The passing of any person warrants some assessment of a life lost. All week after his death (and well beyond that for the Bush presidential campaign's sake) Ronald Reagan will have been lionized by his idolaters who believe the smaller a democratically elected government, the better. But I believe in a government so democratic and huge that it would encompass all 280 million or more people. I do not think we should diminish the size of democracy, either by defunding its services or by calumnizing its champions.
Ronald Reagan captured the funny bone of America, not its soul. With his ability to "aw shucks" the worst truths and make them seem trivial, he was able to diminish our collective sense of responsibility and replace it with an enthusiasm for raw personal success. No small achievement, handing out confidence like chocolate from a Whitman Sampler. But as a definer of national character, all but the most avid capitalists could feel their teeth ring and their blood sugar peak and their energy slump at so saccharin a version of national sustenance.
Reagan worshipers at the National Standard magazine and the American Enterprise Institute think tank will chant and weep at his passing, intoning the great lessons of the "great communicator" as if the "Gipper's" words were American Scripture. But his lessons were not so in-tune with the America that Americans with a real commitment to our people and our ideals would recognize as traditional and abiding.
Although Reagan would claim he had experience in labor unions and respected workers' rights, he was a champion of corporate discipline and at every opportunity favored the management side in a dispute over the workers. The firing of thousands of striking air traffic controllers was the crowning achievement of his anti-labor career as president. Emblematic of his embrace of power over common workers, he was lauded as a tough cookie, a no-nonsense ideologue. The Hollywood never left him. He was a showman first, a politician second, and an American leader when he got around to it.
Claiming to be a "Lincoln Republican, " it is clear he seldom read the words of Lincoln, who wrote in his first address to Congress in 1861: "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
Reagan's complicity in many Central American deaths, his dishonesty over the Iran-Contra shadow government that circumvented congressional rules and flaunted anti-democratic policies, his flippant disregard for laws passed by the representatives of the American people suggest a justifiable interpretation that his actions fell short of heroism and in fact participated in the criminal.
In falsely remembering Ronald Reagan as a "great" president, we go too far in trying to share in his amnesia, his false Americanism. We, the People are not the trivial caricatures and false backdrops on a Hollywood set that makes for a good story and the warm fuzzy feeling of having someone likable tell it.
This is America and honesty trumps sentimentality. Ronald Reagan was a charismatic persuader, fully in tune with the consumer side of a devalued citizenry. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.
May he and his victims rest in peace.