I can tell by reading your column (I came in a bit late, but have since gone back and caught up on them all) that you are not an avid Republican. Even though that’s how I would describe myself, it’s fine with me that we don’t always agree. I like your writing style, and I like to have my assumptions challenged, even if I end up sticking to my guns! So thanks for delivering! But I have to respectfully wonder if you can come across to my side a bit now that we are celebrating what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. Can you admit, in retrospect, that he may be the greatest president we’ve ever had? Curious what you think.
I would like to respond in the way that you’ve asked me to, if only to reward the refreshing tone of civility in your letter. And I would very much like to lend confirmation to your beliefs, not just for the sake of friendly discourse, but so that I too might bathe in a halo of nostalgia, surrounded by pleasant 80’s memories.
In fact, if I were more often addressed with such open-minded optimism as yours, I might even give up my Card Carrying ACLU carrying card altogether. You and I could usher in a new era of post-partisan discourse. Disagreement without denigration. Opinion without opprobrium. Contemplation without calumny. But, as genuinely tempting as that is, I simply cannot embrace your vision of Ronald Reagan. In fact, in my capacity as a licensed Giver of Advice, I see it as both a moral and professional imperative to dart at least a few of the revisionist pink balloons which hover so maddeningly in his wake.
In truth, my opinion of the man hasn’t changed materially since 1980, when it was considered hip in some circles to point out that Ronald Wilson Reagan contained exactly six letters in the first, middle, and patronymic, therefore….666! A thin notion, no question, particularly for a man whose entire film career could fit inside a medium Stetson or a mawkish bromide. So I won’t bore you with a rehash of Ronald Reagan’s early years. I won’t discuss his history as a union-busting pitchman for GE, or his stint as an anti-communist informant for HUAC, a position shared with that virulent anti-semite and paranoid regressive Walt Disney, in which both betrayed numerous colleagues and fellow dues payers. Let’s ignore his reactionary posturing as governor of California, his early failed presidential campaigns, and how his ultimate election–once considered unthinkable–morphed into eight long and lamentable years. Let’s also ignore the fact that Ronald Reagan dragged gibbering Evangelism into the realm of national politics forever. Or tossed a generation of mentally ill out into the streets the minute he did. Or that he founded the post-Friedman Voodoo Economics school, popularizing deregulation while cutting taxes to the wealthiest 2%, under the theory that such artificial largesse would eventually trickle down to ketchup-as-vegetable social programs. Or that he employed a demented toad of an economics adviser, Arthur Laffer, inventor of the “Laffer Curve,” who witlessly stipulated that rich people would eventually spend poor people out of poverty, if only they were granted additional fiduciary advantages.
The working class is, of course, still waiting for that first prophetic trickle.
And how about Ronald Reagan’s complicity in untold murders in El Salvador and Guatemala? Or the ludicrous invasion of the “Soviet-Cuban colony” of Grenada, under the guise of freeing a half-dozen stoner med students? Why bring up the damning hypocrisy of Iran/Contra, no mere jowly intern blowjob, but a genuinely impeachable subversion of both law and congressional dictate? And what about the Contras, those “brave freedom fighters” who were essentially paid assassins, who Reagan so disingenuously called “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” and who he ultimately abandoned, just as his successor did the Iraqi Kurds, as soon as a political use for them waned? How about the CIA-backed assassination attempt of Eden Pastora, leader of an inconvenient wing of the Contras, a man who actually wanted to reform that country instead of pocketing as much North-ian cash as was offered. Oh, and remember the hubris of stationing US marines at the Beirut airport? Not to mention the “cut and run” that took place immediately after 200 of those marines were killed by a suicide bomber? And yet, here we are, thirty years later, and not a day goes by that some neck on cable news isn’t deifying a portrait of Ronald Reagan, either through attribution of views he did not actually hold, policies he did not support, or the facile notion that he somehow won the cold war with a single speech at the Berlin Wall.
