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The excess of emotion expressed in the nation over the hundredth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth might lead one to conclude that he wasn’t the 40th President of the United States, but God. Ronald Reagan was the last president whom many Americans say they feel good about but–in a culture devoted entirely to making one feel happy and building up one’s self-esteem–that is understandable. Regrettably, we haven’t seen anything yet about the beatification of the country’s first trickster president (George W. Bush was the second).
When President Reagan was running for re-election, as a long-time Washington resident and commentator, I felt duty-bound to place a bumper sticker on my automobile that said “Honk If You Think He’s Senile.” Plenty of people honked their horns or waved from passing vehicles, and there were also the people who kept trying to remove the sticker from my bumper. My point was simple: the evidence was already there well before the second inauguration that Reagan was suffering from senility and should never have been reelected. Were people simply not paying any attention to his pronouncements and those silly movie lines that crept into his speeches? Were they that infatuated by his engaging smile? The people around him knew what was happening, but what could possibly have driven them to think of the country first? Still, I have to confess that senility started to look positively desirable when W Bush entered the White House.
It’s questionable how history will judge Ronald Reagan, but two facts are indisputable. First, he rang up the fastest and the largest deficit in the country’s history up to that time, which conservatives still won’t admit. And second, it took the foresight of Bill Clinton to begin to correct the problem. All for naught, of course, since they were wiped out by W Bush and his cheerleader, Vice President Cheney, and his audacious remark: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Republicans today want Americans to believe that the entire debt of the country has been amassed by Barak Obama, forgetting that our current economic morass had its foundations during the Reagan and Bush years. I’d call Republican attitudes toward the country’s deficit a case of selective amnesia.
After the deficit, Republican sycophants like to credit Ronald Reagan with the end of the Cold War (as his followers have argued for years), ignoring that simultaneously Reagan began the country’s move from Capitalism to Corporatism. Reagan convinced many Americans (including leaders of both political parties) that government is bad and, consequently, that taxes are unnecessary and even un-American. Until recently, being Americans meant that we can have it all for free. Tax money spent for infrastructure, for education, for health—even unnecessary wars—is an evil. This is the dirty little secret about Conservatives: they hate Democracy because what it means is having to share what you have with others, helping the less fortunate, people who have been passed over by the budget cuts for the rich and have felt the impact of the reductions of every program intended to help those at the bottom. The gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has grown so quickly that the American Dream is nothing more than a mirage for most of the people in the Middle Class, let alone those at the bottom. The end of Democracy, initiated by Ronald Reagan, pretty much was finished by Bush II.
After Reagan’s death, Republicans had a field-day, and Democrats (always accused of lacking patriotism) had to remain silent as monuments were constructed, as buildings were re-named, and postage stamps began to bear the former president’s likeness. Americans haven’t seen anything yet. As my wife says, the most endangered national park is now Mt. Rushmore, which Republicans have talked about for years as a fitting memorial to their beloved hero. There’s also been a continual cry to put Reagan’s image on our currency, which so far has been thwarted. If he deserves to be anywhere it should be on the hundred dollar bill, reminding Americans that the hundred dollar bill is the new ten dollar one.
Thus the beatification of Ronald Reagan continues to ignore basic rules of economics just as the old issues of equality and helping others has been turned upside-down. And how can we forget Reagan’s initiation of the concept of the preemptive strike (Granada, a major threat to the world’s stability)? Ronald Reagan’s legacy could not have come at a better time for subsequent global displacements brought forth by George W. Bush.
So what would be a suitable monument for Reagan on the Mall in Washington, D.C.? Three gigantic balls, hanging down from the firmament–the traditional pawnshop symbol–to remind all Americans that Reagan hocked our future.
Say one for the gypper.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.