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Ask Auntie Pinko
June 17, 2004

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?

Doubtful Catholic,
Piscataway, NJ

Dear Doubtful,

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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