It’s not a hard task, indeed it’s an agreeable one, to dishonor Ronald Reagan by listing his infamies on the centenary of his birth. But such simple iteration misses the weirdness of his malign vacuity, so inbuilt that today his sons cannot agree on whether he had Alzheimer’s in his second term. How could they tell?
Start with the 1981 onslaught on organized labor by his firing of the striking air-traffic controllers, whose union had endorsed him; continue with the onslaughts on welfare and the insistence that government was at all times a malign force. The attack on government took many concrete forms—including deregulation of the savings and loan industry, with subsequent meltdown of same in an orgy of pillage.
Reagan’s initial executives, James Watt at Interior and Anne Gorsuch at the EPA, assigned to ravish America’s landscapes and distribute public lands to mining conglomerates, timber companies and corporate concessionaires in the national parks, overplayed their hands, proposing giveaways so outrageous that environmentalists, led by the arch druid, David Brower, were able to beat them back. But long term, Reagan’s environmental appointees were able to set an agenda of destruction smoothly consummated by later presidents.
There wasn’t a torturer in Latin America who didn’t raise a cheer when Reagan was elected, even though Carter hadn’t particularly cramped their style. They were right to exult. In Guatemala, Ríos Montt plunged into the darkest butcheries, with Reagan’s green light for the frightful bloodletting in which perhaps 200,000 Guatemalans died, most particularly Mayan campesinos. RENAMO perpetrated ghastly massacres in Mozambique, spurred on and backed by Reagan’s men, working in league with South Africa’s apartheid regime, much admired by Reagan. Fresh from honoring the SS men buried in Bitburg, Germany, he went two days later to Spain, where he declared that the Lincoln Brigade and the defenders of the Republic had fought on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.
Reagan presided over a carnival of corruption and greed at the Pentagon, especially the billion-dollar feeding trough of SDI. Today, hundreds of billions of dollars in R&D and procurement later, the scheme remains as absurd as ever. There was no border in Reagan’s mind between fantasy and fact. He told Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister of Israel, that he had helped to liberate Auschwitz and returned to Hollywood with film footage of the awful scenes he had witnessed. It was all a lie.
The elite press institutions diligently fostered the cold war fantasies that powered Reagan’s 1980 campaign, such as Clare Sterling, Shirley Christian and Robert Moss’s imaginary Soviet “terror networks.” They lauded his leaden and childish oratory. Though the Tower Commission showed that Reagan was thoroughly apprised of the illegal activities in the “Contragate” conspiracy and had authorized them, commentators like Mark Shields made haste to affirm that the president had been the “victim of a bloodless coup in the White House,” which “he didn’t know about.”
Night after night, news anchors such as John Chancellor of NBC maintained that Reagan was guilty only of the crime of inattention, that “nobody wants him to fail.” Millions wanted him to fail. On March 9, 1987, in the aftermath of Contragate, Newsweek published a poll showing that more than half of Americans disapproved of the way he was doing his job, and less than half had confidence he would “do the right thing.” Another poll showed a majority deeming him a liar.
He was a vicious, ignorant man, snoozing over TV dinners with “Mommy” by his side, with a breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of his decisions. He was surrounded by scoundrels large and small. Probably the worst was CIA chief William Casey. The people who did trust Reagan were mostly white men, the petit bourgeois, small-business owners, some (sometimes many) construction workers, many ordinary folk up and down the map who wanted a world much as it had been in the 1950s. Them, he betrayed. Reagan’s rhetoric was anti-government, but in fact he was pressing programmatically for a different use of government power, in which the major corporations would occupy a much stronger position. The Tea Party is a later chapter in this saga. The essence of Reaganism and its malign and enduring impact on our culture was anticipated by Daniel Boorstin in The Genius of American Politics (1953). “The character of our national heroes,” he wrote, “bears witness to our belief in ‘givenness,’ our preference for the man who seizes his God-given opportunities…. Perhaps never before has there been such a thorough identification of normality and virtue. A ‘red-blooded’ American must be a virtuous American…Paul Bunyan, the giant woodsman of the forest frontier (as James Stevens describes him), felt amazed beyond words that the simple fact of entering Real America and becoming a Real American could make him feel so exalted, so pure, so noble, so good…. He now felt that he could whip his weight in wildcats, that he could pull the clouds out of the sky, or chew up stones, or tell the whole world anything.”
This is the language acolytes like Peggy Noonan use constantly about Reagan—his directness, his manliness, his innate grace and a hundred other pieties. Reagan and his publicists tapped into the Bunyan myth, never forgetting that “a real American” would always be the sworn foe of treachery to “Real America,” whether it was nourished by communists in Hollywood or air-traffic controllers. He launched his 1966 California gubernatorial campaign by vowing to send “the welfare bums back to work” and “clean up the mess at Berkeley.” How he would have savored Glenn Beck’s demonization of Frances Fox Piven! He perfected the genre, just as he shaped a goodly slice of the fantasies destroying America.