Getting rude at the nation’s big funeral

  "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.

Like his 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.

We 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 Soviet arms.

We remember when Ronald Reagan called the paramilitary followers of the Somoza family, which brutalized Nicaraguans for decades, "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers."

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 dollars.

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.

Jeff Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He hosts the "Jefferson Exchange" radio show in Ashland, Oregon, and is the author of Forest Blood/