As legions of people are now coming to valorize Ronald Reagan on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I started to recall some of the things that he did that were less celebratory and more egregious than others, or that I found somewhat disconcerting when I actually saw them, or which credited him where little credit was due.
Clearly, the "Great communicator" was a master at communicating with a script; why shouldn't he have been since he spent most of his adult life reading scripts? But without a script, Reagan was often like the proverbial "deer caught in headlights." There was one particular Reagan moment I can still recall that had a rather chilling effect on me. Unless it's been written, the subcutaneous history of Nancy Reagan's influence not only on Ronald Reagan, but on world politics still needs to be done. Even so, this particular Reagan-Nancy moment was one of the most telling.
It was an interview with Reagan at his ranch subsequent to the 1983 bombings in Lebanon that killed almost 300 people. Reagan, dressed in his cowboy attire, was standing next to Nancy when a reporter asked him the status of things in Lebanon. Before Reagan could open his mouth, Nancy Reagan, in her sotto voce sort of way, said something to the effect that "We're doing everything we can" to which Reagan replied, "We're doing everything we can." One would have assumed it was a kind of ventriloquist act, but, for me, such a seemingly innocuous statement proffered the unmitigated influence she had on Reagan and how he functioned within his own presidency. One only needed to ask Donald Regan about that.
The second "dark side" moment (which was not a moment) that I recall about Reagan was his absolute dismissal and/or denial of the AIDS epidemic. Soon after the cases became prominent in 1981, the religious right, spearheaded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority (now known as the Tea Party), focused their hostilities and prejudice on gay men.
Notwithstanding Falwell's virulent pre-Beckian attacks on lavender-colored Telly Tubbies, Falwell was quoted as saying "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Pat Buchanan, that conservative standby on Hardball who would defend the notion that the sun doesn't rise and who was Reagan's communications director at the time, argued that AIDS was "nature's revenge on gay men." Medical men, all.
Three years later, in early 1984, the CDC announced that there were over 4,000 AIDS cases in the United States and over 1800 deaths. Still, Reagan said and did nothing. Even when he discovered that Rock Hudson was suffering from the disease and died from it in 1985, he did nothing. As a matter of fact, he didn't speak publicly about the issue for another two years, but by that time almost 60,000 cases had been reported with almost 28,000 deaths. During his administration, AIDS research was underfunded by the federal government and educational programs were essentially ignored. So much for the "Great Communicator's" notions of morality.
Lastly, was his now famous comment at the Berlin Wall in 1987 when he declared, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" This statement, of course, far out-shadowed his attendance at a Bitburg cemetery two years earlier (a visit condemned by Eli Wiesel among others) which held the remains of 2,000 German soldiers, including 49 SS troops and was on the heels of a visit to Bergen-Belsen where he emotionally said, ''Here they lie, Never to hope. Never to pray. Never to love. Never to heal. Never to laugh. Never to cry.''
It was an odd juxtaposition of events under any circumstances, but the admonition for Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" was a bit of political brilliance on someone's part since Reagan had nothing to lose. For some reason, Reagan has been valorized as the "Great initiator" of bringing down the wall when, in fact, it was Gorbachev who brought down the wall. After the speech, Reagan merely came home and, presumably, was hugged by Nancy for saying such marvelous things, checked it off on his daily agenda, perhaps reported to the Presidential Astrologer and went to bed. The onerous responsibility of tearing down the wall belonged to Gorbachev not to Reagan and yet the accolades for such a colossal political event have continued to go to Reagan. Gorbachev rarely gets the credit he's due. I presume Reagan did some significant things in his Presidency beyond increasing the national debt, but the effects of that dark side of Reagan (if not of Nancy Reagan) still persist.