Remembering Ronnie Raygun
Were Ronald Reagan alive today, he’d be celebrating his 100th birthday. Mercifully – for all parties involved – Ronnie has gone home to his reward, as they say in the South. Poor Ronnie checked out a few years before he actually died, the poster boy for Alzheimer’s Disease, a fate I wish on no one. But his legacy has proven to have a much longer life and to be even less accountable to reason or historical fact than even the Teflon President could have predicted.
I find it bizarre that folks today would speak of Reagan in such lionized terms. There were many things that Ronald Reagan was. A role model was not among them. Ronnie was a B actor who learned how to charm a made-for-television electorate with meaningless phrases like “It’s morning in America” and “Cadillac driving welfare queens.” And America readily drank the kool-aid.
I was a second year law student in 1980. I had gone to law school for all the wrong reasons – to be part of the movement for justice, to make sure the voices of the silenced were heard, to use the legal system as the means to make America a “more perfect union” for all, not just for the privileged. In retrospect, I was probably too naïve and idealistic to be in law school, though I was hardly by myself. Visions of a Warren Court creating justice out of whole cloth still danced like sugar plums in the heads of many Baby Boomer would be lawyers in 1980.
As the election drew near, I became increasingly distraught at the notion that a candidate with as simplistic an understanding of reality as Reagan articulated could possibly be elected by the American populace. Jimmy Carter, the reigning incumbent, was bland, a bit stiff and brutally honest about America’s shortcomings – as Southern Baptists tend to be – but he was honest and intelligent and seemingly concerned about doing the right thing even when it proved unpopular. Reagan spoke in platitudes about liberty and offered jingoistic assertions about “our Panama Canal” as if the US had ever really had any rightful claims to it. And the electorate ate it up.
In the process, Reagan captured America’s imagination with two rather mindless catch lines that have ultimately come to define two generations. First, he said “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” And the second was like unto it: “Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” his campaign ads queried.
I doubt Reagan could scarcely have imagined how seriously many Americans would take either of those incredibly simplistic statements. The first came to define an approach to government that has steadily devolved from mistrust to outright hostility to demonization. Public servants are regularly – and mindlessly - vilified in today’s political culture. Public institutions and those who work in them from schools to health agencies to veterans’ services are daily attacked with the fervor of a rabid dog and often with the same level of rationality. And the deregulation of virtually every aspect of our society, particularly the economy, has led to the rise of a free market fundamentalism that has seen America steadily transform its economic colonies around the world into a global corporate feudal state and itself into an America whose residents understand themselves in terms of being consumers rather than citizens.
The second throw away line, “Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” has become the mantra of the rise of one of the most narcissistic cultures in the world’s history. Reagan gave Americans permission – if not a mandate – to be self-focused.
An entire generation of children raised under Reaganomics (much of which has been repudiated by its architect, David Stockton) arrive at our colleges each year laboring under the misapprehension that “It’s all about me” and that higher education is somehow only about learning a limited set of job skills to enable them to go make money. Our culture is marked by an increasing superficiality fostered by constant technological communication that avoids contact with human presence and even the human voice. We may “talk all the time” as our consumer advertisers tell us we must but most of the time, no one is really home. Our highways are clogged with drivers oblivious to “the other guy” Americans were once advised to “watch out for” during the 1970s, distracted by their cell phones and texting – an addiction which is proving more deadly than driving while intoxicated. And study after study shows our people becoming decreasingly empathetic, unable to even consider, much less look out for, anyone else. And nowhere is this more true than in the Gen Y Millenials who will soon inherit the managment of our society. So much for the general welfare Mr. Madison and company worked so hard to promote.
In a bizarre vindication of the poster child for egocentrism, misanthrope Ayn Rand, the self-focus of stage two moral reasoning, the reasoning of pre-adolescents, has spread from Madison Avenue’s advertizing hegemony to ultimately dominate American thought. “What’s in it for me?” has gone from campaign slogan to the defining self-understanding of an entire people once known for their generosity and self-sacrifice.
Ronald Reagan did not bring a revolution. He heralded the devolution of a once vibrant American culture.
In 1980, the degree of decline of social responsibility and the concomitant rise of selfishness that Reagan ushered in seemed impossible. But the tenor of Reagan’s rhetoric and the warmth with which so many Americans mindlessly embraced it in 1980 set off alarms for this second year law student. I knew the Supreme Court would be stacked with conservative ideologues. I knew that if America could buy a candidate as shallow as Ronald Reagan, anything was possible – a nightmare most recently realized with the selection of George the Unready to the presidency by a Supreme Court stacked with Reagan ideologues.
But I had little idea in 1980 how devastating his policies would prove for the very people I had chosen to serve. It would not take me long to find out.
