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Ronald Reagan

The night before Ronald Reagan died, I happened to catch Donald Rumsfeld on TV lamenting the mistakes that have been made as a part of our bold and well-intentioned Iraq debacle. As you might expect, the ones that were keeping him up night involved the failure to sufficiently restrict correct factual information. I’m afraid I experienced the not altogether original thought that Rumsfeld was both giving himself airs and selling the rest of the world short when he confidently asserted that, if a bunch of unpatriotic scumbag reporters and other losers with cameras had been running around in the 1940s, the public would have denounced Eisenhower and recoiled from the bloodshed necessary in World War II, with the likely result that we’d all be eating bratwurst with rice today. Rumsfeld was good enough to make clear right from the outset that nothing he said needed to be taken at all seriously when he asserted the current fiasco is being so harshly misjudged because it’s the first time a war of ours has been subjected to the indignity of being covered by 24-hour TV news. (Before he adds that line to his standard repertoire, some brave soul ought to point out to him that it’s probably easy to determine whether he actually spent the first Gulf War in a coma, though it would explain a lot.)

Those who care deeply about General Eisenhower might be offended to find Rumsfeld, a rich and powerful man capable of astounding self-pity, considering that his bosses don’t even demand basic competence as a condition of his keeping his job, implicitly comparing himself to Ike, when to judge from everything he’s done and everything that’s known about his moral standards he’s probably a lot closer to whoever talked Roosevelt into those Japanese internment camps. And for anyone who knows anything about the war and about the American political intellectual legacy of the 20th Century, particularly the group that published in Dwight Macdonald’s Politics, it’s ridiculous to hear Rumsfeld talk as if there were never anything about America’s conduct of World War II that could be criticized, or more to the point, as if America itself were so shaky that it couldn’t survive a little criticism. Of course, Rummy was talking about the fantasy World War II that mostly plays now in the heads of middle-aged, guilt-stricken Baby Boomers — the people, Bill Clinton among them, who saw Saving Private Ryan and were apparently convinced that their lives would be meaningless without some great global conflict to call their own, even if they had to borrow their daddies’. The hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of D-Day (maybe not the most important battle of the war, but, even before Spielberg chimed in, the one they made the movies about) was the grand culmination of what started building in the late 1990s as a sort of consolation prize to Bob Dole for the public’s decision that they’d really rather not hand him the keys to the country, and what came to encompass the opening of the late, esteemed plagiarist Steven Ambrose’s D-Day Museum and the new D-Day Memorial. The Vietnam Memorial made sense aesthetically, historically and emotionally — it was erected in answer to the widespread feeling that the men who fought in that war hadn’t received their due, and the emotional outpouring it inspired is proof enough that what conventional-minded jackasses like Jesse Helms and Tom Wolfe derided as “a black scar of shame” was exactly what was needed.

When Tom Hanks started appearing on TV whimpering over the incredible injustice that his fictional movie character had had no memorial erected in his memory, nobody ever thought to explain to him that this was because World War II veterans didn’t have the same claim to have been underappreciated as the Vietnam vets: they were always seen as gilded heroes, immortalized in movies and comic books and showered with educational and employment benefits and the attentions of adoring women on their return. The decision that the World War II vets needed, at this late day, some massive expenditure on a bland piece of sculpture to commemorate their achievement is a pure product of the Boomers’ ability for projecting their feelings onto anything — in this case, their desire to prove they do too care about the sacrifices of their elders, now that they’re at the age those elders were when these same people were measuring their integrity by their readiness to give them the finger and call people who’d fought Nazism “fascists.” They ought to have erected the memorial in the Field of Dreams.

All of which is why Reagan, showing a genius for timing that was seldom evident in his movie work, pulled off his earthly exit at exactly the right second. In the real world, D-Day Mania started to fade a little in 2001, when al-Qaeda obligingly dropped an exciting global conflict right in our laps, just in time to make it seem a little less important that we all light incense and spend the rest of the year in front of the TV “appreciating” “Band of Brothers.” This anniversary, with its unveiling of the memorial, would have been the last gasp before the people most inclined to celebrate their admiration for the WWII vets shifted into telling their offspring What They Did in the War Against Terror. (“The president said the best thing we could do would be to keep the consumer economy humming, so I took one last second to sneer at Bin Laden’s face on CNN before loading the credit cards into the Hummer and heading to the nearest mall …”)

Reagan, who spent World War II in Hollywood but lived to boast to the leaders of Israel about how he personally liberated the death camps (and, in the single most revealing statement ever made by a human being, went on to explain that it was he who’d had the bright idea of filming the remains of the gas chambers, since he figured that if there weren’t movies of them, it struck him as unlikely that anyone would be able to remember that the Holocaust had happened), was the perfect mascot for the people who think that, because World War II was a noble conflict that smashed up a murderous gangster regime, that means that it was a struggle between a pure-white force of angels who never performed a regrettable act, an army of Ward Cleavers marching on a nation of Draculas — and anyone who says otherwise is as good as saying that we should have stayed home. Nobody but Reagan could have inspired the kind of National Mourning Week we now get to shake off.

My father had a clear idea of what made a good movie. It was set in the American West and featured two cowboys, one good and one bad, and the former, who was easy to identify because he was always played by John Wayne, would eventually bring things to a close by drilling the latter. So far as I know, he was indifferent or worse to any other kind of movie — they deviated too far from his notion of what he already recognized as perfect. Reagan was a president for people who regarded his smiley-but-tough act as exactly what the job called for and regarded anything else as confusingly mixed. It turns out there were a lot of people like this.

A lot of space could be taken up here listing all the reasons that I never felt any love for Reagan, if I thought there was any point to making a list of things that anyone who feels the same way already knows — and that anyone who disagrees either knows or has discounted, or doesn’t know but wouldn’t be swayed by. All the little niggling things about Reagan seemed to work together in a strange way that worked, as we used to say, like Teflon, and the overall effect had a powerful, lasting impact, especially on his own party. The first divorced president, a man who regularly skipped church and skimped on charity while promoting traditional values and expressed his contempt for any government assistance in favor of depending on the tithe plate, Reagan was openly hypocritical, to the point of spending 1985 and early 1986 loudly denouncing anyone who would have us play softball with terrorists and rogue nations even as he was selling arms to Iran. It probably was the hypocrisy that people liked as much as the strictness — they liked the implicit criticism of others while taking that permissive gleam in Reagan’s eye as his way of saying, sotto voce, that he understood that their transgressions had to be judged by a different standard.

The reason this is worth dwelling on is that Reagan sold hypocrisy so well that by now the Republican Party all but officially recognizes it as a virtue. When adulterous congressmen were attacking Bill Clinton for his sex life, or when politicians who evaded service in Vietnam imply that there’s something insufficiently patriotic and even suspicious about the military service of veterans like Al Gore and John Kerry, they’re saying “We haven’t lived by the impossible standards we claim to believe in, because hey, we’re only human, but you — you aren’t even moral enough to demand that others live according to these impossible standards!” Who knows if this would play as well as it seems to if Reagan hadn’t broken the ground? Who knows if even Newt Gingrich would have had the guts to give it a try?

In death, as in life, Reagan himself was about a million time less interesting than people’s reactions to him. Although I’ve as good as been told by countless observers that this admits to confessing that I’m something other than human, I never really understood the appeal of his honeyed cadence and Judge Stone act. (Some of this may come down to a personal fluke. It used to be conventional wisdom that Reagan won the 1980 presidential debate, and with it the presidency, when he replied to Jimmy Carter’s reference to something in his record by shaking his head and gurgling, “There you go again!” For some reason, this was supposed to be an unanswerable demonstration of his ability to deflate baseless opposition. But I remember wanting to barf when I heard that line, because it was one that my grandfather always used, always with the same smirking condescension. And, just like Reagan when he used it against Carter, he always used it when whoever he was debating — well, invariably it was me — had scored a legitimate point and he had no better answer.)

