Reflections of The Way Life Used To Be
By A.D. Freudenheim  

8 June 2004

With the death of former president Ronald Reagan, we are now being subjected to a serious nostalgia trip that should only make all of us more aware of how thoroughly screwed-up things were in that glorious era the media are now celebrating. As David Brooks wrote in The New York Times last Saturday[1], political partisans tend to remember incorrectly specific details of particular eras, and I have no doubt that he is right. With that reference as a disclosure of fallibility, let me recall some highlights of the Reagan era as I remember them – and remind us all of how little things have changed, in some cases.

- Foreign threats loomed, with a nuclear edge. Then, it was the Soviet Union; and then, too, as much as our allies France and Germany cooperated, there were still debates among the Allies about the value of detente, engagement versus outright confrontation, and ultimately, a constant level of fear. Reagan certainly did not create our fear of the Soviets, but he used it, and brilliantly.

- As a result of these foreign threats, Reagan thought we needed the “Star Wars” space defense program, to protect us; then, as now, it was an uneven mix of science fiction and actual science, along with high budgets. We are much closer to building an effective missile shield these days, but sadly, the likelihood that an attack on the U.S. will be by Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is a lot lower. Aren’t we supposed to be happy about that? Reagan never told us we’d be exchanging massive, foreign, ICBM-driven threats for the complete unpredictability of airplane weapons and suitcase bombs; he didn’t know – and more recently, the people who did know didn’t tell us.

- The economy: the Reagan era saw lots of: fights over lowering different kinds of taxes, and of improving the take-home from capital gains; debates about raising the minimum wage; battles over how low or high “natural” unemployment is; the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas; whining, over-subsidized farmers complaining about how hard life is for them; and one of the largest tax increases in the last 40 years. Yes, that’s right – Reagan raised taxes. Ultimately, then as now, the economy was doing well by doing poorly (or the other way around): if you had a good job, investments and retirement plans, a true stake in the markets, then you probably saw your overall quality of life improve; if you didn’t have a good job, had no money to save or invest, or worked in an industry under threat ... then your perspective on the world was likely less positive.

- I’ll be damned if John Ashcroft sure doesn’t seem like Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese! On just about every issue, from invasion of privacy to undermining women’s rights to protecting white collar criminals (especially those with friends in the administration) to obsessing about marijuana and other drugs to ... well, you get the point. Really, the Reagan era was just downright pleasant – if you were a white, Christian male.

- Cronyism, in a variety of forms. Over-payments to government contractors (remember those expensive hammers and toilet seats the Pentagon loved so much?) and protection of highly-fallible, flawed corporate leaders was one form. Then there was the international cronyism, the strong relations with the Saudis in the midst of the (equally) strong relations with Israel’s conservative, expansionist Likud government. In the case of the former kind of cronyism, the Reagan attitude was: well, it was just a shame these folks got into these messes, but it wasn’t their fault, and really, why not bail them out? In the case of the latter, it was a willful blindness, the same blindness that couldn’t see that the U.S.-funded Islamic soldiers-cum-terrorists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan could just as easily turn their sights on us, or deciding to ignore the obvious contradictions in befriending both the fundamentalist Saudis and the fundamentalist Zionists.

- State’s rights. Oh, yes. There has been much hoo-ha over Reagan as a “western” Republican, someone who believed in state’s rights not in the Southern, segregationist sense but in a broader sense of community values, and of having a smaller Federal government. Which is why Reagan spent so much time investing in the Federal infrastructure, building more Federal programs than he eliminated, increasing the Federal budget, and raising Federal taxes – because he wanted smaller government. Got it?

- Lastly, of course, there’s the other Reagan legacy: that of George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. One can only imagine how far Junior would (not) have gone had Senior lost the election in 1988. Perchance to dream.

So, all of the happy horse shit being shoveled about the greatness of President Reagan – ignore it. His stature, his true sense of the presidency, perhaps those are the qualities to be admired and missed. To glorify these qualities in the absence of an honest recollection of the failures of Reagan’s policies, however, only serves the cause of partisanship, not history.

[1] “Circling The Wagons,” by David Brooks, The New York Times, 5 June 2004   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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