If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994
Few can work up Dr. Gonzo’s level of anti-Nixon vitriol in dispatching Ronald Reagan to the next realm. Nixon is remembered by the American people as Tricky Dick. Reagan has been enshrined as lovable Uncle Ronnie.
Indeed, none of us know for sure when Reagan came down with Alzheimer’s, but we have certainly experienced the collective amnesia of the American media in these last few days. A mawkish Tom Brokaw, an artificially somber Paula Zahn, a nattering Judy Woodruff gushing over the love affair Ronnie had with Nancy (a tinkling piano punctuating the CNN soundtrack), a babbling Wolf Blitzer (who made the idiotic remark that Reagan employed “perfect timing” in dying on D-Day) and a fatuous Jeff Greenfield stumbled over one another vying to slobber their accolades over the corpse of the fallen leader: Reagan was humble, he was funny, he had a twinkle in his eyes, he charmed his most fervent opponents, he leaped from tall buildings, and . . . yes . . . he single-handedly ended a 4-decade-old Cold War. Reagan court biographer Lou Cannon, however, came up with the single most astounding statement in the Washington Post’s instant obit: “Mr. Reagan’s commitment to freedom was matched by an abhorrence of nuclear weapons.”
Some of us remember Reagan in very different terms. The single moment that most stands out in my mind was the early evening of March 23, 1983. Not a significant date for most. But that afternoon I was driving a dangerous highway back to the capital of San Salvador from the war-embattled eastern province of Morazan. I switched on the AM radio in my rented van and found the scratchy, static-laden frequency of the Voice of America. It was carrying a live broadcast of a much-heralded Reagan speech on national security — a speech in which he not only painted Central America as a dire, imminent threat to America and its people but also unveiled his sweeping Strategic Defensive Initiative, known popularly as Star Wars.
I had just come a few days earlier from a week in Guatemala, where a U.S.-supported and visibly deranged army general by the name of Efrain Rios Montt — who shared Reagan’s view that the locals were a threat to world peace — was carrying out a scorched-earth campaign against hundreds of rural Mayan communities, killing thousands of indigenous and scattering even more to the winds. The devastation I saw was heartbreaking, almost biblical in the scope of destruction.
I had also recently been in what Reagan called in that speech “Marxist” Nicaragua — the second poorest country in the hemisphere. Most of its 3 million people couldn’t scare up three squares, it had few roads, little infrastructure, and what was there rarely worked. Up along the Honduran border I saw subsistence Nicaraguan farming communities bury their young in rolling, rocky pastures as Reagan’s “contras” — the right-wing army led by officers of the former Somoza dictatorship that Reagan funded and compared to “our Founding Fathers” — took their toll. The ruling Sandinistas, given to revolutionary bravado, left much to be desired by democratic standards. But to posit, as Reagan did, that they threatened the security of the United States makes George W. Bush’s similar arguments about Saddam look, in comparison, downright compelling.
These scenes were rolling through my head as Reagan spoke that night. But I was mostly obsessed with what I saw right before me as I headed west on the Pan-American Highway: El Salvador. Here the Reagan administration was spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year (eventually a couple of billion) to bankroll what was without any question one of the most murderous regimes in the world. In the name of crushing a small leftist insurgency, the U.S. stood by as literally tens of thousands of civilians were arrested, tortured, and often mangled and mutilated, before being dumped in one or another killing field.
What was so astounding, so galling, as I listened to that speech wasn’t that Reagan was defending our support of what essentially was the wrong side. It was rather the obviously false, I would say delusional, premise of his argument. The unrest in Central America, he argued, was nothing but a direct product of Soviet (and Cuban and Nicaraguan) regional subversion. I’m not going to rehash that argument 20 years later other than to say it was a downright and simplistic lie.
But now Reagan was going a step further. After imposing a Cold War matrix on local regional conflicts, he was now proposing — via Star Wars — to project that Cold War into outer space. As darkness set down on that Salvadoran highway and Reagan finished his speech vowing to spend billions more to erect a space shield against a hardly credible threat of Russian attack, I felt like I was driving ever deeper into an endless, black void.
This anecdote hardly qualifies as even an asterisk in Reagan’s official biographies. Central America is long forgotten as an American political issue. And Star Wars morphed into a slightly less irrational National Missile Defense program that too many Democrats have stupidly backed. Reagan’s detractors have plenty of other waypoints to chart their memories. A half-dozen years ago, after National Airport was renamed for Reagan, writer David Corn came up with 66 points by which to remember the Great Communicator. A few of them bear repeating as the media deification of him extends through his funeral games:
“The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable . . . redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt . . . “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa, United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy’s astrologer . . . Fawn Hall, female appointees (8 percent), mining harbors, the S&L scandal, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, Al Haig “in control,” silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Debategate, White House shredding, Jonas Savimbi, tax cuts for the rich, “mistakes were made.” Michael Deaver’s conviction for influence peddling, Lyn Nofziger’s conviction for influence peddling, Caspar Weinberger’s five-count indictment . . . 200 officials accused of wrongdoing, William Casey, Iran-contra. “Facts are stupid things,” three-by-five cards, the MX missile, Bitburg, S.D.I., Robert Bork, naps, Teflon.”
