Great Communicator, My Ass

Excuse me while I barf. I’m in no mood to join the joyful eulogies upon the passing of Ronald Reagan—remembrances that prove, once again, the staggering size of our country’s memory hole. I missed the 1960s. I grew up in Middle America, with Watergate, barely, and the benign buffoonery of Presidents Ford and Carter. When Reagan was elected president, it was an inexplicable, savage turn for a country that I’d never realized was capable of such things.

It’s not just that George W. Bush would have been impossible without Reagan. The presidency of Reagan himself was so bad, on so many levels, that as young adults a sizable number of us could only sputter in impotent rage, a rage summed up nicely by the Crucifucks song “Hinckley Had a Vision.” It simply made no sense that an entire country could be run by sinister thugs, all because its spokesperson was a washed-up actor with the professional training to deliver the most ridiculous, venal lies with a calming “Great Communicator” demeanor.

Great Communicator, my ass. Tens of thousands of us died of AIDS on his watch, and he never even once mentioned the word. He also refused to adequately fund AIDS research—a critical delay that, we now know, could have saved countless lives. We seem to have forgotten that now.

We’ve also forgotten the corruption—not just the Constitution-shredding outrage of the Iran-Contra scandal, but a modern record for the number of criminally indicted officials.

It was the Great Communicator whose era gave us the term, and scourge, of homelessness. It was Reagan who launched an illegal war in Nicaragua, Reagan who unleashed and praised Guatemala’s genocide and El Salvador’s death squads. Reagan whose tax cuts and funding choices launched a class war at home, a class war still being waged, successfully, by many of the same officials, 20 years later.

And excuse me, but Ronald Reagan did not end communism. Hundreds of thousands of courageous people, in Moscow and Gdansk and Prague and across the communist bloc, deserve the credit for risking their lives to bring down tyrannical governments, often with nothing more than the willingness to sacrifice their own bodies. They risked everything. Reagan risked nothing but an inadvertent record deficit it took a decade and a Democratic president to heal.

To honor Reagan as the triumphant Cold Warrior, without even mentioning the courage of all those ordinary people, is an insult of staggering proportions. Ronald Reagan had a historic meltdown of an empire happen during his tenure; he was no more responsible for it than George W. Bush was responsible for another, less positive cataclysm in 2001. Less, even. At least the CIA knew something like 9/11 was in the works. They had no idea the Iron Curtain would collapse.

Last week, I mourned the passing of David Dellinger, a contemporary of Reagan’s who exemplified, far better than Ronnie ever could, courage and integrity and compassion. Dellinger spent his adult life speaking truth to power; Reagan spent his making things up for an audience. One was an apostle of selfless love; the other presided over the Me Decade.

Not all of us spent that decade obsessing over our investments and stepping over the homeless. For much of my 20s, I helped organize protests of hundreds of thousands of people on the Mall and at the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, D.C. Most of us are still around. Most of us remember the profound sense of shock as we watched our country become a place we didn’t recognize, led by a genial, seemingly clueless man with an agenda that was on many levels simply evil.

Sound familiar? Forget the obituaries; I can hardly wait to unseat Ronald Reagan’s heir in November.