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How Ronald Reagan destroyed the American Dream

By Pablo Mayhew

“More like John Wayne, really.”

— Former White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver,
responding to a question from MSNBC’s
Chris Matthews on whether Reagan was
“more like Jimmy Cagney or Jimmy Stewart.”


The John Wayne comparison comes easily when discussing Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, who was an actor himself — although one who realized nowhere near the same level of success on the Silver Screen as “The Duke.” But Reagan, who was known as “Dutch,” eventually got his casting call on the much larger World Stage — and when it came time to act there, he shed all inclinations towards B-movie mediocrity and came up with the grandest performance of his life.

Or so revisionist historians would have us believe. And many would. But they would be wrong.

Ronald Reagan was a duplicitous, god-fearing brute who spoke with a forked-tongue and used the rhetoric of apocalyptic imagery to instill a climate of fear and docility in America, while he and his rich henchmen exponentially increased the ranks of the nation’s “working poor.”

A quote by Reagan in 1966 — at the beginning of his eight-year stint as the governor of California — says a lot. The Free Speech Movement had flared up again at the University of California at Berkeley. Reagan, after deep consultations with the state Board of Regents, chided that the student protestors should “obey the prescribed rules or get out.” That was Reagan to a Tee: he had no use for self-examination, or anyone who did; his identity was action.

He won the Cold War, say the revisionists, and they grant him full credit for having brought down the symbolic Berlin Wall, despite that each of the seven presidents who preceded him, beginning with Truman, executed a similar, if not identical, program of Communist Containment; and their efforts had, by the time Reagan moved into the White House, worn down the Soviet Union so completely that Dutch need only utter a few boisterous threats eastward to send the “Evil Empire” down to the mat for good….

Indeed, 35 years of economic tampering, psychological warfare and propaganda…not to mention a five-decades-long marathon to see who could gather a larger stockpile of nuclear weapons that neither country would ever use — a nefarious and well-orchestrated policy of shameless waste that eventually bankrupted the Soviet Union and, at the same time, damn near bankrupted America.

I hail from western Pennsylvania, and come from a long line of steel folks. I still recall how desperate things became for my people shortly after Reagan came into office, and subcontracted nearly the entire steel industry to Japan. It became a sort of nervous contest to predict which of the various mills in the area would be next in line for the chopping block…and, as a result, who among my family or my family’s friends would find their secure way of life — their American Dream, as it were — melted down like so much bituminous waste. Back then, someone was always next in line to get the axe.

Ronald Reagan never visited western Pennsylvania while he was president, though he did once place a phone call to the area — in the spring of 1981, this was, soon after he assumed the presidency and even sooner after a Jodie Foster-obsessed Okie named John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots from a cheap .22 pistol at him and his entourage as they left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. A lot of people in western Pennsylvania would have loved to see him at various points throughout the Eighties…but Reagan never could make it. Which makes perfect sense when you consider that no criminal worth his salt is ever dumb enough to return to the scene of the crime.

And Reagan was a criminal — make no mistake of that. Revisionist history has served him well, just as it did Richard Nixon, who actually enjoyed a return to eminence long before he himself met the Grim Reaper in 1994. The Republicans are terribly fond of revisionism, which permits them to commit heinous atrocities while they are in office on the hunch that no one in America will remember what they did a decade later…and still fewer will even care. Tricky Dick benefited from this — and so did Ronald Reagan.

But with Reagan, the revisionists have gone over the top…and they’re not finished yet. Oh, there were some shaky moments, to be sure. In 1987, when the Iran-Contra Affair was uncovered, there was staunch determination among all sectors of the GOP to keep the crimes that Reagan and his cronies committed as secret as possible. Indeed. They circled the wagons tight and fast on that one. Richard Nixon had already blown the opportunity to be raised before History as the paradigm of meritorious Republican leadership designed to offset the wistful myth of John F. Kennedy. Under no circumstances would revisionists allow Reagan to meet the same harsh fate.

Iran-Contra. It sounds boring and arcane now — like some bad soap opera, slated for cancellation, flickering across a broken television screen. Not even History has given it a fair shake. There are, however, obvious reasons for that. Foremost among them is that revisionists have seen to it that Iran-Contra has never gotten any airtime on History’s Big Screen….And, for this same reason, it appears certain it never will — especially given the somber rhapsody surrounding Reagan’s funeral, and the shameless tributes that are certain to continue long after the memory of that maudlin spectacle fades.

But, goddamnit, I’m writing this for a reason; and since I haven’t succumb to the historical lobotomy that revisionism perpetrates upon the American Memory, I feel impelled to lay out at least some of the facts regarding that treacherous farce.

The Iran-Contra Affair was a brazen and deliberate transgression by the Reagan administration of the Boland Amendment, which Congress passed in December 1982. It was conducted under the illegal auspices of the rogue National Security Council (NSC) and Rear Adm. John Poindexter — from 1983 until October 5, 1986, when U.S. covert operator Eugene Hasenfus was forced to go before world television cameras and relate the details of the mission he and his colleagues had been undertaking when the cargo plane they were in was shot down over Nicaragua by a Sandinistan surface-to-air missile.

Under duress, Hasenfus told of an undercover U.S. government-sponsored program to resupply the anti-Sandinistan “Contras” in Nicaragua with paramilitary aid. More importantly, he explained that those in the top echelon of power in the Reagan administration had sanctioned the program.

