"As Democracy is perfected, the office [of president] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." — H.L. Mencken
Former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford once referred to Ronald Reagan as an "amiable dunce," but Reagan's not the "downright moron" Mencken was referring to. At least, Reagan had principles. But there is a direct line leading from Reagan to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin. His "trickle down" economic theory was mocked by his then political rival and future vice president, G.H.W. Bush, as "voodoo economics." But Reagan's most glaring error was his pronouncement that "Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem." Thus began the era of public distrust of government to solve problems and the embryonic stages of what is now the Tea Party movement.
I was astonished that Reagan was elected in the first place. After a career in B movies and a stint as a shill for General Electric, he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, where his impact was felt during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts of the '50s. Appearing before the committee, Reagan blamed labor unions for "communist infiltration of Hollywood," and this was when he was still a Democrat. He switched parties in 1962, arguing that the "Democrats had left him." Conveniently, this was in the heart of the civil rights era, and Reagan had political ambitions. He won the California governor's race on a "law and order" platform in 1966, just in time to preside over the worst period of social unrest since the Civil War.
Reagan assumed office with all the paternalistic and patronizing attitudes of the "war and whiskey generation" concerning the impertinent hippie protesters. After an anti-war demonstration at Berkeley, where police used deadly force to suppress the protesters, Reagan said this about restoring order on California college campuses: "If it takes a blood bath, let's get it over with now." He later attempted to explain that he was only using a "figure of speech," but consider that Reagan's daughter, Patti, was an anti-war activist and quasi-hippie. Would he wish for a "blood bath" if it included his own child? As a Vietnam War objector, I was revulsed by the blind ignorance that prevented the rabid right from understanding that these young people protesting in the street were not "communist agitators" but their own children. Reagan parlayed his bellicosity into a commodity and was marketed and sold by the GOP as the old cold-warrior who could restore our tough-guy image in the world after the impotent Jimmy Carter refused to turn Iran into a nuclear sandbox.
It was no accident that Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the location of one of the civil rights era's most gruesome and murderous crimes. It sent a message about which side of the racial divide he was on and further capitalized on Nixon's "Southern strategy" of 1968, where the GOP actively courted white Southerners disaffected by the civil rights legislation of the Johnson years. It was a foreshadowing of the heartless budget cuts the Reagan administration would make in social programs and the mindless, unlimited cash machine they would offer to the military.
"Government is the problem" is a good campaign slogan if you intend to be a reformer, but Reagan ran up the highest deficits in history (prior to George W. Bush), ramped up the arms race, and secretly sold weapons to the very regime that had held our diplomats hostage in order to arm anti-government rebels in Nicaragua. Does that sound like less government to you?
Even Reagan's "aw shucks" speeches were a construction to burnish his uber-patriot image. "The shining city on a hill" and "It's morning in America" weren't Reagan's words. They were speechwriter Peggy Noonan's. Yet despite the sunny rhetoric, there were consequences to the abandonment of the poor and helpless. It was during Reagan's term that the rise of inner-city and ghetto gang membership exploded and began to establish franchises in major cities. Reagan's term saw the creation of violent rap music and the spread of gun violence. And it was in Reagan's term, during his "just say no" campaign against drug use, that crack cocaine first hit the streets of California and spread into a nationwide scourge.
There is now no question that the CIA planes that delivered arms to the Nicaraguan Contras returned home filled with cocaine. The San Jose Mercury News first reported that crack cocaine was invented, manufactured, and distributed in urban areas by the CIA, but they were forced to print a retraction when their sources recanted.
The "just say no" policy on drugs during the Reagan era is the same policy conservatives use on nearly everything today, especially when it comes to "family values." In fact, Reagan was the first to recruit right-wing activist Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell as presidential advisers, a post previously held exclusively by Billy Graham. And the eternal Republican talking point that Reagan "ended the cold war" is like crediting Pat Boone with the invention of rock-and-roll. He deserves credit for his consistent anti-communist stance, as do Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and others, but since the Berlin Wall fell on his watch, he gets bragging rights.
He also deserves credit for being a better actor than I thought: He convinced an entire generation that government is an intrinsic evil that must be restricted. The result is the GOP of today. They want smaller government and less governmental intrusion, until an oil rig blows up. Then, the proponents of "small government" find themselves standing on a metaphorical rooftop, holding a sign that says, "Help us!"