by The Other Katherine Harris
The Other Katherine Harris’s blog
Jan. 19, 2008
If an eloquent speaker speak not the truth, is there a more horrid kind of object in creation?
~ Thomas Carlyle
During a week punctuated by due tribute for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the incongruity was more flagrant than it might’ve been, but I’d be shuddering at your recent paeans to Ronald Reagan, even if the week had contained nothing more notable than a day in praise of egg whisks.
This is no small thing, Senator Obama. Compared to aiding the radical right by raising alarms about a false Social Security crisis, calling unions “special interests” and decrying health care as a moral peril if Americans are “forced” to have it, your apologia for Reagan is worse. Because his was the smiley face painted on their whole poison pill.
It’s still serving that function today. Your supposed rivals, whose debates are All-the-Reagan-You-Can-Gag-Down buffets, are invoking his ghost in hope that voters will share the same lapse of memory and discernment you displayed on Monday in Reno, telling the Journal Gazette that Ronald Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.” (Video and an excellent precis are HERE.)
While I can’t fault your saying, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” that trajectory — which sadly we’ll remain on, until the last neocon policy bites the dust — has been, for most, a path to ruin. As for his encouraging entrepreneurship, small businesses ranked among the first victims of his presidency, along with the poor. Throughout the 30+ years of his abiding revolution, everything has been rigged to profit large corporations and the ultra-rich.
This reality is glibly glossed over in your book, where another defense of Reagan appears: “That Reagan’s message found such a receptive audience … spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Reagan may have exaggerated the sins of the welfare state, and certainly liberals were right to complain that his domestic policies tilted heavily toward elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flatlined. Nevertheless, by promising to side with those who worked hard, obeyed the law, cared for their families, loved their country, Reagan offered Americans a sense of common purpose that liberals seemed no longer able to muster.” (Page 31)
Senator Obama, are you tragically uninformed, trying to contrive “unity” by pandering to right-wingers or legitimizing their idol from conviction? Surely we can rule out option one, because you’re entirely too smart to speak and write about matters you haven’t studied seriously. Yes, when Reagan started spouting his political vitriol, you were a child. So was I, a somewhat bigger kid, but his words and deeds are well-documented from the mid-1960s onward. Thus, everything I know about him, you must also know.
For instance, while governor of California, he dehumanized welfare recipients, calling the needy “bums”, “cheats” and “a faceless mass waiting for a handout.” He’d campaigned on cutting funds for the poor, saying, “The time has come to stop being our brother’s keeper”. (Some “Christian” sentiment from one who soon styled himself a righteous Bible-thumper, huh?)
Condemning help for working people who lost their jobs, he sneered, “Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders,” and he dismissed upholding minority rights with this argument: “It doesn’t do good to open doors for someone who doesn’t have the price to get in. If he has the price, he may not need the laws. There is no law saying the Negro has to live in Harlem or Watts.”
Our environment meant no more to him than marginalized citizens did. In opposing expanded protection of his state’s majestic redwoods, unique in all the world, he shrugged, “A tree’s a tree. How many do you need to look at?” Given that attitude, it’s fair to say he never really saw one. Something else he never saw was military action. During World War II, Reagan served in an Army film studio — but, with bring-’em-on bravado, he blustered in 1966: “We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas.”
Consigned to a special hell of hatred in his heart were the young. Of students who dared protest the war, he said they didn’t deserve an education and added, “I’d like to harness their youthful energy with a strap.” His later words were more violent: “If it’s a bloodbath they want, let’s get it over with.” He meant it. Let’s not forget he imposed martial law on the Berkeley campus and endorsed shootings there. As for experimentation with drugs, he deemed it “a repudiation of everything America is” — never mind that no national drug laws existed in this country until after his own birth.
This was a man born in 1911, who was past 50 when he began his life in politics. On generational grounds, the merciful might excuse his weirding-out about the Berkeley scene (short of the shootings), but would any halfway decent human being slash funds to feed low-income and retarded children on the very day when he, freshly made a multi-millionaire via a shady land deal, budgeted a hike in his own salary?
While age alone can’t be fairly be held against anyone, Reagan absolutely represented an Old Guard oligarchy bent on crushing the emerging power of a new, well-educated and open-minded middle class. Between 1964 — when he made his first entrance on the Republican national stage by endorsing Barry Goldwater and was talent-spotted for a gubernatorial run — and his 1980 election as president, he was carefully groomed to sell the corporatist agenda to the masses, while his backers were also spending billions on “think tanks” and hired-gun academics to distort public discourse.
