The occasion was a ceremony on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few steps down from the White House, to mark the naming of a large, blank government building after Ronald Reagan. The entire Congress seemed to be there, Republicans and Democrats, all friends for a day. Nancy was there - face stretched drum-tight, eyes that once blinked now set in a round, manic stare. Ditto for Bob Dole.
And Bill Clinton was in attendance too, gamely rising above the contumely spewed daily by his Republican tormentors to join in the homage to the memory - or lack of it - of a president who has already acquired in life the status of a divine.
Clinton, with his genius for these schmuckfests, was at his unctuous best. Milking the nostalgia. Biting his lower lip. Acting the patriot's part - just like Reagan, but for the brain - against the cinema-screen backdrop of a giant American flag.
"I think we feel the essence of his presence," said the Groper of the Gipper. "His unflagging optimism, his proud patriotism, his unabashed faith in the American people."
The crowd roared, raising a breeze that caused the giant flag to flutter. It might have been Independence Day (the movie or the national holiday), such was the shared pride the celebrants took in their Americanness. Even Daniel Patrick Moynihan joined the fun. Moynihan is one of the few members of the Senate blessed with learning, wit and - I had always imagined - a moral compass. But Moynihan, it turned out, had been the original sponsor of the bill that called for the great, vacuous Pennsylvania Avenue cavern to be named after the man who described the Nicaraguan Contras as "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers".
"It was only right," Moynihan enthused, "that the grand building itself be named for President Reagan, one of whose many gifts to the American nation is a vision of a world at peace."
I wanted to be sick. This was grotesque. More grotesque than the news a couple of months ago that, with the legal blessing again of both Congress and the White House, Washington's National Airport was being renamed "Ronald Reagan National Airport". That's my airport. The place I have been flying in and out of continually for the last three and half years. I don't ever want to catch a plane there again.
What's my problem?
All my problems with America, that's what. The dumb certitude; the blind conformity; the contempt for the poor; the facile amiability; the ostentatious religiosity; the callous laws; the love of guns; the Hollywood sensibility; the all-consuming fetish for material success; the showy insubstantiality of the politics; the jungle of celebrity junk; the infantile literal-mindedness; and the faith, withal, in America's planetary moral superiority, in the notion held to be self-evident by 99.9 per cent of Americans that the American way of life is the best way of life ever devised in the history of the human species, that America - as every politician campaigning for office always reminds us at least once - is, in Lincoln's phrase, "the last best hope for mankind".
There is the essence of Reaganism Clinton talks about. There are some of the things Reagan (or those who did the thinking for him) found, distilled and bequeathed to a grateful nation. But let us start by examining - for me - the most important thing, the one that impelled me to come to Washington in the first place. The reckless inattention to the suffering that American imperial might has inflicted on the unfortunate of the earth.
Had I not spent the Eighties in Latin America I might look on the US in a different light. I probably would never have come at all. But Uncle Sam's fingerprints were everywhere in those days and it was there that my appetite to know the northern colossus was first pricked.
First I was in Argentina, whose extraordinarily evil generals - sophisticated Saddam Husseins - were flabbergasted when their White House padrn sided with Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands War. Then I spent six years covering the blood-soaked little countries of the Central American isthmus. It was there, as a journalist, that I became fascinated, appalled but also intrigued by the barbarism Reagan's government was prepared not just to tolerate, but to encourage, in the name of democracy.
It was partly, perhaps, because I made so many excellent American friends during those years (friends I value as much as any I have accumulated around the world) that I expected something entirely different when I moved to America in January 1995. I expected, in my unbelievable naivete, that under that nice Mr Clinton the US might have engaged in some measure of atonement for the appalling things done to so many millions of Salvadoreans, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Guatemalans during the most terrible decade in their respective countries' histories. I thought that at the very least Reagan's fearful freedom-fighting legacy in that part of the world might now be viewed with some measure of distaste.
I could not have been further from the truth. The US role in Latin America (and let's not forget Reagan's fondness for Chile's Pinochet or the bullying absurdity of his Grenada invasion) has been eliminated from the official history. So conclusively, in fact, that today all parties unblushingly join hands in an orgy of Gipper glorification, rushing pre-emptively to fix his place in the pantheon of American greats alongside Washington, Lincoln and FDR.
I myself see Reagan the way the majority of South Africans see PW Botha. The difference being, as I can attest after spending six years in South Africa for the Independent, that in the scale of human rights abuses PW falls way short. Of course, the "groot krokodil" was propping up a system so pervasively vile that the harm he did is impossible to quantify. But in terms of straight murders, massacres and general atrocities to human flesh his sins are small next to those committed by the assassin armies Reagan kept on the US government payroll.
