I decided to go grab some lunch. When we emerged from the narrow walkway between Carman Hall and Butler Library into the light of South Field, we found that the rain had just stopped and there was a rainbow perfectly centered over the dome of Low Library. The western pot o' gold was somewhere near the Union Theological Seminary, and the eastern one was somewhere near my apartment on West 121st Street. The rainbow faded out before we could get as far as College Walk.

In the end, Bush's plane did not crash, Reagan walked out of the hospital a couple of weeks later, and life went on seemingly as normal.

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