For the American Dream

August Kleinzahler

There is agitation abroad in the land to put a likeness of Ronald Reagan on the face of the $50 bill, supplanting that of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and two-term president of the United States. Grant was a mixed bag; presidents almost always are. Consider Andrew Jackson, the face on the $20 bill, and nowadays a most familiar face since the advent of cash machines. Next time you’re in Oklahoma, why don’t you ask a Cherokee, probably an older one, not attached to an iPod, about Andrew Jackson.

The engine behind this challenge to the status quo is one Patrick T. McHenry, a heroically named representative from the state of North Carolina, who maintains that ‘every generation needs its own heroes.’ Reagan has always been big in North Carolina, and, in fact, throughout the American South, since just after he was nominated as Republican candidate for the president in 1980, when he travelled down to Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the notorious 1964 murder of three civil rights workers by white supremicists, and delivered a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in which he said: ‘I believe in states’ rights.’ In that part of the world, ‘states’ rights’ is code for segregation, and embodies the resentment felt among many whites, at that time probably most, about the Supreme Court case of Brown v. the Board of Education, which in 1954 overturned the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in US constitutional law that countenanced segregation.

Right-wing apologists like David Brooks will tell you that’s not what Reagan had in mind at all. Brooks maintains that it was a matter of chance that Reagan chose to kick off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and that his mention of states’ rights was incidental in a speech that was mostly about ‘inflation and the economy’. If my grandma had wheels she’d be a trolley car… He’s a cutie-pie, is Mr Brooks.

But it’s no laughing matter to impugn the presidency of Ronald Reagan these days. In fact, according to assorted opinion polls, Reagan is generally regarded as our most admired president after Abraham Lincoln. American political discourse, at least the popular sort you read in the papers and hear on radio and TV, is at best blinkered, usually surreal, and more often than not made up out of whole cloth. But it would be difficult to come up with a wackier narrative than the achievement of Ronald Reagan and his presidency.

In brief, let it be noted that before he nearly wrecked the country, he nearly wrecked California. Proposition 13, which in 1978 dramatically lowered taxes on property and limited increased assessments as long as property remained unsold, along with requiring a two-thirds majority in the state legislature to levy or raise taxes, has, more than anything else brought the state of California, the world’s eighth largest economy, on a par with Brazil, to the brink of sovereign default. This abhorrence didn’t happen on Reagan’s watch as governor, 1967-75, but is widely regarded as the ‘first shot’ in what was to become the Reagan Revolution and the ascent of Conservatism in American politics. Reagan certainly did his all to campaign for the proposition. ‘Vote Yes on Proposition 13 – for the American dream,’ he declared on one radio advertisement. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was first campaigning for governor of the state he enlisted the services of Warren Buffet as a financial adviser. Buffet suggested that Proposition 13 be repealed. The Governator quickly dispatched the ‘sage of Omaha’ back to Nebraska.

What Reagan did succeed in doing during his two terms as governor was to wreck California’s public education system, then the finest in the United States. It is now among the worst, right down there with Mississippi (viz. Philadelphia). This devastation was accomplished through across the board cuts, 20 per cent annually, in higher education, raising tuition, slashing construction funds etc. His administration not only attacked higher education, a fashionable tack during the anti-Vietnam riots in Berkeley and elsewhere, but opposed funds for basic education. As Reagan famously remarked: the state ‘should not subsidise intellectual curiosity’. As for the demonstrations against the war, Reagan had this to say about how the state might best deal with the college-age protesters: ‘If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.’ And the war itself? ‘It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it.’

Après California, le deluge…

• The Laffer Curve, supply-side economics, deregulation, the Savings and Loan debacle – 747 failed institutions, rescued with $160 billion of taxpayer money, chickenfeed by recent standards.
• The most corrupt administration in American history (topping even Ulysses S. Grant’s, which wasn’t easy): 138 government officials convicted, indicted, or the subject of official investigation for misconduct.
• Environmental depredation: oil and coal leases on tens of millions of acres of national land, more than any other such giveaway in American history, the gutting of funds for environmental protection, the attempt, and failure, to eviscerate the Clean Air Act, a 79 per cent decline in the number of EPA enforcement cases in just the first year of the Reagan presidency.
• The failure to act or even acknowledge the Aids crisis until eight months before the end of the second term of his presidency, at which point 20,849 had died and 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease (‘maybe the Lord brought down this plague)’.
• Star Wars; Lebanon; Grenada; insane, unsustainable defence outlays.
• A one-third increase in familes living below the poverty line, while the national debt tripled.
• The stampede of religious broadcasters into the political arena, from 25 Christian ministries regularly broadcasting in 1978 to 336 by 1989: ‘Televangelists flourished because they combined all the elements that most characterised the Reagan era: money, morality, conservatism, entertainment, and religious and patriotic symbolism,’ Haynes Johnson wrote in Sleepwalking Through History.
• The carnage in Central America (in Guatemala alone, according the the UN Commission for Historical Clarification, 400 Mayan villages were destroyed and 200,000 peasants butchered); the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Oh, the beloved ‘Gipper’, the great American optimist, with that boyish toss of his head… ‘He was,’ David Thomson writes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, ‘a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, iniquity, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures. Thus, in the years 1981-88, America made a gentle transition – from nation to show – that disturbed no one’s fun. Especially not the president’s.’


  • 12 May 2010 at 3:24pm
    youngadam says:
    Joyous. I very much appreciate and enjoy the work of people who bother to write things down. The bullet points here in particular are in the house style of the straightforward sort of political discussion that should be at the heart of everything, particularly during elections and note-dedications. Monbiot whip-cracked Labour recently in a similar way with this piece - most of which I'd forgotten.

  • 12 May 2010 at 4:35pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I like the idea that ‘every generation needs its own heroes’ on a fifty. I propose Thelonius Monk.

    • 12 May 2010 at 4:37pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Na, Miles Davis! Or was he too much into electro stuff for you?

    • 12 May 2010 at 5:04pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      No. You can propose Miles for the twenty, if you like. Or Billie Holiday. I'm definitely proposing Thelonius Monk for the fifty.

    • 13 May 2010 at 9:16am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Who do we want on the hundred? I go for Bill Evans. What about D.F. wallace for the twenty?

    • 13 May 2010 at 12:19pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Evans is a good choice. We can propose Wallace, but I warn you that Americans don't like suicide, it's too negative for their taste; you may have to stick Wallace on your own personal twenties. Do they still have fives and tens? Continuing on the jazz theme, I like W.C. Handy & Louis Armstrong.

    • 13 May 2010 at 3:21pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      At my blog I've put up an artist's impression of Monk on the dollar bill.

    • 13 May 2010 at 3:36pm
      Mudhead says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Bring back the big bill and put 'Trane on the G-Note, Bird on the 5G-Note, Art Tatum on the 10G-Note, and Pops on the 100G. That should cover it. Put Reagan on the Three-Dollar Bill - and they cancel production.

  • 12 May 2010 at 4:35pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Oh dear, why do I feel a sense of foreboding that somebody is right now writing a piece on President Obama in which his term of office will be portrayed as a complete disaster for the United States? Oil spill, Guantanamo still open etc. I'm in agreement with your assessment of Reagan - I enjoyed Updike's sides on him in 'Rabbit at Rest' but it's not the whole story, is it? Presidents make mistakes or fail to fulfill their promises but how do we line this up with the popular support for the man in office?
    Greatly enjoyed your piece, thank you!

Read more