My own patriotism is based more on pride in living in a society that has the means to correct its mistakes than in Reagan’s Capracorny optimistic visions or his statement that the single best thing about America is that here, “anyone can become rich.” So I don’t really get the expressions of bottomless gratitude to Reagan for having made us all feel so jolly and wiping out “the malaise” of the Carter years, a phenomena that largely boils down to a lot of people whining about gas prices. (I’m not sure how much it’s Reagan’s fault that people trying to explain why he was so great often sound like people explaining what they got out of heroin or a dysfunctional relationship.)

But I also don’t really feel as one with a lot of the people I know who spent last week talking as if the Marquis de Sade had died and taken Hitler with him. Considering that Reagan hadn’t had any control over our lives for 15 years, and that, no joke, the current incumbent has spent almost four years doing nothing but giving us reasons to think back fondly on any of his predecessors, it seems like a waste of good spite. It’s especially confusing if you go back and read some of the predictions made both by liberal-minded writers and men on the street back before Reagan took office, and about a year into his first term. There were predictions of a horrible fascistic crackdown, along with predictions (probably by people who later voted for Nader in 2000) that this repressiveness would inspire a new hippie Renaissance to bloom in reaction. Richard Reeves predicted, towards the end of 1981, that Reagan wouldn’t last a year in office because “he scared hell out of people, women and children especially.”

I did not come here to praise Insane Anglo Warlord, to recall a much-loved anagram of the time, but let it be noted that he could have been a lot worse — like George, Jr., he could have remained committed to what he said he believed. Instead, he famously cut taxes, then saw that the economy was sputtering and, less famously, raised them again — oops, I mean he enacted “revenue enhancements” that basically left the overall tax rate where he’d found it. The ruinous deficits — which he blamed Congress for, even as he managed to skate through eight years in office without ever submitting a single balanced budget — were the direct result of his inability to actually cut social services as deeply as he claimed he wanted to. For all his partisan rhetoric, he just couldn’t do it, for the same reason that he wanted to talk tough in public about terrorists but also was willing to play footsie with them in his attempts to get hostages released, and for the same reason he didn’t want to call for any military action more dangerous than Grenada but also couldn’t bear to cut the Contras loose, or make human rights demands on the death squad operators of El Salvador, or the Marcoses, or Saddam Hussein, whose Reagan-approved funding tripled the year after the infamous gassing of the Kurds. It was because, to put it in emotional terms that Reagan might understand, he couldn’t bear to do anything that might cause someone not to wike him. For all the smoke blown about his communication skills, that was the most (bad-)actorish thing about Reagan: he desperately wanted to be liked. (Apparently, after the Iran-Contra story broke, he curled up in a fetal ball and just waited out the storm.) This had limits, sure, and they showed in the areas where Reagan did the most damage, in his creation of the modern concept of homelessness and his indifference to AIDS and the proxy wars he approved — in all of them, the damage was done to people so different from himself they probably didn’t seem real to him. For someone with the reputation of a lovable old duffer, Reagan could say incredibly vicious things, such as when he likened Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement to “mad dogs” who needed to be brought down by “force” (and when, as he signed the MLK birthday holiday into law in 1983, he used the occasion to reassert his belief — held to his death, I guess — that King was likely a paid Soviet agent), or when he wished “an epidemic of botulism” on the poor people who crowded in at the handout of free food demanded by Patty Hearst’s kidnappers, right down to the moment during the 1988 campaign when he used the (false) rumors that Michael Dukakis had seen a therapist after the death of his brother to call the candidate “an invalid.”

In the context of his overall personality and career, I’m guessing these ugly outbursts were a kind of internal defense mechanism; having identified someone who very likely didn’t like him, Reagan must have felt the need to say, in effect, I’m glad ’cause I think you’re not worth being liked by, nyaaah! It must be said that a desperate desire to be liked is not traditionally what we think of as the mark of a great leader. But Americans do like to give someone what they seem to be nakedly asking for. Probably the incredible loathing being expressed by some who don’t love the man is an expression of how much they dislike feeling cut off from what everyone in the media has spent a week insisting sums up America: an overage Boy Scout smiling with an American flag billowing in the background.

