Rick Perlstein: Reagan the Divider





Rick Perlstein, in Salon (June 7, 2004):

... It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.

Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it's Reagan we remember as the sensible one. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, let memory at least acknowledge that there was much about Reagan that was not so sensible.

Again and again as president, Reagan let it slip that he concurred with fundamentalists' belief that the world would end in a fiery Armageddon. This did not hurt him politically. The kind of people offended by such talk had already largely abandoned the Republican Party. Those attracted by it -- evangelicals who had gone overwhelmingly for fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- adopted Reagan, and his conservative Republicanism, as their own, and they never looked back. And in the eschatology of Cold War America, Christian apocalyptic thinking had everything to do with the assumption that the Armageddon would be a nuclear one, a confrontation with the anti-Christ bailiwick Russia, which Reagan identified in a March 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals as the "Evil Empire."

No wonder that when, in November 1983, NATO launched a war games exercise code-named Able Archer, the Soviet Union misread its intentions as offensive and put its nuclear forces on alert, and the world came closer to ending than it ever had before.

It took this near miss -- and not, certainly, the largest mass demonstration in American history, the million people who gathered in Central Park in 1982 to demonstrate for a nuclear freeze (another moment you probably won't read about in all the Reagan eulogies) -- to get Reagan thinking seriously about negotiating an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. To his enormous credit.

But he never did make a similar peace with the "welfare queens" he fabricated out of whole cloth to push his anti-compassionate conservatism. Nor with the African Americans he insulted by launching his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were slaughtered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. Nor with the Berkeley students demonstrating in a closed-off plaza whom he ordered tear-gassed by helicopter in 1969.

Nor, last but not least, with the tens of thousands of AIDS corpses whose disease he did not even deign to publicly acknowledge until 1987.

As the eulogies come down the pike, don't let conservatives, once again, win the ideological struggle to determine mainstream discourse. Remember Reagan; respect him. But don't let them make you revere him. He was a divider, not a uniter.


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