Dan Weisman, Ah-Ha Rancho Santa Fe founder/editor
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With all due respect, the overblown hype surrounding Ronald Reagan's presidency on the part of Republican stalwarts is long overdue for a much needed reality check and historical correction.
Reagan's legacy of eliminating government and empowering self-interest -- and by extension, greed -- of neglecting the many rungs of society in favor of "trickle-down" chimeras ultimately is what brought America to its current condition, on the mat and greatly in need of a massive makeover.
The so-called "Reagan Revolution" was nothing more than an attempt by those with power and money to keep what they have and get as much more as possible. Obviously, it worked well for them since the disparity of wealth from rich to poor is the greatest in U.S. history since the 1880s, the Gilded Age when excess ruled, and the 1920s, followed as it were by the correction of the Great Depression.
Another great correction is in order. It needs to take place in all aspects of American life, from the externalities of government and the use of power to the very innards of the American soul.
Part of this process is calling out history, placing proper perspective on historical facts rather than political fictions.
One of the biggest fictions of all is this attempt by ultra-conservative partisans to paint the Reagan administration and Reagan years as a time of great achievement and template for society.
Let us examine the actualities and their consequences as we debunk the Reagan mythology that brought us to this moment of economic ruin and foreign adventurism.
Reagan and the cult of personality
Reagan had the force of personality perfect, as it turned out, for the newly emerging age of mass communication where picture trumped platform. Even he joked often about his B-movie career that morphed into leadership of the actor's union and a huge popularity bump as television host.
Reagan's purely political career took off as he prominently supportedin 1960, then very actively campaigned on behalf of Barry Goldwater's 1964 reactionary push-back to equal rights at home and morality in foreign affairs. Those speeches and campaigning on Goldwater's behalf catapulted Reagan to national political prominence.
Running against an unpopular California governor, riding the backlash against the University of California Berkeley free speech movement, as well as minorities and so-called permissive liberals, Reagan won a million vote landslide in 1966.
Fast-forwarding past LBJ and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, the Reagan public relations machine emerged as the conservative alternative to progressive thought in the 1970s. But that, in itself, was not enough to get past public perception of him as an actor turned political wannabe with credibility issues.
Reagan very narrowly failed to dislodgeas Republican standard-bearer in 1976, not surprising since Ford had the power of the presidency at his back. But that campaign, followed by the ambiguity and lack of focus of the Carter presidency put Reagan in the catbird's seat for a 1980 presidential run.
Two events in 1979 set the stage for Reagan's ascension to the presidency. Neither had anything to do with his so-called philosophy, personal charisma or political competence.
The Arab oil crisis resulting in massive gasoline shortages, lines and rationing coupled with the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran completely derailed an already shaky Carter administration.
While Reagan can't be implicated in the energy crisis, we now know there was an arms-for-hostages quid pro quo allowing that all-consuming issue to fester during the 1980 presidential campaign, virtually ensuring Reagan's election. He got 51 percent of the vote. The hostages, in fact, were released mere minutes after he took the oath of office, Jan. 20, 1981.
Lessons of the 1980s
The 1980 election had nothing to do with conservative philosophy or the desire of Americans to dismantle the FDR-JFK-LBJ legacy of a government helping people, working with people to improve their lot. But the American people got the Reagan acolytes and their cynically selective use of government to suit their own purposes, mainly greed and the permanent retention of political power.
The 1980s are widely recognized as an era of excess, Wall Street run amuck, so famously encapsulated in Oliver Stone's Gordon Gecko "greed is good" mantra. In most matters political, the Reaganites talked about government being the problem with private enterprise the solution.
Again in fact, that governmental disdain only went so far. It went as far as the poor and disenfranchised as the Reagan administration curtailed programs costing pennies to aid the unfortunate and downtrodden, even as it spent massive dollars on defense including harebrained missile systems that never worked, but cost billions.
For all their talk about ending government interference in people's lives, the Reaganites sought to use government to enforce their concepts of morality, perhaps best personified by their simplistic, even racist Just Say No drug campaigns targeting minorities.
The Reagan years can be appreciated all the better in retrospect. The Cold War provided an external threat distracting people from internal problems, a sort of sleight-of-political-hand job. Reagan's powerful personality and simplistic world view allowed his minions to overcome potential economic disconnects with working class and middle-class White voters who proved the difference-makers in keeping him in office. Demographics, while changing, continued to favor older, more conservative candidates. The Democratic Party was in disarray.
A 1984 election landslide gave the Reagan "Revolution", rather a counter-revolution, the numbers in Washington to do as they would. They carried on well enough even to elect George Bush, our first, who was, people forget, a fairly unpopular figure at the time. But the Reagan apparatus, dedicated to preserving influence, rode the Reagan name into a figurative third term.
The Reagan "Tear down this wall" Berlin myth debunked: Reagan to Bush I to what?
We can appreciate now the entire sequence of Reagan-to-Bush I had nothing to do with the proposition government was evil and should get out of people's lives, as hypocritical as was that position. All today agree many people voted for the public, and popular, image of Reaganism, even when it ran counter to their own economic self-interest.
