When Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles died within a week of each other, there was a message scrawled on America’s chalkboard for anyone who cared to read it. They were legendary entertainers; one was black, one was blind, one was of sound mind when he died and the other had spent 10 years staring into the shadows. But the significant, the profound difference between them was that Ray Charles was real and Ronald Reagan was not. The word is now used so often, to camouflage so much falsehood, it has almost lost its meaning. We can no longer use it to make distinctions unless we define and defend it as if the reader were encountering it for the first time. Ray Charles is no problem, no sweat. If you ever heard him and failed to respond, failed to hear the difference between his fathoms-deep, stripped-to-the-soul music and the careless ear candy with which he competed, your own reality is in question. Every song he sang was one from the heart, every note he struck on the piano was a rebuff to the heartless glitter and numbing repetition that eventually swallowed the American music industry. The pain, the power, the singular genius–if Ray Charles wasn’t real then neither is sorrow, neither is mother’s love.

Ronald Reagan is the test. One of America’s most beloved, hapless, misguided and underachieving presidents has somehow mutated–through 15 years of absence and silence–from America’s genial Teflon toastmaster, who never got it right, to this great statesman and towering presence in modern history. This heroic icon whose handsome face, according to his right-wing true believers, should adorn our currency and grin across the rubble of Mt. Rushmore at George Washington himself.

“A great American life has come to an end,” eulogized President Bush. “He leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save.”

“The second greatest president of the 20th century,” one neocon raved in The Washington Post, and a Time writer assured us that his personal letters “show a far more subtle mind and sophisticated outlook than the caricature ever suggested.”

Ronald who? No doubt it’s graceless to discount the accomplishments of the recent dead. But one of the perils of America’s headlong flight from reality is the vertigo we suffer when public myths contradict our own experience and try to amend our most trusted memories. At the end of the ’60s, as a young writer for the education section of that same Time magazine, I struggled with a story about the once-famous confrontation between the black Marxist scholar Angela Davis and the California Board of Regents, who hoped to send her packing. I whined to my editor that the governor of California, on behalf of the Regents, kept saying things that betrayed no familiarity with either academic freedom or free speech–and no awareness whatsoever of the feminist and civil rights movements that were turning America inside out. He seemed to be caught in a time warp, this governor, or in some disabling aphasia.

Remember that I was 24 years old, ink barely dry on my master’s degree, and still believed that governors, senators, presidents and the like were better informed and more astute than the average high school valedictorian. Infuriated and for the first time radicalized, I kept writing the story as I thought Lincoln Steffens or H.L. Mencken might have written it. The editors kept rolling their eyes and sending it back for a rewrite. It took six versions, and finally appeared with all my barbs excised or blunted.

I can’t say that was my introduction to Ronald Reagan; we all knew him from General Electric Theater and the odd B-movie that came to small-town theaters when his film career was in decline. But imagine my dismay when it became apparent that this California somnambulist was lurching toward the White House. Dismay but not surprise. I saw him interviewed on television in 1980, making fun of himself with effortless grace and wrapping Barbara Walters or someone right around his trigger finger, and I predicted without hesitation that he would murder Jimmy Carter in November. Of the presidents I had seen, beginning with Harry Truman, only John Kennedy shared this high-wattage charisma, and Reagan’s, after 50 Hollywood movies, was an infinitely more polished and professional brand of charm.

His inevitable presidency, despite what you’ve read in the newspapers, fell light years short of a roaring success. The fiscal conservative came in decrying a trillion-dollar national debt and left us with a debt of $2.8 trillion–the price of taming inflation, cutting taxes for the wealthy and building the most awesome peacetime war machine the world had ever seen. As he left office, the General Accounting Office issued an unprecedented report warning his successor that Reagan had all but bankrupted the federal government. Unemployment averaged 7.5 percent during the Reagan years, a new class called “the homeless” began to appear on America’s streets, much of the nation’s wealth flowed uphill to the super-rich and has never flowed back. Americans picked up the message that it was no disgrace to be greedy and callous. Civil rights and environmental protection were ignored, if not scorned; if you have problems with John Ashcroft and Gale Norton, please research Ed Meese and James Watt.