When people talk about “the ’80s” as a term synonymous with the time when Reagan seemed inescapably beloved, they’re only really talking about a couple of years: basically, 1984, when Reagan’s coronation march to re-election bled into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (“USA! USA!”), through the summer of 1986, when he presided over the unveiling of the fresh-scrubbed Statue of Liberty. It was a period when every movie was a triumphant “Go for it!” narrative and CEOs like the eternally hard-to-take Lee Iacocco and Peter Uberroth were talked about as national heroes. (There was actually an Iacocco-for-President rumble here and there; fortunately, his upward march peaked with a guest appearance on “Miami Vice.”) Yet it was preceded by the time Reeves describes, when Reagan really was widely unpopular (before the economy began to improve and he made it clear that he’d be making no serious attempt to make good on his most extreme positions) and followed by the chilling of the Iran-Contra revelations, when a TV special saluting Reagan’s greatness was pulled from the air and Time was widely mocked for having run a cover story praising “The Management Style of Chairman Reagan.”

Even at the time, the mid-80s (the Reaganite Garden of Eden years) didn’t seem like a period anyone would later feel nostalgic for, but a present stuck with George Jr. can do funny things to your memory. A lot of people, especially conservative pundits like George Will and Francis Fukuyama, have a lot invested in Reagan’s memory; they want their own FDR. (Will, whose career mysteriously survived the revelation that he’d helped Reagan rehearse for the 1980 debate with a stolen Carter briefing book before favorably reviewing the spontaneity of Reagan’s performance on ABC, has long made it clear that he thinks that if history swallows the idea of Reagan as great president, his position in history as the Walter Lippmann of his day is secure.) Will this image of Reagan as one of the all-time greats take for the ages? I could be way wrong about this, but I’d point to the candy-colored hysteria of the past week, which is just a broader-based version of what we’ve been hearing from Reagan boosters for years, as evidence that it won’t take. It’s just too much; the desperation shows.

It showed a few years back, when the Edmund Morris biography Dutch inspired conservatives to tear their hair out about the waste; Morris, the official biographer, had been granted real access to the president, had had a chance to get to know his real mind, and was apparently expected to produce a landmark work in which it would be revealed that Reagan had been a secret brainmaster who had used great strategic aplomb and deep philosophical insight to defeat the Soviet Union and deliver us from malaise. When Morris wrote a strange hybrid of a semi-fictional book, explaining that the man he’d met and talked with repeatedly was a slow-witted fantasist too shallow and uninteresting to be worthy of a serious biography by himself, none of these jokers blamed this on Reagan. (I remember Dinesh d’Souza complained that Morris hadn’t even mentioned that Reagan was single-handedly responsible for the revolution in computer technology. And how did he figure that a man who probably didn’t know how to work a computer had “single-handedly” done this? Well, said Double Dee, Reagan’s great optimism and faith in the capitalist system must have inspired such men as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to do what they did; without him, it was a safe bet they’d have wound up standing by the side of the road holding signs reading “WILL WORK FOR FOOD.” This is kind of like saying that Eisenhower as good as invented television, since it seems doubtful that anyone in the ’50s would have bought a set if Ike hadn’t been so darn telegenic.)

The sweatiness of the Reagan-on-Mount-Rushmore crowd really shone through last year when they revealed that they had nothing better to do than scare CBS out of showing a mediocre TV-Movie about the Reagans. When I was a kid, Eleanor & Franklin, a TV-Movie that casually revealed that FDR had been cheating on Eleanor while on his deathbed, was regarded as an admiring depiction of the famous couple; King, a mini-series tribute to the untouchable MLK acknowledged his adulterous failings; and JFK, who I can’t imagine will be considered a candidate for godhood many years after the last person to have witnessed his winning smile gives up the ghost, still inspires hagiographic admiration after his closet has been emptied of enough skeletons to populate a William Castle movie. Even Nixon, the demon figure of our democracy, and LBJ, who can still inspire spitting fury in many a sane person, are recognized as epic-sized figures who did remarkable things. But Reagan’s staunchest defenders are on record as believing that to portray him as a human-sized figure in an inoffensively boring TV docudrama isn’t permissible: he’s like one of those religious leaders who cannot be represented in any way at all without committing blasphemy. Or maybe like that soft fuzzy bunny doll that Mommy shouldn’t have thrown out just because she got it in her head that baby had outgrown it. The fact that Reagan’s admirers insist that he cannot be depicted or discussed, only praised, amounts to an unwitting concession on their part that they don’t really believe that the image they have of him can withstand any degree of scrutiny.

