Upon my return last Monday from the hills outside Santa Barbara, where I’d been attending two long days of commencement ceremonies at Pinochet University’s Henry Kissinger School of International Justice, my senior research associate, Ms. Pines, admitted to having spent the same two days quizzing 1,000 random pedestrians — 200 citizens in each of five prominent business districts (Long Beach, Century City, Santa Monica Promenade, downtown Van Nuys and the Great Dead Mall of Hollywood) — on the topic of our recently departed deity Ronald Reagan.
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“There was nothing else going on,” Ms. Pines replied. “Look.”
She placed on the table between us a tall stack of papers, the apparent results of her work. Having spent the weekend taking lots of drugs and listening to drawn-out graduation speeches — most of them conditioned with Reagan-related quips — I was already thoroughly gipped. I really didn’t care to look.
“Just look,” she said. “Look, look, look.”
Okay. I looked. According to Ms. Pines’ survey, only 60 of 1,000 knew why The Reagan was called The Gipper. That seemed extremely low to me, but she insisted it was accurate, and showed me the multiple-choice/short-essay exam each analysand had filled out. Everything seemed to be in order.
“Okay,” said Ms. Pines, several times, quickly, flipping to the next page. “So then out of the 940 who didn’t know — or who said they didn’t know — 880 said they assumed it was Reagan’s nickname from high school or college.”
I needed a nap. “What were the other choices?”
“Well, there was A-B-C. That was C — ‘nickname from high school or college.’ A was ‘from a line in a movie about a football player,’ and B was ‘because he removed entrails from herring.’”
My eyes shot out across the room, hit the wall and snapped back into their sockets, frozen wide.
Up in the hills outside Santa Barbara, noted entrepreneurialist Chandler Hollandaise Westwicke, the featured speaker at Pinochet U.’s commencement pageant, addressed a crowd of wealthy fictional characters in a wealthy fictional country. Westwicke’s voice was a dissonant, compelling blend of Tom Waits and Tom Jones. It was as if he were firing two separate sets of vocal cords simultaneously: one set rasping and ratcheting like playing cards through bicycle spokes, the other a thick baritone gravy. He spoke, yet sang; menaced, yet soothed.
“Which brings me, again,” said Westwicke, “to our dearly departed mentor, my friend, President Ronald Wilson Reagan.”
“American workers are like geese, and supply-side economics is the fist that overfeeds their livers. If my friend Ronald Reagan had not made the world safe for supply-side marketing by single-handedly dismantling the Soviet Union, our enemies would have taken over, and America would have become just another Godless, socialist hellhole, where anyone can get the health care they need.”
“Through this great man’s courage and leadership, the consciences of the wealthy throughout the world were mollified. No longer would we feel guilty about making life-and-death decisions for the have-nots. Because, as you must surely have learned by now, the have-nots are a less advanced species than are we.”
“Yes, you young people might not remember it,” Westwicke continued, “but back in the 1980s, when most of you were born, President Reagan was the second most popular red-haired Ronald in the country. His hair wasn’t actually bright red, like Mr. McDonald’s, but something of a reddish brown, the very same color herrings turn when cured by salting and smoking. These herrings are also considered red.”
“And he ended the Cold War, thus giving to the great corporations of this great country, and indeed of this world, the gift of Freedom. The Freedom to define and partition the American Dream as they desired, and to sell that definition unfettered, beholden to no one but the Almighty.”
“Yes,” he continued. “And certainly he had his critics. America’s whining socialists and liberals claim to have noticed that President Reagan supported apartheid in South Africa tripled the national debt traded arms for hostages to finance death squads throughout Central America crushed worker rights and defined the mathematical term silence in the HIV equation silence = death while backing both Saddam Hussein and the mujahedeen that gave birth to al Qaeda, but you never hear them admit that Mr. Reagan did so with the kind of infectiously optimistic charisma that makes America great.”
(Applause.) (Westwicke stepped away from the podium, drank a glass of something and returned.)
“Now,” Westwicke went on, cracking his neck, shifting gears. “There’s a rumor going around about the origin of America’s greatest president’s nickname, The Gipper. I’d like to set the record straight.
“The rumor is that in 1938, a radio program by the name of DuPont’s Cavalcade of America ran a segment on legendary Notre Dame football star George Gipp, who died of pneumonia in 1920. According to the radio program, on his deathbed Gipp asked his coach, Knute Rockne, to fire up the team by telling them to ‘Win one for the Gipper.’
“Then, in 1940, Warner Bros. allegedly made a movie about it, with Ronald Reagan cast as Gipp, and this is supposedly why he was called The Gipper.”
“Don’t applaud that!” Westwicke barked. “The fact of the matter is that just as something that zips is a zipper, clips is a clipper or flips is a flipper, the term gipper derives from the verb gip, meaning, according to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, ‘to take out the entrails of herrings.’”
(Silence. Then applause.)
“And, friends, that is what President Reagan did. He gipped. He removed the liberal communist welfare-state entrails from the deliciously smoked red-herring fillet of American Freedom. For this, he was truly the ultimate gipper.”
My eyes thawed, but Westwicke’s words still rang in my ears.
“What is it?” said Ms. Pines. “You all right?”
“Please tell me,” I said, “that it’s not the herring.”
“It’s the movie, moron. You knew that, didn’t you?”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you fucking with me? Why would it be the herring?”
“Because this one speaker up at Pinochet, this economist who used to be friends with Reagan, said that to gip means to clean the guts out of a herring.”
“Well, no shit,” said Ms. Pines. “That’s why I put it on the test. But it doesn’t have anything to do with Reagan, does it? Are you fucking with me?”
“So you’re sure it’s the football movie?”
“Of course I’m sure,” said Ms. Pines. “You are fucking with me, aren’t you?”