He began as a local embarrassment. Sometime between his first election as governor of California, in November of 1966, and his inauguration on January 1 of the following year, Ronald Reagan came to Palisades High in Pacific Palisades — where I was then a junior — to crown the school’s homecoming queen. At the time, Pali was Reagan’s hometown school (though Patti and Ron Jr. never went there); he lived in the Palisades, close by the Riviera Country Club.
The campus was already divided into budding ’60s rebels, myself among them, who wouldn’t have been caught dead at the homecoming dance in any event; and the Junior Reaganauts of America. I distinctly recall one social-studies course during the election campaign in which one classmate went on about the horrible condition of the state under Reagan’s opponent, incumbent Governor Pat Brown — noting as he concluded that this unimpeachable information came straight from Nancy Reagan, who was a friend of his mother. My friends and I got this dismaying sense that in the eyes of the world, not to mention in literal geographic fact, Reagan was in some sense one of us, and this was an impression we could not allow to persist.
A couple of months into his administration, an occasion arose for us to make clear that while Reagan might be our neighbor, he sure the hell wasn’t our homeboy. Having campaigned to restore capital punishment in California (by his second term, Pat Brown had refused to sanction any more executions), Reagan sped the first available prisoner on death row (his name was Aaron Mitchell) to the San Quentin gas chamber. The following morning, some friends whose daily duty it was at Pali to raise the flag and play some patriotic anthem over the school’s public address system, hoisted the flag and then lowered it to half-mast, while taps suddenly sounded across the campus.
Our sense of honor was partly satisfied, as — though we could not have realized this at the time — was Reagan’s. Mitchell’s execution, it turned out, was essential to preserving Reagan’s credibility, but he was the only man executed on Reagan’s watch. Mitchell died to redeem Reagan’s campaign promise, but thereafter our governor had no stomach for executions as such — at least ones requiring his direct assent. Two decades later, U.S.-funded death squads cut their way through Central America, and Central Americans, in fulfillment of Reagan-administration policies, but our national security apparat and Reagan himself worked hard to keep any knowledge of this from disturbing Reagan’s tranquillity.
It’s important to remember that Reagan, like Nixon, both stirred up and reaped gains from the white backlash of the ’60s. Reagan emerged as a national conservative leader when he campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Like Goldwater, he opposed the Civil Rights Act of ’64, which had abolished segregation in public facilities. When he ran against Brown two years later, he flayed the governor for backing legislation that would have outlawed racial discrimination in housing. He might never have been elected governor had it not been for the Watts Riots of 1965; that gave Reagan the opening to reach out to white working-class Democrats whose fear and resentment of blacks made them immediately susceptible to Reagan’s law-’n’-order one-liners.
Like Nixon, Reagan in his pre-grandfatherly phase was a master demagogue of divisiveness. When Berkeley radicals indulged in rhetorical revolutionary overkill, Governor Reagan went them one better. “If it takes a bloodbath now, let’s get it over with,” he said during the conflicts over Berkeley’s “People’s Park.” Those who’ve written this week that Reagan was never mean-spirited have conveniently forgotten his manipulation, every bit as cunning as Nixon’s, of cultural fury to political ends. To be sure, he was able to articulate, as Nixon never was, a positive (if dangerous and fantastical) vision of what the country could be, but we should never forget the depth and deftness of his demonization of people at the other end of the political spectrum. At his best, he could make such demonizations sound almost avuncular, as he did with his folk tale of the utterly fictitious Chicago woman whom he elevated into the Welfare Queen of the Western World. There was no detectable malice in his telling — and countless retellings — of the alleged woman’s alleged abuse of the welfare system; but the public-policy consequences of this tale were nothing but malicious.
Reagan’s political strategy entailed dividing Americans along lines of race — wooing white Democrats to his column through a siren song of nationalism and cultural traditionalism (though not, in the latter case, to anywhere near the degree that Bush’s Republicans have come to rely on it). The strategy worked so well that Reagan was able to proceed unimpeded with his economic strategy, the real agenda of his presidency, which was to divide Americans along the quite different lines of class. His term in office was defined by the atmospherics and actuality of greed: Never, in a single presidency, have the rich gotten so much richer and the poor poorer. The share of the nation’s wealth controlled by the richest 1 percent during his presidency increased from 8 percent to 13 percent — still, according to Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, the greatest increase in wealth concentration of any presidency in our history. Virtually everyone else’s share declined.
By firing the striking air-traffic controllers in 1981, by refusing to raise the minimum wage during his eight years as president, by slashing taxes on the rich in his 1981 budget, Reagan greatly accelerated the already widening economic inequality in America, and drove a stake through the heart of the New Deal’s foremost legacy: a stable, decently paid working class. Nothing testifies so strongly to his political skills than his ability to command the votes of the white working class in his 1984 re-election campaign while all the while overturning their world and their lives. One definition of a Great Communicator, after all, is someone who gets you to vote against your own, and your nation’s, best interests.
At the start of his career, he should have embarrassed Pali High; at the end, he should have embarrassed the United States. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.