Lovers of good food and of good literature will recall "Babette's Feast" by Isak Dinesen (author of "Out of Africa"), made also into a haunting motion picture. In it, the sense of wonder conveyed by the perfect harmony of food and drink, born of true artistic inspiration, transformed its recipients almost against their will. The puritans of the remote Norwegian village where the story is placed had contracted with one another to deny any and all response to the meal about to be served, but to no avail. An apparent miracle took place - "taciturn old people received the gift of tongues," writes Isak Dinesen, "ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened."
Such was the impression watching CNN's "Larry King Live" devoted to letters from Ronald Reagan to his wife, Nancy, recently published by her ("I love you, Ronnie," Random House). The letters were read and discussed on the show by the host with Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post; Mike Wallace, veteran of CBS's "60 Minutes;" and Merv Griffin. They took turns in reading the letters; they choked as they attempted to comment.
The twilight existence to which the writer of the letters has been sentenced might have added to the emotions of the hour. But it is safe to assume that the reaction would have been similar under any circumstances.
People received the gift of tongues.
Ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened.
The letters are beautiful. They attest to love so complete, so unconditional as to be deserving of the word "perfect." The words carry the soul of their author so faithfully as to be deserving of the word "art." Americans of all ages, severely coarsened during recent decades, would be well-served to read them as we contemplate our course for another century.
The participants on "Larry King Live" did. And the boldness with which each of them has long exercised power as if by divine right, melted away before our very eyes.
One after another, they read the letters that had impressed them most. Merv Griffin, of course, in the manner of the old friend who knew anyway - the others as if awakened from years of sleepwalking.
For the man whose sincerity of feeling, whose beauty of soul, whose deep humanity spoke from those letters has been mischaracterized, denounced and reviled mercilessly before, during, and since his two terms as chief magistrate. Whatever Reagan's new-found admirers did not do themselves, they condoned, encouraged, supported. From ridiculing his words as those of a mere actor reciting script, through dismissing his ideas as infantile, to painting him as a bloodthirsty warmonger and the enemy of children, of the sick, and of the needy.
I have long wondered about the near-insane hatred that has surrounded this most American of recent presidents - this thoroughly decent, totally honest human being whose actions were governed by rock-steady beliefs. In all the years, only two reasons seemed plausible.
In first place, given the continuing obsession with the so-called "Hollywood 10," communist sympathizers simply cannot forgive him for testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The other was his determination that the United States be as powerful as it is capable of being, and that the world be rid of the Russian Empire. More people in our midst than we realize mourn the passing of the Soviet Union, final phase of the Russian Empire. And, amazingly, many still are obsessed with the blacklisting in Hollywood of persons, some gifted, who, at the time, were agents of a hostile power - whether paid or unpaid.
Be that as it may, anyone watching the show in question would have his faith restored in the power of redemption. Larry King, Katharine Graham, Mike Wallace, revealed themselves as Romantics responding to genuine humanity like Americans are known to do.
But why would intelligent, powerful opinion-makers take so long to recognize the obvious?
Is it possible that exposure to political ideas based on hatred does terrible things to otherwise decent human beings?
Love, that thoroughly overused - and mostly misused - word, defined Ronald Reagan's relationship not only to Nancy, but to everything that mattered. His love for America was infectious. His love for all the people who live here could only be missed by those who had been blinded by a sinister force.
Indeed, only the presence of a sinister force could account for the outpouring of hatred toward Ronald Reagan and his legacy - hatred so untypical of Americans. That sinister force permeated the body politic of this nation in the form of an ideology that preaches envy, promotes jealousy and, yes, incites hatred. It turns women against men, young against old, black against white, the less successful against the more successful. It is all the more insidious because it dresses up as "caring and compassion for the oppressed, the exploited, the disenfranchised," while it does irreparable harm to the very same.
After partaking in Babette's Feast, the villagers could not recall what they had eaten or drunk and, eventually, slid back into their old, miserable ways. Will the same happen to the participants of CNN's "Larry King Live," or will their future actions reflect the new plateau of perception they displayed the other day for all the world to see?