One statistic, among many such, will make the point. The South African death squads killed 60, maybe 100 activists during the Eighties. In El Salvador, in the first two years of the decade alone, they were killing 1,000 a month. Which is a quite a lot in a country with a population that was then 10 times smaller than South Africa's.
Rather too many, you might think, for a country whose death squad leaders - meaning the generals and the colonels and the Contra founding fathers in Miami - were receiving more military aid (and training, and torture tips, and White House applause) from the world's greatest democracy than any country except Israel. You might think - I might think - but that is not the way they think over here in Washington where they choose not to see the dark side of American power, where everything is political calculation and ideological abstraction and in so far as the hundreds of thousands who perished in Central America have registered in the national consciousness at all it is in the same way that foreign bad guys do, "communists" and people who look like Arabs, in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Or, in the immortal words of the chief US military adviser in El Salvador in 1984 when challenged about a particularly grisly killing carried out by his local charges, "after all, they're only little brown men".
But they were real people, however little and brown, those Salvadoreans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans who died, those orphans and widows, those countless refugees whom Reagan's free-marketeering murderers reduced to desperate poverty. I met them. I saw their disfigured corpses and mutilated limbs. They were as real as Mr and Mrs Apple Pie Smith, and their charmingly computer-literate children, in Toledo, Ohio. But to Washington, and to America in general, their lives had no meaning, the gruesome manner of their deaths no pain. Otherwise they would not be naming airports and buildings after Ronald Reagan. Otherwise they would be hauling him up before a tribunal to answer for his crimes.
Which would be no more than a gesture, of course, since he can't remember a thing; since even at his most lucid, before he contracted Alzheimer's, he had the fly-squashing simplicity of an emotionally underdeveloped 10-year-old boy. Clinton has no such excuse.
He is a refined Reagan, an upgraded model, imbued with the talent not only to pander and charm but to think for himself. The lesson he learnt from Reagan, especially applicable today when the differences between the parties are of little more consequence than the differences between Oprah Winfrey and her talk show rival Jenny Jones, was that winning an election was fundamentally a question of looking better than your opponent on TV. Should the year 2000 presidential election look like a close-run thing, ask yourself which of the two candidates would do a better job as master of ceremonies on Oscar night and you can confidently bet that he will be the winner.
Being clever, and a man who will subordinate every principle to the task of coming first in the in-house Washington sport known as "the electoral race", Clinton pulled off a couple of astute gambits to ensure a crushing victory over Bob Dole and a convincing defeat of George Bush.
Ignoring the cries of outrage from traditional Democrats in the White House he heeded the advice of his toe-sucking, prostitute-addicted poll- watcher, the politically promiscuous Dick Morris, and took a decision six months before the 1996 election that deprived the hapless Bob Dole of the one policy issue he thought he had left. He signed a welfare reform bill, inspired entirely by Reagan's Republican heirs, that slashed aid to the poor, especially children and single mothers.
As Morris predicted, the move played well with the contented middle-American rump who cling tightly to the mythical belief that if you cannot make your own way in the land of opportunity you are a contemptible "loser"; who are utterly unconcerned by the fact that America has the widest gap between rich and poor in the developed world; and who, most importantly, are the group who can be relied upon to take the trouble to turn up to vote en masse. Not unremoved from the Morris-Clinton calculations was the added consideration that the big business leaders who pay the election campaign funds, and accordingly shape the campaign message in what must be the most legally corrupt political system in the world, would have looked kindly on a law that deprived scroungers of productive America's hard-earned tax dollars.
In 1992, when Clinton confronted the more difficult challenge of George Bush, the key to victory lay in disabusing the voters of the perception assiduously cultivated by the Republicans that he was a marijuana-smoking, sex-crazed "liberal". Once again he invoked the spirit of Reagan, this time by making a display of his enthusiasm for the death penalty, an Old Testament method of dispensing justice favoured by the vast majority of Americans but which is rejected by the rest of the western world. Clinton, making sure that the news media got the point, flew to his home state of Arkansas to be present at the precise moment that a mental retard was put to death by lethal injection.
Americans' unthinking devotion to the death penalty mirrors their thoughtless disregard for the lives of Central America's little brown men. It emanates from a simplistic, childishly vindictive habit of mind that is shaped by the anaesthetic effects of television and the movies and is incapable of grasping the shared humanity of strangers. Especially if they fall into the category of "bad guys", be they leftist Latin American desaparecidos or convicted home-grown criminals.