The list goes on. But make no mistake. Ronald Reagan deserves admiration for his tenacity and his political skill, if not for the outcome he produced. He took the fringe Goldwater movement and carried it into the mainstream of the GOP, thereby remaking his own party and, with it, American politics. He catapulted nutballs like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority into positions of national legitimacy and trashed his own party’s Main Street traditions of fiscal responsibility.
His two biggest political promises — to break up big government and to use military power to bring “freedom,” as Lou Cannon surmises, to the rest of the world — were but empty bluster. Tripling the national debt, doubling the deficits, cutting taxes while bloating the military, he left government at the end of his tenure 30 percent bigger than he found it. And for all his saber rattling, he cut and run in Lebanon after 239 Marines were killed in a car bombing, and the only country he directly confronted with U.S. troops was the hapless Disneyland-size island of Grenada.
As Josh Green pointed out in a Washington Monthly piece last year, “A sober review of Reagan’s presidency doesn’t yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today.” He never seriously followed through on promises to outlaw abortion. He eventually raised taxes. He ignored any notion of a balanced budget. His assault on entitlements never fully materialized, and in 1983 he actually helped rescue Social Security. And on foreign affairs, he eventually ignored the radical misjudgments of many of his closest advisers, who were clueless to the meaning of Gorbachev, and found a way to accommodate the Soviet reform leader.
Reagan’s eventual compromise with Gorbachev on arms control should not be overblown. When Gorbachev arrived on the scene promoting glasnost and perestroika, there is little if any evidence that anyone in the administration, including the Gipper, could fully grasp the import of the moment. Myriad were the public White House and State Department statements brushing aside the notion of any real change in the “evil empire.” It was Gorbachev who took all the risks — monumental risks that paid off richly for his people but stranded him personally in a historical Siberia. Reagan, surrounded by many of the same neocon counselors who populate Washington today, came late to his entente with the Soviet leader. By the time Reagan made his take-down-this-wall speech in Berlin, the revolution unleashed by Gorbachev was well under way and the fall of the wall was as much as inevitable. Reagan had been calling for the demolition of the wall (as many had) since the day it was built. He just happened to make that speech at a time when Eastern Europeans, inspired by what they saw in Moscow, not Washington, finally felt freedom was in their reach.
Most frightening is today’s conventional wisdom that Reagan was “correct” in forcing the Soviets to spend themselves out of existence in an escalating arms race. The Soviets were quite bankrupt all on their own without Reagan’s assistance. Soviet spending on arms was flat during the 1980s, deflating one of the most enduring myths surrounding Reagan’s “vision.” Reagan’s arms spending spree should more wisely be seen as reckless economics and old-fashioned brinkmanship. History has yet to judge if we, along with the Russians, have also bankrupted ourselves by pouring billions into tanks and planes while starving schools, hospitals and domestic infrastructure. Worse, what was the corollary to the Reagan policy of spending the Soviets into oblivion? If the Soviets had not collapsed (under what was mostly internal, not outside, pressure), what course would Reagan have taken? Were we to continue our spending binge and arms escalation ad infinitum? Or would we have been tempted to stage a pre-emtpive attack to once and for all take down our rivals? Remember “with enough shovels”?
What Reagan did accomplish, however, should not be underestimated. While his own actions were not necessarily consistent, he firmly established a new tone and ethos in national politics. The mask of equanimity was ripped off American politics, and the winners in our society were finally given permission to publicly gloat. All of a sudden it was socially acceptable to denounce the poor, to blame the victims, to celebrate and even promote inequality. It was hip to be mean. The golf shirt, martini and cigar replaced the lunch bucket and a cool Bud as the icons of American workaday culture. Reagan’s legacy is best embodied not by the mistaken notion of him as a Strangelovian, bomb-dropping cowboy, but rather as the obedient radio and TV pitchman for General Electric. Fifty years from now, Reagan will be remembered not for lobbing a few missiles at Qaddafi or for funding the contras, but rather for presiding over the most radical transfer of wealth, upward, in the 20th century.
Breaking the federal Air Traffic Controllers Union, as Reagan’s first act in office, flashed a glaring green light for the trickle-down notions of social justice that still dominate our body politic two decades later. While Reagan didn’t shy from more centrist and pragmatic options when it befitted his own political survival, he nevertheless implanted the rhetorical and ideological sidelines of an economic and political playing field that has been shifted far to the right.
Reagan didn’t accomplish this shift all on his own. Nor was it a mere result of the clever, calculated and conspiratorial machinations of his colder-blooded handlers, ranging from Mike Deaver to “Mommy” Nancy. To a great degree, Reagan’s rise also reflected what had been an accelerating drift in the national Zeitgeist. Ronald Reagan would have been an impossible construction if it had not been for the stark failures of American liberalism — failures crystallized in the limp politics of Jimmy Carter. Reagan was carried to power as blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” from decaying cities and frayed suburbs defected in legions to the GOP. And they weren’t simply angry white men lured by cheap campaign demagoguery. Their hearts and souls were, instead, wooed and seduced by a candidate and a movement that was unabashedly bold and daring, that brimmed with new (and mostly bad) ideas, that was — at least in American terms — revolutionary, and that foamed with an oxygenated optimism of the sort that has become a dead language for liberals. On Ronald Reagan’s death, it is a lesson in politics that seems ever more urgent for the left to assimilate — lest it wants its great-grandchildren 50 years from now to still be supine before the manufactured mythology of the Gipper.