The media this week is full of articles about former US President and conservative icon, Ronald Reagan.
If he were still alive, he’d be 100 years old this month (he’d also be clawing at the lid of his casket… stop me if you’ve heard this one).
Oh, right. It’s actually next month. February 6th to be exact. But hey, when it comes to Reagan, well, you know every day is his birthday.
Some of those articles are favorable, some less so, depending on the political bent of whatever particular writer penned the article. Left or Right, one thing they all seem to have in common is an almost mythical view of The Gipper. Love him or hate him, Reagan inspires strong passions in many Americans – even those who aren’t old enough to actually remember him.
Liberals see him as, well, not evil incarnate per se (that title is reserved for Darth Cheney and his sidekick, Jar Jar Bush) but more like something akin to one of those animatronic androids in Disney’s Hall of Presidents – and in fact, during his cocaine fueled heyday the manic comedian, Robin Williams, used to do a hilarious sketch of exactly that. A cross between a break-dancing move called The Robot and Max Headroom, Williams would jerk mechanically on stage while doing a dead-on balls imitation of Reagan’s famous voice, zzzzzzzzzzzst, click zzzzst clank, weeeeelllllll now Naaaancy, ssssprt sprong! I don’t know many Liberals who out and out hate Reagan, but I do know a whole bunch who’d rather have Robin Williams at the helm than a repeat of Bedtime For Bonzo.
Conservatives, of course, revere Reagan as near God-like, a heroic Jesus/Charlton Heston figure, the man who won the Cold War and beat the Evil Empire. His mystical legend grows day by day, he’s the man who singlehandedly saved the Republic, invented modern conservative economics, and revitalized the Military/Industrial Hair Gel complex. Conservatives renamed Washington’s National airport for him and, if that wasn’t enough, they christened a Nimitz Class nuclear super-carrier in his name a full decade before he died (of course, they named one after George H. W. Bush too, so you know, don’t be too impressed). Nowhere is this bizarre worship summed up better than in a USA Today OpEd piece penned by the world’s bestest Conservative and would be Reagan Heir Apparent, Sarah Palin:
I had the privilege of coming of age during the era of Ronald Reagan. I like to think of him as America's lifeguard … The image of the lifeguard seems to represent what Reagan was to America and to the freedom-loving people of the world. He lifted our country up at a time when we were in the depths of economic, cultural and spiritual malaise. We were told that we must accept that the era of American greatness was over; but with his optimism and common sense, President Reagan held up a mirror to the American soul to remind us of our exceptionalism… under his leadership we won the Cold War without firing a single shot…
Privilege? Well, sure, Sarah. And aren’t you special, aren’t you exceptional. Yes you are. Just like those bumper stickers liberals like to slap on the backs of their Subaru Foresters attesting to how their kid is a special superstar – just exactly like everybody else’s kid. Yeah, you’re special. You and about 8 billion other people – including me – who “came of age” during the so-called Reagan Era.
Of course, the difference is that while Sarah Palin was losing beauty pageants and her virginity and failing out of one college after the other, I was serving in Ronald Reagan’s military on the frontlines of that Cold War – I’ve got a decoration around here somewhere testifying to it (Yep, there’s a Cold War Service Ribbon. That and $3.75 will get you a large latte at the VA Coffee Shop). While Palin was fumbling her way through the local high school sports scores on KTVA in Anchorage, Reagan sent my comrades and I across Daffy Gadhafi’s Line-O-Death on a mission of gunboat diplomacy called Operation Eldorado Canyon – I’ve got a couple of medals around here for that little adventure too (and for those, people might actually buy you a beer, or not). Yes, I guess you could say that I had the privilege of coming of age during the era of Reagan too – except my coming of age was shaped directly by the consequences of Reagan’s foreign policy instead of by lipstick and locker-room parties.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I grew up during Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement and Nixon and the Hippies and the Age of Aquarius. And I remember very well indeed exactly what it was like after the war ended. I remember the Carter years, and the OPEC Embargo, and Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Recession and the car industry going belly up.
Oh yes, I remember what Edwin Feulner called the Great Malaise.
And Reagan did, in many ways, make America proud of itself again. He was charismatic, he made you like him. Conservatives, oh how they hate Obama for his charm and easy manner and especially his popularity, derisively calling him “The Messiah,” but that’s nothing compared to the worshipful adulation, and present day deification, of Ronald Reagan by Conservatives. Reagan radiated a 1950’s movie star charm and confidence, like Errol Flynn, you could feel it when you were in his presence. I saw him speak once, and shook his hand, and you couldn’t help but like the guy even if you couldn’t stand his politics. He was a sincerely nice human being. The military loved him – especially after he signed the defense authorization bill in 1986 that for the first time in our country’s history increased our pay to a living wage.
