Friday, November 9, 2007

That (Overrated) 80s Show

Whenever I think of $1,000 bills, I think of Ronald Reagan. Of course, like the Himalayas, Oprah Winfrey, and a clean service station restroom in Georgia, I have never actually seen a $1,000 bill in person. But they look just delightful in pictures, and I’m sure I would love to make a hobby of collecting them if it didn’t mean dealing with ski masks, sawed-off shotguns, and burlap sacks filled with exploding dye. Oh, that and the fact that they’re no longer being printed.

None of which has anything to do with Ronald Reagan, so far as I know.

So why do $1,000 bills remind me of Reagan? The answer should be obvious: because of Grover Cleveland. You see, just as U.S. Grant appears on the $50 bill and Benjamin Franklin graces the hundred, President Cleveland’s face once adorned the $1,000 banknote. For all we know, the original title of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was It’s All About the Grovers.

This, too, has little to do with Ronald Reagan, though he was a movie actor and did portray a baseball pitcher named Grover Cleveland Alexander.

But here’s the thing: nobody today has any idea why Cleveland was once selected to appear on our federal currency. Ask a random high school student what she knows about the man, and you will probably be told that a big city in Ohio was named after him (which is false). Or if you happen to run into a particularly nerdy kid, maybe he will recall that Cleveland was the only president elected to non-consecutive terms, that he married for the first time while serving in the White House, and oh god, here come some football players to stuff me into a locker again, I gotta run, mister.

Think about it: here’s a president who was once so well regarded that he was selected for an honor previously reserved for the giants of American history, the big concrete monument guys, the men for whom half the junior high schools in America are named. And we have no idea why! Quick: name Grover Cleveland’s most significant accomplishment. Recite his most famous quote. What was his astrological sign? How the hell did he get saddled with a name like Grover?

Which at last brings us to Reagan. Since the Great Communicator left office nearly two decades ago, his stock has risen considerably. Millions of Americans now regard him as one of the five or so greatest presidents ever (of course, many of them also include Winston Churchill and Dr. Phil on the list, so draw your own conclusions). Republican congressmen and congresschicks have been busy attaching Reagan’s name to government buildings, navy warships, random stretches of interstate highway, and one terribly overcrowded airport. More worshipful sorts have even proposed affixing their hero’s image to the dime, carving it into Mt. Rushmore, and who knows what else. If they get their way, don’t be surprised if we someday witness the liftoff of Space Shuttle Ronald Reagan as it leaves Cape Reagan, Florida, preparing to deliver six brave Reaganauts to the first human settlement on Reagan’s Satellite (formerly known as the moon).

Grover Cleveland was first elected president in 1884. Ronald Reagan was re-elected president in 1984, by which time Cleveland’s tenure in the White House had all but vanished from the public consciousness. So if we fast forward to 2084, just what do you think our great-great grandchildren will know about Reagan? As their krypton-powered hovercrafts circle Reagan National Spaceport, will they take even a moment to reflect on the legacy of our 40th president? Or will the Reagan name be as meaningless to them as O’Hare and Logan and Dulles are to most of today’s air travelers.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s no way that the Reagan era could ever be forgotten. How could they forget the Cold War? The Star Wars missile system? Reaganomics? The Iran-Contra Scandal? Nancy’s appearance on Diff’rent Strokes? This was, many Americans would insist, an epic presidency. Our egos demand as much. Surely, the events that happen in our lifetimes are significant because we are significant, and therefore the mark our generation makes on posterity simply has to be indelible. Right? Right?

Well, that’s probably what folks thought back in Cleveland's day. Yep, they said, America's schools will have to double the size of their history textbooks just to include all the chapters on the world-changing events of the late 1800s. They must have been confident that, centuries later, Americans would still be talking about how “Big Steve” Cleveland crushed the railroad strike and forced the British to make peace with Venezuela (aside from “Big Steve”, Cleveland’s other nickname, according to, was “Uncle Jumbo”, and if you’re thinking porn star, well, that’s just your problem). And how could anyone forget Grover Cleveland's greatest quotes, including the following authentic ones, all taken from the official White House website?

“What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?"

"If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a post card in Chicago, that card will be delivered."

"I must go to dinner, but I wish it was to eat a pickled herring, a Swiss cheese, and a chop at Louis' instead of the French stuff I shall find."

He was a man of principle. He believed in arming postal workers (if only he knew…). He hated the French! And yet he exists today only in the sad, cluttered minds of Jeopardy contestants.
So when they crack open the U.S. history textbooks at Barack Obama Middle School in 2084, exactly what will they find written about the Reagan administration? Not much, probably, just another eight year presidency without any major wars or cataclysmic events worth mentioning. The second coming of Eisenhower, something like that.

