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June 14, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 11




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy Reagan:  a more critical subtext needed

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration Magazine


... you're a very bad man!


Oh, no, my dear -- I'm -- I'm a very good
man. I'm just a very bad Wizard.

The nation buried a very good man last Friday. Yet even amid the outpouring of testimonials, television commentaries and print editorials extolling former President Reagan’s accomplishments, equal time, if not historical accuracy, required a more critical subtext for the Reagan era. One thing everyone could agree on was that Ronald Reagan provided the original template for the inevitable merger of Hollywood and Washington, demonstrating the electability of the fully scripted, market-tested and media-honed candidate over any photogenically challenged opponents, whatever their skills or virtues.

Reagan, the actor-turned-politician, had a remarkable gift for projecting his sound bite, leading-man persona onto the big screen of our national consciousness. The themes associated with this projection -- optimism, national pride, confidence in a brighter future -- were welcome, but they came at a high price. His vision of the worldwide triumph of democratic capitalism began with a $600 billion tax cut for the rich and a $1 trillion defense buildup that was, in effect, a huge transfer of wealth from social spending. His promise to “get big government off our backs” was an open door to the Savings and Loan debacle after deregulation and to the gutting of federal agencies needed to protect the environment, the workplace, consumers, minorities and the poor. Reagan’s Cold War caricatures of regional conflicts brought the United States in on the side of many murderous regimes that claimed to be anti-communist. Thwarted by Judicial and Congressional oversight, the Reagan administration ran a shadow government within the government that secretly sold weapons to Iran to fund an illegal war in Central America. Nothing Richard Nixon did during the Watergate scandal and cover-up came close to the Constitutional crisis created by Irangate.

The Reagan funeral, like all good funerals, occasioned a pause in our personal and national lives to take stock of what we as a nation have become, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the rest of the world. Eloquence can reassure for a moment, and the rich play of symbols, music and poignant human loss ought to have moved us deeply.  But higher judgment and any talk of legacy must wait for a longer view and a broader context to be known. History will decide whether the United States is perceived some day as having helped or postponed the emergence of a more just and peaceful world. The jury is out, but if we read history through the lens of the Gospels, we know who will be on that jury. Not the rich and the powerful, the automatic beneficiaries of systems they already control and shape, but the poor and oppressed peoples of the world. Are they better off because of “the shining city on the hill”?  

The great parable captured in the Hollywood film “The Wizard of Oz” affirmed that what we all seek -- brains, courage and the capacity to love and be loved -- does not come from wizards, good or bad, but from within ourselves. The passing of Ronald Reagan should give us pause. It is time for another national referendum on who we really are as a nation. We have the power to find our way home whenever we wish to do so.

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