"Could the anti-everything folks have the common decency," asked a caller to my public-radio talk show in Oregon, "to wait until the body gets cold before jumping on it?" Former president Ronald Reagan was being put to rest, and it was easy to understand how his admirers felt.
Those of us
outside that category might have agreed, if this national epic had
been simply the funeral of one man, an expression of gratitude for
his public service and appreciation for his qualities. It’s
been much more than that — way too much.
presidency, the national remembrance of Ronald Reagan so thoroughly
mixed politics and personality that sitting mute through the
six-day ceremony was more than many of us could do. The eulogies
pushed forward one side of the cultural and political battle to
define America — what it is, what it should be, how to get
from here to there — to the point that some Americans would
have to betray themselves to stay silent.
One of the
eulogists was syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker. "By his death,"
she wrote, "the man who lost his memory restored the
nation’s." Okay, let’s remember.
when the man who Ronald Reagan charged to protect America’s
publicly owned lands and natural resources said environmentalists
were fretting too much. With the end times almost upon us, James
Watt said, pollution and overconsumption were no big deal.
We remember, as Reagan admirers urged us to do, the
defeat of Communism. For those of us taught to duck-and-cover
beneath our school desks, that was worth a high price. But has the
full price been tabulated? We know about the dollar cost, how
Reagan’s drive to spend the Soviets into the ground took
place while he halved income tax rates for the most wealthy. That
ballooned a national debt that eats up hundreds of billions of
dollars in interest payments.
There’s another cost.
Those who wonder about the hatred that inspired the brutal attacks
on our home ground in 2001, and who aren’t fully satisfied
with President Bush’s explanation that it’s just the
nature of evil to hate good, might look at U.S. foreign policy in
the 1980s. In the name of anti-communism, Ronald Reagan wed America
to despots of astonishing cruelty and greed. Some of these
countries had no strategic importance. Others did, but only after
our hostility to their efforts to escape the domination of
transnational corporations such as United Fruit drove them into
We remember when Ronald Reagan called the
paramilitary followers of the Somoza family, which brutalized
Nicaraguans for decades, "the moral equivalent of our Founding
We remember President Reagan insisting that
"Government’s not the solution to the problem —
government is the problem." But his definition of government was
selective. What he axed, it turned out, were programs that helped
the poorest Americans survive and that offered the working poor,
through training opportunities and affordable college tuition, a
doorway to the middle class.
Reagan had no problem at all
with other parts of government. He supersized military programs and
trafficked in the sale of weapons to clients such as Saddam
Hussein. And he clearly didn’t mind a rich pot of public
favors for private profit, which revealed a notion of personal
responsibility that hardly makes America a greater nation.
With anger and few facts, Ronald Reagan blasted "welfare
queens" driving luxury cars and spending their food stamps on
bonbons and vodka. Yet I can’t remember a word about savings
and loan executives who used deregulation to line their pockets,
padlock the doors of their bankrupt companies and leave to you, me
and our children a collective tab of hundreds of billions of
Some of us remember a pre-Reagan America that
included a robust middle class and broadly shared prosperity. We
live in a different America today. So, I say goodbye to Ronald
Reagan, truly a genial man, with the respect and gratitude I feel
for all people who render public service, and who stand up for what
they believe. But those who eulogize him as a navigational star for
this nation don’t speak for me. My shining city on the hill
isn’t his privileged place. And my sense of the path to get
there takes a very different direction.