The Long View: Time on My Hands

In this last of three posts on the Spanish Civil War, John ties together history, alternate history, and the strange bedfellows that politics makes.

I've mentioned before that John wasn't really a fan of Ronald Reagan. He lays out his case for that here. Yet for all that, he didn't hate the man out of proportion to his actual deeds. From the way some people talk, you would think President Reagan had hooves. Peter Delacorte, the author of the book John reviews here, seems to have disliked Reagan enough to written a fantasy about writing him out of history.

What makes the book interesting, and what ties it to the previous posts is the way in which the favored side of the author in the Spanish Civil War correlates with his opinion of American domestic politics. It shouldn't be especially surprising that partisans of the Republican side in that war were generally against the Republican party in America, given the general shape of politics in the Western world. What is more interesting is you can see how the propaganda written by authors like Hemingway in the 1930s is still influencing people sixty years later.

The Spanish Civil War was my introduction to the identity politics of language, and you can see a bit of that poking through here. The way in which Franco suppressed the Basque language, and regional dialects of Spanish in favor of Castilian, is representative of the way in which nationalism on the whole has had a tendency to impose national identity by force.

In the script with which I am familiar, nationalism is a right-wing phenomenon, and so the abuses of power associated with nationalism are used as talking points by the left. There is at least some truth to this, but it is also an oversimplification. Delacorte seems unfamiliar with the actual tendencies of the Spanish Republicans to purge anyone insufficiently enthusiastic about the cause, and one suspects the course of nationalism in Spain would have been much the same if they had won, just with a different set of victims.

