This past weekend was the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth, and a good portion of America got all teary-eyed and proud remembering the Gipper. Of course, a lot of what they were "remembering" was the fictional rendering of Reagan that has been manufactured by right-wing ideologues and sold to incurious toadies like so much plastic tourist crap. Reagan the man was nothing like Reagan the myth.
Ronald Reagan, a former radio sportscaster, went west to earn fame in the film industry during the 1930's. He was basically cast in a series of forgettable B-movies. Reagan, who was the right age to serve in World War II, felt the call to stay home and make films in support of the troops instead. He also did some USO work, but was careful not to get too near any action.
Reagan was first and foremost a supreme huckster. The one-time Democrat turned into an ardent conservative Republican sometime during the 1950's. It happened around the time he was hosting The General Electric Theatre on television and had undoubtedly drunk too much of the company's savage capitalist kool-aid. His career as a second-rate film actor was on the rocks, and he turned to commercial television to keep his beautiful smile in front of the American public. Later, after the General Electric gig ended, he really hit the skids and started selling Boraxo as the host of Death Valley Days.
Nancy Reagan claims to have nurtured the flame of Reagan the Political Activist and encouraged his entry into politics. He first let America know of his interest in serving his country - and himself - in 1964 when he cut a long info-mercial for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Two years later Reagan was elected Governor of California, and the dye was cast.
I saw Ronald Reagan in person twice. The first time was in 1967 when he appeared at the Republican Governor's Conference which was being held that year in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My friend Anna and I drove to the Tulsa Airport to spot political dignitaries. Reagan stood atop the steps leading from his plane and gave a short speech to the hundred or so spectators gathered there late at night. We also watched George Romney, Mitt's rich daddy and Governor of Michigan, get hit over the head by someone carrying either a Nixon or Reagan sign - the memory fades!
The second time I saw Reagan was at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield, Missouri, in 1968 when he spoke at a rally for Republican senate candidate Tom Curtis. It was all glam and sham - pure Reagan.
My dad thought the sun rose and set on Reagan. He once told me that Reagan was the greatest President of the 20th century. When I laughed at that remark, he shot back, "Okay, who was then?" I told him the truth - FDR, to which he responded, "Yeah, if he had lived he would probably still be President!"
This week the press has been focused on the "legacy" of Ronald Reagan. He is credited (falsely) with ending the cold war - most of which unraveled under the reign of his successor, Bush the Elder. He also is being given accolades for returning the nation to a sound fiscal policy - although the budget literally exploded under his rule, lowering taxes (but they actually rose during his administration), restoring dignity to the White House (even while Nancy was upstairs with her private astrologers), winning the war with Grenada (remember Lebanon, anyone?), ending crime, defeating tooth decay, and curing cancer.
The truth of the matter is that Ronald Reagan did very well for some Americans - rich white ones. But he was a disaster for America's working poor and citizens of color. He single-handedly consigned thousands and thousands of Americans to a needless and tragic death by refusing a acknowledge AIDS, or indeed even say the word "AIDS" until over six years after the deadly disease got a foothold in this country. Reagan was a brazen enemy of the environment who once uttered the immortal, "You see one tree, you've seen them all." Oops there goes another irreplaceable Redwood! (General Electric must have loved their boy for that!)
If Ronald Reagan has a true American legacy it is with the homeless who were consigned to sleeping over subway grates and under overpasses due to his heartlessness. I read the remarks of one commentator this week who suggested that instead of plastering the Reagan name over every school house, turnpike, and airport in America, a more fitting tribute would be to name the park benches after him because so many Americans were consigned to sleep on those benches due to Reagan's lack of compassion.
I think the thing that still angers me the most regarding Ronald Reagan is how the "Christian" right deifies him. Ronald Reagan was not the son of God - no matter what he or his lemmings believed. Jesus would have been horrified by his cavalier disregard of the poor, the infirm, the oppressed - and the planet! Ronald Reagan was not a good Christian in any sense of the word, but, then again, neither are those "Christians" who like to say that he was!