ODD COUPLE

02.20.16 5:01 AM ET

The Black Panther Who Fell for Reagan

Eldridge Cleaver was about as hardcore a Black Panther as there was—until he traveled the world and realized the U.S. was flawed but better than the rest. So he endorsed Reagan.

When the former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver endorsed the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan for re-election in 1984, it seemed as absurd as Jesse Jackson embracing Donald Trump would be today. The Cleaver-Reagan rapprochement showed how much Cleaver had changed—and how much America had changed—in twenty years.

In the 1960s, Cleaver epitomized the radical, the outrageous, the alternative, the angry—back when such terms were only starting to become compliments. Cleaver’s 1968 book of prison essays Soul on Ice detonated like a bomb in America’s living rooms, mixing the blind rage and sensitive targeting of a bruised insider.

Cleaver understood that in a media age, political subversives had to be performance artists. A godfather to rap, Cleaver crudely caricatured blacks and whites in ways that are impolite, impolitic, yet insightful. He believed the ghetto made blacks “Supermasculine Menials and Amazons” alienated from the mind, while suburbia made whites “Omnipotent Administrators and Ultrafeminines” alienated from the body. That made “The Twist… a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia,” succeeding “as politics, religion, and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul what the Supreme Court could only write on the books.” The rock n’ roll and Brown v. Board of Education revolutions, Cleaver argued, reunited whites with their bodies, and blacks with their minds.

Eldridge Cleaver was only 33 and had spent half his life in jail when he wrote this American classic. Fueled, he said, by fury against whites—“We cursed everything American—including baseball and hot dogs”—he raped black and white women—demonstrating the misogyny that was long overlooked, and sometimes excused, in the black power movement. He called rape “an insurrectionary act” against white men, against white power, writing: “I felt I was getting revenge.”

Inspired to go straight by reading Malcolm X while in prison, paroled in 1966, Cleaver met other proud, furious, radicalized, blacks. By 1967, he was the Black Panthers’ “Minister of Information,” championing violent revolution. In their Che Guevara chic berets and long leather coats they telegraphed their intimidating anger, speaking volumes, Sixties’ style, through powerful imagery. By 1968, he was running for president under for an improvised “Peace and Freedom Party.”

When Cleaver taught an innovative course at the University of California at Berkeley that year, California’s new governor, elected by an electorate lashing back against the 1960s’ upheavals, bristled. Ronald Reagan exclaimed: “If Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.”

Cleaver responded, characteristically, calling Reagan Mickey Mouse, a clown, a pig. Cleaver sneered: “if you take away his script writers and placed him here in front of the microphone the only thing you would hear would be a series of ‘Oinks.’”

As governor from 1967 to 1975, Reagan helped lead the counter-revolution against the counterculture. A Happy Warrior who wooed America by evolving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, Reagan learned from his showbiz background that you cannot really resist a cultural rebellion. Like Cleaver, Reagan’s most memorable moves in that fight were symbolic and rhetorical. “A hippie,” Reagan quipped, back when they seemed threatening, “is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”

For all the drama, and for all the long-term changes in culture, language, politics, dress, food, attitudes, the Sixties did trigger, the real revolution was dead on arrival. One of the peaks of insurrectionary violence occurred on April 6, 1968 when Eldridge Cleaver was shot during a gun battle between Black Panthers and the police. Despite all the hype, one person died, 17-year-old Bobby James Hutton. Nothing changed globally—although that moment changed Eldridge Cleaver’s life too.

Initially freed on bail, Cleaver continued his colorful presidential run. When authorities revoked his bail, he went on the lam. Over the next seven years he ran from dictatorship to dictatorship, escaping to Cuba—where he experienced racism—and traveling through North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China, while settling in Algeria for four years. Tasting life under these regimes, he became “disillusioned…. I didn’t dig it.” Looking from afar, America, for all its problems, didn’t look so bad. Like the “useful idiots” who took Stalinism so seriously they moved to Soviet Russia in the 1950s, only to suffer under the group slavery called Communism, Cleaver discovered that “the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world.”

Cleaver denounced the anti-Semitism of the Left and the Third World, racism in the Arab world, the hypocrisy of those who rob humans of their freedom in the name of a higher humanity, but mostly for their own power. He told interviewers his new views “would wreak havoc among my old ‘new left’ friends and among a formidable array of blacks who are imbued with a knee-jerk, Third World, skin-game ideology.” But he concluded with insights still relevant today, rejecting “The whole idea of settling political problems and arguments by terrorist activities.” In the process, Cleaver was born again religiously, just as the Religious Right was starting to (re)gain traction as an American political movement.

Of all his turnarounds, perhaps nothing alienated his former comrades as much as his embrace of Ronald Reagan, who became president in 1981 and whose reelection Cleaver endorsed in 1984. Even though Reagan subdued his culture war instincts as president, the Left despised Reagan. To see one of the sharpest, funniest, angriest voices from the 1960s endorse the radicals’ bête noire, seemed to mock all aspects of “the movement” in the Eighties when the Left was feeling beleaguered, fearing a backlash.

“Change is not treason,” Cleaver preached. “Change is a process of growth.” Everyone adjusts positions, some more radically than others. Ronald Reagan was originally a New Deal Democrat who later insisted “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the party left me.”

The Cleaver-Reagan mixed marriage offers an All-American parable on the eve of another nasty primary during another brutal presidential campaign. From up close, American politics looks ugly, American society looks dysfunctional, and these days, everything looks volatile. New technologies and economic upheaval are transforming our lives. Planned obsolescence and fashion mania are constantly changing our looks.

But a little perspective—like that gained by Cleaver during his travels—changes the picture. Consider America over the last few decades; compare America to North Korea or Iran. View America from 30,000 feet up rather than up close. From there we see America the free, the functional, the stable—with the same political Constitution and economic system for centuries, including the world’s oldest continuously functioning political party, Thomas Jefferson’s Democrats.

Too many of my academic colleagues—along with journalists and politicians—only see how America falls short. Let’s notice the many ways America has measured up, shaped up, and continues to stand out.