A “muscular” foreign policy is always portrayed as Reagan’s strong suit; but in fact he delegated most things foreign to sociopathic schemers and gunrunners like Ollie North and John Poindexter. Reagan and vice president George H.W. Bush were never exonerated in the Iran-Contra scandal, a caper that flirted with high treason and brought calls for their impeachment. They just smiled enigmatically and let Reagan’s bulletproof charisma do its work.

Many historians credit President Reagan and his big-stick Pentagon with calling Moscow’s bluff, High Noon-style, and precipitating the fall of the Soviet Union. But nearly anyone who visited the Soviet Union during those years–I was there in 1984–could sense that it was bleeding to death from internal injuries, and that most Russians couldn’t wait to see it fall. It turns out that Ronald Reagan’s greatest achievement was not saving us from the Soviets, but saving us from the rabid neocons in his own administration who were spoiling for World War III. Advisers like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld seemed so crazy for nuclear confrontation that they spooked poor Reagan, the primitive optimist. He ignored their advice and negotiated with Gorbachev, and then purged most of them when they were caught in bed with Ollie North. George W. Bush, of course, brought back this whole flock of indicted and discredited chicken hawks, who then crafted the “muscular” foreign policy that lured us into our apocalyptic fiasco in Iraq.

So we owe a great debt of gratitude to Ronald Reagan, to the fact that he couldn’t quite grasp the hard-line theology of nuclear escalation–any better than he could grasp civil rights. (“Some of those black leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice,” he told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes–at a time when the average net worth of a white household was 12 times that of a black one.) Imagine what might have happened if young George Bush had been president–a line I hope to hear often in the years to come. George W.’s mentor Dick Cheney, one of the last of the permafrost Cold Warriors, was still sneering at glasnost and perestroika in 1990, when he was old George’s secretary of defense. “A ruse,” scoffed Cheney the shrewd as the Soviet empire crumbled.

What they portray as “Morning in America” was actually “Twilight in Santa Barbara”–not only at the end but from 1980, from the very beginning. “The Great Communicator,” as they called him, gave speeches that were comic masterpieces of patriotic buncombe and booster-club patois. But what fascinated me, among the extravagant claims of greatness that ushered Ronald Reagan out of this world, was a New Yorker article by his biographer, Edmund Morris, titled “The Unknowable.” Morris, who spent decades trying to decipher him, reveals that Reagan had no close friends, no close relationships with anyone except his wife–“the only human being Reagan truly cared about.” And even with Nancy, Morris writes, “[I]t never occurs to him that she might be lonely, too, or bereaved or frightened, that she has any identity other than–by extension–his own.”

He barely noticed his four children and totally ignored his first grandchild for two years. Most telling, according to Morris, he had no rapport of any kind with children, who have radar for practiced insincerity. Ronald Reagan seems to have been entirely, eerily self-contained–to such a degree that it seems fair to describe him as high-functioning autistic.

“The autist is only himself,” wrote the pioneering clinician Hans Asperger, “and is not a member of the greater organism–it’s as if he’s in his own world.”

“Actors are not like you and me,” Morris writes of Reagan. “Their real world, where they really feel, is onstage.”

There’s no proven connection between autism and Alzheimer’s, the crippling dementia that eventually took even his own small world away from him. But I felt from my first taste of him, from the Angela Davis encounter, that many of Ronald Reagan’s responses were inappropriate, that he was seldom wholly with us–that some of the lights on his instrument panel were never lit. To diagnose him with a touch of autism doesn’t demean other victims of this life-shrinking cognitive disorder, which sometimes masks unusual intelligence and even genius. (One autistic genius, the artist/writer Henry Darger, wrote a 15,145-word illustrated novel titled In the Realms of the Unreal.) Why shouldn’t Reagan’s success offer them new hope? And it’s far from the most pejorative explanation of Reagan’s shortcomings–we could analyze the same data and dismiss him as a simple-minded phony or a selfish prick. This is a man who introduced himself to his own son, Michael, at the boy’s high school graduation. According to Edmund Morris, he held out his hand to Michael and said, “My name is Ronald Reagan, what’s yours?”