My first gig out of law school was with the Florida Rural Legal Services. The farmworkers of the Glades growing district existed in a state of near slavery in 1982. Many were there from outside the US on work permits which allowed the owners access not only to their labor, but to their homes - and their bodies - whenever they so chose. Many undocumented workers labored in sugar cane fields, machete in hand, right up to the moment they were injured at which point the owner denied ever knowing them, much less employing them, so as to avoid paying worker’s comp. During my four months in Belle Glade, Reagan’s Republican Congress passed a bill prohibiting Legal Services from representing migrants born outside the US and slashed the budget of the Legal Services to a level that made it impossible to effectively represent the clients it was still allowed to serve. It’s a lot easier to exploit people when you can prevent them from fighting back.
Five years later I would again represent poor clients, this time as a public defender. One of the assignments for our division was the mental health hearings. Under Florida’s Baker Act, those who were facing involuntary commitment to Florida’s archaic state hospital were entitled to representation at their hearings. What became very clear almost immediately is that most local options for treatment had gone away early in the Reagan years, one of the many cuts made to the social safety net with a meat axe, such cuts rationalized as necessary to support the largest peace time build up of any nation's armed forces in the world’s history. With the closing of local treatment centers and the cutbacks to state hospitals, most of those former patients were dumped onto America’s streets, with the resulting rise of a previously unknown homeless population. Mentally ill veterans with pasteboard signs at expressway exits had become a fixture of the post-Reagan morning in America.
The most savage of Reagan policies took shape in Central America. Under the self-serving and rationalizing rubric of freedom fighters seeking to defeat communism (translation: keeping Central America safe for American corporate exploitation), Reagan’s America trained Central American military and police in the School of the Americas to carry out what were essentially terrorist activities. They included a wide range of atrocities designed to coerce the public into obedience to draconian policies through fear. Tactics like disappearances and necklacing, the burning of a tire tied around the neck of a human being, was particularly aimed at those who would speak out for the urban poor - campesinos, labor leaders, intellectuals and a number of churchmen and women.
Reagan’s henchmen illegally funneled weapons and funding to paramilitary forces all up and down the isthmus of Central America. And they trained their local vassals in creative methods of ridding themselves of those who would invoke notions of justice and the name of G-d in the struggle for basic human dignity. While members of the Reagan administration, if not the president himself, clearly committed impeachable, unconstitutional offenses in this process, it would fall to Bill Clinton’s sexual improprieties to actually move the Republican Congress to act. As the bumper stickers proclaimed, “No one died when Clinton lied.”
The results of Reagan's policies were devastating: entire villages massacred in places with names like El Mozote, El Salvador; Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala and Esteli, Nicaragua. I know because I’ve been to those countries and I’ve heard the stories the survivors tell of seeing their loved ones killed in front of them, of claiming dismembered bodies, of mourning disappeared loved ones never seen again. I’ve seen the rusted out fuselages of downed American helicopters from which rained down bullets, bombs and napalm that burned entire regions of the countryside down to the very stone.
I’ve also seen the glass jars containing the brains of Jesuit priests who dared to speak out against the terror in El Salvador. The priests, their housekeeper and her young pregnant daughter were taken out by paramilitary thugs trained in the School of the Americas by American teachers using American tax moneys, shot at point blank range. Finally, their brains were beaten out of their skulls with rifle butts, a warning to those who would use their brains to challenge the local regime and their American overlords.
But the barometer of the depravity of the Reagan regime’s character was revealed in its handling of the AIDS epidemic. As thousands of Americans and millions round the world died agonizing deaths amidst a moral panic by Ronnie’s religious supporters (what could possibly be Moral about a self-proclaimed Majority who demonize people dying of a horrible disease?), the Reagan White House remained silent, unwilling to even speak the name of the disease until at last one of Reagan’s own long time friends, Rock Hudson, had succumbed to this pestilence.
Reagan supporters will likely overlook all of the things I have mentioned above if not deny they ever occurred. Indeed, denial of reality was part and parcel of Reagan's Teflon Presidency. And they will credit Reagan with things like the fall of the Soviet system that he had but a tangential role in their occurrence. But Ronnie made many Americans feel good, about themselves and about America and in the end; that is what they will remember. The question, as I always pose to my students, is simply this: Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense? In Reagan’s case, the answer to those questions produce some fairly dark answers for those who are willing to look at the actual history.
There is no doubt that I will never forget Ronald Reagan. But it will not be in the Hallmark card fashion of “Morning in America” that I recall him. It will not be in a presidential library with piped in militaristic music and red white and blue slogans confused for patriotism.
I will remember Ronald Reagan for what he was - an agent of death and destruction, an agent of indifference and self-focus, the friend who failed to show up in the hour of need, the American president who taught us to hate our own government and to indulge our tendencies toward selfishness. I believe many years from now, his election will be seen as a critical turning point that marked the beginning of a long period of decline and perhaps even failure of the American experiment. And I believe many will look back on that turning point and wonder what in the hell ever got into a vibrant nation and a once fine people.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++