History will probably say that he was one of the great ones, i.e. the right guy in the right job at the right time. And I don’t think I’ll argue the point – you’d have to have lived through that time from where I was sitting.
But Reagan most surely didn’t “win” the Cold War by himself – he was simply the last in a long line of cold warriors.
And he sure as hell didn’t win it “without firing a single shot.”
Because see I was there, and there were many shots fired. We expended rounds in Libya and Lebanon and Grenada and the Congo and the Korean DMZ and Afghanistan and Iran and Nicaragua and El Salvador and, oh hell, all up and down the Central American isthmus from Mexico to Panama. After Reagan declared war on drugs we fired more than a few shots in South America too – some at Russian advisors. I’ve got pictures looking straight up into the open bomb bay of a TU-22M Backfire bomber, straight into a belly full of bombs and missiles, as it and twenty more just like it, roared over our heads at less than 200 feet with their targeting radars pulsing down on us with enough energy to fry our digital watches. I’ve got pictures of a Soviet frigate deliberately ramming USS Yorktown in the Black Sea, ripping the starboard torpedo bay open and damned near precipitating World War Three right there. I’ve got a tiny sliver of teak, a piece of wooden decking from a Libyan Wadi PTG, that attacked us one night south of the Line of Death deep in the Gulf of Sidre and as a result of that poor decision (at the behest of their Soviet masters) they took a pair of US Navy Harpoon missiles right straight in the teeth – hence there being nothing much left larger than a few small slivers of wood. We fought a dozen proxy wars, big ones and little ones, and a hundred combat operations short of war that neither Sarah Palin nor her ignorant supporters have ever bothered to learn the names of. I’ve got another dozen medals for those too and I can name the names of a dozen comrades in arms who are now nothing more than stars on a wall in a couple of lobbies in Washington D.C. who would agree with me – if they were still alive.
No, we sure as bloody hell didn’t win the Cold War without a shot being fired – that statement is either a deliberate falsehood or it speaks of a profound and staggering ignorance. Palin spends a hell of a lot of air expounding on her own supposed patriotism as the mother of a soldier, you’d think she’d show a greater respect for the sacrifices of that same military under the command of her idol. But then, the fact that roughly 14,000 US military men and women died during the eight years of the Reagan administration doesn’t have quite the same miraculous ring to it that “won the war without firing a single shot” does.
You know, to some extent I can understand this deification of Reagan. Like him or not, he was a hell of a leader during a time when America needed a leader. What Palin and the rest of those on the far right forget is that Reagan made you like him. He brought people together, even when they disagreed with him. He strove to unite the nation, not divide it, and to a large degree he succeeded if only briefly. Could he do that now? I doubt it, this is not his time, the world has changed – due in no small part to his own efforts– and I don’t know that Ronald Reagan would be welcome in his own party today.
Conservatives, Palin and the Tea Party chief among them, rail about government overreach and intrusion upon American freedoms. This is a key plank in the conservative platform. That and a bizarre paranoid fear the President will someday turn the military against its citizens. Reagan, as governor of California, sent in the State Police to put down student demonstrations on the Berkley college campus. That event became known as Bloody Thursday when the police opened fire on the crowd with double-ought buckshot fired from 12gauge shotguns. Hundreds were wounded or injured. Reagan then sent in 2000 National Guard troops to occupy the campus and impose martial law. When criticized for a military response, Reagan famously responded, “If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement.” I have to wonder how those conservative militiamen who swarm the edges of today’s Tea Party would feel to see soldiers firing upon American citizens, but then again since the student demonstrators at Berkley were undeniably leftists, perhaps those Patriots wouldn’t protest too loudly.
Then, as California governor, Reagan signed into law the Therapeutic Abortion Act. Now to be fair, Reagan agonized over that bill for days, and he regretted it for a long, long time afterward – and claimed that if he’d been more experienced as a politician he would have vetoed it – but sign it he did and he made abortion legal in California. One has to wonder just how forgiving of that action John Boehner and the conservatives who are attempting to outlaw abortion in Congress right now would be of Reagan today.
On March 30, 1981, Reagan, his press secretary, and two Secret Service agents were shot in an attempted assassination. Reagan barely survived, and while he eventually recovered completely, his press secretary, Jim Brady wasn’t nearly so lucky. Brady had been shot in the head and suffered extensive brain damage – there are few of us who lived through that terrible time who don’t remember poor brain damaged Jim Brady in his wheelchair while his wife, Sarah, spoke passionately about keeping guns out of the hands of crazy people. Brady and his wife became advocates of gun control legislation – along with Reagan who championed their cause and who eventually signed the Brady Bill into law. Can you imagine a Tea Party or Republican candidate who advocated for gun control today getting their party’s endorsement for President? Can you imagine Sarah Palin endorsing such a candidate? Even in the wake of the Giffords’ shooting? The thought is so ludicrous it makes me snort chocolate milk through my nose.
