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The Cult of the Reagans

The queen of head is dead. At 94, the life of Nancy Reagan, the pin-up girl for the genocidal  War on Drugs, finally blinked out. Rat Pack actor Peter Lawford, who frequently appeared on Ronald Reagan’s General Electric Theatre, wrote in his memoir that Nancy gave the best blowjobs in Hollywood. It’s one of the most benign things you could say about the woman who saw herself as a kind of Catherine the Great for the American Imperium.  

Already the airwaves are throbbing with misty tributes to the Reagan years, an age than never really was. Here then is a corrective to the manufactured history of Ron and Nancy and their court that Alexander Cockburn and I wrote on the centenary of Reagan’s birth. –JSC

The script of the recurring homages to the Reagans remains unchanging: with the Gipper’s straightforward, sunny disposition and aw-shucks can-do style the manly Reagan gave America back its confidence.  In less flattering terms, Reagan and his PR crew catered expertly to the demands of the American national fantasy: that homely common sense could return America to the vigor of its youth and the economy of the 1950s.

When Reagan took over the Oval Office at the age of 66 whatever powers of concentration he might have once had were failing. The Joint Chiefs of Staff mounted their traditional show-and-tell briefings for him, replete with simple charts and a senior general explicating them in simple terms. Reagan found these briefings much too complicated and dozed off.

The Joint Chiefs then set up a secret unit, staffed by cartoonists. The balance of forces were set forth in easily accessible caricature, with Soviet missiles the size of upended Zeppelins, pulsing on their launch-pads, with the miniscule US ICBMs shriveled in their bunkers. Little cartoon bubbles would contain the points the joint chiefs wanted to hammer into Reagan’s brain, most of them to the effect that “we need more money”. The president really enjoyed the shows and sometimes even asked for repeats.

Reagan had abolished any tiresome division of the world into fact or fiction in the early 1940s when his studio’s PR department turned him into a war hero, courtesy of his labors in “Fort Wacky” in Culver City, where they made training films. The fanzines disclosed the loneliness of R.R.’s first wife, Jane Wyman, her absent man (a few miles away in Fort Wacky, home by suppertime) and her knowledge of R.R.’s hatred of the foe.

“She’d seen Ronnie’s sick face,” Modern Screen reported in 1942, “bent over a picture of the small, swollen bodies of children starved to death in Poland. ‘This,’ said the war-hating Reagan between set lips, ‘would make it a pleasure to kill.’” A photographer for Modern Screen recalled later that, unlike some stars who were reluctant to offer themselves to his lens in “hero’s” garb, Reagan insisted on being photographed on his front step in full uniform, kissing his wife goodbye.

Years later Reagan boasted (that is: lied) about liberating the Nazi death camps, even as he was forced to defend his deranged decision to bestow presidential honors on the dead at the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, final resting place for the blood-drenched butchers of the Waffen SS. Reagan possessed a special talent for the suspension of disbelief when it came to the facts of his own life. Perhaps, if the earth in Simi Valley ever decides to disgorge his corpse, the custodians of Bitburg could erect a cenotaph for Reagan on those chilly grounds.

The problem for the press was that Reagan didn’t really care that he’d been caught out with another set of phony statistics or a bogus anecdote. Truth, for him, was what he happened to be saying at the time. When the Iran/contra scandal broke, he held a press conference in which he said to Helen Thomas of UPI, “I want to get to the bottom of this and find out all that has happened. And so far, I’ve told you all that I know and, you know, the truth of the matter is, for quite some time, all that you knew was what I’d told you.” He went one better than George Washington in that he couldn’t tell a lie and he couldn’t tell the truth, since he couldn’t tell the difference between the two.

His mind was a wastebasket of old clippings from Popular Science, SF magazines (the origin of “Star Wars”, aka the Strategic Defense Initiative) lines from movies and homely saws from the Reader’s Digest and the Sunday supplements.

Like his wife Nancy, Ronnie had a stout belief in astrology, the stars being the twinkling penumbra of his incandescent belief in the “free market,” with whose motions it was blasphemous to tamper. He believed Armageddon was right around the corner. He also believed tomato ketchup could be classified as a school meal, striking back at the nose-candy crowd who, as Stevie Earle once said, spent the Seventies trying to get cocaine classified as a vegetable.