Let’s certainly not mention how frequently Ron’s unelected wife made decisions for him. The fact that Nancy Reagan, a woman with the personality of a steak knife and the wide-eyed grin of a habitual dexedrine gobbler, was the most powerful person in the world for eight years, should make even the most abject apologist shudder. As well as the fact that, to augment briefings, she consulted a series of celebrity astrologers on a daily basis. It almost makes the notion of a slick Massachusetts Mormon winning the next election seem entirely reasonable. At least Mitt won’t be basing the invasion of Pakistan on which corner of sky Scorpio is currently rising. No, Jerry, I won’t talk about Reagan’s ludicrous personal and foreign policy arrogance, his racism, his refusal to ever utter the word “AIDS” aloud, or his Alzheimer’s- enfeebled grasp of every complex issue set before him. Nor will I mention the fact that he surrounded himself with a coterie of venal thugs like Ed Meese and John Poindexter, or corporate hacks like Donald Regan and Casper Weinberger, or grinning autists like William Casey. And who could forget the Strangelovian Al Haig? Or the race-baiting neo-fascist buffoon Pat Buchanan? Not to mention Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who was not only truly certifiable, but famously insisted that trees cause 90% of all pollution. It’s the leaves, you see! They fall to the ground and….and….
No, Jerry, I will only say this: I lived through the cultural catatonia of that time, and remember all too well the insipid “morning in America” and “city on a hill” positivism that has given birth to our current national delusion–mainly that details don’t matter and facts are malleable. It’s a legacy that can be seen in the tautologies of Channel Murdoch, the bleating of tax protesters, and the cult of global warming deniers alike. So I must stand against the continued worship of a president who delivered so little–except cultural division, economic imbalance, anti-intellectualism, and free rein to consume without recourse.
But, I will grant you one thing, Jerry, if you’re still with me (and I genuinely hope you are). Unlike any other president in our history, Ronald Reagan really knew how to get shot. He took a bullet from Hinkley and came back strong. No early martyrdom for Ron. No giving in to some chunky Jodi Foster obsessive. Ronald Reagan would no doubt have driven out of Dealey Plaza unscathed. He would have finished watching the play at the Ford theater and then had an ice cream while planting his wingtip in John Wilkes Booth’s groin. He would have Keanu-kicked Charles Guiteau’s pistol away, if only to save the country from three years of Chester Arthur, and almost certainly would have absorbed Leon Czolgolz’s cheap bullet and spit it back out, unlike that pussy McKinley, who just slid to the floor and bled to death.
Finally, just the other night I watched St. Elmo’s Fire, a film I hadn’t seen since 1985, and half remembered as a genial relic. Dumb. Pointless. But entertaining if watched with a certain voyeuristic irony. I must tell you that I was shocked by how mean-spirited it actually is. How blissfully unaware the characters are of their shallow and craven natures. How they celebrate their lack of perspective. And then it occurred to me, even before I got your letter, that perhaps this turdlet of cinema was itself a perfectly representative capsule of the Reagen era. Self-centered, morally adrift, penny-deep. Full of greed and unearned certainty and a complete lack of style, all while snuggling happily beneath a platitudinous quilt.
So, Jerry, to round out my brief response to your letter, I thought it might be helpful to break down the characters of St. Elmo’s Fire, making it clear how each is, in fact, an unerring reflector of Reaganology, and through the deconstruction of this vital cinematic artifact, convince you to reconsider canonization.
Rob Lowe-The handsome narcissist, the sax player who has clearly never held a sax in his life prior to the onset of principal photography, a man without depth, a user, liar, and a serial smirker. A wearer of jumpsuits, Chuck Taylors, and headbands. High-socked. Father of a child he doesn’t want, husband to a wife he treats like shit, and hero to a group of friends who are even more distasteful than he is–if only because they are less obvious about it. Essentially, George W. Bush at Harvard.
Ally Sheedy-The trampled house frau to Judd Nelson’s determined provider. A woman kept, unkempt, judgmental of her peers, superior in her assessments. A trust fund artiste who, as it turns out, is perfectly willing to sleep around when approached by a writer in a hot enough turtleneck. The Fawn Hall of sexless dogma, a sneerer of suffragettes, displaying all the acuity of an episode of Manimal.
Demi Moore-Flaunting a pre-snip nose and breasts a gallon lighter than the ones she currently flounces, Moore plays a surprisingly wide-hipped party girl who just so happens to screw her boss to make rent. Some people would call that prostitution. Others would call it indicative of just the sort of can-do capitalism that makes us so superior to our collectivist Russian counterparts. Just like it’s patriotic to spend trillions of dollars on the failed science of the SDI initiative, while hundreds of thousands of “lazy” people sleep in the streets at night. But Demi has big hair and drives a cool Jeep, and looks really good sucking a suggestive lollipop, so that, like every surface titillation under the regime of Ron, she gets a free pass. At least until her inevitable “cry for help” suicide attempt (by opening the windows and being really, really cold) ends in a group hug and a cathartic Booga booga booga ha ha ha, as almost all suicide attempts do.
