NOW THAT MARGARET THATCHER has been gone for a month it seems time to comment on the round of historical (hysterical?) revisionism her passing triggered in the American press, where more often than not she was cast as feminist paragon, an essential bulwark against Communism, the scourge of the Falklands, and the architect of a brilliantly austere domestic policy whose abandonment of the working class not only mirrored—but justified—our own.
So essentially Meryl Streep with a linebacker’s shoulders, a thirst for deregulation, and a penchant for the backing of post-colonial despots. But if the outpouring of praise for Mrs. Thatcher appeared slightly grudging, or even cynical, it’s because it was. On this side of the pond her death was like the invasion of Grenada—a flimsy pretext to launch rounds of fresh hagiography over the prow of her clearly superior counterpart, Mr. Ronald Reagan.
To be honest, for a moment I desperately wanted to join in. It was as if the local team had just won the Enormo Bowl. While drunken fans flooded the streets and taxis were gleefully doused with kerosene, it seemed possible to disappear into the collective mania despite harboring an active distaste for the sport, the coach, and especially the quarterback. Such an exercise would have required a jettisoning of both facts and logic, but when else would I be offered the chance to burn my ACLU carrying-card, hop on the Monkey Business for a quick junket to Bimini, and revisit my leather-bound set of The Complete Milton Friedman for a fresh new perspective?
As tempting as that was, I ultimately saw it as both a moral and professional imperative to instead squander a few paragraphs here, lobbing darts at the parade of revisionist pink balloons which continue to trail so maddeningly in Ronald Reagan’s exhaust.
In truth, my opinion of the man hasn’t changed materially since high school, a time when it was considered hip in certain circles to point out that Ronald Wilson Reagan’s name contained exactly six letters in the first, middle, and patronymic, therefore….666! A thin notion, I will grant you. The notion of Doddering Reagan and Sulphurous Antichrist simply don’t mesh. But we were desperate then, in the throes of 1982, as waves of increasingly brazen Young Republican-ism crashed all around us, dragging beach chairs and Popsicle wrappers and everyone not Madras-belted back out into the unforgiving sea.
So I see no need to rehash the early Reagan years, particularly for a man whose entire film career could fit snugly inside a beaver pelt Stetson. I won’t discuss his history as a union-busting pitchman for GE, or his stint as an anti-communist informant for HUAC, a position shared with that virulent anti-Semite and paranoid regressive Walt Disney, in which both betrayed numerous colleagues and fellow dues payers. Let’s ignore his reactionary posturing as governor of California, his early failed presidential campaigns, and how his ultimate election—once considered unthinkable since he was viewed by both parties as a hapless clown—morphed into eight long and lamentable years.
Let’s also ignore the fact that Ronald Reagan was the man who dragged gibbering evangelism into the realm of national politics forever. Or callously tossed a generation of mentally ill out into the streets to save the Corporatocracy a few million—and in doing so doubled the national homeless problem (and its trillion dollar aftermath) in the span of a week. Or that he founded, or at least shilled for, the Voodoo Economics school, which espoused rampant deregulation while cutting taxes to the wealthiest 2% under the theory that such artificial largesse would eventually trickle down to ketchup-as-vegetable social programs. Or that he employed a demented toad of an economics adviser, Arthur Laffer, inventor of the “Laffer Curve,” who witlessly stipulated that the rich would eventually spend the rest of us out of our collective poverty, if only they were induced to do so with a slate of additional tax, investment, and property advantages.
The working class is still waiting for that first prophetic trickle thirty years later, while continuing to subsist on ostrich jerky, Lunchables, and a succession of recycled free-market bromides that even Art Laffer would denounce as insane if he weren’t currently occupying the wrong end of the Mortality Curve.
And how about Ronald Reagan’s complicity in untold murders in El Salvador and Guatemala? Or the ludicrous invasion of the “Soviet-Cuban colony” of Grenada, under the guise of freeing a half dozen wake-and-bake med students? Why bring up the damning stain of Iran/Contra—no mere jowly intern blowjob—but a genuinely terrifying subversion of both national law and Congressional dictate in which our own weapons of mass destruction were illegally sold to Iran (yes, that Iran) to pay for a clandestine dirty war in Nicaragua? It seems almost inconceivable now, hunkered behind the walls of our security state, that such fathomless hypocrisy was even considered, let alone dutifully carried out.
And what about the Contras, those “brave freedom fighters” who were essentially paid assassins, whom Reagan so disingenuously called “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” and whom he callously abandoned—just as his successor did the Iraqi Kurds—about twenty three hours after the last political use for them was scraped from disillusioned bone? How about the CIA-backed assassination attempt of Eden Pastora, leader of an inconvenient wing of the Contras, a man who actually wanted to reform his country instead of shooting up hamlets and pocketing as much (Oliver) North-ian cash as was offered? Oh, and remember the indefensible hubris of stationing U.S. Marines at the Beirut airport? Not to mention the “cut and run” that took place immediately after 241 of those Marines were killed by a suicide bomber? Not quite the debacle at Benghazi, but close.
