THE HEADLINES of The Boston Globe and Time magazine called Ronald Reagan an "All-American." Dan Rather led the CBS News by saying, "Ronald Reagan, the Cold War crusader whose sunny optimism made a nation believe it was morning in America, dies at 93." The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Reagan's relentless optimism projected the sun."
That is from the so-called liberal media. Liberal politicians also suffered sunstroke. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy praised Reagan's "extraordinary ability to inspire the nation to live up to its high ideals." Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said, "Even when he was breaking Democrats hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate." Kerry added, "He was our oldest president, but he made America young again."
The praise proved one of the oldest of scientific lessons. If you stare too much into the sun, you go blind.
Calling Reagan an "all-American" insults the millions of Americans whom he deprived of his sunlight. Reagan far too often invited the nation to live down to its lowest common denominators. Reagan tried to make America younger, all right. He tried to return us to the days where we sat before black-and-white televisions, in separate black and white neighborhoods, where white people saw only white people and black people were represented by Buckwheat and the only time you saw lots of people of color were dead Indians in Westerns.
The Los Angeles Times said Reagan's "optimism was catching." Tell that to black folks, the poor, unions, people with AIDS, environmentalists, college students needing aid, Holocaust survivors, and pro-choice activists. They all caught hell. You could hardly call the Iran-Contra arms scandal an "honest and open debate."
"The Great Communicator" knew exactly where to project the sun for particular white people. His first major speech after receiving the nomination for president in 1980 was delivered at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Neshoba County was where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964. The county fair was legendary for segregationist speeches and Dixie ditties.
The fair was a more comfortable fit for Reagan than the mainstream press has ever admitted. On his way to California's governorship, he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the fair, Reagan declared, "I believe in states' rights." States' rights was the cry of Southern segregationists.
Reagan did not mention Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. He did effusively praise John Wayne, saying: "God rest his soul. I don't know whether John Wayne had this experience or not, but I wish he had, because I don't know of anyone who would have loved it more or been more at home here than the Duke would have been, right here."
Wayne would have been so at home at the fair because he, like Reagan, represented a "younger" America. In a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne said: "We can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership to irresponsible people." Wayne was also asked his opinion of Indians after wasting so many of them in the movies. He said: "I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country from them, if that's what you're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival."
Morning in America became nightfall for civil rights. Once in office, Reagan accelerated the systematic erosion of affirmative action. He made William Rehnquist chief justice of the Supreme Court even though Rehnquist opposed integration in the 1960s. He chose an Interior secretary, James Watt, who bragged that he had appointed to an advisory group "a black . . . a woman, two Jews, and a cripple." Reagan wanted to cut the school lunch program, calling ketchup a vegetable, and spun lies about "welfare queens."
Reagan was silent for years on AIDS. He tried to get tax exemptions for racist Bob Jones University. He originally opposed the Martin Luther King holiday before signing it into law. He did veto an extension of the Civil Rights Act in 1988 and defanged the US Civil Rights Commission. He exchanged schools for the prison boom. Reagan's legacy is still alive. The senior President Bush vetoed a major civil rights bill in 1990 and vetoed an increase in the minimum wage. President Clinton slashed welfare. The junior President Bush campaigned at Bob Jones and sided with the white students who wanted to destroy affirmative action at the University of Michigan.
That is not an "All-American" legacy. Reagan projected the sun to mask a scowl. His presidency is indeed extraordinary. It is extraordinary for how easily Americans hail his "optimism." For African-Americans, and all Americans who were targets of his policies, it was open season.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.