In 1987 Randy Shilts published And the Band Played On, a groundbreaking chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. He had been covering the AIDS epidemic for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1982, but it had taken those five years for the country at large to even begin dragging ass into discussion of the disease.
In 1987 Ronald Reagan was spending nearly all of his presidential capital overseas to end the cold war, famously saying on June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Upon returning to the US, though, he did turn his mind to the long-neglected and festering injustices of his own country. Almost two weeks after his media victory at the Berlin Wall, on June 25th, the Great Communicator arranged a House Joint Resolution, and issued Presidential proclamation 5672. He brought Republican and Democrat together, and ushered in a new dawn of observance and appreciation.
National Catfish Day. “In recognition of the value of farm-raised catfish, the Congress, by House Joint Resolution 178, has designated June 25, 1987, as “National Catfish Day” and authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in its observance.”
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a scant 24 years since the Gipper declared a day of National Catfish appreciation. We’ve come so far. We are still so young.
- “Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim June 25 as National Catfish Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
Tonight, across the country, in remembrance, families will gather to devour the beasts according to their regional specialties. There will be Tuscaloosa catfish served with corn bread and rice. There will be fried, blackened, and grilled. There will be feasting. And then, once supper is complete, Americans will retire to the television, where the annual viewing of “Grumpier Old Men” will take place.
A Presidential Proclamation is intended to be a statement on public policy. They can be substantive, like the Emancipation Proclamation. They can be largely ceremonial, like National Dairy Goat Awareness Week (also, Reagan). But, either way, they are writs delivered to the American people from on high with the sentiment that this is what is important to us, as a country, right here, right now.
In June of 1987, it was National Catfish Day.
Reagan’s doctors maintain that he showed no signs of Alzheimer’s until the early 90s. Following this assumption, that Reagan was in his right mind, then what he intended we observe and appreciate, to this day, is an animal known for mud digging, bottom feeding, and stabbing bystanders with venomous barbs attached to their mouths. And, you know what, gazing about at the collective asshattery we laughingly refer to as American politics, I’m gonna call Presidential proclamation 5672 a home fucking run.
The catfish. In the whole of American poetry there is one line celebrating the catfish. In Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs, Carl Sandburg writes, “I have seen farmhands with their faces in fried catfish on a Monday morning.” Man, what a crap poem.
The catfish. I’ll grant that a great many catfish have died in America. I’ll even grant that the deaths might have increased as a direct result of Reagan’s endorsement. In 1987, 190 million pounds of catfish were consumed in the US. Also, in 1987, over 40,000 people had died from AIDS, and another 70,000 had contracted it. Since 1980, Reagan had not publicly mentioned AIDS, let alone issued a presidential proclamation regarding it. But, lest you think Reagan was entirely silent on the matter, the New York Times published a brief piece in April of that year entitled “Reagan Urges Abstinence for Young to Avoid AIDS”. His exact words on the subject were, “I think that that particular subject should be taught in connection with values, not simply taught as a physical, mechanical process…But let’s be honest with ourselves, AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral.’ After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”
In short, don’t have sex, or you’ll get what’s coming to you.
One hopes he wasn’t in his right mind. One hopes that if he’d been in possession of his full abilities his response would have been different. But, coming from the man whose legacy involves trickle down economics, neo-cons, and ketchup as a vegetable, who knows?
So, we are left with National Catfish Day as one of the many bewildering, absurd, and pathetic monuments of Ronald Reagan. How should we observe with appropriate ceremonies and activities? What would be the correct show of honor, not only for the noble catfish, but for the man who brought national attention to them?
Perhaps a reading from Dante’s Inferno. The ninth circle, treachery. Second level, the traitors to country and citizens. “…one head hooded the other one; the way the starving devour their bread, the soul above had clenched the other with his teeth where the brain meets the nape.” The betrayer’s skull is forever gnawed by his victims, you see. We shall read aloud, and tell our children stories of how catfish devour more than they feed others. Like we teach the fairy tale of Santa on the roof, we will teach the poetic justice of our 40th president consigned to eating the muck in hell’s carpet, a generation of AIDS victims forever gnawing on the back of his addled, vile head.
Or, maybe just a catfish fry at a gay wedding in New York. Maybe that.
Happy Catfish Day.