Before George W. Bush, there was Ronald Reagan, a defiant conservative who helped topple communism, gave capitalism a future when it was expected to evolve into a semi-socialist welfare state, and misunderstood the rise of Muslim fundamentalist terrorism.
During his eight years in office, Reagan actively orchestrated combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beginning in the early 1980s, the United States provided Iraq with materiel and money to fight the new theocracy running Iran. The CIA spent $2 billion to help Afghan Muslims oust Soviet troops. When the Soviets finally withdrew, in 1989, during the term of Reagan’s successor, Bush I, the United States abandoned any interest in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to take over and roll out the welcome mat for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
When I consider that legacy, absent the prism of hagiography foisted upon the nation, the current Bush in the Oval Office doesn’t particularly alarm me. Having survived Reagan’s rule lends me confidence that there will be life after this Bush administration ends.
For many Americans, Reagan was a scary man. Here are some anecdotes not likely to be mentioned during his eulogies at his state funeral. The White House wrote The Advocate asking to be removed from its subscription list. A Family Protection Act was introduced to cut off federal funding for any group that advocated or supported homosexuality. In 1980, Reagan officially announced his candidacy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, of all places, where, in 1964 three civil rights workers had been murdered and where Reagan spoke, outrageously, about states’ rights, a core doctrine in the creed of segregationists. The Republican candidate was in effect offering a friendly word for racists.
Reagan exhorted a gathering of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983 to, in effect, oppose a peace initiative, a nuclear freeze, and support his missile defense system because the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” Whether you were gay, lesbian, a feminist, a supporter of nuclear disarmament, or black, the nation was moving away from its social welfare commitments.
Reagan’s broad smile concealed a much darker disposition.
Anybody who has ever worked for a minimum wage should remember that one of Ronald Reagan’s historic achievements was to make it easier for employers to keep wages low. One of the first gestures Reagan made was to fire striking air traffic controllers, who went on strike for higher wages and ended up losing their jobs. The president’s example was eagerly followed by corporate America that decided it was okay to stand up to unions and push down wages.
Unlike George W. Bush, who was elected by the Supreme Court, Ronald Reagan was immensely popular. He was elected easily and won reelection by a historic electoral margin. The second time around, even New York and Massachusetts were among the states that supported Reagan, and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, carried only one—his home state of Minnesota.
Reagan’s coattails translated into a congressional mandate. In 1980, the Senate became Republican for the first time in 28 years. The House remained Democratic but the members understood clearly that Ronald Reagan was the voters’ choice in nearly 400 of 450 Congressional districts. On crucial budget votes, 55 House “Reagan” Democrats would vote with the Republicans.
The lesbian and gay movement went through its own revolution after Reagan was elected, a development that installed a voice for the Christian right at the heart of power in Washington. A graduate of Eureka College, a Christian school, Ronald Reagan was one their own. In retrospect, Reagan kept his distance from the most virulently reactionary fundamentalists, but many of us feared the worst at the time. Remember, hundreds of gay men were dying by the month while the Reagan administration did nothing.
The AIDS epidemic, first uncovered the year Reagan was inaugurated, posed the second, and grimmer challenge for AIDS activism. Very quickly, suspicion focused on sexual promiscuity as the major cause of the disease’s transmission. Larry Kramer, a prominent writer whose satirical novel “Faggots” had several years before ridiculed orgiastic sex, joined with other prominent gays to change the direction of the liberation movement. The fight against AIDS was not only a matter of life and death, it was also clear that unless gay men took responsibility for their behavior and for their community’s welfare, the unfriendly Reagan administration might step in with measures of its own that could prove very unpleasant.
Evidence that the law and order mentality could have harsh consequences for the gay community was not hard to find. The war on drugs moved from a rhetorical phrase to an obsession. As governor, Reagan vetoed the first California bill to reduce criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana. As president, he spurned the recommendation of the National Academy of Science to decriminalize marijuana, ignoring the success of numerous state laws. Research on the medical use of cannabis and MDMA was terminated. Nancy Reagan cheered the drug war along with her famous “Just Say No” campaign.