When it's all said and done, Ronald Reagan will likely survive history as little more than a "list president", number forty in a series of names that schoolchildren will be forced to memorize along with the preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. Remember that slightly violent mnemonic you had to learn to help you recall the identities of those six insignificant men who served prior to Lincoln? "Tyler Polk’d (Poked) Taylor, Fillmore Pierce(d) Buchanan." Like those long-forgotten chief executives, Reagan will almost certainly be relegated to another series of historically inconsequential presidents that students of the future will commit to memory as a single word: Fordcarterreaganbushclintonbush.

The sad truth is that we do not, contrary to the ancient Chinese curse, live in particularly interesting times, at least not when viewed from the broad perspective of history. As much as we may hate to admit it, the years since 1945 will barely rate a couple of pages in the annals of the American age. What will tomorrow’s youngsters learn of these past six decades? Civil rights. AIDS. The computer revolution. Maybe 9/11, but maybe not. The details of our politics and our culture, the things that mean so much to us now, will be unknown except to a new generation of graduate students writing dissertations that nobody will read, with titles such as “Late 20th Century Cultural Symbolism and Postmodern Criticism in the Adventures of Beavis and Butt-head”.

Conservatives like to refer to the Cold War as World War III, a desperate and fairly obvious ploy to add heft to the résumés of Reagan and the first President Bush. Great presidents win great wars, after all, so if Ronald Reagan is ever to be considered one of the giants, he's going to need a spiffier title than "Glorious Conqueror of Grenada". So his fawning acolytes have carefully constructed a narrative of a world without Mikhail Gorbachev, Afghanistan, or Chernobyl, a world in which Grover Cleveland Alexander the Great single-handedly smote the Evil Empire just before it engulfed the Earth in a red sea of angry blond automatons programmed to kill Rocky Balboa.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it actually was President Reagan, rather than terminal incompetence, that brought down the mighty U.S.S.R. So what? In thousands of years of recorded history, brutal dictatorial empires have risen and fallen with regularity. As it turned out, the Cold War was little more than a series of nasty proxy skirmishes punctuated by a few close calls. It was certainly a big deal at the time, and it could have turned out to be a really big deal if young Matthew Broderick hadn't reprogrammed the computers at NORAD just seconds before Armageddon. But you know that they say: if your aunt had wheels, she would probably turn your uncle on in a way too creepy to contemplate. Or something like that.

But there were nukes, you scream. The whole world could have blown up. Didn’t you see The Day After? One minute, hello Kansas City; the next minute, the Great Missouri Crater. Nuclear winter, man, we could have faced nuclear winter!

That's exactly right: could have. Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. Sure, we could all have died, but we didn’t. Now if the missiles had been launched, then we’d have something to talk about. But they weren’t, so nobody in the future is likely to care about our silly duck-and-cover drills, our goofy bomb shelters, and our oh-so-important U.S.-Soviet summits. Look, sometimes you kill the Archduke and World War I breaks out, and sometimes you kill the Archduke and all you’ve got to show for it is a dead archduke. History is only interested in the really bad stuff that happens, not the stuff that might have happened but didn't. Sorry Ronnie, if it was immortality you were after, you should have pressed the button instead of just joking about it.

Indeed, even among his unimpressive late 20th Century peers, Reagan will emerge, at best, as a bit player. Since the days of Harry Truman, the last real wartime president, the most significant occupant of the White House has probably been Lyndon Johnson. Today we mostly associate Johnson with the Vietnam War, but history will rate Vietnam as far less significant than the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Great Society. As the emotions of the 1960s cool—which I realize will never happen until the last remaining ex-hippie takes his final hit from life's cosmic bong—LBJ will rise among the ranks of ex-presidents, probably settling somewhere just below Teddy Roosevelt.

Reagan, on the other hand, won't even merit mention as an asterisk president. An asterisk president is a former leader long forgotten but for a single detail, usually something unpleasant. Kennedy: assassinated. Nixon: resigned. Clinton: impeached. These are people, like Bucky Dent, Kato Kaelin, and John Bobbitt, whose lives can be reduced to a single factoid. Maybe a better term for them would be the Trivial Pursuit presidents. Reagan is not one of them.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" Not a bad quote, you’d have to agree, memorable in its own way, but strictly B-list material, sort of like "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes" rather than "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse". It is, nevertheless, the quote on which legions of Reagan-worshippers hang their hopes for their hero's admission into the presidential quotation hall of fame. But surely nobody really thinks that this canned little made-for-TV sound bite will endure alongside "Ask not what your country can do for you…", or "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself", or even "I did not have sexual relations with that woman".