So I suspect that this balloon will deflate on its own just fine. But in the meantime, a couple of points ought to be made before the world’s ratio of craziness to rational thought tips any further in the wrong direction. The one thing that everyone has fallen over themselves giving Reagan credit for this past week has been the death of Communism, or at least, the breakup of the Soviet Union. And indeed, he could have handled things a lot worse. But the efforts of his hagiographers to insist that the events that transpired in Reagan’s last year in office were the result of some long-range conscious plan on his part are worse than a little loopy, and they misrepresent actual history in a way that is not merely self-serving but actively mischievous, given that there are certain things that could be learned from what really happened.

Reagan came into office braying about the awesome power of the Soviet Union. He used the idea that they represented a terrific threat to us to justify spending many billions of dollars that could have been spent elsewhere on a spectacular and unneeded military buildup, including the waste of a vast fortune on his silly SDI program: silly because even the scientists who agreed to work on, and benefit from, this boondoggle were generally aware that it was a scientific impossibility, best suited for a punchline in RoboCop. It was also used to justify supporting horrendous regimes in South Africa and El Salvador and elsewhere, and to sponsor the brutality of the Contras against a pennyante Socialist regime that was defeated at the ballot box and left office peacefully the first time that Washington agreed, reluctantly, to permit the shooting to stop long enough for an election to be held. In doing so. Reagan probably hastened the ruination of the Soviet Union by inspiring them to try to keep up their own defense spending. But the fact is, they were well on their way to ruination anyway. It would have happened sooner or later, and it might well have happened sooner with a little less ruinous, wasteful spending on our part.

The saber-rattling rhetoric about the threat of the Soviets remains offensive, not because the Soviet Union was not an evil construct — it was — but because it was a hollowed-out dinosaur and not a threat. None of the sites of the proxy wars of the Reagan years turned out to be teetering dominoes in a plan for world domination — those people could have been left to handle their own problems with no price paid by us. Between Chernobal and the self-immolating war in Afghanistan — a war that inspired us to pump up our current bête noir, Osama bin Laden, who unlike the weary old apparatchiks really is philosophically committed to our destruction — the Soviet Union spent its last years mostly doing damage to itself. And all of this could have been figured out at the time.

I remember getting a glimmer of it myself when I was about 10 years old and saw a TV news report on an American trade show visiting the U.S.S.R. The people there reacted to a refrigerator with automatic ice cube maker the way the ape men in 2001 might have reacted to, well, to a refrigerator with automatic ice cube maker. It was impossible to believe, after seeing that, that a society doing that badly to keep pace with us in what we saw as the basics represented some kind of threat; surely the distribution of goods and knowledge was so disastrously out of whack that it was only a matter of time before it collapsed of its own weight. My insight about the unthreatening state of the Soviet Union, which turned out to be a little closer to reality than Red Dawn, was there for all the world to see, and in fact we now know that certain people in the intelligence community did see it and were summarily shuffled to a desk in the corner. Like the people Russell Baker wrote about in his column about the heroes without honor who had opposed Vietnam at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (or like anyone who prior to the Iraq war speculated that maybe the United Nations inspectors were having trouble finding Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t have any), they had been right too soon. To give them their due would involve admitting that too many people had been wrong and that they didn’t have to be.

Today, a lot of people are willing to admit that they were sort of wrong about the threat and strength of the Soviet Union when Reagan took office, but they won’t admit that anyone was right. To hear them tell it, there were two positions: thinking the Soviets were a big scary bear and that we had to have strength to match theirs, and thinking they were a big scary bear and that we needed to crumple and roll over for them. In fact, there were a few people who believed that the Soviet Union was a crumbling wreck and that they had enough problems of their own without even dreaming of world conquest — the tanks weren’t leaving Moscow, not in 10 minutes, not ever, and we could concentrate on using our power and fortune for good and to attack our own problems. (This is what Jeanne Kirkpatrick would have called “blaming America first.”)