Masters of public relations, in effect turning around the Nixon mistakes with a vision of self-aggrandizement, the Reagan PR machine churned out messages fine-tuned to their target audience, whether, or not, the message had a basis in actuality.
Coincidental with all this, the Soviet Union collapsed. This was a result of decades of internal pressure, and a geopolitical grasp loosened by Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity Movement in Poland that swiftly altered the political equation throughout Eastern Europe. The removal of the imbalance of economic design propping up Sovietism through its Eastern European colonies caused its demise, not Reagan policies.
Perhaps the greatest myth of all about this time period is that the "Bring down this wall" speech given by Reagan at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987 somehow was responsible for the wall coming down.
Indeed, the Reagan Presidential Library video promoting the recently instituted privately-funded Reagan Centennial Commission to plan events celebrating the birth of the 40th president, which happened Feb. 6, 1911, showed Reagan's famous speech excerpt followed immediately by video of the Berlin Wall being taken down.
The wall came down more than two years after the speech and the speech had nothing to do with it. In fact, Reagan never saw the wall fall during his presidency.
As every historian acknowledges, and people at the time knew, the wall came down by accident. Bush I famously is documented at the Oval Office, acknowledging later in interviews, being completely surprised by the event, meeting with advisors who didn't know how to respond. They did nothing at the time, fearing any action would damage relations with the Soviet Union, which were improving rapidly due to Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost, or openness.
This is what actually happened: The East German government, due to pressures surrounding the collapse of Soviet-organized Eastern Block governments, as well as internal pressures, decided to allow a trickle of refugees to go to the West.
Many refugees very publicly were escaping through Austria at newly opened Hungarian borders as well as, a bit later, newly opened Czechoslovakian border crossings, and through other means. This created a tremendous public perception problem for the iron-fist government.
Meanwhile, East German public protests fueled by students, emboldened by the example of Chinese students at Tienanmen Square a few months earlier, were gaining traction. Statements by military officials they would shoot protestors in the streets a'la the Chinese military response, created widespread consternation on the part of citizens as well as many government leaders.
East German leaders decided to create an orderly process whereby a few refugees could pass through the Brandenberg Gate to West Berlin.
However, a wild accident of history took place at the news conference announcing the policy. The East German official announcing the policy -- actually, a lower-level press functionary -- took questions from journalists. One journalist asked if this new policy meant East Germans were free to go to the West. Without thinking, the official simply said yes, the wall is open, not repeating the information about the orderly, government-controlled exit plan.
East Germans flocked to the Berlin Wall in incredible numbers as word immediately got out about this amazing statement. Within days, not only did the massive number of people overwhelm border guards, but most guards joined the movement.
The East German goverment effectively had collapsed and the people tore down the wall around Nov. 9, 1989, more than two years after the Reagan speech. Not one person on the ground at that time cited Reagan's speech as a factor in any way.
As historical accidents would have it
However, due to the historical accident of Reagan happening to be president around that time, and the landmark removal of the Berlin Wall, the Reagan-Bush PR machine claimed they had won the Cold War. This extreme fallacy continues to be a pillar in the Reagan and GOP mythology, although most historians know better.
Bush I couldn't overcome his own lack of popularity and lack of achievement in 1992.brilliantly coupled more traditional Democratic Party advantages in what we now call blue states with a favorite son pull in Southern red states into a powerful win.
While we may continue to argue about Clinton as liberal v. conservative in values, we can not dispute a more natural return to government as a tool to aid people rather than enemy during his terms in office. Clinton's downfall in effectiveness had nothing to do with this philosophy. It had everything to do with issues of morality and Republican Party partisanship, cynically using personal issues to regain their stranglehold on power in order to generate personal or collegial gain.
Which brings us to George W. Bush III. In an America deeply divided by personal politics, not philosophy, Bush lost the popular vote, but won the presidency through the 18th Century device of an overriding electoral college, and a one vote Supreme Court decision.
Bush, the lately, didn't win in the least on a mandate of dismantling government to its very core. But that's who, and what, we got along with a Republican majority in Congress, whose disastrous legacy we now are in the process of possibly unraveling, although yet another arcane rule of law allowing 40-vote filibusters in the U.S. Senate has stalled progress.
And now, the future
The Bush years of government neglect have ended. This horrific group encouraged the seeds of economic greed and ruin, massively debilitating federal debt, public and foreign policy drift, disgrace and tortuous political and personal immorality; not to mention legacy of torture as policy, Katrina, lying the nation into war, spying without authorization on its own citizens, disregard for the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution and, well, a seemingly endless list of malfeasance, misfeasance and whatever other nonfeasance we now know or will discover in time.
The Reagan "government is the problem" mantra was never the sentiment of the American people. Government is an important, overwhelming force that can be a wave lifting up the people when applied with honesty, intelligence and good purpose.
Government is not the problem. It is the grand hope. Just ask our Founding Fathers who gave us a Constitution creating a more perfect union on Sept. 17, 1787. Just ask Joe Workingman and Jane Workingwoman who desperately need its help today.
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