The Great Ronald Reagan Scam, Part 2: The Cult Of Ron Worship

“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.

The Great Ronald Reagan Scam, Part 1: Man and Myth

 

“Facts are stupid things” — Ronald Reagan

Sunday is a very special day, eh what? Americans everywhere are waxing misty-eyed because it marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the beloved Gipper. Politicians, pundits and preachers are praising in chorus the virtues of the late great Ronald Reagan. Through a great deal of arm-twisting, even Sarah Palin has been coaxed out of seclusion and persuaded to defy her shyness and make a rare public appearance to speak in his honor. The Young Americas Foundation has even pledged to celebrate his birthday not just for one day, but an entire year. All of which prompts just one little question…

WTF?????

So extreme is the exaltation of St. Ronald that anyone who dares question his supreme greatness is subject to being branded a communist, a traitor, a terrorist coddler, a librul, a hippie and a bona fide baby-sacrificing devil worshiper. Well, we’ve never been prone to shy away from risk. So this is not only going to be a questioning of the Reagan myth but a shattering of it. Actually, it’s not just one myth but many. So let’s take a look at some of them, shall we?

Myth # 1: He was an enormously popular leader who unified the nation and revived national pride.

In almost any discussion about “Dutch” of more than 3 or 4 paragraphs, it’s just about inevitable that the word “popular” will crop up; and if it’s a discussion of more than a page or so, you’re just about guaranteed to hear the claim that in addition to being one of the greatest presidents ever, he was one of the most popular ever. But the numbers show that he was actually one of the least popular. In fact, since presidential approval began to be assessed during the FDR administration, only one president (Nixon) achieved a lower peak rating than Reagan. That’s right: even such alleged “failures” as Ford and Carter scored higher.

Furthermore, he achieved the fifth-highest disapproval rating. Toward the end of his term, he was less admired by Americans than was Mikhail Gorbachev, for crying out loud. Far from unifying the country, he was one of the most polarizing figures in the nation’s history. Many of the actions his administration undertook (e.g., gutting environmental protections and REPEATEDLY supporting terrorists and brutal dictatorships) were fiercely and genuinely divisive (as opposed to the “divisiveness” manufactured by opponents of the Obama administration by deliberately distorting his record).  For every American who was “proud” because of him, there was at least one who was embarrassed as hell.

Myth # 2. He won the Cold War and brought down the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev, when asked about this, replied, “That’s not serious.” But to many Americans, it’s dead serious. The official spin, which is already being injected into textbooks, is that by challenging the Evil Empire to a spending duel, he brought them to bankruptcy. Well, it certainly worked in reverse, bringing the U.S. to bankruptcy, but as for its effect on the USSR, there are at least a couple of problems with this assertion: (1) The Soviet Union began collapsing almost from day one; and according to CIA intel, it was already on the brink a decade or so before Reagan took office; and (2) The Soviets didn’t take the bait – they were vastly outgunned and they knew it.

So think about it: if you were challenged to compare military toys by a giant, would you (A) rush headlong into a confrontation you know you can’t win, or (B) give some semblance of being competitive while allowing the giant to exhaust itself? Far from ending the Cold War, Reagan’s cowboy bluster may have dragged it out unnecessarily. Worse, it sowed the seeds of a future conflict that would prove to be far deadlier. For in arming and training insurgents to rise up against the Russians in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration first enabled, then disillusioned a young hothead named Osama bin Laden.

Myth # 3. He was a man of impeccable character.

Only if “character” means lying through your teeth. A few years ago, a bipartisan panel of journalists rated the last few presidents on their mendacity, judging not only the number of lies told but also their severity. Reagan rated as the second biggest liar, being bested only by Bush the Younger (probably the all-time champion) [This was written before 45 came along]. Such evaluations always entail a certain amount of subjectivity, but in this case half the panel were right-wingers, who almost always defend their own at all costs.

And there’s another factor to consider: unlike Dubya and his crew, whose facial expressions often gave them away, Reagan was a highly skilled liar. He delivered even the wildest fibs with such sincerity that you’d think he believed them himself (and maybe sometimes he did, but that’s another story.) Among other things, he lied to pad his own resume; he claimed, for instance, to have filmed the liberation of POW’s from a Nazi concentration camp, when in the real world he spent the entire war in California. He also liked to relate the anecdote of how during his early days as a sports broadcaster he once improvised for six minutes when the ticker tape went dead during the broadcast of a baseball game. The incident really did happen, but the announcer involved was Walter Cronkite, who related it to Reagan, who then adopted it as his own. Not only was he willing to lie, he was perfectly willing to take credit for other people’s actions.