And yet, here we are, three decades later, and not a day goes by that some powdered neck or poodle wig on cable news isn’t deifying a portrait of Ronald Reagan, either through attribution of views he did not actually hold, policies he did not support, taxes he did not cut, freedoms he espoused but ultimately trampled, or the facile notion that he somehow won the Cold War with a single faltering speech at the Berlin Wall.
Let’s certainly not mention how frequently Ron’s unelected wife made decisions for him. The fact that Nancy Reagan, a woman with the personality of a steak knife and the wide-eyed grin of a habitual Dexedrine gobbler, was essentially the most powerful person in the world for eight years should make even the most abject apologist shudder. As well as the fact that, to augment briefings and travel plans, she consulted celebrity astrologer Joan Quigley—whom she met on the set of the Merv Griffin Show—on a daily basis. It almost makes the notion of a slick Massachusetts Mormon winning the last election seem entirely reasonable. At least Mitt wouldn’t have based the invasion of Pakistan on whether or not Mars was in trine with Pluto. Or that Scorpio was rising beneath Dick Cavett’s wingback chair.
No, I won’t talk about Reagan’s ludicrous personal and foreign policy arrogance, his casual racism, his refusal to ever utter the word “AIDS” aloud, or his Alzheimer’s-enfeebled grasp of every complex issue set before him. Nor will I mention the fact that he surrounded himself with a coterie of venal thugs like Ed Meese and John Poindexter, or corporate hacks like Donald Regan and Casper Weinberger, or grinning spooks like William Casey. And who could forget the Strangelovian Al Haig? Or the race-baiting neo-Fascist buffoon Pat Buchanan? Not to mention Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who was not only truly certifiable, but famously insisted that trees cause 90% of all pollution. “It’s the leaves, you see! They fall to the ground and rot…and then…and then…” Even Elliot Abrams, with a teal sweater slung over Ivy League shoulders, was appalled.
I will only say this: I lived through the cultural catatonia of that time, and remember all too well the insipid “Morning in America” and “City on a hill” positivism that has given birth to our current national delusion—mainly that facts are malleable, details are partisan, and nearly every social ill can be solved if only those who aren’t fortunate enough to be born with every conceivable advantage stop whining and work a little harder. It’s a legacy that can be seen in the anti-math of Paul Ryan, the tautologies of Channel Murdoch, the imagined tyrannies of tax protesters, and the cult of global warmth denial that is handed down like corrupted bundles of genetic code.
So I must stand, here and now, against the continued worship of a president who delivered nothing but cultural division, economic imbalance, anti-intellectualism, banal religiosity, and the unfettering of supply-side oligarchs to consume without ethics, regulation, or recourse.
However, I will grant the Reagan apologists one point: unlike any other president in our history, he really knew how to get shot. There would be no early martyrdom for Ron at the hands of a shlubby, Jodi Foster-obsessed “taker” like John Hinckley. Ronald Reagan would have motorcaded out of Dealey Plaza unscathed. He would have finished watching the play at Ford’s Theater, downed a lime gelato, and then planted his wingtip in John Wilkes Booth’s groin. He would have spinning-kicked Charles Guiteau’s pistol away, if only to save the country from three years of Chester Arthur, and almost certainly would have absorbed Leon Czolgolz’s cheap bullet and casually spit it back out, unlike William McKinley, who just slid to the floor and bled to death like the pussy he was.
During the week I allowed this essay to gestate, I happened to watch St. Elmo’s Fire, a film I hadn’t seen since 1985 and half-remembered as a genial relic—dim and pointless, but entertaining if viewed with a certain voyeuristic irony. In the end I was shocked by how mean spirited it was. How blissfully unaware each of the characters were of their shallow and craven natures. How they spent the entire film actually celebrating their clotted worldview instead of being forced to learn, evolve, or at the very least suffer for a complete lack of perspective.
And then it occurred to me that perhaps this turdlet of cinema was in fact a work of genius, the perfect representative capsule of the Reagan era: self-centered, morally adrift, penny-deep. Full of greed, unearned certainty, and a complete lack of style—all while snuggling happily beneath Grandpa’s platitudinous quilt.
So I thought it might be helpful to break down the characters of St. Elmo’s Fire, making it clear how each is, in fact, an unerring reflector of Reaganology, and through the deconstruction of this vital cinematic artifact, convince even the most rabid FOX enthusiast to reconsider canonization:
Rob Lowe—The handsome narcissist, the sax player who has clearly never fingered a sax in his life prior to the onset of principal photography, a man without depth, a user, liar, and serial smirker. A wearer of jumpsuits, Chuck Taylor’s, and neon headbands. High-socked. Father of a child he doesn’t want, husband to a wife he treats like shit, and hero to a group of friends who are even more distasteful than he is—if only because they’re less obvious about it. Essentially, George W. Bush at Harvard spliced onto the lead singer of Loverboy.
