The last act

Print edition : July 02, 2004

Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004.

RONALD REAGAN departed from public sight a decade ago. In November 1994 he wrote his last letter to the American people in which he disclosed his degenerative Alzheimer's disease, and begged leave from an electorate that had twice sent him to the White House. "I now begin the journey," he wrote, "that will lead me into the sunset of my life." In many ways Reagan had asked his country to bid him farewell ten years ago. Little had been heard from him since. It came as a surprise then to hear that he had died, at age 93, surrounded by his family. Most of us had almost forgotten that he was still alive.

FRED PROUSER/REUTERS

If Reagan had died a century ago, the press would have marked his death solemnly. When Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero and President, ailed in 1885, The New York Times followed the last six months of his illness with frequent dispatches (with titles such as, "Sinking into the Grave" and "Astonishing his Family"). When he died, The New York Times titled a reflective story on his last hours "A Hero Finds Rest", and then closed the series with concern for the well-being of his wife: "Mrs. Grant bore up with fortitude, the purpose of lessening her pain by accustoming her to the sight of the General in his coffin seems so far to have been well devised. Its thorough efficacy, however, has yet to be tested." There was no exaggerated eulogy about his greatness, nothing about his Civil War triumphs.

No such dignified departure for Reagan, whose passage had to be marked by the deluge of second-by-second news entertainment. The minute Reagan died, the media ploughed ahead with its pabulum. Without a break, his advisers and his devotees came on the air to tell us that the greatest American ever born had just died. The New York Times, which had been restrained a century ago, offered this gem: Reagan "was almost always popular, and, many now say, usually right. Reagan lived long enough to enable many of his old lieutenants, and some more dispassionate chroniclers as well, to argue that he had also been right on some of the bigger questions of his time."

The advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reminds us that Reagan enjoyed an average approval rating of about 52 percent less than that of former presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, George Bush I, and Bill Clinton. He was not always popular with the electorate even though he won a landslide to be re-elected in 1984. Part of Reagan's mystique is that even when he was unpopular, he turned on his cinematic charm and acted as if all was good in the world.

BORN in 1911 in a small town in the mid-western state of Illinois to Irish-American parents of moderate means, Ronald "Dutch" Reagan had a mediocre college career that turned into a job as sportscaster in an Iowa radio station. Drawn to the movies, Reagan moved to Hollywood to become the "Errol Flynn of B-Movies", to act in a series of unspectacular films. Reagan left his faltered film career for politics, initially as president of the Screen Actors Guild. The guild post allowed Reagan to denounce radicals within Hollywood and to begin an anti-communist crusade that lasted through his political life.

Reagan's livelihood came as spokesperson for General Electric (GE), the conglomerate that made consumer products and military hardware. While with GE, Reagan cultivated friends among the ultra-Right of the Republican Party, who wanted the United States to cut taxes, build a strong military and decimate international communism and liberalism.

In 1964, Reagan ran the California effort to elect Barry Goldwater to the U.S. presidency on the Republican ticket. Goldwater's ideology stood him far outside the national consensus: he was against disarmament and "useless domestic programmes", and he was for "limited nuclear war", positions that led to his crash before the electorate. Reagan learnt an important lesson from this: maintain the substance, but alter the style. In the conservative National Review, Reagan wrote: "Time now for the soft sell to prove our radicalism was an illusion."

The myth machine went to work. In 1976 Senator Paul Laxalt wrote: "Ronald Reagan is one of the great national leaders of our time, perhaps of any time. [He] has risen from humble beginnings to touch the hearts and claim the loyalties of millions." Laxalt did not mention Reagan's divisive tenure as Governor of California, where he trod on the civil liberties of students and on those who fought hard for equal rights. When the working poor, who were mainly Black and Chicano, took to the street in a general strike against property in 1968, Governor Reagan laid out the philosophy that animated his police department: "Nation-wide experience has shown that prompt dealing with disturbances leads to peace, that hesitation, vacillation and appeasement leads to greater disorder." Hit hard, and negotiate with the dead.

California's current budget crisis and anti-immigrant ethos can be attributed to the Reagan years. A group of oil, automobile, pharmaceutical and chemical industry executives backed Reagan's gubernatorial campaigns and they extended themselves into his three presidential runs, once unsuccessfully in 1976 and then twice to success in 1980 and 1984.

Only the 15th president to be re-elected, Ronald Reagan enjoyed a compliant Democratic legislature, but also a Republican Party that eulogised him before he stopped speaking. He was the hero of the establishment. Which is why The New York Times said that he knew how to tackle the "bigger questions of his time".

