Reagan and me
In yesterday's "change" post, commenter "someone" asked what I thought of Reagan at the time of his Presidency.
I had thought to go into that topic in the body of the "change" post, but it was already so long I decided to skip it. But, on second thought, it might be interesting to describe my reaction to Reagan during those years, because I think there may be a few clues there as to my later "conversion."
In the comments section, TmjUtah wrote:
"If Neo was getting her external political input from TV, the NY Times, and the New Yorker, just what kind of perceptions could she have had of Reagan?
Amiable, homophobic, trigger happy, washed up actor managed by dark cabals of corporate masters and Jesus freaks might come pretty close to the mark - but I may be presuming too much here.
Well, actually, TmjUtah is at least half right. I definitely believed (and still believe, to tell you the truth) the "amiable" and "washed-up actor" part. As for the rest, my reaction was more complex.
Reagan's first term occurred during the years when my son was very small, and I was, quite simply put, intensely sleep-deprived. He was a wonderful kid (my son, not Reagan), but he was a terrible, terrible sleeper. So my already-depleted store of energy for politics was practically nil at the time--I was in a sort of survival mode. I could pay considerably more attention during Reagan's second term, although not as much attention as I should have.
I can tell you, though, that even then, I formed my own opinions rather than march in lockstep with the Times or the other publications. However, as TmjUtah rightly points out, those press organs were the conduits by which I received my information, and the information was therefore dominated by some fairly intense criticism of Reagan. But there were some facts in there, too, and I mulled those over as best I could. In addition, I had my own personal perceptions of Reagan from the few speeches (or excerpts of speeches) and press conferences I managed to see.
I felt, on a personal level, that Reagan was extremely opaque--that is, I couldn't read him. His speeches seemed to me to be very polished performances, but I couldn't decide whether he was sincere, or whether the avuncular actor was the person I was seeing. I felt (rightly or wrongly) that it was the latter. But I wasn't sure.
The same with his intelligence. As with my later perception of George W. Bush (I'll get to that in a subsequent "change" post), Reagan didn't seem stupid to me. He was coherent, for example. I felt I couldn't tell whether he actually was stupid, as so many asserted, and was being fed lines that he was reading with a certain corniness component, or whether he was actually quite bright. Remember the old Saturday Night Live sketch that presented Reagan as a doddering old fool in public, and then, once the press and visitors were away, he turned into a sharp-as-a-tack taskmaster to his staff, quick and on-target with every utterance? It was a joke, all right, and I laughed uproariously, but one of the reasons I laughed so hard was that I wondered whether it was true.
In terms of Reagan's actual policies--again, I wasn't paying strict attention, but I certainly got the general idea. And here's where it gets really interesting. I mainly kept my mouth shut about it in polite company, but I didn't see what was so awful about Reagan's foreign policy. What was perceived by others as his bellicosity and simplisme didn't seem so out of place to me. After all, the Soviet Union had been guilty of many crimes, disarmament wasn't going to be achieved in a world that still had conflicts, and so on and so forth. I kept my mouth shut partly because I didn't have the courage of my convictions--they were barely even "convictions," but more like hazy perceptions. I figured I wasn't really knowledgeable, like those journalists and other experts who were saying he was a doofus and in particular that his foreign policy was going to lead to this or that terrible event (remember, this was before the fall of the Soviet Union, so the "experts" were still expert to me).
Something in my gut didn't buy what they were saying. But I figured maybe I just didn't know enough. I still self-identified as a liberal Democrat, and in the elections of 1984 and 1988 I voted for the Democratic candidates without a moment's hesitation. One reason was that I wasn't keen on Reagan's domestic policies, especially his economic ones. I was not on firm ground here, either (those of you who read this blog regularly are familiar with my extreme shakiness on economics), but I was with George Bush Senior on characterizing trickle-down economics as voodoo economics. More to the point, I personally perceived the gap between the rich and the poor, or even the middle-class (where I found myself) growing by leaps and bounds. Many of my own friends pulled away from the pack and became super-rich during this decade, while just as many (who hadn't had financial problems previously) started to struggle economically. I also didn't agree with his conservative judicial appointments.
Was I enthusiastic about Mondale or Dukakis? Who could be? Perhaps their wives; certainly not me! But, lukewarm though I might be about their inspirational qualities, they were the Democratic candidates, I was a Democrat, and I thought they would be better than Reagan and then Bush senior. Did I think deeply about it? No, for the aforementioned reasons. If you had suggested to me at the time that I might have, or should have, voted for the Republican candidates, I would have thought you were stark raving mad.
So, perhaps I was already somewhat of a neocon after all, and didn't know it: socially and domestically liberal, more hawkish in the foreign arena. I'd never even heard the term "neocon" at the time, although I did know there were "Reagan Democrats." But I was not one of them.
I think I am an example of the strength of party affiliation. Most people need a much greater jolt than I received during the 80s, and much more time and energy to reflect on the situation than I was able to give to it, to actually abandon their party affiliation, if it had been strong previously. And mine had been very strong indeed.
9/11 provided that much much greater jolt and motivation. I also had more time and more energy, as well as (and this is especially important) new and different sources of information that were easily accessibile to me.
But that's the story I will tell in subsequent installments of my "change" series. Please tune in.