You would think that we could learn something from the way the Cold War turned out — something about not hanging onto old preconceptions that just aren’t matching up to the evidence of your own eyes and ears. Unfortunately, that would involve a lot of powerful people admitting that they spent some of the most important years of their lives making passionate arguments on the basis of a phantom, and they just can’t do it. The New Republic recently editorialized that, at the time, “It was impossible, even irresponsible, to imagine” such a thing as “the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its empire.” Imagine that — irresponsible to even imagine something that seems inevitable in retrospect, and simply did not seem that implausible at the time, unless you simply bought into the Cold Warrior myth about how much more powerful the Soviets were than they looked, smelled, seemed and behaved. How defensive do you have to be to say that, while you were wrong, anyone who was right was wrong to be so?

There was always a certain contempt for American democracy in the Cold Warriors’ rhetoric. Listening to Oliver North, or for that matter the more hawkish members of The New Republic’s editorial board had to say in those days, and after awhile what came through was a refusal to give American democracy enough credit. They thought that it was too weak to win, which is why such people advocated proxy terrorist wars and secret government then and the use of torture and even more secret government now. In an especially despicable recent essay, Christopher Hitchens listed a slew of statements and incidents designed to point up how “stupid” Ronald Reagan was, then signed off this way: “However, there came a day when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington and when the Marriott Hotel — host of the summit press conferences — turned its restaurant into the ‘Glasnost Cafe.’ On the sidewalk, LaRouche supporters wearing Reagan masks paraded with umbrellas, in mimicry of Neville Chamberlain. I huddled from dawn to dusk with friends, wondering if it could be real. Many of those friends had twice my IQ, or let’s say six times that of the then-chief executive. These friends had all deeply wanted either Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale to be, presumably successively, the president instead of Reagan. They would go on to put Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen bumper stickers on their vehicles. No doubt they wish that Mondale had been in the White House when the U.S.S.R. threw in the towel, just as they presumably yearn to have had Dukakis on watch when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I have been wondering ever since not just about the stupidity of American politics, but about the need of so many American intellectuals to prove themselves clever by showing that they are smarter than the latest idiot in power, or the latest Republican at any rate.”

It wasn’t just LaRouche supporters who were horrified by Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev — it was also George Will and the editorial board of The New Republic and everyone else who’d supported Reagan when he was into fire-breathing anti-Soviet rhetoric. Gorbachev dismantled the Soviet Union; Reagan gave his blessing and held his hand while he did it, and this was not nothing. I can’t help but wonder if Reagan’s seeing that Gorbachev was “different” than the evil old Russian leaders he’d inveighed about didn’t have something to do with the fact that he just happened to be the first one he ever met face to face (and as always happened when Reagan met someone face to face, his first impulse was surely “I hope he likes me!”). But in fact, Gorbachev was special.

It’s also true that just expressing trust in Gorbachev was more than his successor, George Bush Sr., could do. Bush, whose thing was not being liked or optimism but loyalty, showed more tender concern for the feelings of the masters of China (where he had once been ambassador) after Tiananmen Square than he did for Gorbachev, even during the failed 1991 coup attempt. Reagan’s “stupidity,” however deep it ran, was a great protective device, just as George Jr.’s is. Nobody calls them liars the way people are quick to call Clinton one; Clinton is expected to be smart enough to know when the things he says aren’t true, but when Larry Speakes told reporters that the president really did think that he’d served overseas in World War II and that he’d been present at the liberation of the death camps, hardened reporters felt they had to take his word for it. But now Reagan’s dreaminess is being used as a way to give him credit for ending the Cold War without taking anything away from all the reporters and editors and politicians who didn’t realize that it was already as good as over. Thank God, these people say, that we had someone in office who was too dumb not to know that the Soviet Union must be stronger than it looked. As much as Hitchens and the others may want to believe it, the fact that they were too “responsible” to imagine an end to the Cold War doesn’t make them smarter than Reagan. It just makes them dumb in a less imaginative way.