WE now hear that Ronald Reagan saved the world from communism. The media offers this nugget without any analysis of the contradictions within the U.S., or of how finance capital gnawed at the foundations of the Soviet economy. Reagan's entire foreign policy record is reduced to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This is of course a travesty of history. Reagan escalated the arms race, increasing the U.S military budget by almost 50 per cent between 1981 and 1984 ($264 billion). In 1982, Reagan called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) "the focus of evil in the modern world", and he proceeded to threaten it with intermediate missiles from Europe, with an expansion of the U.S. military ability and with a crackdown on any anti-American or non-aligned Third World power.

Reagan authorised the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon to give "stability" and weaponry to the brutal pro-U.S. dictatorships of El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, the Philippines, and South Africa. The dictators and oligarchs of these and other countries became close friends of the Reagans, including Ferdinand Marcos, whose wife Imelda led a procession to the U.S. Embassy in Manila to lay a wreath for Reagan. When Israel pulled out of Beirut after participating in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, the U.S. marines filled the vacuum only to be repulsed. Reagan quickly invaded Grenada to distract attention from the Lebanese fiasco, and then in 1986 he authorised the bombardment of Libya (that killed Gaddafi's infant daughter). The cornerstone of Reagan's policy was the illegal trade with Iran to arm the brutal contras of Nicaragua, whom Reagan continued to call "freedom fighters" even after human rights organisations found them to use terror tactics against non-belligerents. This is the non-controversial short-list.

Authorised history has already forgotten that it was Ronald Reagan's regime that reached out to Saddam Hussein in 1983, both to solicit him to "strengthen regional stability" (as the National Security Decision Directive [NSDD] 99, July 12, 1983, notes), and to sell him weapons and chemicals for weapons. By late November 1983, the U.S. government knew that Iraq had used chemical weapons against the Iranian army. Yet, Reagan did not mention this when he signed the NSDD 144: "Because of the real and psychological impact of a curtailment in the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf on the international economic system, we must assume our readiness to deal promptly with actions aimed at disrupting that traffic." The only chemical product that made it into that note was petroleum. Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld (then the head of a large pharmaceutical company) as an envoy to meet Saddam Hussein in December 1983. They met, shared their hatred for Syria and Iran and discussed safe oil routes to the Gulf. Nothing about chemical weapons again.

In March 1984, Rumsfeld returned to Iraq as Reagan's envoy, and on the day that he met Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, the U.N. reported that Iraq had routinely used mustard gas and a nerve agent on Iranian soldiers. No criticism or questions from Rumsfeld. Reagan's NSDD 139 from April 1984 suggested that the U.S. should offer "unambiguous" criticism of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq, but at the same time "place equal stress" on the Iranian military infiltrations, and desist from offering a break in relations if the use of chemical weapons does not stop. If Saddam Hussein ever had weapons of mass destruction, Reagan is one of those who harboured his terror.

One of Reagan's stock phrases as President was, "It's morning in America." He had pledged to get Americans to believe in America again: where "America" meant the free enterprise values that Reagan took as his ideal.

The mythology of Reagan shows him as an optimistic politician who made American smile after the drab Carter years. Parts of America did smile in the Reagan years, but the bulk of it mourned in their America. Reagan's first domestic act was to attack the union movement. He fired the striking air traffic controllers, the only union to have endorsed him for President. Reagan's war on labour had an enormous impact: by 1983, a third of union contracts accepted wage cuts, while by 1987, three quarters of contracts swallowed concessions of all kinds. In 1986, Reagan's Immigration Bill did not offer a liberal transit for immigrants into the country, but it allowed them in to undercut the union movement, and it created a climate for anti-immigrant violence. Reagan did not own up to any of this. He pioneered the tactic of `smile and deny'. When his "supply side economics" created havoc among working people, Reagan wrapped himself up in the flag, praised the hard-working American and dismissed criticism.

Early in his tenure, Reagan cut taxes and created the means for the upward distribution of wealth. To finance this, he cut $110 billion from social programmes in his 1981 Budget. The Congressional Budget Office reported that almost half of this loss had to be borne by families that survived on under $10,000 a year - in other words, by the very poor. In 1983, the Census Bureau reported that poverty levels had increased to 15 per cent, so that 35 million Americans lived on poverty wages, a figure that had not been so bad since 1965. Faced with these facts, in 1986, Reagan told the nation: "I don't believe that there is anyone that is going hungry in America simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them. It is by people not knowing where or how to get this help." The denial of reality marked Reagan's callous disregard for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic and for the slow erosion of federal protections for women's rights: on most issues, Reagan smiled and denied the question.

In 1966, Reagan told his aide Stuart Spencer: "Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, coast for a while, and then have a hell of a close." The media made sure that Reagan had one hell of a close, but they did it as if his life was all about show business. In the blather, we forget that the Reagan Revolution bequeathed us with a world that is infinitely more dangerous and divided than ever before. George Bush Senior was a poor second act after Reagan left office. The true heir to Reagan is Bush's son, another fake cowboy with an attitude whose distaste for the world is matched by his desire to reshape it in his image. Reagan the original is gone. We are now characters in the serial.

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