Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Sharpening Pitchforks for the Gipper.

America has been waiting a while for this. A Commiseration Culture has taken hold in the west over the last 15 years, with everybody’s passing becoming an occasion for public mourning and the whitewashing of records. Until recently, Americans have been reduced to casting envious glances across the Atlantic as the once stoic Brits rent their shirts and gnashed their teeth with all the aplomb of a Greek chorus over the almost self inflicted death of Princess Diana and the long-rehearsed passing of the Queen Mother. With the death of Ronald Reagan they have their own giant tragedy, and like most consumables in our culture America has opted to supersize it.

A hint of the media overkill and self-indulgent wailing inherent in a modern public death was given by the frankly baffling outpourings over the Darwinian demise of the amiable under-achiever John F. Kennedy Jr. Now with the death of Ronald Reagan America is looking to reclaim its rightful place as the champion of excessive public displays of emotion.

The last President to die was Richard Nixon. The damage he inflicted on the American body politic was so great that hardly a voice was raised to demand an extravagant send off. Before that, it was LBJ, who had the good fortune to pass on when death still carried an air of decorum. Now we have reached such as pass that the only thing missing from the Reagan mort-stravaganza is an MTV-produced half time show. Heaven forbid Nancy suffer a wardrobe malfunction while performing “Amazing Grace.”

Before you start yelling that I’m just a bitter liberal who is pissing on Reagan’s grave I’d like to say that this is not about him and I’m not ranting about his legacy. That part comes later.

I am instead perturbed at the apparent coronation of our Presidents represented by this weeklong national death fest. This America: we do not have a monarch. The President is important, true enough, but in the Jeffersonian ideal he should return to life as a private citizen after his time in office. The ex-President does have a role to play post-White House, but it should be that of advisor and elder statesman, not that of a mythical king whose popular legacy is swept up in a wave of hagiography upon death.

Reagan of course faced his final years with a private dignity, slowly succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease over at least a ten-year period assisted by the best medical care the taxpayer could buy (sidebar: isn’t odd that Alzheimer’s is uniquely described as a “cruel” disease by fiftysomething journalists given that it means boomer children have to pay to have someone change their parent’s diapers?) The question must be asked however if the money being lavished on his morbid bacchanalia would be better spent assisting less privileged Alzheimer’s sufferers. Whatever happened to “in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to…” Perhaps this is one last stab at supply-side economics from beyond the grave, with the Reagans fully confident that the nations florists and sympathy card retailers will make a contribution en masse to research.

Ronald Reagan was an important public man. He was also wealthy product of the celebrity culture. He stood for class war, the destruction of altruistic society, contempt for the domestic democratic process, and the global export of dogma driven violence. Those who make a big deal of his humble beginnings often fail to comment on his betrayal of the working- and middle- class through his feckless economic theories.

Reagan pursued a foreign policy that portrayed the United States as a cowardly and dogmatic bully. It was ok to invade Grenada, but not to respond to the Beirut bombings of Americans. It was ok to trade weapons for hostages with evil Iran, as we would get payback by turning a blind eye to our friend Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas on Iranian troops.* I’ll never forget having the realization at 13 that Reagan was willing to sacrifice the Western Europe I was growing up in to the fire of a nuclear war in order to confront communism. Thanks for the early teenage nightmares I endured after cruise missiles arrived in England, Ron. Reagan did not win the Cold War; Gorbachev called it off. Just imagine the response from Moscow to Reagan’s reckless and ruinous brinkmanship if a more kindred soul had sat in the Kremlin. We would have all fried to prove a negative; communism is bad, m'kay.

Reagan risked your life by firing the air traffic controllers in order to break a union; odd from a former president of the Screen Actors Guild. Or rather it isn’t when you look at most of his momentous decisions. Essentially, Reagan was motivated throughout his life by pique. Communist agitators who tried to usurp his control of the SAG transformed Ron from a liberal Democrat to conservative Republican in a matter of months. The Air Traffickers challenged his authority and were summarily fired. Congress thwarted his pet projects in Central America, thus Iran/Contra was born from the loins of his administration. Prior to becoming President, the moderator of a New Hampshire primary debate tried to allow other candidates equal time; Reagan started screaming that he “had paid for the microphone” and should be allowed to continue regardless. The man was the type of prissy primadonna so often found in B-movies. In happier times he would have earned an executive producer credit on a series of forgettable cinematic abortions. Instead he became President.

Luck favored Reagan. He gambled heavily and recklessly and thankfully for us he was able to bluff his opponents. Was the western world safer, better off, and nicer after eight years of Reagan? I have my opinions, but frankly we won’t really know until my distant grandchildren write the properly sourced history of that time some 50 years hence. Bear that in mind this week as you sob, wail, toast, and allow yourselves to be manipulated into joining in with the mourning for an illegitimate king.

*THAT’S where those WMDs are! In Reagan’s casket!

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