On February 3, 2011, three days before the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, one of the AOL News headlines went: “Why We Still Love the Gipper.” It led to a lengthy gush by one of the well-known Reagan hagiographers, Lou Cannon (can Peggy Noonan be far behind?). It does seem appropriate, doesn’t it, that the headline reference to the man who began the full-blown development of the modern Republican Alternate Reality that has now almost completely taken over the GOP is not to the man himself, but to a fictional character that he played in the movies. It would seem appropriate then at this time to return to a theme that I have dealt with before: who was the real Ron Reagan (the Elder)?
A couple of years before his death another AOL News headline (June 6, 2002) stated: “‘Leaders Say Reagan Left His Mark on the World.” He sure did. Here are some of the things most of the mainstream media didn’t put on their lists at the time of his death and very likely won’t be putting on their lists now either. But you can bet you sweet pitootie that you will be hearing the one about how he used to go have a beer with then Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill over and over again.
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, MI, 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 largest 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, by frequently referring to the period of “American decline since the 60s,” tracing it back to the “outbreak” of feminism and the anti-Vietnam War movement. They of course do not note that until 2009 for all except 12 years since that time, the President has been a Republican. And when it has been a Democrat, it has been one of the right-wing, DLC variety, up to an including the present occupant of the White House.
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 benefitted so much from the GW Bush tax cuts and will for at least another two years under the Obama extension of them, lead to massive Federal deficits (which of course they will continue to do), to a mini-recession in the mid-80s that the Reaganites managed to ignore, eventually to the Bush I recession that lead to his defeat, and to the Bush II Great Recession which Obama has managed so far only to slow down a bit.
5. Related to “4,” 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. Goldwater himself had realized that when he talked about government programs he wanted to get rid of he always lost. The Reaganites figured out how to do it by making the focus tax cuts not government revenues and their purposes. Now under the guise of the fellow-travelling “Tea Party,” “battling the deficit has come front-and-center of the GOP agenda (except of course for those deficits produced by further tax cuts for the rich). The DLC-Democrats still have not come up with an effective means of dealing with that one.
6. Related to “5,” Reagan established the modern Republican approach to federal spending: cutting it on everything they possibly can except that which directly benefits the Corporate Power. They are well on their way to achieving the climax (if I may use that term) of Grover Norquist’s Wet Dream (and he really did say this once upon a time, folks): “Shrink the federal government to the size of a bathtub and then drown it in the tub.”
7. Reagan established meanness, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, as an acceptable attribute. Did people get it? They sure did. Just listen to Savagely Beckoning Levin-itating O’RHannibaugh.
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 the Committee by agreement of the Democratic leadership. “Couldn’t have another impeachment, coming so soon,” they said.
And so, Democrats like then-Congressman Democratic-Fixer-for-the-GOP Lee Hamilton (see his role on the 9/11 Commission) made sure that the hearings were relatively benign. Further, by giving Oliver North immunity from any prosecution based on his testimony, they provided him with a nationwide platform on which to make speeches justifying the whole action (that just happened to violate the law).
9. One of Reagan’s first acts when he became President was to cancel, to the extent he could, all Federal government contracts for the development of energy sources alternative to fossil fuels. Thus the United States is now about 30 years behind where it could have been if this top extractive industry policy matter were not at the top of Reagan’s action list. Did anybody say Cheney’s energy task force? Or Obama’s “Energy Policy,” which just happened not to get even one mention in his 2011 State of the Union Message.
10. As to personal attributes, Reagan showed that a not-very-smart, mildly educated, and generally ignorant man who first became a leading Grade-B movie actor, can become an Acting President if he is a Right-Winger who can command big campaign contributions from corporate special interests, is 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 (see the new book by Ron Reagan, Jr.).
11. Oh yes, he did win what will someday be called “The 75 Years War (1918-1993) Against the Soviet Union by Western Capitalism,” 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.
What a record! What a man! Let’s hear it for the Gipper!
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 Truthout/BuzzFlash (http://www.truth-out.org/, http://www.buzzflash.com), Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to Op-Ed News.com; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.