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Posted by gustav at 08:02AM, Saturday, December 06th, 2003

Misunderestimating Ronald

In these days of media amnesia, where patronizing, superficial factoids have been replaced by factvoids -- blatantly untrue statements included either deliberately or through ineptitude, and leading to partisan conclusions -- it may be useful to remember a few things not widely reported by those memorializing the Gipper.

Reagan was never a man of firm ideological convictions, whatever his handlers might have you believe. He was a Democrat and FDR-supporter early on, but by 1954, his film career dried up, he had veered into fascism. He appeared as a friendly witness at the McCarthy hearings before Congress, where he assisted in the blackmailing of many of his Hollywood colleagues in the Screen Actors Guild. This was an eery premonition of his later heroic actions as a strikebreaker against underpaid air traffic controllers, for which history has rewarded him by renaming National Airport in Washington in his name.

The conservative sweep of the White House in 1980 brought renewed vigor to Nixon's war on drugs. What could be better than an inherently racist policy, for no demonstrable social gain (studies have shown again and again that incarceration is less effective that addiction treatment at reducing drug recidivism), which has ballooned our prisons with young offenders who, while incarcerated, learn hatred for violent white Republican oppression? The war on drugs has cost unimaginable sums to taxpayers, and was cunningly tied to a money-laundering scheme for Reagan's illegal Iran-Contra war, which, ironically (or not, depending on one's viewpoint and perceptions of the Republican Party), funded the very mercenary Central American drug-lords the administration was publicly painting as the enemy. I suppose upper-class white drug users needed a steady supply of coke for their consumption orgies through the 80s, and who better to supply it than their idol, Reagan, via his nominally anti-communist shenanigans. Let's also not forget First Lady Nancy Reagan's wise, real-world advice to teens struggling with issues of identity and belonging: just say no.

For a followup, the Reagan administration backed Iraq in continued bloody altercations with Iran -- to which it sold weapons, covertly and illegally, via Iran-Contra. We all happily looked the other way while Saddam Hussein brutalized his own citizens and the Kurds. Human rights were clearly not a priority for America in the 80s, between Iraq, the Contras, and budget cuts for social programs at home. We only took notice of Hussein when he grew too big for his britches and threatened our oil supply under Bush I. While Reagan's spittle-flecked lips denounced terrorism, we were happy to wage a handful of undeclared wars ourselves, against enemies of dubious ability and guilt, like Grenada in 1983, and like Libya in April, 1986, where the chief victims of our bombing campaign were children.

Through three elections, Reaganites painted their candidates (Reagan and Bush I) as stalwarts of fiscal responsibility -- while the national debt tripled to then-record levels through Reagan's two terms, and inflation-adjusted hourly wages fell. The implicit message to America's youth was that it's okay to spend billions on unproven (to this day) fantasy technologies like Star Wars -- billions that went to defense contractors (cronies of the men then behind the curtain, like Donald Rumsfeld), and to the nation's image as one capable of destroying the whole world. Tax and spend (Reagan presided over the biggest tax increase to date, at the time) is fine, as long as we're responsible enough to cut funding for comparatively cheap, proven effective, bleeding-heart causes, like welfare, education, condom distribution to teens (here and abroad -- Reagan's administration linked foreign aid to provisions against birth control education), and nutrition programs for infants. Taxing and spending with compassion is evil. Lying to Congress in the name of an undeclared, unconstitutional war, the foot-soldiers of which are terrorists who rape women and children in Central America, is okay. This was Reagan's proud message for all Americans.

Sadly, we couldn't spend responsibly like that forever, and in the late 80s, our economy collapsed, and the brief rein of excess had to be reigned in. Record home foreclosures illustrated the folly of what his own erstwhile Vice President termed "Voodoo economics." But we had the breaking of the Iran-Contra scandal to distract us, and the always trusty Think-Of-The-Children theme. So let's take a moment to think of the children. I think of kids like I was, shy, intellectual, and made to feel very Other by the latent homophobia that pervaded the 80s. The toughs who beat up kids like I was while calling us fags didn't get much of a role model in the President, who, until 1987, couldn't bring himself to say the word "AIDS" in public (and never said "Gay" when talking about HIV), though more than 20,000, most gay men, had at that point died from the terrifying disease, funding for which he cut, while groups he was associated with said this was God's just punishment for homosexuality. Similarly, his administration fought tooth and nail against the ERA. Women and girls had fine role-models in Nancy, after all, with her detached, vapid, blow-dried pronouncements and her astrologers timing world events. Neither of the first couple was exactly a role model for intelligence -- House Speaker Tip O'Neill described Reagan as the dumbest man he'd ever met. This intellectual midget trotted out the implicit goodness of Christians and two-heterosexual-parent families for every stump speech, while not evincing much in the way of Christian behavior himself. For all his public religious bravado, Reagan was a man who almost never went to church (after all, you can't stand tall for America and turn the other cheek at the same time, can you?) As for family values, Reagan was our first divorced president. Meanwhile, the media gleefully painted him as more devout and serious than quiet, spiritual, born-again Jimmy Carter, a president who, strangely enough, took the teachings of Jesus Christ to heart.

The facts and ideology of Reagan's two terms start to paint a picture of an administration steered by favors owed, and sneering hatred for the less advantaged, rather than moral convictions -- though the press, as usual, was happy to help paint a different picture. How else does one explain Reagan's vehement opposition to the Brady Bill, named for the press secretary who suffered brain damage in the assassination attempt against the President -- an attempt which might have been prevented by tougher gun laws? How does it explain his pandering to the newly-empowered religious right, complete with rhetoric of end-times and a final, biblically-preordained conflict with Russia -- while day-to-day operations were scheduled by astrology?

Worst of all, perhaps, were the allegations, never adequately investigated, of a secret deal Reagan's handlers may have brokered with Iran in 1980, whereby Reagan allowed Iran to hold American citizens hostage for a number of months after we might have come to a peaceful solution, provided they were released following the November elections, with Jimmy Carter's failure to resolve the crisis cemented. Dismissing these allegations is difficult, since the last remaining 52 hostages were only released on January 20, 1981, the day of Reagan's inauguration. If true, these would be some of the most despicable actions by an American public figure -- trading other Americans' suffering for purely speculative political gain -- since WWII.

In short, although it's hard to say whether Reagan's administration were cause or effect, his presidency ushered in the era of textbook neoconservatism: playing to a god and family-values crowd for mass support while exempting movement true believers from requirements such as religion or spousal fidelity; blathering on about compassion while bombing civilians of other nations, funding drug-lords, and turning backs against The Gays; calling oneself a man of peace while waging illegal, undeclared wars across the world; calling oneself a man of the people while advancing financial policies of near-term gain for the wealthy only. Overall, the hypocrisy, the distance between stump speech and policy, was staggering to many middle class white folks, like I, who hadn't been exposed to it before, and who were, at the time, willing to believe that winking racism and sexism were forgotten deep in the past of the 60s. In my first exposures to national politics, I was bewildered that people could read about the actions, the lies, of this smirking, sour-faced old coot, yet see a sweet grandfatherly figure cloaked in the flag, and cheer on this war-dodger (Reagan was active in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps -- in Hollywood; hardly a front-line position) for standing tall against America's "enemies." Yet none of this disparateness, this divisiveness, between fact and media portrayal, between "Christians" and inhabitants of the real world, is commonly portrayed in the media today, if my morning Metro was any indication. That's Reagan's true legacy -- the lies and spin eclipsing the heartless actions of an evil man and his cronies, in a sort of Zen disconnect between rhetoric and deeds. He was the great communicator, indeed.
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