We can remember him most affectionately, it seems to me, if we allow that he may have done the best he could with the severe limitations nature placed upon him–with a handicap we can scarcely imagine. But the truth is that he offered the American people almost nothing; he barely acknowledged us, except as he acknowledged the whole world, as an undifferentiated audience that seemed to enjoy his performance. And yet many Americans, in the face of all the facts, revere him as if he had been a Roosevelt or a Churchill.

Reagan’s mourners, interviewed, kept saying that he made them feel as if “it was my country again.” “He reminded us what a confident and sure president looked like,” said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton historian. It wasn’t that Reagan lied or tried to fool them, as President Bush lies and tries to fool us. He merely provided what so many Americans seemed to need to fool themselves–a Great White Father, even one made of plaster, and a beautifully carved figurehead on the ship of state. If some form of autism was Reagan’s secret, what is the secret sickness of a nation that fed itself on his emptiness, on his sheer absence, and remembers his dim, troubled reign as a Golden Age?

Americans were like moths to Reagan’s pale flame. His myth seemed to generate a hunger for illusion, a distaste for bare fact and hard truth that has become pandemic and changed the face of our culture. It’s no wonder that “leaders” like Bush tell implausible, even fantastic, lies–“We’re doing this for the Iraqis”–and expect Americans to believe them. It’s not surprising that their language reverses or obliterates meaning, like the voice of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Clear Skies Initiative and the Healthy Forests Initiative all mean the exact opposite of what they say; when President Bush publicly thanked Donald Rumsfeld for “a superb job” in the heat of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, what he must have meant was “You incompetent bastard, you’ve ruined us, I wish I could kill you.”

But how hard can it be to fool a population in such headlong flight from reality that it takes its movie heroes from comic books, science-fiction and fantasy novels, from worlds even more remote than Ronald Reagan’s? Spiderman, Catwoman, Hellboy, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings cycles, I, Robot, The Chronicles of Riddick and the upcoming Chronicles of Narnia–there are 12-screen theater complexes now without one regulation, super-powerless human being on exhibition. An action-film actor, renowned for playing killer androids, is governor of California. Whenever the Hollywood fantasy factories attempt history they mangle it gratuitously, but they prefer malleable stories blending myth and literature, like Troy and the upcoming King Arthur. Not to mention The Passion of the Christ. What do King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have in common with Homer, the Greek heroes of The Iliad and Jesus Christ? Only that there’s no absolute, carved-in-granite, historical proof that any of them ever existed.

“The story of Jesus beats Hellboy at the box office” was an actual subhead in The New York Times. Why do 21st-century Americans prefer the “What if?”, the “Why not?” and the “Might have been” to the here and now, which so urgently requires their attention? According to The Atlanta Journal, “books on religion and spirituality are dominating best-seller lists”–badly-written, quasi-mystical blather like The Da Vinci Code and Tim Lahaye’s execrable “Left Behind” series, novels like The Five People You Meet in Heaven and The Lovely Bones, with characters who speak from and in the Afterlife. Heaven-book consumers buy an average of six of these titles a year, in a marketplace where general reading is in rapid decline. Another bestseller was Travel Guide to Heaven. Hilariously, the only work of serious, naturalistic fiction that briefly challenged these books was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina–propelled, of course, by the lemming readers of Oprah’s Book Club, who would scurry out and buy a million copies of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason if the Big O said, “It’s a great read, I hear” (as she said of Anna). If Oprah’s horde is going to do the Russian classics, I suggest they start with Gogol’s Dead Souls and work their way through to The Idiot.