With little to recommend him to posterity, why is Reagan considered by so many people to be a towering figure of the 20th Century? Part of it is probably attributable to the 1980s nostalgia that currently afflicts the land. It seems that every generation, about the time it reaches its mid-30s, suddenly gets all weepy about its past. For now, that means a rose-colored look back at big hair and shoulder pads, Dallas and Dynasty, break dancing, flashdancing, and dirty dancing. And there, presiding over it all, the smiling visage of the Gipper, America’s grandpa, reassuring us that everything’s going to be all right as long as we aren’t striking air traffic controllers. Let’s face it, any generation that can make a superstar out of Boy George can certainly turn Ronald Reagan into Daniel Webster.

But it’s not just nostalgia. To right-wingers of all ages, Reagan is their L. Ron Hubbard, their Maharishi, a man they loved unreservedly in life and now worship compulsively in death. He is their North Star. With his charisma and sunny personality, he actually made conservatism cool, something that it never was before and may never be again. He took conservatism out of the dark, angry basement of the American mind and temporarily made it the philosophy of hope. Reagan lent such appeal to the far right during the 1980s that even College Republicans got laid.

Never mind that he was a proponent of small government who elevated federal spending to new heights. Forget that he was a cold warrior who once impulsively offered Gorbachev a deal in which everyone’s nukes would be dismantled. Ignore the inconsistency between his ringing endorsement of human rights in Russia and his support for various brutal Central American strongmen. None of that matters to conservatives in the face of a far more significant fact: Ronald Reagan royally pissed off liberals, sort of like George W. Bush does today, but without Bush’s telltale smirk that betrays a seething insecurity. Right-wingers loved to watch the unflappable Reagan drive leftists to incoherent distraction with his serene self-confidence and “aw shucks” witticisms. He was the unchallenged star of his decade and, regardless of what the Nielsens might have said, the top rated show of the 1980s was “Everybody Loves Reagan”.

History, however, does not remember personalities. Benjamin Harrison may have been a great practical joker for all we know. Women may have swooned at the sight of Chester Arthur. Rutherford B. Hayes may have added that initial for dramatic effect, like Johnny B. Goode or World B. Free. But history doesn’t care. When the books are written, all that remains is the box score. History traffics in accomplishments, not sideshows. And in the accomplishment department, Reagan’s record is shorter than a list of A Flock of Seagulls’ greatest hits (gratuitous 80s reference for those who appreciate that sort of thing).

He raised taxes and spent the country into a massive deficit. It worked for a while and the nation enjoyed a period of prosperity, but Reagan was fortunate enough to be out of office by the time the economic chickens came home to roost in 1990. Because the deficit spiral was broken several years later with the help of Bill Clinton, a Republican Congress, and a technological revolution, Reagan’s orgy of government borrowing did no lasting harm. But the 1980s boom paled in comparison with its 1990s counterpart. And the notion of supply-side economics now seems as dated as Tom Cruise in Cocktail, and even less believable (two gratuitous 80s references in a row!).

In terms of foreign policy, Reagan rattled sabers with a succession of dying Russian dinosaurs. He negotiated with hostage takers, selling them arms and then using the profits to finance a dirty civil war in Nicaragua. When this turned out to be illegal, he pretended that he was just the casino greeter who had no idea what the mobsters inside the cashier’s cage were up to. He liberated some medical students who were threatened by a coup d’etat in Grenada, except it turned out that they weren’t really in danger and that they barely qualified as medical students. He fell asleep while listening to the Pope. He bombed Libya a few times, but that’s just what presidents were expected to do back then, sort of like lighting the national Christmas tree.

It’s not a bad record, I suppose, other than Reagan’s unwillingness to face up to the challenge of AIDS as it was beginning its lethal journey across the continents. But it doesn’t put one in mind of Washington, Lincoln, or the Roosevelts, either. It was, in short, a Grover Cleveland record, neither great nor terrible, but wholly unmemorable in the big scheme of things. If Reagan were ever to find himself on Mt. Rushmore, he would be like Joey Bishop trying to keep up with Frankie and Sammy and Dean. Just compare nicknames: Lincoln was the Great Emancipator; Reagan was the Great Communicator. Washington was the Father of His Country; Reagan was merely the Gipper.

In the meantime, hagiographers like Peggy Noonan, whose life’s mission seems to be the lionization of this pleasant but unremarkable man, will just have to keep thinking of some way to force history to remember Ronald Wilson Reagan. They certainly have their work cut out for them. But if they need an idea, I think I have a good one: let’s bring back the $1,000 bill and put Reagan’s picture on it. That ought to do the trick.


redbarb said...

What a great way to start a blog! One post praises the underdog 1970s and the next trashes Ronnie. Clearly you are going for the unconventional readers like myself. Too bad we are so few.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

Yes, the two posts kind of go together. It was Ronnie, more than anyone, who killed off the decade of the 70s. I still haven't forgiven him.