Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Revisionist History: the canonization of Saint Ronald
Cover from the March 9, 1987 issue of Newsweek
Watching last week's coverage of the Reagan state funeral was probably one of the most disheartening things I've ever experienced in the media. Actually after the first couple of days I had to give up as I just couldn't take any more of the media overdosing on coverage of every trivial aspect of the state funeral preparations or pundits trying to top each other's efforts to canonize Reagan and rebrand him as one of the best presidents America has ever had. Even ESPN got in on the act as they interviewed NBA (I think) officials about whether they had considered postponing playoff games when Reagan was shot.
WTF? Did I miss the memo or something? I was old enough to remember the Reagan era and, as I recall, it covered one of the lower points in modern American history. This is a man who basically ended his term in near-disgrace over the Iran-Contra scandal after his administration, in violation of the law, secretly sold weapons to Iran, even though they were on the State Department's list of terrorist states at the time, and then illegally diverted the funds to the Nicuaraguan Conatras to fund their insurgency against the Marxist (but democratically elected) Sandinista government. (Newsweek)
Here's some other highlights from his two terms as president for those who either missed it or don't remember:
- Reagan infamously thought trees created the greenhouse gases that caused global warming thereby wasting valuable time and diverting funds and resources away from research efforts that could have helped head off this problem years earlier.
- he spent billions on his Strategic Defense Initiative (aka the "Star Wars" missile defense system), which was never completed (or even proven to work), based on the premise of not only defending the US from Soviet missile attacks but also on his sincere belief that it would protect the US from alien attack (I am not making this up).
- he took about six years to acknowledge that AIDS was a serious public health problem that needed to be addressed and researched and not just an issue to pander to the "moral majority" conservatives with by baiting gays and denouncing the homosexual "lifestyle choice."
And, as reported in Newsweek:
- he failed to shrink big government, contrary to one of his supposed claims to fame. The number of federal employees actually grew by 7 percent during his two terms.
- federal spending also increased as a proportion of national output.
- while, committed to balancing the budget, he ran the largest peacetime deficits in American history and tripled the national debt.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in a pre-taped video eulogy, celebrated Reagan as being responsible for ending the Cold War "without firing a shot." Well, maybe the US themselves never actually fired any shots but there were plenty of proxy battles between the two Cold War superpowers in Central America (Nicuragaua, El Salvador etc.), Africa and most notably, Afghanistan where the CIA armed and trained the anti-Soviet freedom fighters like Osama Bin-Laden who would later morph into the Taliban and groups that would form the basis for the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
The re-casting of Reagan as the reason for the end of the Cold War, the major point being advanced in the media's revision of Reagan's legacy, is either outright false or, at best, an arguably incomplete analysis. Soley crediting Reagan without acknowledging the contribution of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ignores key facts such as:
- the economically weak Soviet communist empire would have likely collapsed anyway without the effect of them trying to keep up with the US military build-up under Reagan (although, admittedly, it might have taken a little longer than it actually did).
- the Soviets themselves realized economic collapse was inevitable without serious reform and brought in Gorbachev knowing that they needed a leader strong enough to stand up to the Politburo and make the institutional reforms necessary to save the Soviet empire.
Contrary to the picture painted last week of Reagan being a benign and warm president eternally optimistic about the future of America, I remember Reagan as being painfully disconnected from much of America and antagonistic to the poor, minorities and gays either because of policies he supported or through his public addresses which were often infused with loaded codewords like the infamous "welfare queen" which helped stir up anti-poor and black sentiment.
Much of the Reagan legacy remains with us today: the fiscal policy of using tax cuts as economic stimulus on the basis of the "trickle down theory," now known as "Reaganomics," was widely-discredited (and consided a failure) after his presidency until Bush reintroduced them to little or not effect. The Bush senior administration is littered with old Reagan era staffers and Bush is still actively advocating the SDI missile defense system even though, in a post-9/11, post-Iraq world, it seems pretty obvious that the paradigm for future armed conflict has probably shifted away from the dueling superpower model. Even his choice for National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice a Sovietologist and expert cold war theoretician, is a throwback to the Reagan era of thinking about the world around us.
The stark polarization between the two major points of view in current political discourse also has its roots in the Reagan era when he moved the GOP to the right turning the Republican party into the party of "starve the beast," pro business/small government advocates and Christan right evangelicals and away from the party that had long been dominated by more moderate "Rockefeller Republicans."
Probably the scariest part of all about last week though was coming to the realization about how easily the US public is duped when the mass media kicks into gear and acts as a single machine trying to sell a unified message (no matter how baseless it may be). After Bush gamed the Congress and the public with his bogus case for going to war in Iraq, I thought that, at the very least, the best thing that might come out of it in the future would be increased accountability demanded by the media as it stepped up its vigilance of the government's actions.
Now, barely a year later, after watching the media wilfully rewrite the history of Reagan's presidency and seeing how imbalanced their coverage and opinion of his record has been, it's clear that it's far from the impartial and balanced body it should be. It's also clear that without without the media taking a more active role in questioning governmental actions or policy, it's impossible for the public to make informed decisions as to whether to supprt the actions of their government or not. Seeing the thousands of people who lined up to pay their last respects at Reagan's coffin, there seemed to be a severe case of collective amnesia brought on within the public aided by the media's one-sided and incomplete/inaccurate coverage of the Reagan presidency.
If, God forbid, Bush is re-elected and decides to go to war somewhere else under a similarly bogus pretext as the one used for the Iraq war (and don't think Iran or Syria wouldn't be next if Team Bush™ thought they could pull it off), I have little faith and haven't seen anything to persuade me that the media wouldn't basically act as a tool complicit in aiding the government's agenda once again rather than questioning and rigorously analyzing the decision. The media should be more than just an echo chamber for whatever pitch the government uses to sell its policy, particularly the questionable ones, and it's really sad to realize that that's not the case.
And to top it all off, shutting down the federal government, closing all federal public offices and giving federal employees the day off last Friday for Reagan's funeral (why?) cost the US taxpayers about $423 million according to a news report on Air America Radio. With all the deficits Bush has already run up, ain't that a muh'f-cker?
Despite my obvious disagreements with Reagan and the media's coverage of him, I am sorry Reagan had to suffer through Alzheimer's for the last decade or so and my sympathies still go out to Nancy Reagan and hs family and friends for their loss. Maybe now Bush might re-think his ridiculous position on restricting the stem cell research that may help cure diseases like Alzheimer's, but so far it doesn't look like it. (New York Times)
Some related reading to get your mind right:
- Alternet's 66 (Unflattering) Things About Ronald Reagan.
- The man who taught Republicans to be irresponsible. Timothy Noah on "Ronald Reagan, Party Animal" on Slate.
- What's that? Ronnie was America's greatest President? (Hi. I'm Black!!!)
- 1115.org's Matt on the media's transformation into ReaganVision™.
- Rome's take. (Real Talk)
(note: this piece may get edited and further revised as I look back at it over the next couple of days but I wanted to get it up before it became irrelevant.)