It would be an insult to suggest that you know less than I do about the genesis and development of their colossal Noise Machine — devised in the early Nixon years, when the most powerful gathered to script their reversal of all middle class gains since the New Deal — so how, Senator Obama, can you possibly state that people were “ready for” Reagan with no reference to how they were MADE ready by a constant barrage of deceptions calculated to overwhelm objective journalism and scholarship?
And how can you couch Reagan’s victory in terms of liberal shortcomings, without recognizing that lies were spread daily to mask Jimmy Carter’s real successes? Those were good times. The war, Watergate and the Ford recession were past, unemployment was falling dramatically, real GDP was growing at five percent yearly, the national debt relative to GDP was lower than in 50 years, the inflation rate was reasonable and, on average, we brought home twice the real income that our parents earned. International diplomacy was paying off, too; we had détente with the USSR, troop reductions in Korea, even the Camp David Mideast Peace Accords. A funny thing happened on the way to national satisfaction, though: The better things got, the more the Noise Machine told us to see Carter as incompetent and ourselves as in Big Trouble. For no legitimate reason, the number of Americans who believed we were on the brink of disaster jumped from 41 percent to 64 between 1978 and 1979 and Carter’s approval dropped from 65 percent to 39. The right-wing freakazoids even got the media to question his sanity!
In fact, they were out to drive the citizenry nuts and they succeeded. Fanning fears of runaway inflation and impending economic collapse, they drove Americans to spend now — which people did so madly in 1979 that inflation spiked briefly to 14 percent. Analysts blamed this on Carter — having formed the habit of blaming him for everything that couldn’t be pinned on unions, “bureaucrats” or “entitlements”, but they couldn’t name any particular policy as responsible.
Likewise, the radical right targeted Carter’s sensible energy program aimed at curtailing oil imports and fostering extensive use of solar power. We’d be sitting pretty now, if the neocons hadn’t assured us there was no energy problem and gone back to business as usual under Reagan, who had solar collectors ripped off the White House roof as soon as he moved in.
They further roused the populace to scream for war on Iran. The whole hostage crisis was needless. None would have been taken, had Carter not been endlessly pressured to bring the Shah here. He cared about human life, you see — unlike those who merely prate about the unborn — and it took a bare-faced lie about the Shah’s urgent need for medical treatment obtainable only in this country for Carter to admit him. Then our Embassy people were grabbed, as predictably as after-party cleanup, and Carter turned his attention to preserving their lives. He wouldn’t bomb or invade and Reagan’s backers made dead-certain his diplomacy could never work. Thanks to an underhanded arms deal, the hostages wouldn’t be freed until the neocons’ grandfatherly poster child was sworn in.
Again, I’m not stating anything you don’t know, Senator Obama. Both of us are old enough to remember that period. You were in college in the late 70s and I was a young woman in my 20s. So, in response to your saying Reagan offered “clarity” and “optimism,” I invite you to recall the murky and frightening key words tossed around at the 1980 nominating convention. Kissinger emphasized “weakness … impotent … upheavals … disaster … painful… fear … chaos … feeble … paralysis… humiliation … slipping … crash … whipsawed … unraveling … despair… crushing … turmoil … lost … war … dark forces” — and then the winning candidate’s acceptance speech featured “destroy … disintegrating … weakened … calamity … sacrifice … eaten away… wasted away … harm … injure … turned the national stomach … freeze … exhaustion … destruction … disasters … war…”
None of this strikes me as laissez le bon temps rouler stuff, Senator. Nor did it at the time. But the media lapped it up on toast and Reagan took office amid his wholly manufactured crisis, availing himself of the collective nightmare to implement a radical agenda that combined wanton military overspending with lavish indulgence of corporations and the rich and austerity for everybody else (including increased taxation of the poorest). Assuming office, he said he felt like a captain of a ”ship about to go over the falls,” asserted we were ”in greater danger … than … the day after Pearl Harbor” and told his budget-cutters to be “meaner than junkyard dogs.”
Now let’s recall the editorial cartoons that accompanied his rise: a huge number of them playing on his promise of “bloody cuts” by picturing him with an executioner’s axe. This he wielded supposedly on our behalf, to punish the unworthy, but eventually it fell on almost all of us. Morning in America should have been spelled “mourning”.
