A picture, the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, we have only about 550 with which to appraise a picture that has raised eyebrows across the country: In it, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is seen wagging her finger in President Barack Obama's face during his visit to her state last week.
The two were apparently engaged in a discussion of Arizona's controversial immigration laws and of a 2010 White House meeting that Brewer described at the time as "very cordial." She has since written a book in which she now claims the president's demeanor was "condescending."
As to her demeanor in that picture, Brewer says she, ahem, has a habit of talking with her hands. She also says she felt "threatened." Apparently, she thought the scary black man might hurt her even though he's president of the United States and they were standing in broad daylight surrounded by security. Good thing he didn't follow her into an elevator. She might have Maced him.
Perhaps you are old enough to remember when it was morning in America. That was the title of a 1984 campaign ad for Ronald Reagan, but it also came to symbolize an era. Say what you will about Reagan, but credit him with this much: He restored to his party and the nation a sense of vibrant optimism that came as a welcome jolt after Carter's malaise and Nixon's crookedness. Nearly 30 years later, as his putative political offspring attempt to claim his mantle, it is obvious by many measures that none of them is Reagan. But the most glaring deficit is embodied in that picture.
It reminds us that Republicans are no longer about sunshine and can-do. These days, they simply seem cranky and dyspeptic. As in Herman Cain vowing to build a fence to electrocute Mexicans, Newt Gingrich verbally punching out the media, and debate audiences cheering for record executions and the death of the uninsured. As in Jan Brewer poking her finger in the president's face.
Under Reagan, optimism about the future was the Republican brand. But that brand has curdled in the ensuing 30 years and the party that once sold hope has become instead the party of grouchy codgers yelling at the future to get off their lawn. More to the point, it has become a party of those unable to process the sense of dislocation, the loss of primacy and privilege our present demographic path portends. Thus, it has become the party of resentment and resistance, the last stand against ongoing racial, religious, cultural and sexual upheaval, the Alamo in the fight to forestall change.
This is why a Jan Brewer feels herself empowered to wag her finger in the face of the president. And why the charisma-challenged Mitt Romney spends long weeks out in the cold looking for love like a character in a country song while bomb-throwing zealots who would have been laughed out of previous elections take turns playing frontrunner.
They will likely settle for him, but what Romney offers is not what many in the Republican electorate evidently seek. At bottom, they seem less concerned with competence or a new economic plan than with finding a gunslinger for a showdown against the future.
Ronald Reagan would not recognize his party today. Morning in America is almost 30 years gone. It's high noon now.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.