One Too Many for the Gipper

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Posted on on June 7, 2004

It’s not whether George W. Bush measures up to Ronald Reagan. It’s that too many Americans think Reagan’s legacy is worth celebrating.

By Daniel Gawthrop

[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess’s article comparing George W. Bush unfavourably to Ronald Reagan, on the occasion of Reagan’s death, drew a number of responses.]

Steve Burgess is a darned good humourist, and consistently so. Which is why I was a little disappointed by his thoughts on Ronald Reagan posted on The Tyee. Burgess’ comparison of Reagan and George W. Bush sets up a false dichotomy that, in its polite treatment of the Gipper, borders on the sentimental.

Burgess believes that “only the most blinkered and hard-headed of opponents could deny [Reagan’s] appeal”. I beg to differ. Unless you’re William F. Buckley or Robert Novak, getting the warm fuzzies about America’s 40th president requires a willing suspension of intellect. Reagan’s “sincerity and conviction”, after all, were defined by an almost bullying insistence on the primacy of the individual, his “optimism” by the philistine notion that sees all criticism as negative.

So the Great Communicator was a folksy backslapper who gave good soundbite. What’s to like about that?

Burgess describes Reagan as “a great figurehead for a newly optimistic America” and George W. Bush as “the opposite, a divisive figure” who “has redefined the Bully Pulpit with himself as head bully, the personification of ugly American arrogance.” I say that, without Ronald Reagan, we would have been spared George W. Bush; that the latter is entirely a product of the former and that “ugly American arrogance” is merely the end result of “a newly optimistic America” which, following the Gipper’s lead, has blindly pursued its self interest around the globe for the last quarter century without having a clue of, or giving much of a shit about, its impact on less “optimistic” folk.

Jamboree of platitudes

Now, if that sounds a little “blinkered” or “hardheaded”, well, shoot me.
Obviously, I must be a voice in the wilderness. Ever since Saturday afternoon, when it was first learned that Reagan, 93, had succumbed to his 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, the North American media have engaged in a jamboree of platitudes in which no superlative has gone unvoiced.

Historians and political pundits have been crediting Reagan with, among other things, reviving the U.S. economy, ending the Cold War and even restoring Americans’ belief in themselves. This despite the fact that Reagan’s tax-cutting policies and engorging of the military triggered the economy’s biggest nosedive in generations, that the Soviet Union was well on the road to collapse by its own hand when he broke bread with Gorbachev, and that sunny American optimism is a renewable resource that tends to be subject to twenty-year boom-and-bust cycles.

Reagan’s state funeral today, we’re told, is to be the largest ceremonial occasion in the U.S. capitol since the funeral of John F. Kennedy more than 40 years ago. This is quite an achievement even for Reagan, who—unlike Kennedy—managed to survive an assassin’s bullet. After all, the Gipper hadn’t exactly kept a high profile since leaving public office. For most of the past decade he’d been hovering in la-la land. After 1989, he was seldom seen in public. And during the final years of his presidency, he wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.

But then, the pomp and circumstance should come as no surprise. America’s obsession with its heroes—one of the surest signs of arrested development in a political culture—has always gone into overdrive when it comes to the Reagans. Editors and news producers across the country gleefully dumb down their product by trotting out every cliché in the book: “the greatest role of his life”, staring down the Communists, talking tough, carrying the banner of freedom, et cetera.
This is no time to be negative, they say. Reagan was a “good news” president, and so his death must be a “good news” story. Thus the stampede of Republicans rushing to embrace his legacy. Thus George W. Bush, carrying the torch during an election year. (Even for Dubya, that one’s a no-brainer.)

Sunny optimism, dark record

Meanwhile, hordes of Americans are willing to shrug off the dark side of Ronald Reagan’s “sunny optimism”:

* The corporate stooge who shilled for General Electric and anyone else who’d hire him to flog their product on TV (an opportune career move for a B-grade actor who might require future political sponsorship);
* The red-baiting president of the Screen Actors Guild (1947-1952) who willingly testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and then, at the very least, averted his eyes while several of his colleagues were destroyed by it;
* The proto-fascist governor of California who fired the president of UC Berkeley for being too soft on radicals;
* The union-buster who fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers;
* The poor-basher who cut social programs or off-loaded them to the states while signing off on the biggest tax cut in U.S. history (US$335 billion over three years);
* The hypocrite moralist who spouted the virtue of “family values” while neglecting his own children;
* The “Christian” legislator who saw nothing problematic about turfing the mentally ill onto the streets;
* The unreconstructed homophobe who watched thousands of Americans fall victim to AIDS between 1981 and 1985 but never once uttered the word in public (and did nothing to address the issue) until an old Hollywood pal, Rock Hudson, was on his death bed;
* The Armageddonist who was willing to waste $30 billion on space-based missile defense during a severe recession, double-digit unemployment and soaring budget deficits; or,
* The military imperialist who claimed to know nothing about the Iran-Contra scandal that funded rebels in Nicaragua but whose administration also supported murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and invaded Grenada, killing thousands of civilians and enabling dictators and drug lords in the process.

But since one of my American friends tells me it’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, I won’t say any more about that Ronald Reagan. Instead, let’s talk about the jelly beans on the desk, “Bedtime for Bonzo”, eternal optimism and “thoughtfulness to the little guy”, that big smile, those cheesy soundbites (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), and the fact he made Americans feel good about themselves. Because that’s all that counts, right?

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