Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years
It didn't help that the more I read, the more I realized that if we want to draw comparisons between the current President-Elect and past presidencies, people are seizing upon the wrong ones. I see names like Harding bandied about because of concerns about corruption. One of the things Haynes Johnson reminds us of is the fact that when it comes to corruption, cronyism, and general shady dealings, it's actually the Reagan administration that takes the prize. After all, how many other administrations have been verified as having encouraged drug smuggling while claiming to fight a war on drugs and to having sold weapons to Iran while publicly bragging about being anti-terrorist? The Iran-Contra mess has to win some sort of bizarre trifecta for hitting all the high (low?) points of double dealing and corrupt behavior any scandal monger could want.
Except, of course, it never turned into much of a scandal. For reasons totally inexplicable to the rational mind, no matter how much the Reagan administration screwed up, no matter how many examples of various Reagan appointees getting nailed for accepting kickbacks, skimming from government accounts, and indulging in various dirty deeds surfaced, the American public didn't care. To this day Reagan gets credit for stuff he didn't actually do, like causing the downfall of the Soviet Union -- it was falling apart on its own; Reagan just happened to be in office when the tipping point hit -- while almost no one ever mentions the colossal blunders and record number of indictments brought against his administration.
There's been a lot of talk about The Donald and crony capitalism. I'm not sure he's actually smart enough to do as well as Reagan and his cronies did in making themselves rich through scamming the government. Of course, Reagan and his friends had the state of California to practice on first. Reagan was helped into office by a group of California right-wing Republicans who thought they'd have to guide Reagan through various manipulations and double-dealings. To their surprise, Ronnie turned out to be totally on board with their thinking and, in fact, often proposed ideas that went beyond what they had originally thought was possible. It was in California that Reagan perfected the art of "plausible deniability," i.e., establishing enough distance between himself and various illegal and/or unethical dealings that he could claim ignorance. It was in California that Reagan's cronies figured out how to use the governorship to enrich themselves, starting with the governor's mansion.
Previous governors had resided in an Empire-style mansion located walking distance from the Capitol building. Nancy Reagan didn't want to live in it. The reason pushed publicly was that the building was in poor condition and needed extensive maintenance; the reality was Nancy had no desire to live in such a public setting. She had no use for the average person and wanted to be in a house that would guarantee more privacy. Reagan supporters pooled their money, purchased a more modern house in an upscale Sacramento neighborhood, and then rented it to the state. When Reagan left the governorship, the investors promptly sold the house at a substantial profit.
Reagan himself had inherited from the previous governor a state that was fiscally sound, was running at a surplus, and had one of the finest educational systems in the country. Thanks in large part to Reagan's anti-government rhetoric and the policies he endorsed, when Reagan left office, the state was on a downward trend in almost every area of public life, a pattern he was to repeat as President. When Reagan took office, the country had problems. When Reagan left, things were worse.
Haynes Johnson focuses a lot on Reagan's blunders in foreign policy: supporting the Contras, for example, a group that might not have existed at all if Reagan had been willing to talk to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Jimmy Carter had begun a process of establishing a stable relationship with Nicaragua after revolution there; Reagan just saw the spectre of Communism everywhere, freaked out over the fact that the Sandinistas were talking with Cuba, and promptly severed all ties. Central America is still a mess thanks to U.S. meddling 30 years ago.
Reagan also supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Reagan administration ignored sales of chemical weapons to the Iraqis (after all, those weapons were supposedly going to be used on the Iranians) and repeatedly reassured Saddam that the U.S. didn't much care what he did. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, one reason they did it was they'd had a full decade of hearing from the U.S. that whatever they did was fine with us. Except it wasn't.
And then there were the economic fantasies. Supply-side economics, aka trickle down. Trickle down is a good way of putting it because it means the average person gets pissed on. Reagan may or may not have understood any of the theories, but he did grasp one thing clearly: citing supply-side economics was a way to justify coming up with more ways for rich people to get richer: cut the taxes they paid, eliminate regulations, try to kill the regulatory agencies, all while talking a lot about government being the problem. Which was true enough for the wealthy plutocrats for whom there's no such thing as too much money. Reagan really is the godfather of "I've got mine, fuck everyone else." He glorified greed and selfishness without seeming to do so. He wrapped fucking over poor people in the flag and managed to convince way too many people that the goal of this country has always been for individuals to get rich, and if you can't get rich you deserve to suffer. Social Darwinism in action.
And then there was the thinly veiled racism. His fictitious welfare queen was black. Problems with drugs? Blame it all on blacks and other minorities despite the despressing truth that the typical drug user is white. Failing schools? They all seemed to be in inner city neighborhoods, never out in rural areas where the schools were frequently worse when it came to dropout rates and low test scores than in the urban districts.
Johnson does a good job of enumerating the various horrible things Reagan did, although there is one odd omission, especially considering the missile deal with Iran. There is only a passing reference to the 241 Marines who died when their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, was bombed in 1983. Reagan's response to the bombing was to cut and run: get U.S. military personnel out as fast as possible and then pretend the event never happened.
On the other hand, Johnson provides the reader with an in-depth look at the Iran-Contra hearings and the personnel involved in the investigation. Iran-Contra is actually a really good example of how the American public is often too ignorant for its own good. To the investigators involved and to the members of Congress, it was abundantly clear that the Reagan administration had violated numerous laws. The public should have been outraged that characters like Oliver North openly admitted they had decided that the law didn't apply to them. Instead, North became a folk hero. It made no sense then. It makes no sense now.
I've said for years that the absolute worst thing that Reagan did was turn government into the enemy. And then to make sure that the voters bought that particular line of bullshit, he appointed people to his cabinet who made it their goal to destroy the agencies they were supposed to head. Sound familiar? Reagan was an early version of Trump, except he was a good enough actor that people never realized just how hard he was working at enriching himself and his cronies. He had the gift of getting people to like him for no rational reason.
If you look at Reagan's record, he did a tremendous amount of damage to the country. He glorified greed, made self-centered selfishness acccptable, and exacerbated distrust of the government. After all, if people working in the White House were lying repeatedly while circumventing the law, who could you believe? When Haynes Johnson asked that question, he was hopeful that there'd be a reversal, a return to more ethical behavior. I found myself wondering just what Johnson would have thought of Trump. It's probably a good thing he died in 2013.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the Reagan years. It's packed with facts (complete with sources) but is easy to read. It can, of course, be remarkably depressing, but sometimes it helps to know where we've been if we want to change where we're going.