Ally Sheedy—The trampled hausfrau to Judd Nelson’s determined provider. A woman kept, unkempt, judgmental of her peers, superior in her assessments, displaying zero gravitas. A trust fund artiste who, as it turns out, is perfectly willing to sleep around when approached by a writer in a hot-enough turtleneck. The Fawn Hall of sexless dogma, a sneerer of suffragettes, displaying all the mental and moral acuity of the love interest from an episode of Manimal.
Demi Moore—Flaunting breasts a gallon lighter than the ones she currently helms, Moore plays a party girl who just so happens to “entertain” her boss to make rent. Some people would call that prostitution. Others would call it indicative of just the sort of can-do capitalism that makes us so superior to our collectivist Russian counterparts. But Demi has big hair and drives a cool Jeep, so like every other surface titillation under the regime of Ron, she gets a free pass. At least until her inevitable “cry for help” suicide attempt (by opening all the windows of her apartment and being really, really cold) ends in a group hug and a cathartic booga booga booga ha ha ha. Which, studies show, almost all suicide attempts do.
Emilio Estevez—A slightly more cross-eyed version of John Hinckley, Estevez spends the entire film stalking a woman in ways that are both unfunny and unsettling. This subplot is not a love story, it’s a metaphor for derangement, manipulation, and the insistence of those convinced that their mere desire for something entitles them to that thing, despite repeated expressions to the contrary. The “comedic” set pieces in which Estevez harasses poor Andie MacDowell (while clearly in need of a restraining order, a vasectomy, and six months of Selexa suppositories) are painful to watch, like a pubic hair perched on a Coke can.
Judd Nelson—Unwittingly emulating his cinematic hero Reagan, Nelson is a former Democrat who turns Republican as soon as the inconvenience of ideology or ethics gets in the way of personal advancement. Nelson’s character is cruel, detached, arrogant, suspendered, and wholly unlikable. So, of course, the gang sees him as their leader. After all, he owns a suit, has obviously never heard of Count Basie, and takes his “lady” out on dates at chain restaurants that serve Mud Slides, chicken fingers, and glazed baby carrots. Nelson “works on the hill”, which means…actually, it’s never clear what that means, except that he probably fetches a mean regular drip with triple Splenda, and occasionally rebuffs Mark Foley.
Andrew McCarthy—The obligatory self-hating writer who would pen a great novel, if only he could just take a few more vital notes in his flip pad. In the meantime he continually spouts pedantic asides that are wearying even to his frayed overcoat. His sexual confusion is uncorked when he admits to having been madly in love with the wooden and unappealing Sheedy. Their supposedly transformative sex scene is notable for a complete lack of chemistry or passion. You can almost see McCarthy mentally replacing Sheedy with an image of Billy Idol in leather chaps as they bang teeth once again. This sort of queasy white lovemaking was reflected in the majority of Reagan-era pop cinema, as well as pop music, and hardly seems a coincidence. Abstinence, in reflection, wasn’t always a bad thing, and at the very least should have been a staple of McCarthy’s subsequent contracts.
Mare Winningham—Almost every 80′s movie featured a lovable doormat in a bad sweater and mom-jeans. This one just happens to support Rob Lowe. Mare doesn’t sleep with The Sax Master, instead paying cash for the pleasures of soaking in his Palmolive charms. Lowe has dinner with Winningham’s heavily caricatured Jewish family, and then scandalizes them with bursts of puerile humor. Later, while groping their daughter upstairs, Lowe makes a fairly innocuous comment about Winningham’s rubber underwear. Bam. It’s over. The next time the gang sees Mare at St. Elmo’s Bar, she’s escorted by the chubby dunce of a businessman her parents were trying to set her up with all along. Everyone pretends to be nice to The Dunce while ridiculing him behind his back, intimating that while it’s possibly forgivable that he’s aligned with the least palatable of the Abrahamic monotheisms, the fact that he can’t be bothered to sweat it down to at least one visible ab makes further inclusion a no-go. Sorry, Mare’s Plan B, this clique is fresh out of openings.
In retrospect, it’s fairly clear that Ronald Reagan was the worst president we’ve ever had for one very specific reason: he truly codified the idea that it was preferable to swallow simplistic and even demonstrably false statements instead of enduring the pain of working through larger and more complex ideas. He convinced us to regress from the traumas of Vietnam and stagflation to the childhood of our political development—both as a cynical ploy to get elected, as well as a highly effective system of control. And that childhood we returned to so willingly has become, in 2013, a state of sheer infancy. We can no longer be told anything even remotely challenging, let alone true. Slogan is analysis, soundbite is scrutiny, gruel is grist. That is the hex Ronald Reagan placed upon all of us, regardless of political affiliation, and it is one now slung around our collective necks like a dead seagull.
Maggie is dead, and so it is Morning in America.
But it’s also Evening in Empire.
And this, more than anything else, is the legacy that Ronald Reagan should be roundly and eternally condemned for.