The administration that was elected to get government “off our backs” instead got the feds into our bladders by promoting widespread urine testing. Draconian new laws for drug offenses were enacted, producing an unprecedented tide of victimless drug prisoners. As Dale Gieringer of California NORML, a marijuana-legalization organization, reminds us, Reagan endowed the “land of liberty” with the largest prison population on earth. At Nancy’s urging, the administration supported a new federal law forcing states to adopt the 21-year-old drinking age.
Law enforcement was given a greatly enhanced role in American society. All too often the Democrats in Congress joined the Republicans in advocating “tough measures.” To an extraordinary degree, blacks and Latinos were singled out for prosecution. Racial profiling enacted against black drivers and complaints about stop and frisk procedures were starting to be heard and would grow to a chorus in the 1990s. Reagan succeeded in seeing to it that the drug reform movement died during his administration’s eight years.
Reagan gave us a new generation of conservative judges and politicians. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, William H. Rehnquist, first appointed to the court by Richard Nixon, was promoted by Reagan. Rudy Giuliani was a top official in the Justice Department who was allowed to take a “lesser” position as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. The federal cases he tried brought him prominence and ultimately, he defeated David Dinkins, the last Democratic mayor of New York City. Reagan was good for the Republican Party. In 1980 there were only 19 Republican governors. Today, there are 28.
For Reagan, law and order stopped at the nation’s borders. He almost laid sea mines to stop the delivery of supplies to Nicaragua until international protests prevented that violation of international law. When Congress barred the use of federal funds to aid the overthrow of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Reagan looked for some other way to help the “freedom fighters.” An incredible set of transactions was devised to sell weapons to Iran and then turn the money over to the Contras. The disclosure of this illegal scheme haunted Reagan during his second term.
Reagan was a bundle of contradictions. A fast friend of the religious right, he seldom went to church and he was the first divorced man elected to the presidency. Reagan was a vocal opponent of gay rights, yet, after serving two terms as governor of California, he denounced the Briggs Amendment, a legislative proposal to ban schools from hiring openly gay and lesbian schoolteachers. Reagan’s opposition led to the referendum’s ultimate defeat. By 1983, however, the religious right was trying to generate an AIDS panic with hateful rhetoric. Congress was holding hearings about responding to the epidemic. Reagan did nothing.
In 1984, the Democrats held their national convention in the epicenter of the epidemic and the religious right had a field day warning that unless something was done “innocent victims” would die of AIDS. Proposals to quarantine AIDS victims and “contain” homosexuality were debated in Congress. Ronald Reagan did nothing.
When his long-term friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS, the president merely issued a statement. His surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, much to the dismay of his fellow conservatives, issued a thoroughly professional report encouraging the use of condoms to curb the spread of AIDS. Reagan never bothered to have a face-to-face meeting with Koop to discuss AIDS.
Perhaps the biggest puzzle was the cordial relationship the Red-baiting Reagan developed near the end of his second term with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev. The two men devised a missile ban and clearly laid the groundwork for the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, shortly after Reagan left the White House. Henry Kissinger and other foreign policy establishment leaders warned of trying to deal with the Soviets, but Reagan enacted this rapprochement of sorts since he had the political leverage to ignore the insiders’ opinions.
But in the end, the Reagan Revolution was a revolt of the wealthy against the demands placed on their income by the welfare state. Efforts to establish national health insurance and finance low-rent housing became doomed, as politicians felt compelled to support tax cuts. Reagan’s moralizing against drugs, homosexuality, and teenage pregnancy served to undermine the legitimacy of non-profit groups seeking public funds to serve teenage mothers, AIDS patients, and drug addicts. By condemning the morality of such services, it became easier for Republicans to limit government spending.
In that sense, the kindly, the genial Reagan portrayed by the media was actually a frightening man to me who to a large degree effectively executed his political agenda. The good news is that I believe George W. Bush is simply incompetent, which hopefully will make him the last president of the Reagan Revolution.