The phrase “victims of Reaganomics” isn’t literary. As early as 1984, 150,000 lost lives were quantified by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, based on average mortality increases during recessions for suicide, homicide, cardiovascular fatalities and other indices of death linked to economic activity. We can double that figure to cover his second four years and still fall far short of the total. We haven’t counted those who died because budgets were cut for child and maternal nutrition programs and for disability benefits –- nor those who died here due to families’ losing health insurance along with a parent’s job — nor the mentally ill, who died after release to “community care” (aka homelessness) when state hospitals were closed –- nor the poor children who could longer receive care in community health centers that closed — nor the children battered to death because support for the formerly successful National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect received almost nothing – nor those killed gradually by reduced environmental protection. And let’s also spare a thought for those who died elsewhere because of reduced foreign aid and Reagan’s support of tyrannical regimes that slaughtered their people.
“The Reagan safety net is a myth. People are dying as the result of these cuts,” reported the honorable journalist Bill Moyers during the winter of 1981-82, when the media — not yet unregulated and conglomerated — retained enough independence to air occasional footage of families sleeping on snowy nights under bridges. Reagan flatly denied it. “My program hasn’t resulted in anyone getting thrown out in the snow or dying,” he said. And the public, by then warped by a decade of right-wing spin, approved. In an opening monologue, Johnny Carson remarked, “The Senate cut one million people off the food stamp rolls yesterday,” and wild cheering, applause and laughter ensued. “Let’s hear it from the truly mean,” he continued.
During Christmas week that winter, 30 million pounds of stockpiled cheese were released as a gift to the hungry Americans Reagan liked to pretend didn’t exist. We were paying $1 million a day to store surplus cheese, milk and butter and another $6 million a day to buy more, but Reagan preferred to let all this food go rancid than distribute it regularly. All who had the will to see the truth could see it, but most chose to deny it, with considerable help from the media. As 10,000 visibly middle class protesters turned out in objection to Reagan’s receiving a “humanitarian” award, TV commentator Gabe Pressman told us, “They clearly are militant radicals.”
As their pain grew more severe, the deceived public endorsed Reagan’s drive for additional scapegoats. Serious crimes weren’t increasing, but the Noise Machine spread the lie that they were and we climbed aboard his lunatic “war on crime” bandwagon. While more prisons were built and harsher sentences imposed, Reagan cut funds for law enforcement in order to keep demand up. We incarcerate far more citizens per capita than any other nation, most for nonviolent offenses, all to satisfy private prison industry profiteers and punish Reagan’s old enemies: minorities and the young.
Similarly, the public bought into his privatization of a host of government functions, although the slightest appeal to reason should have told us that placing a profit-collecting entity between the provider and the recipient of any service means its cost will go up, not down.
Other lies pretended both a rise in teen pregnancy (steadily declining since the late ’50s) and an alleged “baby boom” (although the birth rate per potential mother was dropping). These were ruses to focus attention on reproductive issues and give the Noise Machine a chance to trumpet its case for “family values” and puritanism — against what you defer to them by calling “excesses” of a tolerant time.
After union-bashing began in 1981 and unemployment rose to 9 percent in early 1982, Wall Street pronounced itself delighted by the sudden docility of remaining workers. The plutocrats grew even happier as unemployment soared to nearly 11 percent. It took Reagan less than two years to have more than 12 million Americans out of work, most without unemployment benefits and more than two million of them homeless. More than 40 million of us had lost health benefits, infant mortality was rising and more than 20 percent of our children lived in poverty. GDP dropped by two percent yearly, while the trade deficit climbed past $4 million monthly and every year the government borrowed about $200 billion — set to triple the national debt before the ’80s ended.
Maggie Thatcher was practicing the same tricks across the Pond, privatizing like crazy and doubling unemployment within three years of taking office. The prosperity of the ’60s and ’70s simply had to go, because employees had gotten altogether too uppity. As conservative economist Bill Bonner, who publishes The Daily Reckoning, wrote about a month ago, “The Reagan/Thatcher revolutions … had little to do with conservatism or free market principles. What they … brought was … a way of harnessing market forces for the benefit of the state and the elites who control it.”
