It's fantastic to be an American

If fantasy is judged by the distance it puts between itself and everyday life , then the inauguration is the first -- and probably the last -- fantasy an American president is allowed. All parades and parties and Prince Charming speeches, the day resembles no other in the four years to follow.

At the end of the day, the figment that is the President dances with the figment that is the First Lady. Their eyes meet. The cameras zoom in for the closeup. Kiss, and fadeout. Did Ronald Reagan, or Nancy for that matter, ever act in a more romantic script? How distant -- how fantastic -- that day appears already!

Yet fantasy is seldom absent from one part or another of American life, though our extraordinary appetite for it is not always acknowledged. The same week as the inauguration the show business chronicle, Variety, reported that "The empire Strikes Back" had vaulted into third place among the box-office successes of movie history, boasting a gross to date of $120 million.

It is possible to argue that Mr. Reagan's former profession is pure fantasy -- a "dream factory," as the film critic Parker Tyler put it. But even if we apply our stricter standard of fantasy, five out of the top ten all-time hits can be described as a formidable distance from everyday life, carried there mostly by the ultimate in seven-league boots: science fiction. "Star Wars" ($ 175 million) remains number one. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (77 million) brings up the rear. "Superman" ($82 million) ranks seventh.

For a practical, hard-headed people with an avowed preference for fact over fiction and a professed disdain for ceremony and ritual we certainly lead a rich fantasy life -- and not just now and then in the dark of a movie theater or once every four years at the inauguration. From our earliest days we dream the wildest dreams. Practically every American child envisions himself or herself growing up to be that semifantastic being -- a star. A baseball star. A movie star. A rock star. Who knows? Maybe even president. And how many nonmillionaires have fantasized being millionaires?

Then, when we don't quite make it to the Big Twinkle, we dream the dream for our children.

Unlimited, fantastic room for growth -- isn't that the heart of the American Dream? And who else uses the word "dream" to sum up the essence of national experience?

Our cherished "success stories" are regularly interpreted in retrospect as fantasies come true.

"What is the secret of your success?" asks the interviewer.

The obligatory answer comes back: "Well, I always had this dream. . . ."

And why not? The continent itself started out as a fantasy in the head of Columbus.

On his inauguration day our 40th president -- as American as applie pie -- simply confirmed the going tradition when he exorted us all to "dream heroic dreams". . . while promising us more money in our pockets. For we may be dreamers, but we are go-getters too, and we like our fantasies, like the movie fantasies, to pay off at the box office.

Was it the budget-balancing pragmatist in us that elected President Reagan, or the romantic, stirred by one more rousing chorus of the American Dream?

The British pair their lion with the uncorn. Maybe it's time we also recognize our strong streak of native fantasy. With all the talk of "renewal," perhaps we could match the eagle to a legendary phoenix, ready to rise again.

We have one reservation though. We just hope the Reagan script never gets confused with anything t hat could be titled "The Empire Strikes Back."

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