Often, in order to avoid giving fraudulent information, he would just say “I don’t recall” – a phrase he and his underlings used so frequently he could have trademarked it. During the hearings over Iran-Contra (and how was THAT for a character caper), his National Security Adviser, one Colin Powell, used the phrase 56 times. Another trick he used for evading questions was simply to pretend he couldn’t hear reporters because of whatever noise conveniently happened to be nearby.

Myth # 4: He was The Great Communicator.

If so, someone forgot to inform his own aides, who often found themselves scrambling after reporters at the conclusion of a media conference to explain what the prez really meant by that bizarre statement he just made. The truth is that many Americans were so infatuated with his avuncular persona, his glib delivery, his handy store of cocky one-liners, that they didn’t really pay much attention to the substance of his remarks. If they had, they would have noticed gaffe after gaffe after gaffe. And they also would have noticed something else: his thespian skills were most often used to avoid communicating. A prime example is when a journalist asked him, after he’d been shifting the blame for the economic mess to Democrats, whether he in fact accepted any share of the responsibility himself.  To which he answered, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.” The response became an instant classic in the Reagan hit parade. The question was quickly forgotten.

Myth # 5: He reduced the tax burden.

He certainly did. For the richest Americans. But most of us – most meaning about 80% – actually ended up paying more when he was done. Cut taxes? Yes, he did. Before he raised them. And raised them. And raised them. And so on, for the remaining 7 years of his administration. Funny how his admirers only remember the tax cut of the first year, even though it’s farther in the past.

Myth # 6: Smaller government.

Reagan increased the number of federal workers by 61,000. In contrast, Bill Clinton, supposedly a champion of “big government”, reduced the federal workforce by 373,000.

Myth # 7: He was one of the greatest presidents of the Century, or even of all time.

To put it charitably, there is a great deal of question about where he rates on the scale. Not the scale of greatness, but the scale of competence.  Of his greatness there is no doubt, if greatness is defined as having an impact on history. By that standard, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler were all great leaders. But Reagan’s greatness was a product of neither malevolence (at least not his own) nor noble deeds, but rather of sheer disengagement.  His hands-off style of “leadership” consisted largely in making stirring speeches and leaving the details to others – including his wife’s astrologer. While he smirked for the cameras and napped through meetings, an astounding total of 138 of his officials were convicted, indicted and/or investigated for unethical or illegal activity.

He ignored the AIDS crisis until it started claiming celebrities that he personally was acquainted with. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to a conference eager to discuss arms reductions, Reagan entered and launched into a series of offensive jokes about Russians. When a Lebanese ambassador came to discuss a national crisis in his home country, he appeared to listen politely and then asked, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Danny Thomas?”  When he signed the S&L deregulation bill in the presence of executives from the industry, he commented, “All in all, I think we’ve hit the jackpot.” The “we” he referred to did not include Joe Six-Pack – the rest of us paid the bill for that jackpot, to the tune of 150 billion.

While preaching fiscal restraint, he amassed a national debt more than that of all the previous presidents combined (even though Congress, controlled by “tax and spend” Democrats, consistently allotted less money than he sought for his schemes).  He first vehemently denied responsibility for the Iran-Contra affair, while telling lie upon lie, then later admitted, sort of, that he wasn’t exactly sure whether he authorized it or not.

He set a record for most time spent on vacation by an occupant of the Oval Office – a record that would be shattered by George W. Bush [and again by 45], but Reagan was a pioneer in his time. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted of him, “It’s very unusual to have a president who’s not interested in policy at all. He would try to avoid policy discussions. When he couldn’t, he’d resort to his cue cards… He was an actor, the quintessential actor.” That may be the description of a “great man”, but it’s certainly not the description of a competent leader.

So given his ineptitude, his failures,  the unprecedented corruption that surrounded him, his disastrous impact on the economy and foreign relations, and his rather unpopular standing with the public, why is he being revered as a messiah? Glad you asked.

(Next: The Cult of Ron Worship)