Reagan, Nixon and Bush
Issue #68, September 2004
At the time when Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in 1981, my son was just shy of six years old, and was in his kindergarten class. I was a lifelong resident of California who had disliked Reagan going back to his days as our Governor, and I certainly wasn't looking forward to the new president's leadership in the White House. Nonetheless, like most people, I was taken aback by the assassination attempt, and felt it important that, as a father, I made sure the right message was passed along to my kids (our daughter was barely three years old). And so I traveled up to my son's elementary school and pulled him out of class for the rest of the day. I just felt the need to impress upon the youngster that this was not how we did things, that shooting our leaders was not an appropriate action, and that life shouldn't just go along as if nothing had happened, when something had indeed happened.
That son is almost 30 years old now, and when he called me on the phone last year to talk about the death of Ronald Reagan, he wasn't exactly sobbing. Nor was I; on my blog, I posted a picture of Ronnie with the simple epitaph "Rot in hell, you worthless prick." Death comes to us all, and while I still believe that assassination should be outside of our communal notions of proper behavior, I didn't feel the need to respect the dead in this case, Reagan having died of "natural causes." I understood the high road taken by many liberal and leftist bloggers after the demise of the Great Communicator ... no need to give ammunition to those who would claim people like me were desecrating the dead. I understood, but I felt far too childish and spiteful to follow their admirable examples. And as the endless Ronnie Lovefest continued across America in the days that followed, I confess I was glad for my little outburst, a brief attempt to say "NO" to all the revisionist crap that was flooding our collective consciousness.
Having said all of this, I must confess that Ronald Reagan was never my favorite Guy to Hate. Charlie Bertsch convinced me some time ago that Reagan's benign surface disguised a man who did more harm to our country than Richard Nixon, but it was no contest for me ... for most of my life since '68, I had never hated a president as much as I hated Nixon.
Perhaps it was the influence of Hunter S. Thompson, whose best period as a writer came during the reign of Tricky Dick. Thompson was never so inspired as when he was composing ranting screeds about the evil one, and there are few obituaries more heartfelt than the one HST wrote for Rolling Stone when Nixon finally croaked:
He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.
I am used to living under presidents who don't meet my political standards. I was raised by my Kentucky grandmother to believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt was the greatest of all Americans, and I never saw a President in my own lifetime to match the vision of FDR passed on to me from my forebears (not to mention that my own politics moved far to the left of the Democratic Party). Nonetheless, the presidents I disagreed with struck me as simply that, presidents I disagreed with. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, gave us corruption unencumbered by any sense of decency. His politics were pretty mainstream for his time, but his vile abuse of his office should never be excused under the standard explanation of "business as usual."
Against that, what could Reagan possibly do to supplant Nixon in my heart as the Man I Loved to Hate. And Reagan covered up his ugly combination of ineptitude and god-inspired craziness with an amiable persona that suckered even those of us who thought him a terrible president. In fact, when Charlie talked to me about how destructive Reagan's presidency was, I almost wanted to defend Ronnie, for how could someone so brain-dead cause so much damage? Reagan wasn't worth my ire; Nixon, now there was someone you could sink your teeth into.
But Charlie was right: Reagan presided over some of the worst follies in recent American history. That he was more comfortable with the camera than was Nixon shouldn't matter in the end. And so it's now, with Ronnie long since lost to the world around him and now finally food for the worms, that I can finally treat Ronald Reagan with the contempt he has always deserved. Good riddance, Mr. President.
And yet ... even with all of that, Reagan is not the one to replace Nixon in my heart. Which isn't to suggest that I still believe Richard Nixon to be the worst president in my lifetime. No, Dick's place has been supplanted by our current President Bush, who combines the worst qualities of Nixon and Reagan: he's at least as corrupt as Nixon, and if possible even less concerned about the implications of that corruption than was Dick, but he's also as cluelessly inept as Reagan and, if anything, even more tied to a destructive reduction of Christianity. Bush inspires the way Nixon inspired; while Dubya has a certain charm that is reminiscent of Reagan's, it's supplemented by a smarmy arrogance that Reagan, at least, had the decency to hide. Nixon was never arrogant in this way; Nixon always seemed to hate himself almost as much as he hated the people who didn't give him due respect. But the current President Bush is completely confident that his way is the right way. That confidence, that arrogance, shows itself in Bush's trademark smirk ... this isn't the Great Communicator, for sure, it's more like the Great Smart-Ass.
What a combination: arrogance, stupidity, fundamentalist intolerance, and power. That's Dubya.
And so, Ronald Reagan died, and for a moment we thought happily about how those two scourges of American life, Nixon and Reagan, were finally joined together in the ground. But a moment's happiness was all we got, because no sooner do we think about the legacy of those two putrid stains on American life then we are reminded of the greatest legacy of all: that the man who currently holds down the job of President surpasses his influential forefathers, leaving a foul and rotten odor over all of America, indeed over all of the world. Don't cry for Ronald Reagan, cry for us, for we are still alive, and so is George W. Bush.