Take Billy Bailey, who shot dead an elderly couple in an alcoholic frenzy after robbing a liquor store. Horrendous, certainly, but then consider the circumstances of his life. One of 23 children, he lived in a two-room shack with his father, who married four times. Bailey's mother died when he was six months old. His father's next wife treated him savagely and immediately after his father died, when he was 10, she abandoned him at the cemetery. A married half-brother took him in, only to perpetuate the abuse and beatings. Having to steal to eat, he spent his teens in and out of juvenile detention centres. Prison was his first and last home. The court that sentenced him discerned no mitigating circumstances, never paused to consider that the richest society in the history of the earth might have provided Bailey at some stage in his descent into savagery with a helping hand, and at midnight on 25 January 1996 he was hanged.
Nine times out of 10 the childhood backgrounds of those on America's Death Row, 4,000 at the latest count and rising, are a replica of Billy Bailey's. And no matter that the lesson of OJ Simpson's trial du siecle clearly shows, in the words of a judge many years ago, that justice is open to everybody in the same way as the Ritz hotel, the death penalty will not be an issue in the next election, nor any election in America any time soon. For as rash past candidates - to Congress, to the municipal dog-catching department -have learnt to their grief, to oppose legal executions is the political kiss of death.
So would be any notion of reforming the unspeakably brutal American prison system where homosexual rape and sexual slavery are tolerated, almost encouraged - and are the stuff of stand-up jokes on national TV - in much the same way that torture of Guatemalan trade unionists was tolerated and encouraged by the Reagan administration.
Taken to extremes, the same habit of mind can lead to something as lunatic as the decision a former army sergeant made in 1995 to blow up 169 men, women and children in Oklahoma. He had decided that the US government was the enemy; that the people inside the US government building where he placed the bomb were bad guys and, as such, drained of any common humanity; and so, without any remorse or hint of empathy for themselves or their families, he killed them. There was no logic, no political objective in the manner, however appalling, of an IRA or an ETA bombing. It was an act of malice, stupidity, resentment and spectacular lack of imagination - much like the schoolyard slaughter by two rifle-toting little boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March, and the other schoolyard slaughters that have come before and will come again so long as America, ox-like in its devotion to received orthodoxy, persists in its Biblical attachment to the constitutional recipes set out by men who might have struggled with the idea behind Rambo and Terminator 2.
But America, vast and varied as it is, does have its points. I myself, blessed as I have been with a good education and reasonable resources of energy, have been contented and prosperous. I might just as easily, and sincerely, have dedicated this space to highlighting some of those positive American qualities in which Europe, for example, falls short. We Europeans correctly like to note that Americans lack irony, which means they lack an adult sense of life's limitations, which means they lack wisdom. Yes, but the other side of that coin is that in their adolescent brio they have a sense of possibility, a random energy and optimism, which drives them to heights of inventiveness and wealth-creation to which we world-weary Europeans, with the evidence of our fallen empires all around, would not think to aspire. An Italian might bay, love-lorn, at the moon but he would never imagine it would be possible to fly there. A French teenager brought up in poverty in a small rural town would never dream that one day he could become president of his country. An Englishman, faced with adversity in his career, might quietly say to himself, as an American never would, "mustn't grumble, then".
And it would be foolish to suggest that there are not wise, humane Americans aplenty. It is a big country. There are people who care, and care keenly, about the plight of strangers, who invest as much zeal and intelligence to campaigning on behalf of the Billy Baileys and the little brown men of this world as most of their compatriots do to making money, scoffing hamburgers and watching TV. But such people are strangers in their own land, their voices drowned by the sound and fury of the all-devouring combined harvester that is the market-driven American Dream machine.
If I have not done as the natives do and looked on the bright side of life, omitting the dark, it is because I choose to measure America against its own vast, self-satisfied claims. It is not morally superior to the rest of us. It is not the noblest, finest, most decent society that ever was. It is not the last best hope for mankind. It falls way short. It is too pitiless. America, for all the talk about all people having been created equal, has not learned to temper power with mercy, has not - as a nation - extended the hand of compassion either to its own unfortunate souls or to those who look and speak differently and live in unpronounceable foreign lands.
The event at the Ronald Reagan building last week told me that things are unlikely to change. Not in my lifetime. I will come back and visit my fine American friends. But - offer me all the money in the world - I won't come back to live.
Clinton, like Reagan, has played to the middle-American rump who see their country in terms of 'winners' like themselves, and 'losers' such as criminals and the poorReuse content