Emelio Estevez-A more bovine John Hinkley, Estevez spends the entire film stalking a woman in ways that are both unfunny and unsettling. This subplot is not a love story, it’s a metaphor for derangement, for manipulation, for the ugly and small in everyone who thinks their mere desire for something entitles them to that thing, despite repeated expressions to the contrary. The way Estevez insists on cornering poor Andie McDowell is almost exactly the way Ollie North demanded that an already spoken-for Ayatollah accept stinger missiles in return for funding a CIA-directed overthrow of the Sandinistas. Almost exactly.
Judd Nelson-Just like his hero Reagan, Nelson is a former democrat who turns republican as soon as the inconvenience of ideology or ethics gets in his way. Nelson’s character is cruel, detached, arrogant, suspendered, and wholly unlikeable. So, of course, the gang sees him as their leader. After all, he owns a suit. There were “Young Reaganite” groups at several of the colleges I attended. They were all proud. They were all loud. They were uniformly white, had never heard of Count Basie, and to a man looked exactly like a walking version of Judd Nelson’s flared nostril.
Andrew McCarthy-The obligatory self-hating writer on the verge of penning a great novel, if he could just take a few more notes in his little flip pad. In the meantime he continually spouts pedantic asides that are wearying even at a party that doesn’t exist. His sexual confusion is uncorked when he admits to having been madly (inexplicably) in love with the wooden and neutered Sheedy. Their lovemaking is notable throughout cinematic history for its utter lack of chemistry or passion. You can almost see McCarthy mentally replacing Sheedy with the image of a naked and rouged Billy Idol, as he leans over to bang teeth with his “soulmate” once again. This sort of Bad White Sex was reflected in the majority of Reagan-era pop, and seems hardly a coincidence.
Mare Winningham-Every 80’s movie requires a lovable ol’ doormat in a fat suit. This one supports Rob Lowe, but doesn’t sleep with him, buying proximity in order to soak in Palmolive charms. Lowe has dinner with Winningham’s heavily caricatured Jewish family, and scandalizes them with puerile humor. Later, while groping their daughter upstairs, Lowe makes a fairly innocuous comment about Winningham’s rubber underwear. Like all insulted procurers, she gives him some cash and tells him to get fucked. For good. The implication being that you should never, ever comment on a girl’s rubber underwear, no matter how much allowance she’s palming over. The next time the gang sees Mare at St. Elmo’s Bar, she’s toting the safe, fat dunce of a businessman her parents were trying to set her up with all along. Everyone thinks this is a wonderful development. Especially McCarthy and Nelson–who pretend to be nice to the safe, fat dunce–but behind his back ridicule him. What, he can’t flash Izod, get Lasix, pound shots of Absolute, and make angsty jokes about how much more fun everything was in college? He manages a–gasp–greeting card store? It could perhaps, over time, be accepted that he aligns with the least palatable of the Abrahamic monotheisms, but not that he can’t be bothered to sweat it down to at least one visible ab. Sorry, Mare’s Plan B, this group of friends doesn’t have any openings.
Well, I’m sorry for this extended reply. I seem to have gotten a bit carried away. But St. Elmo’s Fire was too potent a microcosm not to investigate a further. My final answer to your question is this: No, I don’t think in retrospect that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president we’ve ever hand. In fact, I think it’s possible that Ronald Reagan was the worst president we’ve ever had. If only because he was the one who truly codified the idea that it was preferable to swallow simplistic and even demonstrably false statements instead of enduring the pain of thinking through larger and more complex ideas. He convinced us to regress from the traumas of Vietnam and stagflation to the childhood of our political development–both as a cynical ploy to get elected, as well as a highly effective system of control. And that childhood we returned to so willingly has become, in 2011, a state of sheer infancy. That is the hex Ronald Reagan placed upon all of us, regardless of political affiliation, and it is one now slung around our collective necks like a dead seagull.
It’s Morning in America, Jerry, but it’s also Evening in Empire. And this, more than anything else, is the legacy that Ronald Reagan should be roundly and eternally condemned for.