When Brits began to see through Maggie — I was living there at the time — she proceeded to wrap them around her pinky finger again by stirring up a wee war in the Falklands. Inspired by her example, we took to shooting down planes in Libya, launching a stupid kerfuffle in Grenada, threatening Castro, messing Nicaragua around in full earnest and playing nuclear war games for the first time in decades. The trans-Atlantic press found it all great fun.
I could keep elaborating the Reagan story for hours, Senator Obama.. I haven’t even touched on the corrupt S&L debacle, the HUD scandal, the Iran-Contra affair that should have brought impeachment, Reagan’s smarmy wooing of social reactionaries into the plutocrats’ club, his opposition (with Jesse Helms) to the MLK holiday, crazy poison scares whipped up as distractions, the devaluation of the dollar, the wasteful military spending, the squeezing out of local businesses by giant chains and the continuous offshoring of American manufacturing jobs that were replaced by ill-paying service work.
When the money supply loosened and growth was allowed to resume, there was no “recovery” for many. The great majority of Americans had lost ground and we’ve continued losing it as Reagan’s policies were extended through the Bush, Clinton and Shrub years. We’re working harder and longer for less, in real terms, than we or our parents did in 1970; in fact, families now earn only 8 percent more with two parents working than one breadwinner made in 1905. And the gap between haves and have-nots has widened famously. We often see it likened to the 1920s; however, the disparity is actually worse than that. Even our society’s traditional promise of upward mobility for the deserving has been broken. Thus, Reaganomics created a new aristrocracy that, as Bill Moyers pointed out, now possesses as much of our nation’s wealth as their counterparts did when our country was a British colony. The American Revolution has been essentially nullified!
Again I ask how you can offer any mild words for Ronald Reagan and his legacy. I ask, too, how you can reasonably believe that bipartisan unity should be the Democratic Party’s goal. Now that we wage-slaves are finally wising up, why should our urgent need to revive social and economic justice be made contingent on what the Masters of Universe may kindly concede?
The facts and statistics cited here are readily available to anyone, so they can’t be new-news to you. This, however, may be. Because you didn’t live in mainland America until 1979, the eve of the Reagan era, let me tell you what things were like before your college days in California and New York. This is meant equally for others unable due to age or geography to remember what we once had –before, by careful plan, it was taken away:
Picture a nation in which every city and town was different. Wherever you traveled, there was a “there” there: local foods and other products to be discovered, along with homes, shops and offices that expressed local tastes and suited the climate. Residents took pride in their community’s uniqueness and were dedicated to improving its schools, libraries, cultural offerings, health resources and recreational opportunities. Locally-owned newspapers and broadcast stations brought word from near and far, usually with no agenda apart from providing an honest service to their audiences and advertisers. Although there were a few large employers and chain stores, small businesses provided about 80 percent of all jobs, so most people were on very friendly terms with their colleagues and even their competitors. Of course some families had more money than others, but seldom enough that they looked down on anyone. We all had much more in common than not and it didn’t take a lot, to feel secure. Nobody feared being bankrupted by illness or injury, because medical costs were reasonable. Even those earning minimum wage had more spending power than they do today. Kids could easily work their way through college, because tuition was cheap (in some states free). Overall, there was a feeling of calm about having what you needed — maybe not all you wanted, but enough — and in that calm were dignity and purpose. We felt confidence in government, too. It kept up the infrastructure nicely, when corporations were paying about half of all income tax (now six or seven percent) and federal agencies existed to do their jobs, not to pretend or refuse to do them. Pollution was on the wane and the rights of minorities and women were increasingly respected, in large part because principled journalists stayed on the watch. It was a lot harder to be shameless while the media still reported events objectively.
Yep, that was America as limned by Rockwell, rather than Rockefellers. It would be a good place to bring up your daughters and it was good enough for us — but not for the grillionaires. As their Noise Machine began to roar, spin and opinion supplanted news and lies could no longer be effectively challenged. Truth was rendered irrelevant, as was the welfare of people, communities and nations. Individually we’ve been reduced to consumers; collectively we’re workforces, troops, markets. Sheep to be fleeced and sheep for the slaughter.
Please, Senator Obama, rethink your charitable analysis of Ronald Reagan and call this lingering reign of horrors what it is. All over the world, people continue to suffer and die under his rusty old corporatist axe every day, just to make the richest richer.
I added the pic. ~ Lo