My portrait with Reagan

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(Host) As a teenager, commentator Caleb Daniloff visited with former president Ronald Reagan in the White House. A photograph of that meeting accompanied him through a turbulent adolescence.

(Daniloff) I used to have a photo of my family with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. In the picture, my mother, father and sister are laughing. Reagan is talking, Nancy watching. I’m the only one looking at the camera. Bangs covering my eyes, a shy smirk on my sixteen-year-old face.

The occasion was the release of my father whom the KGB had arrested on bogus spy charges in 1986. An American journalist stationed in Moscow, he was jailed in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet agent in New York several months earlier. Reagan went to bat, and gained my dad’s release. Our five years in Moscow came to an abrupt halt, and the ticking of the fifteen-minute clock began.

At the time of our White House visit, I was a maladjusted kid with a mess of bad habits picked up on the streets of Moscow. That morning, I wore an unbuttoned paisley shirt, a T-shirt that read Free Nick Daniloff, and maroon Converse high-tops. Not exactly Oval Office attire.

Reagan seemed momentarily shaken as we shook hands, but quickly regained composure. A few minutes later, he was telling a joke about Soviet potatoes. Flashbulbs sent sheets of lightning around the room. I was most struck by the hearing aids wedged in his ears, and that his hair wasn’t as black as on television.

After our visit, the White House sent photos of the meeting. I mounted one in a plastic drugstore frame. I was not of voting age, nor much interested in politics. But the Reagan photo became a deep and powerful memento.

It served as tabula rasa, marking the end of my life in Soviet Russia, and a jarring rebirth in America. It captured the fractured dynamic of my family and connected me to my father at a time when we’d become distant. It seemed to symbolize my place in the world on the margins, out of step.

Reagan was mostly a cultural figure in my mind and the photo conjured images of Izod shirts, yuppies, and the TV drama Dynasty. But politically, the Reagan era had restored the country’s self-esteem. Not only did I miss out on this revival of American self but I dwelled in the country’s spiritual opposite, a place Reagan dubbed The Evil Empire. But like Woody Allen’s Zelig, there I stood, photographically frozen in the sunlight of America’s new morning.

The photo started conversations for me as well, coolly announcing my presence when I was too shy and tongue-tied to form the proper words. People came to me, sought my ear and stories. It held power, a special glow.

Back in my turbulent college years, the photo bore witness to dizzy, all-night scenes. The mornings-after more effective fodder for the war on drugs than Nancy’s Just Say No campaign.

As Reagan faded from public life and eventually from his own mind, most of those images and associations dimmed, too. The photo was ultimately lost in a move.

But when the former president died last week, a link to my past, to a faded MO, to an identity, briefly reappeared and vanished, like a flare shot into the sky. I’d grown up and hadn’t really noticed. And in a way, Ronald Reagan had seen me through.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.

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