Alternative History in More Ways than One
If you found a time machine and were of a mind to lessen the total sum of human misery in the 20th century, what would you do? Most people, myself included, would say they would do something to stop Hitler. Actually, I have this all worked out. When Hitler was a street artist in Vienna, he once secured an interview with a famous set designer for the Vienna Opera to talk about becoming his assistant. Operatic set design, unlike architecture or academic painting, was something that Hitler might actually have been good at. However, young Adolf was too shy to keep the appointment, though he got as far as the bottom of the set designer’s front steps. All a time traveler would have to do is meet Hitler earlier that same day, buy him some strudel and generally buck up his courage so he keeps the appointment. Then, provided he got the job, everything would be fine. Unfortunately, this hypothesis is hard to test, since I have so far been unable to build or buy a time machine, or at any rate one that works.
The premise of “Time on My Hands” is roughly similar to my idea for what to do about Hitler, with the difference that the leader who needs to be stopped is Ronald Reagan. In 1994, an American travel writer named Gabriel Prince meets a hale old physicist named Jasper Hudnut in the National Technical Museum in Paris. After sounding Gabriel out about his politics, Jasper reveals that he has found a time machine (actually two, but he lost the first one in 1952) and that he wants him to return to Hollywood just before the Second World War to prevent Reagan from entering on a political career. As Jasper points out, Gabriel need not kill Reagan (whose name was pronounced “reegan” in those days and whose nickname was “Dutch”). All he has to do is deflect Reagan away from politics.
Gabriel is, of course, persuaded. In the immemorial tradition of time travel and alternative universe stories, he is “down on his luck” when the offer of adventure presents itself. In the classic pulp stories from the 1930s, time travelers tended to be Depression-era college boys desperate for a summer job who answer a mad scientist’s “Help Wanted” ad. (One suspects that this convention reflected the actual condition of the authors.) Gabriel in this book has a good job writing for a travel guide. In fact, a running gag through the book is that he describes all restaurant meals as if for a formal review. However, his girlfriend had just left him for a malodorous French intellectual, which serves just as well as a reason to leave.
Returning to California in 1938 (earlier than he planned; the time machine is a cranky twenty-second century prototype), Gabriel soon establishes himself as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers and in the affections of Jasper’s long-dead starlet cousin. Dutch Reagan is a young contract actor at the studio who does serials and supporting roles in B movies. He is a hard man to dislike, friendly as a puppy and nearsighted as a mole. His only flaw is a tendency to rattle on about baseball and his support for the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. He and Gabriel soon become fast friends. Reagan is a hardworking actor, well-suited to supporting dramatic roles and light comedy, but Gabriel is determined to make him into a star by writing the perfect vehicle for him. This is not as hard as it sounds, since Gabriel is familiar with all the great screenplays of the ensuing decades. After all, John Wayne was not much of an actor either, but he benefited throughout his career from excellent screenplays. (Might there have been a President Wayne if he had starred in “Bedtime for Bonzo” and was not taken seriously thereafter? Nah.)
The novel is taken up with many of the complications that plague all time travelers, including mechanical problems, irascible people from the future and an utter inability to make sense of temporal paradoxes. (Of all science fiction writers, Isaac Asimov probably came closest to a consistent description of time travel in the novel “The End of Eternity.” Poul Anderson’s “Time Patrol” stories come second.) Gabriel’s particular problem is that both Reagan and Jasper’s cousin keep having fatal accidents early on in the alternative histories his interventions create. Thus, he has to keep going back to amend his amendments. None of this is really resolved by the time the book ends. (In 1952. I think.)
Now, there are many good reasons to read this book. It is written the way that novelists write when they start writing screenplays, with great slabs of dialogue that would make a movie unwatchable but that can make a novel sparkle. There is a disarming description of the informal, factory-like Hollywood film studio industry of the late 1930s (which provides many of the “pictures” of the book’s subtitle). Nevertheless, what I found most interesting was the mental universe of the author, Peter Delacorte (who has written extensively on show business). Apparently, in the alternative reality where he lives, the Reagan Administration was obviously the greatest disaster to befall the world in recent decades. In that world, Reagan did only harm both domestically and abroad, and just about everyone wishes that the whole thing had never happened. If Delacorte had argued for this interpretation of the 1980s, “Time on My Hands” would have been more plausible but far more tedious. As it is, simply by leaving his own biases unexamined, he has described a version of history far more alien than the histories generated by his characters’ tinkering with the past.
Because of problems with the time machine, we don’t get to see how removing the Reagan Administration from history affects the 1990s. We do, however, get a quick look at 1984 in the waning days of the second Carter Administration. The Cold War, it seems, had already ended, quite without an American military buildup. Nuclear weapons have been eliminated. The US is friendly with Cuba and socialist Nicaragua. The Soviet Union did not disintegrate and no rabble of newly independent states spread across Eurasia. We don’t get a good look at how things went economically and culturally, but doubtless they went much more smoothly than they did in the real 1980s. Former California governor Jerry Brown is the federal Secretary of Education, for instance, which is an improvement right there.
No writer is on oath when describing an alternative history. You have to fudge some things anyway if you are going to tell why the world turned out differently. Nevertheless, “Time on My Hands” does present some things in such a way that one really does wonder what universe it was written in. For instance, whatever else you might say about Presidents Nixon and Ford, they hardly represented the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party. In fact, the chief single reason that Ford was not reelected in 1976 was that he had failed to secure the support of the real right-wing, which was led by Ronald Reagan. Remove Reagan from history, and all things being equal you have probably ensured that Jimmy Carter would have lost in 1976. More disconcerting, perhaps, are Gabriel’s remarks in 1938 to the effect that what was at stake in the Spanish Civil War was Franco’s monolithic view of Spain, versus the open and diverse view of the country espoused by the Loyalists. Even with the perspective of the late 20th century to aid him, he still disparages the suggestion that the Loyalist government was in fact controlled by the Communists. Promoting diversity? Spanish Communists? I kept expecting the Gabriel character to be disabused of views like this by meeting some real Communists, such as the ones the real Ronald Reagan encountered as president of the Screen Actors Guild who did so much to make him rethink his political sympathies. However, nothing of the sort happens. One is left with the sad conviction that the author really believes this sort of thing.
I have never been much of a fan of Ronald Reagan. Certainly I voted against him in 1980. His eight years in office were indeed characterized by neglect of some core functions of government. Many of his appointments were appalling. His advisors had a shaky grasp of what constituted legal behavior in office. Nevertheless, it cannot be argued, as Gabriel asserts, that Reagan simply did nothing as the world changed in dramatic ways. The fact is that, for better or worse, the changes occurred because of what his administration did, and that his administration did pretty much what he himself intended it to do, his carefully cultivated reputation for disconnectedness notwithstanding.
Ronald Reagan began the necessary and long-postponed program of deregulating large slices of the nation’s economy. This produced costly chaos in many industries (the big example being the savings-and-loan business) and a regional economic depression in the Midwest. Still, seen from the perspective of the late 1990s, these policies were a considerable success. Certainly they reversed the qualitative edge briefly enjoyed by the economies of Japan and Europe. He continued President Carter’s military buildup (begun after the invasion of Afghanistan) until it was plain to the Soviet Union that they could not afford to compete with the United States militarily. The Soviet decision to end the Cold War could not have been made any earlier than it was, since the last of the gerontocrats had to be given a turn in office before Mikhail Gorbachev became Party General Secretary in 1985. Had the liberal Left been in power in the US at that time, the Soviets would, of course, have had no reason to make it. To argue otherwise is merely perverse. Finally, if Reagan did not quite end the 1960s, he at least started the process of cultural rollback that gathered momentum in the 1990s and is likely to prove wholly successful early in the next century.
It is perfectly true that Ronald Reagan for the most part presided over these things rather than administered them. In many ways he was the Wizard of Oz, who ruled through smoke and mirrors. This is perfectly consistent with maintaining that the Wizard was a pretty canny character without whom the story would not have ended as well as it did. In a way, this view of Reagan is more consistent with the time traveler’s mission in “Time on My Hands” than it is with the traveler’s own assessment of Reagan. If Ronald Reagan really was just a genial ventriloquist’s dummy in the hands of California reactionaries, as Gabriel and Jasper repeatedly assert, then one suspects that any dummy would have sufficed. Only if he possessed some substantial qualities would it have been necessary to seek to deflect his career. However, unless someone else has more luck finding a time machine than I have had, it is much too late to mitigate the continuing effects of his presidency.
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site