Where's the Rest of Him?
Monday, June 7 2004, 8:35 PM
Both in the 1980s and in the days following his death, Ronald Reagan was widely credited with having ended the 'malaise' that supposedly gripped the United States in the decade before his presidency. Perhaps we might still wonder about the accuracy of the diagnosis, but there can be no doubting the fact that Reagan's ministrations changed the country's mood. Yet, what brought us out of our depressed condition was not a lengthy process of analysis, but the political equivalent of methamphetamine: an emotionally satisfying, though highly addictive and deeply contradictory combination of xenophobic nationalism, radical individualism, and fire-and-brimstone religious fundamentalism. Its character is summed up by the moment that best offsets and corrects the former president's image as that of a warm, compassionate father-figure — his cavalier joke about initiating the massacre of millions, tossed off while taping a weekly radio address: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
Less satisfying, though equally pervasive, is the claim that as president, Reagan was responsible for ending the Cold War. While the thesis that the Soviet Union collapsed under the combined weight of an arms race with the United States and a war with Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan has much to recommend it, both policies were designed and implemented by the Carter administration. Reagan and his cabinet merely carried them to their conclusion. Still, credit should be given where it is due. His vigorous pursuit of the arms buildup opened a new era of reckless deficit spending now being driven to new heights by Bush the Younger. His support for Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan paved the Taliban's road to power and jump-started the career of Osama bin Laden. Some might express surprise or even disbelief at the Reagan administration's cozy relationship with terrorism. Yet, the Reagan White House was a devoted sponsor of terrorist groups, illegally shipping arms to Nicaraguan and Angolan insurgents whose favorite targets for destruction were clinics and schools.
Reagan's real successes, though, came as a class warrior for big business. He made union-busting fashionable again. He oversaw the transformation of a high-wage manufacturing economy into a low-wage service economy. Workers wages plummeted, while corporate profits soared. Health care became harder to find. Retirement benefits began to run dry. Homeless shelters filled to capacity. At the beginning of the Reagan era, the richest 1% of Americans owned 33% of the country's wealth. By the end of Reagan's two terms in office, their share had increased to 37%. During the same period, the bottom 40% saw their share of the national wealth drop from .9% to less than .1%. All throughout, the Reagan magic lay in convincing most of the people, most of the time, that this was truly the American way: government was the problem, unions were corrupt bureaucracies, welfare mothers were buying Cadillacs with their tax dollars, and if the rich got richer while the poor got poorer, it was all due to rugged individualism or the failure to achieve.
The saccharine remembrances that filled the media in the wake of his passing have carefully airbrushed our picture of that time, leaving an image wholly compatible with Reagan's own shiny, shallow rhetoric. If we were to see them re-cut, inserting another person's face and some foreign-sounding names, we would surely dismiss them as pieces of ham-fisted propaganda. Perhaps a lingering superstition leaves us fearful of vexing the dead. Or perhaps (as I think is more likely the case) we live in Reagan's America still. Bill Clinton, who in 1992 had the best opportunity to play Khrushchev, faltered at the task, giving up on his national health care plan and signing into law the thoroughly Reaganite Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Bush the Younger has found political capital in miming Reagan's best routines: simple answers and cocky one-liners delivered in a down-home, folksy accent. Two decades on, the malaise is still kept at bay. But as we now live in a more unequal society, a more segregated society, a more fearful society it is worth asking whether the malaise was itself the problem or merely the symptom of a deeper ill, now muted, though still untreated.
J. C. Myers is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.