The flame came fluttering out of the darkness, into an early morning light. Americans in bathrobes would sometimes stand by the sides of the two-lane roads, and as a runner carried the Olympic torch toward them, they would signal thumbs up and break the country silence with a soft, startling cheer. Their faces would glow with a complex light--a patriotism both palpable and chastened, a kind of reawakened warmth, something fetched from a long way back.
For Americans, the moment was powerfully emblematic. Why were they cheering? What were they cheering? When television news played scenes of the torch's progress across the landscape, something in the soul of the audience cheered as well. A kind of emotional reflex. Something both sentimental and profound welled up. What did people see in the scene?
They saw an American carrying a torch, running across America. But also, it may be, they saw an American running out of a long Spenglerian gloom: heading west for California, toward the light. Running away from recession, Americans might almost subconsciously have imagined, away from Jimmy Carter's "malaise," away from gas shortages and hostage crises and a sense of American impotence and failure and limitation and passivity, away from dishonored Presidents and a lost war. Away from what had become an American inferiority complex. Away from descendant history. Running away from the past, into the future. Or away from the bad past anyway, the recent, misbegotten past, and into a better past, all mythy and sweetly vigorous, into that America where the future was full of endless possibility. Into an America where, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The only sin is limitation."
The roadside scene was a little dramatization of the American theme of 1984: an extravagance of renewed national self-confidence and pride. By a collusion of timing and chemistry and artful television technique and happy economics, the nation fell into a spirit of coalescence and optimistic self-assertion not seen for a generation. Some thought the mood was merely a self-indulgent vacation from the real world, even an orgy of narcissism on a national scale. At times the rhetoric of "feeling good about America" bordered on the autoerotic. But the new atmosphere was alive with a great energy. The land was acrawl with entrepreneurs and Emersonian yuppies sounding the official cheer of 1984: "Go for it!" The belief was reborn that Americans can do--well, anything.