Sunday, June 06, 2010
The Reagan Delusion
"As Democracy is perfected, the office (of president) represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." HL Mencken, 1920
Former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford once referred to Ronald Reagan as an "amiable dunce," but Reagan's not the "downright moron" I was referring to. At least Reagan had principles. But there is a direct line leading from Ronald Reagan, to George W. Bush, to Sarah Palin. His "Trickle Down" economic theory was mocked by his then political rival and future Vice President. G.H.W. Bush, as "Voodoo Economics." But his most glaring error, the "Big Lie," was his pronouncement that, "Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem." Thus began the era of public distrust of government to solve problems, and the embryonic stages of what is now the Tea Party movement.
It was no accident that Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the location of one of the civil rights era's most gruesome and murderous crimes. It sent a message about which side of the racial divide he was on and further capitalized on Nixon's "Southern strategy" of 1968, where the GOP actively courted white southerners disaffected by the civil rights legislation of the Johnson years. It was a foreshadowing of the heartless budget cuts the Reagan administration would make in social programs, and the mindless, unlimited cash machine they would offer to the military. "Government is the problem" is a good campaign slogan if you intend to be a reformer, but Reagan ran up the highest deficits in history, ramped up the arms race, and secretly sold weapons to the very regime that had held our diplomats hostage, in order to arm anti-government rebels in Nicaragua. Does that sound like less government to you?
Even Reagan's "aw shucks" speeches for which he was best known were a construction to burnish his uber-patriot image. The "Shining city on a hill," and "It's morning in America," weren't Reagan's words, they were Peggy Noonan's. Yet despite the sunny rhetoric, there were consequences to the abandonment of the poor and helpless. It was during Reagan's term that the rise of inner-city and ghetto gang membership exploded and began to establish franchises in other major cities. Reagan's term saw the creation of violent rap music and the spread of gun violence. And it was in Reagan's term, during his "Just Say No" campaign against drug use, that crack cocaine first hit the streets of California and spread into a nationwide scourge. There is now no question that the CIA planes that delivered arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, returned home filled with cocaine. The San Jose Mercury newspaper first reported that crack cocaine was invented, manufactured and distributed in urban areas by the CIA, but they were forced to print a retraction when their sources recanted.
The conservative "Just Say No" policy on drugs during the Reagan era is their same policy on nearly everything today, especially when it comes to "family values." In fact, Reagan was the first to recruit right-wing activist Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell as presidential advisers, a post previously held exclusively by Billy Graham. And the eternal Republican talking point that Reagan "ended the cold war" is like crediting Pat Boone with the invention of Rock n' Roll. He deserves credit for his consistent anti-Communist stance, as do Lech Walesa, and Vlaclav Havel, and many others, but since the Wall fell on his watch, he gets bragging rights. He also deserves credit for being a much better actor than I thought. He nearly fooled all of the people all of the time, and left it to his successor to accept the consequences for raising taxes. Nonetheless, he succeeded in convincing an entire generation of the false notion that government is an intrinsic evil that must be restricted. The result is the GOP of today. They want smaller government and less governmental intrusion until a BP oil rig blows up in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, all the former proponents of "small government" find themselves standing on a metaphorical rooftop, holding on to a big sign that says, "Help Us!"