I was in a 10x16 closet masquerading as a fitness room in a city at 103 degrees.
A wedding was taking place, as weddings do, near the home of the bride and I was masquerading as family.
Two cut rate Stairmasters, one treadmill, and a recumbent bike. No weights, no water, no towels, a tv borrowed from the kitchen.
I was trying to find a mindless sport to watch to distract me from the fact that a “boutique” hotel could get away with such Iron Curtain hospitality.
And then I saw Rob Lowe.
Not in the hotel. Not by a long shot.
Late twenties, maybe 30s, some years after that first wild wave of fame, trying to headline a serious film. A drama.
“Masquerade.” One of my favorite B movies.
Meg, not Jennifer, Tilly. John Glover, the skeeviest man ever to grace a film, his accent leaves a stain, and Rob the bad guy, Rob the murderer and the cheat. And Rob….maybe...the homosexual.
Great conceit: his one time jealous boyfriend is now the town sheriff and he ain’t happy that heiress Meg’s got Rob headed to the altar. So they concoct “a plan”.
It’s almost as fun as Dangerous Liasons and twice as tawdry.
The sexuality is buried so far into the plot it’s almost invisible but, you gotta admire the man for trying.
And as I sat there on my recumbent Cumberbatch of a stationery bike, staring alternately at the astonishing beauty of pre West Wing Rob and then at drunken Texans trying to convince the staff that yes American freedoms include the right to carry glass containers into a pool, I had a pang for that greatest of the great masqueraders, that titanic public phony, Ronald Reagan.
Or maybe not Reagan himself, but for the times, the late 80s as he devolved into Presidential puppetry, as it became remarkably clear that all the hysterical warnings screamed out by the musical prophets of the 70s, by Gang of Four, by Chrissie Hynde, by the Avengers and the Butthole Surfers and the Clash, had come true. We’d taken everything decently progressive about the United States and thrown it into the marketplace. In Wall Street we were gonna trust. Ronnie Ray Gun had grinned us right into moral and actual bankruptcy.
So why would I miss that?
Because I knew who and what I was fighting.
There was an underground, an alternative life, a subculture.
I knew the enemy and maybe most importantly I imagined he could be beaten.
And right about that time, Rob Lowe shows up in a film noir flick.
And I thought, this is the way it’s all going to go. It’s all going to be the personal: personal politics, personal obsessions, personal journeys and personal injuries. We’ll be masquerading as public citizens, as a polity but in truth we’re all going to be out for ourselves. Greed was now good, in fact it was central to our Nation’s success.
Because Ronnie made it okay. Ronnie made telling a lie a talent if you just kept at it. If you cared, your personal caring became more important than the fact that you were wrong. Mitigation and litigation would be the new flags in the American parade.
And stunningly, we’ve trickled down to a point where Ronnie would now be a democrat. He couldn’t get elected by the party he resurrected, the party he turned into The Voting Dead.
Maybe what I miss the most about 1988 is that all this was still somehow shocking, still a risk, still hard to believe. Now it’s hard to remember.
BY DAVID CONRAD