Reagan’s view of Nature was strictly utilitarian. When Reagan was governor of California, David Brower, the great arch-Druid, goaded him into making his infamous declaration: “Once you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” That Zen koan-like pronouncement pretty much summed up Reagan’s philosophy of environmental tokenism. Later, Reagan propounded the thesis that trees generated more air pollution than coal-fired power plants. For Reagan, the only excuse for Nature was to serve as a backdrop for photo-ops, just like in his intros for Death Valley Days, the popular western TV series that served as a catwalk for the rollout of the B-movie actor as a national politician.

To execute his rapine environmental policies, Reagan turned to his Interior Secretary James Watt, whose approach to the plunder of the planet seethed with an evangelical fervor. He brought with him to Washington a gang of libertarian missionaries, mostly veterans of the Adolf Coors-funded Mountain States Legal Foundation, who referred to themselves as “The Colorado Crazies.” Their mission: privatize the public estate. Many of them were transparent crooks who ended up facing indictment and doing time in federal prison for self-dealing and public corruption. They gave away billions in public timber, coal, and oil to favored corporations, leaving behind toxic scars where there used to be wild forests, trout streams, and deserts. These thieves were part of the same claque of race-baiting zealots who demonized welfare mothers as swindlers of the public treasury.

Watt, who was himself charged with twenty-five felony counts of lying and obstruction of justice, never hid his rapacious agenda behind soft, made-for-primetime rhetoric. He never preached about win-win solutions, ecological forestry, or sustainable development. From the beginning, James Watt’s message was clear: grab it all, grab it now. God wills it so.

Hearing all the cosy talk about the Gipper, young people spared the experience of his awful sojourn in office, probably imagine him as a kindly, avuncular figure. Not so. He was a callous man, with a breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of his decisions. This indifference was so profound that Dante would surely have consigned him to one of the lowest circles of hell, to roast for all eternity in front of a TV set on the blink and a dinner tray swinging out of reach like the elusive fruits that tormented Tantalus.

It was startling, back in 2004 when he died, to see the lines of people sweating under a hot sun waiting to see Reagan’s casket. How could any of them take the dreadful old faker seriously? The nearest thing to it was the hysteria over Princess Di.

The explosion of the Challenger space shuttle of January 28, 1986, a disaster that prompted one of the peak kitsch moments in a presidency that was kitsch from start to finish. Reagan ended his address to the nation thus: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’.”

In fact it was the White House that had doomed Christa McAuliffe and her companions to be burned alive in the plummeting Challenger. The news event required the Challenger to go into orbit and be flying over Congress while Reagan was delivering his state of the union address. He was to tilt his head upward and, presumably gazing through the long-distance half of his spectacles, (one lens was close-up, for speech reading,) send a presidential greeting to the astronauts. But this schedule required an early morning launch from chill January Canaveral. Servile NASA officials ordered the Challenger aloft, with the frozen O-ring fatally compromised.

Reagan dozed through much of his second term, his day easing forward through a forgiving schedule of morning nap, afternoon snooze, TV supper and early bed. He couldn’t recall the names of many of his aides, even of his dog. Stories occasionally swirled around Washington that his aides pondered from time to time whether to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Reagan’s sons, Michael and Ronnie, disagreed whether or not his Alzheimer’s began when he was president. “Normalcy” and senile dementia were hard to distinguish.  The official onset was six years after he left Washington DC.

As an orator or “communicator” Reagan was terrible, with one turgid cliché following another, delivered in a folksy drone. His range of rhetorical artifice was terribly limited.

The press flattered him endlessly and vastly exaggerated his popularity and his achievements, starting with the nonsense that he “ended the Cold War”. He did nothing of the sort, the Soviet Union’s sclerotic economy having doomed it long before Reagan became president.

He lavished money on the rich and the Pentagon. The tendencies he presided over were probably inevitable, given the balance of political forces after the postwar boom hit the ceiling in the late 1960s. Then it was a matter of triage, as the rich made haste to consolidate their position.

It was a straight line from Reagan’s crude attacks on welfare queens to Clinton’s compassionate chewings of the lip (same head wag as RR’s) as he swore to “end welfare as we know it”. As a PR man, it was Reagan’s role, to reassure the wealthy and the privileged that not only might but right was on their side, and that government, in whatever professed role, was utterly malign.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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