“Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?” –Ronald Reagan
They’ve named schools after him. They’ve named parks after him. They’ve named government buildings after him. They’ve named freeways after him. They’ve even (irony alert #1) named a major airport after him, even though he seriously jeopardized passenger safety by firing nearly 1200 air traffic controllers who dared go on strike for better working conditions. And they’re just getting wound up.
They’ve proposed putting Reagan’s face on Mt. Rushmore, on the dime, and on the ten-dollar bill (“Hamilton was a great man, but it’s time to move on”, they said). They proposed doing these last two while he was still alive, even though it was prohibited by law – a law that was (irony alert #2) signed into effect by none other than Ronald Reagan. Let’s face it: sooner or later, everything in the U.S. will be named after The Gipper if they have their way.
And who exactly are “they”? They are The Cult Of Ron Worship, a de facto organization spearheaded by an official organization called the Reagan Legacy Project, whose avowed aim is to put their idol’s name on at least one landmark in each of the 3000 counties in the United States, as well as in several former communist nations. Once you’ve stopped laughing, know that they not only are quite in earnest, but are well on the way to achieving their objective. This is their way of celebrating the “legacy” of a president who (irony alert #3) allegedly was supremely popular and populist: not by letting his achievements speak for themselves, thus inspiring the citizenry to honor him on their own, but by orchestrating an intense drive to leave his name in wet cement everywhere, whether the citizens want it there or no.
It’s a good bet that (irony alert #4) many of these people are Christian fundamentalists, and yet they seem to be totally oblivious to one of the fundamentalist tenets referred to as “the mark of the beast”. At least Reagan himself (or more likely Nancy Reagan herself) appears to have been cognizant of the biblically-inspired superstitions surrounding the number 666. Because that was the original address of the Los Angeles home they moved into upon his retirement – after having the address officially changed to 668. Sorry, Ron, but you can’t escape your destiny that easily: just count the letters in the name Ronald Wilson Reagan.
But back to the real world. There are also plenty of legitimate reasons why it’s very curious that right-wingers should be so in love with the man. He was simply (irony alert # 5) not nearly as right-wing himself as both right-wingers and left-wingers tend to believe. Sure, he was a virulent corporatist who opposed any kind of restriction on corporate profits, especially those that might insure better conditions for workers or offer some protection to the environment. And he was a fiercely nationalist hawk of hawks, bent on bullying the rest of the galaxy into bowing down and acknowledging American supremacy.
But he also taxed and spent as if there were no tomorrow. And he granted amnesty to illegal aliens. He even flunked the litmus test on the mother-lode issue of wingnut propaganda, abortion: officially, he marched in step with the “pro-life” contingent of his party and gave lip service to its naive advocacy of government-induced prohibition as a supposed solution, but in practice he never actually did a damn thing about it. And as governor of California a few years earlier, he’d signed a bill actually liberalizing abortion rights. If an individual of his track record tried to crash today’s Tea Party, he’d be shown the door pronto (pardon the un-Amurrcan vocabulary, tea partiers). He was neither an extreme conservative in the true sense of the word, nor an extreme “conservative” in the radical Republican sense of the word. Today’s fanatics who proclaim themselves “Reagan conservatives” (I’m gazing northward, Sarah) are simply displaying how little they really know about the demigod whose boots they lick.
On a recent bout of his radio program, Rush Limbaugh had his smoochfest with St. Ronald interrupted by an informed and articulate caller who asked him just why “conservatives” are so enamored of the character who did so many things they claim to oppose, such as arming terrorists, expanding the government, enlarging the debt and raising taxes. After considerable stammering (and no doubt wondering how the hell this guy managed to get past his call screeners) Limbaugh finally said, “Where did you get this silly notion that Reagan raised taxes on social security?” Ummm… ever hear of a silly little thing called research, Rush? (He didn’t even bother denying all the other tax hikes.)
But then ideology is based on convictions, not facts. And Reagan was certainly a man of convictions, or at least a man who convinced you of his convictions. Despite his shortcomings as a communicator, he was a great salesman, a rather accomplished storyteller, and an absolutely phenomenal con artist. And as such he has been selected as a deified figurehead by today’s neocons, who willfully turn a blind eye to his actual performance in office. Warren G. Harding once commented of another American historical figure whose exploits had been exaggerated, “I love Paul Revere, whether he rode or not.” Likewise, today’s teabag crowd is determined to love Ronald Reagan, whether he was really Ronald Reagan or not.
And that’s really not so surprising, given that His Lordship got the ball rolling for them by constructing myths about himself. His administration practiced what they referred to as “perception management”, an Orwellian euphemism (he was president in 1984, after all) for using government agencies, think tanks and media connections to manipulate public opinion – paving the way for the near-total media subservience under George W. Bush some 20 years later. As his spokesperson Larry Speakes said to the media, “You don’t tell us how to stage the news, and we don’t tell you how to cover it.” The Reagan years saw the death of the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of Fox “News”, Rush Limbaugh and the Moonie-owned Washington Times, which Reagan called his favorite newspaper; and the revival of the McCarthyist attitude that right-wing demagoguery is patriotism, and dissent is sedition (if and only if there’s a Republican in the White House). In the oft-quoted phrase coined by Reagan acolyte Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the “San Francisco Democrats” who dare criticize Reaganistic policy “always blame America first”.
He was always willing to say exactly what his followers wanted to hear, and to present himself as the knight in shining armor, whether or not his statements bore any resemblance at all to reality. He tried to justify his massive cuts in social services by concocting the story of the black welfare queen who drove down to pick up her food stamps in a Cadillac, and by insisting that Americans, being Good Christians, would contribute a tenth of their income to worthy causes, as exhorted by the Bible; while his own tax records reveal that he himself contributed only about a tenth of a tenth.
There was hardly a fact in existence anywhere that he wasn’t willing to drape with a myth in order to advance an ideology. He claimed (and perhaps believed) that 80% of our air pollution is caused by plants; that a year’s worth of nuclear waste can be “stored under a desk”, and that the homeless sleep in the streets because they choose to. When he paid tribute to Nazi soldiers in Bitburg, he referred to them as “victims”, quite oblivious to the import of his words or deeds.
And then there was the crowning glory of his administration: the illegal sale of weapons to a hostile nation, and the illegal funneling of the profits to a group of drug-running terrorists in Central America. He referred to these thugs, who were known to bomb hospitals and rape nuns among other amusements, as “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers”, and christened them “freedom fighters”. (A one-liner making the rounds at the time was, “if fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?”) When it came out that some nuns were among the casualties in one terrorist attack by “freedom fighters”, the administration claimed (at least initially) that they were actually secret agents, apparently working for God with one hand and Marx with the other.
It is entirely fitting that Reagan should have so eagerly adopted the nickname The Gipper, from his portrayal of a Notre Dame football player named George Gipp in the film “Knute Rockne, All American”. In this flick the legendary coach Knute Rockne rallies his team to victory with a tear-jerking halftime speech about how Gipp, on his deathbed, asked the coach at some opportune future time to “win one for The Gipper”, a phrase Reagan later adopted as his own rallying cry. Gipp was a real player, but both he and Rockne were far from being the honorable, clean-living heroes presented in the film. And Rockne never heard Gipp say those words; so if he actually used that line on his team, he was simply being, like Reagan, a good storyteller.
In other words, The Washington Gipper, like the Hollywood Gipper, was a person who never really existed.
But he’s coming soon, to an inconvenient location near you.