It is surely a measure of the gay community’s stubbornly persistent alienation from the mainstream of American life that the man whom millions of our fellow citizens recall nostalgically this week as the Great Communicator, we remember for his silence.
As has been acknowledged over and over and over again during the past five days, Ronald Reagan was a man of enormous personal charm. He was able to translate the lessons learned in a ho-hum career on the screen into enormous political capital. In 1980, he succeeded in doing what Barry Goldwater failed at miserably 16 years before—harnessing the fervor of America’s far right political forces while at the same time putting a benign, even affable face on his deeply conservative, backward-looking agenda. Both of his Republican successors as president—the two George Bushes—have scrambled to keep such a sunny face of optimism on American conservatism.
Reagan’s skills as a performer were such that moderates, and even some liberals, were lulled into supporting him, or at least acquiescing to him, in spite of what he did and threatened to do, while conservatives continued to adore him despite the fact that he often disappointed their fondest hopes.
His supply-side economics were a betrayal of traditional Republican fiscal restraint, and as George H.W. Bush’s attacks on “voodoo economics” during the 1980 Republican primaries indicated, very few on his side of the aisle were predisposed to think his ideas would work before he assumed the presidency. Yet when he rolled out his massive tax cut plan in 1981, there were precious few Democrats willing to go to the mat to oppose it. Despite the fact that his first two years in office were marked by massive unemployment that caused crises in many American families and that he left office in early 1989 having wracked up the largest deficits in history, people think back on his tenure as a period of robust economic progress.
Looking back on his foreign policy, it is clear that despite the muscularity of his rhetoric the U.S. failed utterly in its response to terrorist attacks on our Marines in Lebanon in 1983. Reagan’s provocations in Iran and Iraq only sowed seeds for the world’s current tensions, and the scandal over the arms for hostages deal and the funneling of proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras threatened to overwhelm his second term, until the body politic took a collective breath and decided to give the president himself a pass. Aware of the terminally fragile state of the Soviet Union, Reagan’s administration made effective theater out of the president’s trip to the Berlin Wall, and loaded up the defense budget, with some real protein, but also a wide assortment of Star Wars fantasies.
The gay community, suffering through the early, devastating years of AIDS, of course, was not the only sector hurt on the domestic front. Organized labor, environmental activists, women, people living in poverty and in the middle class as well also took their hits. It is instructive that none of their concerns have been much aired in the glowing commentary almost universally offered up since Reagan’s death on Saturday.
Compassionate conservatism is of course George W. Bush’s gambit to escape his father’s fate and capture the gold of the Reagan legacy. The uncritical tears cast in public this week in remembering the 40th president do not bode well for the nation’s willingness to move into the election season with a serious commitment to understanding the choices facing us.
But perhaps the media and political leaders have misjudged the American mood. I’m willing to bet that queer people are not alone in feeling that the coverage of Reagan’s death lacked balance and perspective. It is up to each of us who feels this way to hold our leaders and the nation’s media to a higher standard as we consider whether to give George W. Bush another four years to prove he cares about us.
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