After waking up last Saturday morning, I turned on the radio and heard a news report on National Public Radio about the apparent breakup of the space shuttle. In my precoffee haze of the morning, I wondered out loud to no one in particular why NPR was running old news stories from 1986. After a few moments of focused concentration I realized I was not listening to rebroadcasts of the Challenger accident but reports of the Space Shuttle Columbia breaking apart in flight.
For a brief and uncanny moment of confusion I re-experienced the 1980s of my youth in roughly 10 seconds of radio news. More to the point, I am increasingly beginning to witness the United States of 2003 riding a Delorian loaded with plutonium stolen from Libyan terrorists and wired with a flux capacitor back to the 1980s of Ronald Reagan. While I wince at hearing concepts like “Reagan’s America,” it is clear to me how determined people in the current George W. Bush administration are reinvigorating the Reagan myth of days past.
The current Bush economic plan, defense plan, foreign policy plan, pick a plan any plan, consists of barely-veiled Reagan mantras about life, the universe and everything. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talks about the New Europe it makes complete sense because it is largely the Europe of the “Cold War-o-riffic” 1980s (minus Soviet Union domination, now replaced by U.S. domination) and a time the Reagan system worked best by saying we’re right and they’re wrong. I dread thinking the war on (insert word here) is the new Cold War for the next number of years, but it is a dogma well practiced by Reaganite bureaucrats and a way of life for people like Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Beyond policy, many of the people working in the current Bush administration are straight out of 1984 (in many, many ways) and my favorite son of Reagan is former National Security Adviser John Poindexter. Poindexter is a rare gem from the Reagan era, the person who orchestrated the illegal selling of military arms to Iran to illegally fund antigovernmental forces–called the Contras–in Nicaragua. The whole thing became known as the Iran-Contra affair and was quickly forgotten; as coconspirator Oliver North made clear, these things had to be done for the safety of the United States. Especially the part of the story where everybody lies to Congress, no one is accountable for what happens, and Reagan cannot remember or does not know anything about the situation.
John Poindexter is now back in action working for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Information Awareness Office trying to create databases capable of tracking anybody anywhere who uses an electronic device wired to a network. The Total Information Awareness program, as the awareness office calls it, was recently denied funding by Congress. But I have faith it will return, not unlike the specter of Ronald Reagan carried on the shoulders of his progeny.
I was talking about the Sons of Reagan, and the apparent re-emergence of Ronny’s 1980s Dance Party in U.S. politics, with a friend and colleague after the Columbia broke apart last Saturday. The irony is, as she rightly pointed out, Reagan does not remember the period in which he was president–by far one of the least impressive and problematic periods in contemporary U.S. history. He is effectively outside of all history and literally has no memory of the past.
In no way am I making light of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease; rather, I find it sad that a former president cannot even remember the stories he created to embellish his own legend. In a nutshell, Reagan cannot recall not recalling.
Herein lays the most troubling aspect of any return to Reaganesque policies in U.S. politics: People have forgotten or willfully do not realize how the problems faced domestically and internationally right now are largely the products of Reagan era policy making. I know, I know–the United States won the Cold War against the Soviet Union, but it also meant doing some really stupid things along the way like arming Saddam Hussein. The entire redevelopment of a missile defense system for the United States–lovingly called the “peace shield” in my youth–is the biggest boondoggle ever created by the Reagan administration. The system will not work, never worked and comes at the expense of other programs needing a great deal more funding. I support how President Bush wants to leave no child behind, but it would be nice to see funding match the rhetoric.
It appears the eternal return to Reagan’s America is an unstoppable political force in the White House these days. While I shake my head when I think about the yet-unknown problems created by these policies, I take some relief in the following thought. It was those mighty Reagan years and their poorly thought out long-term effects that helped defeat the previous President Bush in the 1992 election.
Maybe, just maybe, all those memories the Republicans are currently shelving about the 1980s while simultaneously worshipping at the Reagan altar will become exactly what the U.S. electorate needs to dredge up–a constant reminder of the dangers posed by mediocrity in the White House.
JOHN TROYER is a columnist for the Daily Minnesotan. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.