Conservatives deplore “socialism” and the government’s use of tax dollars to benefit those they deem unfit or undeserving or not American. Funny thing, Reagan gave the entire world, commies, socialists, Marxists, American hating dictators, terrorists, Iranians, drug smugglers, illegal aliens sneaking across the Arizona border and across the oceans to Miami, everybody, access to enormous gobs of America tax dollars in perpetuity. Yes, that’s right, Reagan gave the world our military GPS system for nothing – and now we’re obligated to keep paying and paying and paying for all those people to use it. There are 29 satellites in that system. Want to know how much is costs you to maintain that constellation? And Conservatives get pissed because a poor American woman might get a discount on cheese and formula for her baby. God Bless Ronald Reagan.
Palin has suggested that we invade Iran. Well, OK, not in so many words, what she said was President Obama could raise his popularity among conservatives and guarantee his reelection if “he played the war card” when it comes to Iran. Well, ok, you got me, she did say it in so many words. Palin is not the only one, former VP Dick Cheney, and damned near every single conservative media pundit worth his dusty chalkboard has bloviated at length to the same effect. Why then do you suppose they so venerate a president whose administration sold enormous amounts of weapons and military hardware to that self same Iran - weapons, I might add, that were later used against us – in defiance of the will of the people, Congress, and US law? What’s that you say? Reagan was unaware of Iran/Contra? Sure. And O.J. didn’t kill the bitch, and Ollie North isn’t a popular conservative media personality. Sure. Look, either Reagan was operating outside the confines of the Constitution or he had lost control of his own administration – I’m having a damned difficult time figuring out how conservatives think either option is a good thing.
Palin et al denounced Obama as unAmerican when he bowed to the Emperor and the Prime Minister of Japan. Reagan laid a wreath on the graves of the Waffen SS – you know, the fucking Nazi SS.
But, of course, it’s Reagan’s economic policies that make him such a Saint in so many Conservative’s memories. He’s famous for lowering taxes significantly in 1981, his first year in office, but he’s a lot less famous for signing into law legislation that quietly raised taxes every single year after that, every single year, Let me repeat that for the slow people in the room, every single year for seven years after 1981 – so much so that his successor, George Holy War Bush, used the campaign slogan “Read my lips, no new taxes” to grease his way into the Oval Office after Reagan (the ironic part being that the tab for Reagan’s economic policies forced Bush to raise taxes after all…and cost him reelection. Well, that and the fact that he had all the warmth and charisma of a sea cucumber). Those huge tax cuts also had another interesting effect that I’m sure modern conservatives and Tea Party types alike will appreciate: combined with a 40% increase in the defense budget, they raised both the national debt and the deficit to levels not seen since WWII – where they’ve remained ever since (Clinton’s budget “surplus” shouldn’t be confused with national debt or the deficit). As to Reagan’s famous Reagonomics, well Reagonomics succeeded in making a lot of defense contractors and a lot of bankers very, very rich but there are a hell of a lot of people in this country who are still waiting for that wealth to tickle down twenty years on. And in point of fact most of that wealth evaporated in an ongoing and continuing series of boom and bust cycles that don’t seem to affect the wealthy all that much but are sure hell on wheels for those folks who want Reagan’s face carved into the rock of Mount Rushmore.
Again, don’t get me wrong, I liked Reagan. I didn’t agree with everything he did or said or believed, but I didn’t hate him for it either. I liked being in his navy. I did. I think he was exactly the kind of guy we needed back then. But I don’t think he’s the kind of guy we need now. Reagan was like a shot of nitrous oxide into an internal combustion engine – great for a quick burst of power and speed, but you for damned sure don’t want to run the motor like that for long or else the pistons are going to blow right out through the hood. And my point here is that while history may one day judge Reagan as one of the Great Presidents, that’s a judgment more fitting of his 200th birthday and not this one.
Reagan, whatever he was, was certainly no saint, no devil. What he was, in point of fact, was an actual, no shit leader.
To give Palin her due, she’s right to admire Reagan. She’s certainly right to believe he was a great man, maybe even a great president. But she and Conservatives are wrong to put him up on a pedestal. On this, his 100th Birthday, politicians and pundits and indeed the rest of the nation would do far better to drop the hushed reverent tones and the Reagan-as-Myth airbrushing of history and learn the real lessons of his legacy:
We are one nation (under God, if you like), our strength comes from standing together and not from the things that drive us apart. Of all the things Reagan did, he did that, he brought us together as a nation and as a people. He used humor and sincerity and humanity to reach people, he didn’t use hatred to drive them apart.
He deserves to be remembered.
He doesn’t deserve to be worshipped.