A month later, a Lebanese magazine published an account of a secret trip to Iran that State Department official Robert McFarlane and a corny dupe lieutenant colonel named Oliver North had taken six months earlier. The account, which detailed an extensive covert arms-for-hostages policy between the NSC and Iran, swiftly reached the Western media, where it spread with the speed of a napalm-fueled brushfire.

A few weeks later, Reagan and his attorney general, Edwin Meese, announced that the NSC had indeed sold arms to Iran, ostensibly as a way to secure “stability” in the embattled Middle East — and then diverted the proceeds from those sales to bolster the Contras in Nicaragua — in direct violation of Congress. In scope, if not effect, the program had implications far more hideous than Watergate. Despite that, none of the major players in the Reagan administration were ever forced to testify, and Oliver North was transformed into a national hero for the obscene jingoism he displayed in not sinking the entire ship.

Which is precisely the lesson the Reaganites learned from Watergate: Rather than risk having Ollie North pull a John Dean, they wisely reeled him in, plying him with promises in the hereafter, as long as he took one on the chin for the team now. North acquiesced, and became a martyred celebrity. At last report, he had his own radio talkshow—just like G. Gordon Liddy.

Iran-Contra was the cornerstone of the “Reagan Doctrine,” a ruthless, worldwide plan to rollback leftist governments unfavorable to U.S. capitalist infiltration. Neo-conservatives viewed Nicaragua as a crucial test to U.S. hegemony in the wake of Vietnam.

Reagan cited forgetfulness when defending his role in the five years of illegal activities that led up to the congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra Affair in the summer of ’87. But he was guilty. And so was Vice President George H.W. Bush…even though he couldn’t use the same flimsy excuse of selective memory loss as Reagan. He planned to run for president himself, after all — and on Reagan’s coattails, no less. And he succeeded…well, sort of. He managed to win one term and keep the ball rolling a little while longer for the GOP.

And look where we are now.

Bush’s son, George W., who was appointed president in late 2000, fancies himself the Second Coming of Reagan, if not of Jesus Christ Himself.

And who can we thank for it? Well…it was Reagan, after all, who implemented and executed the absurdly dangerous policy of playing Iran against Iraq — and vice versa — while the two nations were already fighting a war against each other. But then, how could he tell who would win? Best to hedge all bets when the going gets unpredictable.

Hedging came naturally to Reagan; it was his dirty, humble trademark. He had been a Democrat until 1960, when he finally saw the light, as it were. Even so, being a Democrat never stopped him from participating in the Hollywood witch-hunts of the 1950s. In common terms, he would be called a liar…or at the very least dishonest. Some might even use the term “waffler.”

But to the issue again — Iran, Iraq, and Reagan’s insidious double-dealings with them both: From ’83 until late ’86, when the NSC and CIA were re-circulating arms from Israel to Iran, the United States was also selling military hardware — including chemical weapons — to Saddam Hussein. Which helped Iraq out quite well in its war with Iran, as one might imagine.

And all this amid Reagan’s vociferous assertion that “America will never make concessions to terrorists.” His solution? He removed Iraq from the list of “states sponsoring terrorism,” in February of 1982, against the stringent objections of Congress. Congress, it seems, knew the score. But then, it was dealing with the very same man who would come to say, “A tree is a tree. How many do you have to look at?”

“He stood tall,” exclaimed Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, the Thursday after Reagan’s death. Hastert, like other leading Republicans, has shown no hesitation in using Dutch’s death as a shameless reaffirmation of the GOP’s current treacherous agenda.
Clearly, our Supreme Court-appointed president displays the same standing-tall-as-a-tree John Wayne machismo that Dutch did. Still, as the poet Gary Snyder once observed: “Comparisons are odious.” And he was right. Drawing parallels between Reagan and Dubya only reinforces the horrid truth that the political climate in America has — in the span of just three short years — reverted all the way back to 1981 or so, when a spry, 70-year-old President Reagan declared his own War on Terrorism, and the economy was one delicate flush away from being lost forever.

On that note, this seems like a fine opportunity to bring up the topic of the “Reagan Revolution,” and I must now go on the record — after decades of embracing the belief that the people in the Reagan administration were nothing but a passel of tired, reactionary hacks — and admit that there did in fact occur a revolution under Reagan.

But it was a revolution confined to the GOP — a tactical re-imaging, as it were, of the entire party after the indelible disgrace Nixon had branded it with a half decade before. It was, unarguably, a willful uprising of wealthy white zealots against the American middle class, and anything that smacked of the Truth. The Reagan Revolution lay in the fact that those who would undermine both institutions (the middle class and the Truth) had learned enough from the mistakes of the past to allow them to suppress any and all incriminating evidence about their crimes from the American people in the present — a skill that Nixon and his henchmen had proven too inept, or perhaps too cavalier, to perfect.

Already there is talk of placing Reagan’s image on the ten-dollar bill…or perhaps the dime, if the Republicans can manage it without raising the intense ire of Democrats who would consider supplanting FDR’s likeness with that of Reagan sacrilegious — which is doubtful. It is an election year, after all — expect the Bush people to milk Reagan’s death for all the mileage they can get out of it…just like they did with Sept. 11.

But Reagan’s timing, in this regard, could have been worse. At least he didn’t die in, say, October — when what is shaping up as the most important and potentially divisive election since 1968 will be in hyper-swing.

It’s hard to deny that Ronald Reagan has a legacy, but that legacy is much simpler than most people know…or will ever admit. For if it is true, as one great writer has contended, that Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream, then Reagan broke its back. Now, more than fifteen years after Reagan left office, the American Dream is clearly down for the count.


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