In the Elian Story, Let's Talk Happy Endings

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On ABC's "This Week," the two Georges almost came to blows — George Will spluttering with contempt and rage about Janet Reno's predawn invasion in Little Havana, and George Stephanopoulos primly defending the raid as swift, efficient and necessary. Which of them is right?

It's an interesting question, as far as it goes. But those who pursue it don't get very far. They end up drenched in rhetoric, lost in pointless noise. I have given up on it. Clinton and Reno took one course. But there were other available courses. They were lucky. (At least Reno did not burn down the house.) I see both sides so clearly that I feel like a schizophrenic; I am getting the kind of headaches I used to suffer when I tried to absorb the Israeli and the Palestinian points of view simultaneously.

I must say the either/or strikes me as mechanical, literal-minded, merely political — like the simpleton yammering we heard all weekend on cable news shows, or the cant of earnest child psychologists trotted out to embroider the obvious.

I have said before that the Elian Gonzalez story is a Fellini movie. It is an allegory — a fable rich in resource and surprise, amazingly durable and divisive, tiresome and riveting at the same time. The drama has a force of inevitability; each player enacts an assigned role. The child's ordeal hints at myth (the mother's death by water, the child's rescue by dolphins, his miraculous deliverance from the amniotic deep). It gives off a radiance of religious mystique (especially among the residents of the two Cubas). Here is the power of pure primal story. A rational discussion of the legal and moral principles involved — ahem: Which court has jurisdiction here? Did Reno have a warrant? Is it not better for a boy to be with his father? — keeps getting swallowed by the deeper irrational elements: 1) the bitter passions of exile politics, and 2) the spectacle of a magic child in peril.

The photograph at the closet (the big brute sticking the assault rifle in the face of the terrified little boy) is already archived in cultural memory — along with, say, the shot of skinny Colonel Loan executing the Viet Cong during Tet, or the naked Vietnamese child running from a napalm attack, or the anguished kneeling girl at Kent State. All such powerful images are the enemies of rational thought; they elicit mere feelings, and preclude both intelligent analysis and stoical acceptance of necessary evils. If there had been photography like that (or television cameras) to record the savageries of Antietam, the Wilderness or Cold Harbor, the U.S. might be two or more separate countries now.

Can there be a happy ending to the allegory of Elian? I find my mind running to neo-Fellini scenarios, forms of hopeful surrealism, magic thinking. Let Elian return to Cuba with his father. But let father and son be escorted there by the U.S. fleet — Elian triumphant, like a sainted figurehead, in the bow of a battleship, followed by an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, five destroyers, and on board all, tens of thousands of Cuban Americans coming home, laden with suitcases full of American dollars. Elian wades ashore like MacArthur returning to the Philippines. The holds of the ships disgorge Chevrolets, Fords, Lincolns, Hondas, BMWs, Mercedes sedans, to replace the 1950s wrecks on Cuba's roads. A cornucopia of American products (computers, cell phones, video cameras, gorgeous refrigerators, lustrous shampoos, deodorant soaps, headache remedies, mouthwashes, improved antacids, disposable diapers) flows off the docks, a reverse Mariel of materialism, a bright irresistible tide that will wash Castroite Stalinist socialist poverty into the historical dustbin where it belongs.

Let Elian lead a parade of returned exiles through the streets of Havana, showering the astonished populace with greenbacks, with gifts, until the great circus arrives at Castro's place, where a SWAT team will bash in the doors and pin the old fraud down in a barber's chair while a barber gives him a clean shave, after which he will be divested of his ridiculous fatigues and dressed, by force if necessary, in a Ralph Lauren shirt with a polo player on the breast, and a pair of Gap khakis and tassel loafers without socks. Let chastened Fidel emerge to address the jubilantly reunited Cuban people. Let him announce he means to abdicate in favor of the Dauphin, little Elian. Thus will religion and materialism achieve joyful Cuban synthesis — the heaven on earth that Communism botched.

Well, I can dream. It's not much crazier than some of the ideas the CIA came up with in the '60s.