Dear Auntie Pinko,
I am a Catholic who was born in the early 1980s. Needless
to say, I don't really remember very much about Ronald Reagan.
I was definitely under the impression that he was not such
a great President, but now I'm not so sure. Should I be petitioning
the Pope to canonize him?
I'll assume you're being facetious, but your question does
give Auntie a chance to comment on the "Reagan legacy,"
at an appropriate time, so I'll take a swing at it.
The first thing Auntie really remembers about Mr. Reagan
was his action as Governor, filling the streets of California's
cities with homeless mentally ill individuals. This was the
result of him closing most of the state hospitals and residential
mental health facilities without fully funding any viable
community-based alternatives, which were apparently supposed
to materialize from thin air, somehow.
There was a good deal to be said for closing those institutions
- they were poorly funded and not always well-managed, and
in the worst cases they amounted to highly unpleasant warehouses
for the mentally ill. But to close them down without securing
an adequate long-term alternative produced dire consequences
that still echo across America's cities today.
Mr. Reagan appears to have been one of those individuals
who find it terribly easy to find convincing rationalizations
- which they then espouse with great sincerity - for the moral
justification of whatever is expedient to them. So perhaps,
in charity, we should attribute the misery inflicted upon
thousands of mentally ill individuals and their families merely
to thoughtlessness, rather than to a deliberately cynical
attempt to balance California's budget on the backs of its
most vulnerable citizens.
This ability of Mr. Reagan's to convince himself that whatever
he wanted to believe was factual truth can be illustrated
by the difference between his proudly smiling face when he
signed the bill declaring Martin Luther King Day a national
holiday, and his opinion at the time of the assassination
that Dr. King's death was the result of "when we began
compromising with law and order, and people started choosing
which laws they'd break." This was a reference to Dr.
King's own leadership in civil disobedience actions for the
cause of civil rights.
And Governor Reagan's suggestion that Dr. King's murder
was probably committed by antiwar protestors, who "will
do anything to further their own ends," certainly reflects
a man whose moral compass guided his policy actions, as could
be seen when he deployed California national guardsmen to
teargas protestors at the People's Park rally in Berkeley.
Mr. Reagan's contempt and anger at the civil disobedience
movement, the anti-war protestors, and the campus demonstrators
found another expression when his administration transferred
state budget support from the "elitist" University
of California system to what he regarded as the more acceptably
docile California State University system.
Based on his performance as California governor - which
seemed extremist and (on occasion) thoughtlessly callous -
his determination to replace Mr. Goldwater as the ultra-conservative
standard bearer for the Republican Party seemed comparatively
innocuous. His failed Presidential primary bids piling up
in 1968 and 1976 were reminiscent of Mr. Harold Stassen, another
perennial candidate with a non-mainstream agenda.
He always seemed pleasant enough and his undeniable sense
of humor and beguiling ability to turn even his most embarrassing
gaffes into "just folks" peccadilloes certainly
helped him advance his agenda with the American people. His
gift for reading a crowd and telling them what they wanted
to hear was extraordinarily helpful, too. And he showed a
genuine gift for the public figurehead aspect of his Presidential
role, at a time when that ability was sorely needed.
His steadfast support of South Africa's apartheid regime,
the fiscal recklessness that ballooned the national debt to
undreamed-of heights, his financial and policy contributions
to dictators and death squads in Central America, and his
implacable attack on worker rights were all presented with
nimble rationalizations that turned them into "moral
high ground" positions. And always with undeniable sincerity
- at least from Mr. Reagan himself. But then, Mr. Reagan also
had a gift for convincing himself that old movie plots were
actual events, in which he had participated.
He saw issues in good and evil, without moral ambiguity
or question, and he appeared unable to parse value from any
information that contradicted this worldview. Like religious
fundamentalism, this kind of simplistic certainty can be enormously
reassuring to people feeling overwhelmed by the complexities
of an untidy and rapidly-changing world.
He did make a solid contribution to the end of Soviet domination
- at a cost of billions in defense spending and the expensive
fantasy of "Star Wars" that still haunts us today
- and certainly that is no mean legacy. Whatever Auntie may
favorably opine about the value of socialist ideals in modern
communities, the Soviet system was undeniably deeply flawed,
and permitted the authoritarian domination of billions and
the genocide of millions.
And yet, as the line from Macbeth has it, perhaps "nothing
in life became him, like the leaving of it." Maybe, in
addition to the steadfast championing of freedom as he understood
it, his greatest legacy to the American people will be in
the form of progress towards a treatment and/or prevention
regimen for the tragic scourge of Alzheimer's disease. If
so, that alone weighs heavily in the balance against a multitude
of negative outcomes.
A saint? Auntie can't subscribe to that. Nor do I believe
he was fundamentally 'evil' or malicious. It's still too soon
after his Presidency to arrive at any kind of reliable consensus
on his effect upon history. So don't petition the Congregation
for the Causes of Saints, Doubtful, but try not to let the
toxic and pernicious drug of hatred distort your view, either.
And thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!
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