Americans no longer save money; the savings rate is at an all-time low. But Las Vegas, they say, is booming like never before–Vegas the cut-rate dream market, the theme park for the reality-challenged that will always symbolize America’s dark and crazy side for foreigners who have seen it. The average family income of the Vegas gambler is $50,000, no longer sufficient to own a home in many American cities. The New York Times ran a front-page article on a Vegas stripper, a self-described “big fake blonde,” who confessed to a fake ponytail, fake eyelashes, fake green eyes, a fake tan, fake breasts and 7 1/2-inch heels, and admitted that she despises every drooling fool who stuffs rolled-up bills into her G-string. She was out of work for nine months with a bad breast implant, leaving a big dent in her left breast. She’s a farm girl from Illinois with a boyfriend who dances in a male revue and wants to be a Hollywood actor. She hopes to make “a ton of money” before her body gives out.

This one article, by Sarah Kershaw, trumped any sociologist’s study of unreal America with its dizzy optimism and clueless avarice. Eighty-one percent of our college students expect to be richer than their parents and 59 percent expect to be millionaires, according to a recent poll. But it was unclear how most of them expected to make this money, unless it was the lottery, the Vegas gaming tables or on TV “reality” shows with their bitterly contested windfalls.

It’s a cruel irony that just as reality itself is banished from America’s forebrain, the word “reality” has become a relentless, unavoidable part of popular culture. It’s the 1984 word trick once again–the “reality” shows that are taking over television annihilate every vestige of reality for the pitiful creatures who submit to them. Fame, fortune, career, love and marriage all play out on camera now, made-for-TV lives for people eager to sacrifice their privacy and their dignity to entertain a vast, kinky audience of voyeurs–a form of prostitution far more degrading, to my mind, than stripping for mouth-breathers or even turning tricks.

“Fox plans all-reality, all-the-time channel” was a nightmare headline in USA Today. If it’s true that more Americans voted in an “American Idol” faceoff than in the 2000 presidential election, the ship has sailed and the Great Democracy has become a contemptible farce.

At what point did mainstream America turn its back on the actual? The trillion-dollar cult of celebrity-worship, with its disheartening array of unremarkable, indistinguishable, increasingly vapid, petulant and inauthentic “personalities,” successfully distracts most Americans from the bloody mess our government has made of geopolitics since 9-11. The average American is genuinely astounded to hear that much of the world views the United States as a vicious bully, no less malignant or frightening than the Islamic terrorists and suicide bombers it pursues. But most never hear it. The World Press Review, the one American magazine I found invaluable for monitoring world opinion, has just suspended publication.

We are sealing ourselves off. There’s ample evidence of a deep-seated, pathological strain of gullibility that sets us apart from other educated nations who’ve been our allies and admirers. Europeans have been abandoning their churches and marginalizing their religious communities since the 1950s. They’re becoming secular societies where questions about supernatural religion are considered embarrassing, bad form. But new polls find that 82 percent of Americans believe in a literal heaven and 63 percent expect to go there; 45 percent believe in the devil, though only one percent think they’re going to meet him in hell–more of that reckless optimism. Eighty-six percent believe in miracles, 83 percent in the virgin birth, and 40 percent (71 percent of fundamentalists)–that’s 40 percent of all Americans–think the world will end with a cosmic wrestling match between Jesus and the Antichrist.

The United States takes pride in being a religious society, but religion rests on forms of denial–most often denials or elaborate rationalizations of death–and Americans seem to be making a religion of denial itself. It’s a small trick, really, to whitewash a handsome movie cowboy with a cognitive disorder and turn him into a demigod when he dies. Even if it had been Morning in America when Ronald Reagan rode the range, it’s late afternoon now, and the daylight’s so faint it looks like evening.

What’s the antidote for a society that makes a fetish of democracy–the wisdom of the people–yet finds itself descending into the kind of credulity that creates theocracies and worse? How does it find the path that winds back toward reality, how will it distinguish the neon lights from the sunlight? The media prophet Jerry Mander once wrote, “We have lost control of our images, we have lost control of our minds.”

Maybe that was Ray Charles’ secret. Homer was said to be blind. John Milton was blind, Doc Watson is blind, and so were a bunch of fellows who could play the blues. They all seemed very real to me, and they had no problems with image control, with the image merchants who try to catch our eyes and steal our souls. Maybe the blind shall lead us.