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Representative Patrick McHenry, a Republican appropriately enough of North Carolina, has proposed replacing the visage of Ulysses S. Grant with that of Ronald Reagan on the $50.00 bill. This man thus would replace the picture of the man who militarily did more than anyone else to win the Civil War for the Union with that of the man whose current followers want more than anything to tear it asunder. Funnily enough, this man is of course a close namesake of one of the heroes of the American Revolution. By the time of the creation and the adoption of the US Constitution, Patrick Henry was a strong anti-Federalist. Indeed he opposed ratification of the Constitution by his former colony, Virginia. The Constitution begins with the words “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union” and provides for very significant powers to the Federal government. Henry was very definitely against it and them, just as many so-called “Tea Partiers” are today.
Periodically throughout our history, most notably during the conflict that culminated in the First Civil War, voices have been raised promoting that position, at sometimes more loudly and indeed violently than at others. Very often its promoters have been concerned with issues of race, and it was those issues that led North Carolina, Rep. McHenry’s state, to secede from the Union, although it was the last one to do so, on May 20, 1861. One might then say that it is either fitting or ironic or both that one Rep. McHenry from North Carolina would be proposing the switch from Grant to Reagan.
Let us take a brief look at Grant’s accomplishments, as recently summarized in a New York Times Op-ed by the American historian Sean Wilentz entitled “Who’s Buried in the History Books?” The conflict over race and slavery began with the process that led to the adoption of the Constitution and is very much still with us. As is well-known, it is being re-heated once again by the forces of reaction. Grant’s major achievements during and after the first armed conflict over race and slavery we have experienced (the second seems well on its way) were many:
- He was a despiser of the Southern traitors to the Union (while personally no abolitionist) and eventually became the General who, with Generals Sherman and Sheridan, would lead the Union Army to victory in the Civil War.
- He was a strong supporter of the 15th Amendment, which gave rise to the first Civil Rights Act of 1875 (it was declared unconstitutional in 1883, ironically enough by a Supreme Court peopled in part by Grant appointees).
- He was a vigorous and forceful leader of Reconstruction.
- He was a supporter of Indian Rights (while it was, ironically again, Generals Sherman and Sheridan who successfully pursued the Indian Wars), education reform, and the separation of church and state.
And so here we have a Southern Congressman proposing to replace Grant’s image on the $50.00 bill with that of the man who firmly set the Republican Party on the course it is now following, moving ever-Rightward politically, and embracing evermore open policies based on racism, anti-Unionism (as well as anti-trade unionism), and homophobia (just another form of discrimination, like racism and anti-Semitism based simply on who a person is).
“But Reagan had so many achievements,” his supporters led by the estimable Sean Hannity, tell us. Indeed, Hannity is forever asking the question, “What would Reagan do?” Well, Sean, as a guide to answering the question, let’s take a look at what he actually did, not what your mythology tells us he did:
1. Reagan firmly established racism as the center of the modern Republican electoral strategy, confirming that the Nixon “Southern Strategy” of 1968 would be permanently ensconced there. This initiative was symbolized exquisitely when he began his 1980 Presidential campaign at Philadelphia, MS, the site of the Cheney-Goodman-Schwerner civil rights murders of 1964. Reagan, the master of the “wink and the nod” means of communicating, did not have to say anything more.
2. Reagan firmly established anti-choice as the Republican position of choice in the matter of belief as to when life begins. This was something new for mainstream Republicans who up until then had made much about keeping government out of private matters to the extent possible. In fact, Reagan’s choice for Vice-President, George H.W. Bush and his wife had been long-time members of the Board of Directors of the Texas branch of Planned Parenthood. Of course, that highly principled mainstream Republican, and his wife, quickly resigned their positions to take an openly anti-choice stance during the election.
3. The Reaganites introduced ahistoricity into American politics for good. The Right-Wing has made much hay out of this trend over the years. Through the election of 2000, they frequently referred to the period of “American decline since the 60s,” tracing it back to the “outbreak” of feminism and the anti-Vietnam War movement. They ignored the Reagan Presidency itself and what it did and did not do for the “American decline” as much as current GOPers ignore the Bush Presidency in the same wise.
4. “Reaganomics” created the myth that tax-cuts can lead to prosperity and reduced Federal deficits. Reaganite tax-cuts, which went to the same folks who are (still) benefiting so much from the GW Bush tax cuts, led to massive federal deficits, to a major recession in the mid-80s that the Reaganites managed to ignore, and eventually to the Bush I recession that led to his defeat. After the disaster produced by the Bush II tax cuts for the rich and further Reaganite de-regulation, the current GOP only demands more of the same as the solution to the very problems the combination has produced.
5. Related to point four above, Reaganite electoral strategy built upon the success of the anti-tax Proposition 13 in California in 1978. That strategy succeeded in changing the political discussions about what government should be doing with tax revenues, in other words about government programs, to the amounts of the revenues themselves without reference to what the money was paying for.
6. Related to point five above, Reagan established the modern Republican approach to federal spending: cutting it on everything they possibly can except the military, prisons, and favors for wealthy contributors, while reducing tax revenues to the greatest extent possible with tax cuts for the rich.
7. Reagan established mean-ness, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, as an acceptable attribute. Did people get it? They sure did. I remember listening to a selection of person-on-the-street interviews in Washington, DC, after the John Hinckley attack on Reagan. In response to the question, “What was wrong with John Hinckley?” a woman said, “He missed.”
8. With Iran/Contra, Reagan established the precedent that (Republican) Presidents can break federal law and they will get away with it. The Iran/Contra scheme directly violated a piece of federal legislation called the “Boland Amendment.” It prohibited any US-government direct or indirect interference with the democratically elected Sandanista government of Nicaragua. The Congressional hearings were a sham. Reagan clearly committed or at least clearly presided over the commission of an impeachable offense. But when it came time to form the Joint Committee to investigate the mess, the then-obscure junior Senator from Massachusetts who had gotten the ball rolling, John Kerry, along with Kennedy, Leahy and any other progressive Democrats in the House and Senate, were kept off it by agreement of the Democratic leadership. “Couldn’t have another impeachment, coming so soon,” they said.
And so, Democrats like then-Congressman Lee Hamilton made sure that the hearings were relatively benign, and, by giving Oliver North immunity from any prosecution based on his testimony, provided him with a nation-wide platform on which to make speeches justifying the whole action (that just happened to violate the law). By the way, that’s the same Lee Hamilton who was the Democratic co-chair of the 9/11 Commission.
9. As to personal attributes, Reagan showed that a not-very-smart, mildly educated, and generally ignorant man can become an Acting President if he is a Right-Winger who command big campaign contributions from corporate special interests, telegenic, speaks well from cue cards, and has the right agents, managers, and promoters. He also showed that a man with a serious mental illness can be maintained in the Presidency if he is a Republican and has the right agents, managers, and promoters.
10. Oh yes, he did win what will someday be called “The 75 Years War (1918-1993) Against the Soviet Union by Western Imperialism,” spending into the ground an arteriosclerotic governmental system that was well on its way to collapse anyway, while creating massive federal deficits at home to do it, deficits that may well eventually an increasingly arteriosclerotic nation right here in River City.
What a record! What a man! And Rep. McHenry wants to replace Grant’s portrait with his. That surely would be symbolic of what I have said elsewhere: in the long run, it was the South, not the North (of Lincoln and Grant), that won the Civil War.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.