As someone born during LBJ's burgeoning "Great Society" who came of age during Reagan's style-over-substance "Morning in America" conservative rebirth, it's a little hard to take all of the deification of Ronald Reagan and the willful ignoring of the darker aspects of his legacy. LBJ's legacy--for which we heard nary a peep on the centennial of his birth--was of true democratization of the United States: of eliminating economic and racial disparities, of fostering arts and culture, of being stewards of the environment. Reagan, on the other hand, offered up a rosy optimism that ignored his disdain for legislation of social justice. The reality of Reagan rarely lived up to his glossy coverage, as historian Richard Norton Smith writes:
Before he became an icon, Ronald Reagan was a paradox: a complex man who appeared simple, at once a genial fundamentalist and a conservative innovator. As America's oldest President, he found his most fervent supporters among the young. The only divorced man to occupy the Oval Office, Reagan as President rarely attended church. He enjoyed a relationship with his own children best described as intermittent. Yet his name was synonymous with traditional values, and he inspired millions of the faithful to become politically active for the first time. During eight years in the White House, Reagan never submitted a balanced budget or ceased to blame Congress for excessive spending. He presided over the highest unemployment rate since World War II and one of the longest peacetime booms ever.
Smith, a former director of the Reagan Presidential Library (and four others) also wrote of Reagan in Time Magazine this week:
If the Age of Reagan is anywhere consigned to the history books, it is among those who claim his mantle while practicing little of their hero's sunny optimism and even less of his inclusiveness. Reagan, after all, excelled at the politics of multiplication. Too many of his professed admirers on talk radio and cable gabfests appear to prefer division.
It's interesting but not surprising that this meme comes from a white man on the (presumably) higher end of the socio-economic scale. Because speaking as a woman, I certainly didn't find Reagan inclusive. In fact, Reagan's use of coded bigotry lent itself directly to the open ignorance of today's tea partiers.
Reagan was more skillful than most when it came to spoken language, and he was no dummy. He knew about code language and how to use it to his advantage.
He could, for example, use an incendiary phrase like "states' rights" in a place like Philadelphia, Miss., where racial hatred and violence made a mockery of the "city of brotherly love" meaning of the name that is found in its native Greek — and get away with it.
Reagan's assertion was still a source of controversy more than a quarter of a century after he made it.
He spoke of the urgency of spending money on defense but rarely, if ever, spoke of spending money on things that improve and enrich lives. In the interest of saving a few dollars, he could play games with school nutrition, suggesting that ketchup was a vegetable. He could ignore the growing AIDS crisis until a friend like Rock Hudson was afflicted with it and died, then he grudgingly approved limited funding for research.
Reagan's invocation of the mythical "Welfare Queen", the use of the terms "reverse discrimination," "welfare reform," and "quotas" were all arguably code words meant to make uneasy white voters feel that the strides in civil rights made during the LBJ years were the result of their own privilege being taken away from them by undeserving minorities. Not exactly an inclusive concept.
And Smith puts it in perfect highlight:
You could make the case that the last forty years of American political history is in many ways a response to LBJ and “The Great Society”. When you think of what Johnson—what we take for granted – HeadStart, Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, clean water and air legislation, all sorts of environmental legislation, and on and on and on… More legislation than FDR passed. And most of it is still on the books. And it’s a very interesting thing, one of the really fascinating tests lies ahead: is to what degree modern-day conservatives want to undo elements of The Great Society? Because so far, I haven’t heard a lot of people calling for the repeal of HeadStart, for example.
I suspect that Smith isn't listening very hard. Eliminating federal funding for education (and by extension, HeadStart) has been a rallying cry at the tea parties.
But that's the point, isn't it? Conservatives DO want to rid us of The Great Society. For them, things are only great when others don't have as much as they do.