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Happy Birthday, Mr. Fortieth President! | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Fortieth President!


Ronald Reagan at a rally in 1984. (Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.)

I missed a friend’s birthday a couple of weeks ago. February 6 was the 102nd anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the old fellow, as some of you know, working on a book, and I really should make amends. Because he astonishes me. A man as myopic as what you’ll be seeing below really deserves some sort of recognition. He really, really does.

As I noted in a recent post on Reagan’s contribution to the ideology of NRA vigilantism, I spent a goodly amount of time this previous summer at the Hoover Institution at Stanford listening to the daily radio broadcasts broadcasts by which he reintroduced himself politically to the nation, beginning in 1975, following his second term as governor of California. Listening to Reagan with Google by my side was an astonishment, even knowing how much he habitually stretched the truth. There was the time I heard him make an impassioned brief against the Ahab-like maritime bureaucrats insisting that a steamship that plied its trade up and down the Mississippi for tourists, the Delta Queen, be fireproofed according to law, which her owners said would put her out of business. Even though she “has never had a fire…. No matter, said the bureaucrats in Washington. The Delta Queen could not be made an exception.”

I went on Google Newspapers, typed in “Delta Queen” and “fire.” And learned…she had caught on fire little more than two years earlier.

Fact-checking Ronald Reagan has been, sometimes, almost comical. But it sometimes makes you want to punch through a window, too. In July of 1975 he made an especially aggressive broadcast attacking “the innuendos and the accusations that the CIA and our government had a hand in bringing about the downfall of the government of Chile.” (It wasn’t innuendo, as a Church Committee report published in 1976 definitively proved, and which Reagan, as a member of the blue ribbon Rockefeller Commission investigating the CIA that year had to have known when he uttered the words.)

He went on to flay congressmen who “act as if fascism had been imposed on the Chileans, to their great distress and unhappiness.”

He then cited a recent unprecedented Gallup poll undertaken in the South American nation. It recorded that 83 percent “agree with the new government’s statement of principles,” over 90 percent said “the government has either completed, or nearly completed, these principles, which include that freedom of thought will be respected,”; that 64 percent thought they were “living better”; 75 percent liked their medical care; 73 percent thought conditions would improve (only 11 percent disagreed). As for the new government which had brought their nation to this happy pass, “60 percent gave it the highest rating possible and only 3 percent feel it was bad. This is quite a contrast to much of what we’ve heard in the news about a reign of terror, political prisoners, torture and a depressed and frightened populace!”

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The paradox will give you a headache, right? Polling only works in a country without a depressed, frightened populace. Where the public trusts authorities enough to tell them the truth without fear of retribution. Chileans, since September 11, 1973, had lived under an official “state of siege,” renewed every month by military decree and not lifted until 1978—at which point General Pinochet revised the state of siege to a mere “state of emergency.” The new rules, he magnanimously explained, meant “I cannot banish anyone for more than six months and there will be no more trials of a military nature” (through the nightly curfew would remain in force). “This is not a threat but I am testing how people will behave,” he said. “The reality is that we are living in a tranquil period and there is support for the government. I believe that this backing permits me to lift the state of siege and maintain only a state of emergency.”

And what did he offer as his evidence, in 1978, that these “relaxed” measures were acceptable? Ironically enough, a Gallup Poll citing 80.6 percent support for his government.

Back in 1975, meanwhile, the first time Gallup came calling in Santiago, by public law the military junta could banish anyone they wanted, and keep them “in detention in locations other than regular prisons”—such as, infamously, the national soccer stadium, where some 40,000 political enemies had been held. By private law, thousands of regime enemies were simply “disappeared,” including an Air Force official, Alberto Bachelet, who was tortured to death in 1974 (the papers reported he died from cardiac arrest in a basketball game). His daughter and mother were picked up for detention and torture six months before this Reagan broadcast. Would you speak truthfully to a stranger bearing a clipboard in a country like that?

Apparently Ronald Reagan never thought of that. Gallup said Chileans loved their ruler, and that was good enough for him. Put simply, there were good guys and bad guys. Augusto Pinochet, vociferously anti-Communist, was one of the good ones.

Call it a preview of what was to come, ten years later, when he called the proprietors of another set of death squads, the Nicaraguan Contras, “our brothers,” “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French resistance.” Happy birthday, Mr. President!

Even expanding preschool education, which is shown to boost later academic performance, will be a tough sell for Barack Obama with this Congress, Rick Perlstein writes.

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