Tag Archives: Reagan

I’ve Seen This Road Before

And in some ways, it was darker then

If you’re old enough to remember Neil Gorsuch’s mother, then you’re old enough to remember that the practice of appointing people to run government agencies whose mission they fundamentally oppose is nothing new. To put it another way, Donald Trump is hardly the first president to hire anti-government thugs to dismantle those parts of government that actually serve ordinary people—schools, parks, environmental protections, social security, etc. President Ronald Reagan did the same thing back in the eighties. The difference was, Reagan had a charming smile—and a lot more popular support than Trump will ever have.

Maybe calling Anne Gorsuch a “thug” is a bit strong, but she certainly did her part, as the first female administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to undermine its mission. Gorsuch (who conveniently shed that professional name after it had been tainted by scandal, remarrying to become Anne McGill Burford) cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, relaxed regulations, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, and hired staff from the industries they were supposed to be regulating. Her already-tarnished reputation was irreparably damaged when the EPA was charged with mishandling monies for toxic-waste remediation under Superfund, and she refused to turn over records that Congress demanded. Gorsuch then became the first agency director in US history to be cited for contempt of Congress. The EPA at that point was widely criticized for being dysfunctional, and Gorsuch resigned under the pressure.

I am not bringing this up to cast any shadow over Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy (if there are shadows to be cast, let them come from his own record). It’s just an interesting coincidence to be reminded, by bloodline, of a time when the US government was behaving in a manner not at all unlike it is behaving today. The extreme and unusual features of Trump’s early administration (Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, his widely questioned mental state, his administration’s near-daily barrage of jaw-dropping lies) mask the fact that in other ways, this is business-as-usual in the era of Republican governance ushered in by Reagan.

Unlike Trump, and George W. Bush before him, Reagan did have popular support: in 1980 he beat Jimmy Carter in the popular vote by almost 10 percent, and then trounced Walter Mondale in 1984 by a whopping 18 percent. But while his voters cheered, his administration set about undermining the long-term prospects of the American middle class, most notably by lowering income taxes on the wealthiest Americans, an upward redistribution of wealth that triggered a long-term structural income inequality that persists to this day. Favoring privatization and deregulation, the Reagan team took on social goods and institutions with contemptuous disregard for the needs of the ordinary. And if you’re worried (understandably) about what sort of dangerous entanglements Trump and his foreign policy wackos might get us into, remember (or read up on it) how the Reagan administration was committing terrorist atrocities in several Central American countries, most notably Nicaragua, where Reagan’s own wacko supreme, Oliver North, was caught funneling illegal arms profits to fight a covert and illegal war against a democratically elected government.

The Reagan administration did all this and more under the cover of a popular mandate, and while it did mobilize some amount of dissent, “liberals” were very much marginalized in mainstream culture and media. To any mainstream Democrats still sore at Bernie Sanders for stealing Hillary Clinton’s thunder with his 2016 primary appeal to progressive millennials, you might want to reflect on a term that was coined in the eighties: “Reagan Democrats.” Yes, some of you voted for the Gipper—what was your excuse then? And what did you think of the results?

Today, the liberal/progressive opposition to Trump feels strong, organized, potent—I daresay it even feels like a majority. If you’re part of it, take heart and keep fighting. And thanks to Bernie Sanders, it’s okay to identify yourself as a socialist today without being laughed off whatever stage you happen to be on. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was afraid even to say he was a liberal. Speaking out in those days was trickier and more isolating. And we had no Jon Stewart or Samantha Bee to validate our feelings on national television.

(In a longer piece about my great-aunts, and a dying way of life in rural Washington County, New York, I mention my hapless attempt to counter Reaganism on a local call-in radio show circa 1985.)

Anne Gorsuch did not survive the fallout of her disservice to the American people, and perhaps more of Trump’s cabinet will meet similar fates. But Reagan’s legacy outlasted his presidency. Maybe it just took our nation too long to see through that wide cowboy grin.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Entertain Us

I never bought that Ronald Reagan was a “great communicator.” I thought he was phony and simple-minded. I didn’t like him as president and probably wouldn’t have liked him as governor. Come to think of it, I didn’t even like him in movies.

But I suppose even I have to admit that Reagan had a certain charisma. He was warm and positive and reassuring, and he smiled a lot. And for an old guy who seemed befuddled half the time, he was oddly telegenic.

And he was elected president twice—the second time by a landslide margin that no one has come close to matching since.

Charisma and likeability are pretty subjective qualities, but I’ve been thinking about them since reading an essay whose author thought even the establishment media subconsciously wanted Trump to win this year because, whatever his many negatives, he is more interesting to watch and cover (and they sure game him enough coverage) than the duller, wonkier Clinton—or as the media marketers might put it, he has more “pop.”

I know a lot of other things have an impact on election results (and you probably have read all you ever need to about the many factors that supposedly turned this election). Still, I find it scary to think that, in the end, the candidate who wins is almost always the most charismatic or interesting or entertaining or telegenic one. Even if many of us aren’t swayed by bluster passing as charisma, well, many others are.

Let’s work backward.

2016: Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, this one gets my thesis off on the wrong foot, because Hillary won the popular vote by 2.8 million. Still, Trump won where it mattered most. And many of you do not want to hear this, but he is more entertaining than Hillary. I never said that was an important qualification for president.

2012: Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. No argument here, right? Obama had the pixie dust, Romney didn’t.

2008: Barack Obama over John McCain. See above.

2004: George W. Bush over John Kerry. This one is a little tricky for a couple of reasons. The election might have been stolen from Kerry in Ohio, but even so, Bush won the popular vote. And he remained president. Now what about Kerry’s personal appeal? Maybe the Swift Boat liars put him on the defensive, but whatever the reason, Kerry was not at all the second coming of JFK he was supposed to be. Meanwhile, Bush, as much as liberals hated him and thought he wasn’t very smart, had a certain je ne sais quoi—to many, he comes off as personable and likeable in a way that brother Jeb will never. Better still, George was the nice guy on the ticket. I’ll give the nod to Bush on this one.

2000: George W. Bush over Al Gore. What I said above (just insert “Florida” for “Ohio,” and invert the popular-vote result), including the part where I admitted Bush has a likeable personality. Now, picture Gore in his earth-toned suits, repeating the word “lockbox.”

1996: Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. Dole did have a very appealing dry wit, and I actually kinda liked the way he would say “Bob Dole” instead of “I.” But he was no match for one of the most charismatic presidents of all time.

1992: Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush. See below.

1988: George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis. In 1988, Bush (also the incumbent VP) had just enough fatherly appeal to ward off the boring and tentative Dukakis, who could barely bring himself to admit he was “liberal.” Four years later, Bush met his charisma match.

1984: Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale. The country must have been feeling good or something, because this was the big landslide. I’ve already talked about Reagan; apart from Mondale’s one “aha” moment in the debate where he jumped on Reagan’s “There you go again” cliché, I don’t remember a single thing he said or did, apart from picking a woman for his running mate.

1980: Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. Now I thought Carter was likeable. I guess more people thought Reagan was likeable. And what was it about those hostages?

1976: Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. When he was president, Ford always reminded me of my grade-school principal, who always had a blank expression and never said anything. Voters may have wanted a break from the party of Watergate, but Carter also was the more charming candidate.

This brings us back to Richard Nixon, and a very different time in history. I just wanted to point out that after Nixon, in my humble opinion, the more charismatic or entertaining candidate almost always seems to win.

Trump no doubt will keep us entertained. He also may be the most dangerous and unqualified president of all-time.

Sometimes charisma and style also come with substance and competence. Which is why I will miss Barack Obama.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon