When I think about Nancy Reagan, who died this week at age 94, I remember the time I dressed up like her for a party. I was an undergraduate the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. One Halloween I glued a large magazine photo of Nancy’s face, all made up and mascaraed and smiling wide, to a piece of cardboard and attached it to a ruler. I wore a black skirt and fancy red blouse, and when ghosts and witches approached, I held Nancy’s face in front of my own. It was an easy costume to put together and nobody had any trouble figuring out who I was.

I had learned my lesson the previous Halloween. That year, I decked myself out in a pillowcase on which I had drawn a large clock face. I went around draping myself over chairs and sofas and asking people to guess what I was. The first few puzzled looks didn’t bode well for the evening. There was one person–an art history student, no doubt–who realized I was Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

For me, the Reagan years began in a hallway outside a closed door. A sign announced a Young Republicans meeting. I listened to the throbbing, pulsing sound coming from behind that door and then peeked inside. Hundreds of young white men in suits and ties were roaring their enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. In their teens and twenties, they were already rabid believers in wealth, power, and nationalism. All those guys might just as well have been waving shiny pictures of Ronald Reagan in front of their faces. I quickly shut the door and hurried away. I had glimpsed the future, and it was wearing a money belt and wingtip shoes.

Yesterday as I walked along Cambridge Street near Harvard Square, I saw the American flag flying at half mast in memory of Nancy Reagan. Not very far from that flag, a beggar squatted in front of the Old Burial Ground. His cardboard sign read, “Anything helps.” His cheeks grimy, his life at half mast, he held the sign up next to his face. Here was a living monument to a problem that loomed into public view during Reagan’s presidency.

Reagan used to say the want ads were full of jobs that homeless people could apply for. He was not interested in helping the poor, the sick, the vulnerable. Reagan was interested in helping the rich, the secure, the already powerful, and his wife was interested in helping him. They were by all accounts a very good match.

Nancy Reagan’s death makes me remember what the Reagan years were like. Undoing the positive impression of his agreeable face and pleasant voice, President Reagan cast a cold eye on human suffering. He didn’t leave a way for his party to take the high road. (At least Nixon resigned.)

As we stumble down the low road with the current Republican candidates for President, we have him to thank for their refusal to empathize with anyone who doesn’t think or act like they do. They all learned from his example. Like him, they rarely bother to hide their malfeasant agendas. In the trickle-down America that Reagan helped call into being, crocodile tears are optional.

Though Rubio, Trump, and Cruz may not want to hark back to him, for fear of alienating the anti-establishment masses they have teased into a frenzy of foaming ignorance, they are his progeny as surely as night follows Reagan’s “morning in America.” I’ll bet you a pair of wingtip shoes that they have persistent memories of what worked for him.

Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)