I watched a part of the HBO special, "Reagan," last night. It presents Reagan, convincingly, as the great salesman, who learned the art of the pitch after his acting career fizzled, and brought to it the skills he had learned in his previous profession. Once an avowed liberal, he soon caught the conservative bug from his corporate employers. To put it unkindly, he found out which side his bread was buttered--and, not coincidentally, that he enjoyed buttered bread. He became the instrument of those business interests, and his skills were such that he managed to sell their values and aspirations to what was once working class America. The conversion of the working middle class to conservative economic ideals was a feat that brought about a radical change in the politics of this country--and, to my mind, not for the good. Over time, it led to the vast gulf that now exists between the super-wealthy and those who struggle to make ends meet.
The benevolent, avuncular Reagan who blessed America with his simple, homespun wisdom has been woven into a lasting and destructive myth. His actions in office, both as Governor and President, gave the lie to that myth. He rode the wave of taxpayer revolt into the Governor's office in California, and thence on into the White House. He spun ignorance and self-interest into gold for those who knew how to use the myth to their advantage. Like so many whose good fortune--and, yes, to be fair, hard work and single-minded dedication to success--led them to the top of the heap, he was blinded to the reality that this yellow brick road, this "American dream," while available to some, was never, could never be, available to all; and that its achievement by the few necessitated its denial to the many. This blindness led him on the one hand to the mean-spiritedness of "welfare queen" conservatism; and on the other, to a steadfast belief in the efficacy of "trickle-down" economics, all evidence to the contrary.
There seems to be little doubt that the spirit of Reaganism has permeated the American world view in the past half decade. His myth has only been aggrandized with time, softened at the edges as he faded into the mists of Alzheimer's. (I myself am as persuaded as his son, Ron, that his judgment was already impaired by this disease during his presidency.) His legacy is false optimism--call it denial--and deep division. Our political leaders are either genuinely seduced by this myth, or eager to exploit it, cynically, for their own purposes. The American electorate is readily persuaded to ignore the realities of the world in which we live today in favor of the illusion he helped to create--and the way they wish it were. We respond, it seems, to slick salesmanship and false promises rather than truth-telling.
As a result, we sink ever deeper into the mire of ignorance, believing that we shall be healed by the snake oil we buy--at considerable expense--from glib salespeople who claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. We are mistaken. Those who produce the snake oil and those who sell it make their profits, and we persist in the delusion promoted by the greatest snake oil salesman of them all.
But what about that "tear down this wall" moment? Should we not credit Ronald Reagan at least with facing down the threat of world-wide communism at the end of the last century? I would like to find something for which I could credit this genial gentleman, but, sorry, this is not it. It's my belief that Soviet communism was responsible for its own demise, thanks to decades of monumental mismanagement and abuse of power, all based on a cynically misappropriated ideology. (Come to think of it, how long might it be before we can use the very same words about capitalism?)
So let the hagiographers say what they will. I believe that Ronald Reagan did more damage to this country than any other President in history, but with the full understanding that "he" was "us." In electing him, we were suckered by those who stood to profit by empowering him. A snake oil salesman survives only on the credulousness of those who believe his patter and come under his spell. That we continue to idolize his myth and swallow down his remedy a quarter century later despite its proven inefficacy says less about the salesman than about his mark.