Viewpoint: Mourning and myth in America

Americans love their myths. We had a prime example this past week as the media wallowed in an orgy of hero worship for the late and former President Ronald Reagan. The unknowing observer might have thought Reagan walked on the water from all the pompous, fawning and sometimes silly claptrap that attended his passing.

The talking heads blarneyed up a first-class media circus. Only one thing was missing: the truth, and most of America did not know the difference.

Gore Vidal has taken to referring to this country as the “United States of Amnesia.” The label is apt. We would rather believe our myths than remember our history, if indeed, we ever knew it. Facts, as Ronnie used to say, are annoying little devils. He preferred myths.

The noticeable thing about the so-called Reagan retrospective on television was that largely Republicans–former cabinet members, staffers, friends and admirers—were called upon to comment on the life and times of the former president. Hardly surprising that they thought he was right about most things and mostly did the right things.

“He ended the Cold War,” we were told. Sounds good, but the truth is that former President Jimmy Carter had more to do with the collapse of the “evil empire” than the Great Communicator. Carter was the one who sent Zibignew Brezjinski, his national security adviser, to work with the CIA to conduct the largest covert operation of its time in Afghanistan. The plan became the Russians’ Vietnam. Jimmy Carter also, in 1979, ordered our Pershing nuclear missiles aimed at the Kremlin in order to get the Soviets to negotiate on nuclear disarmament.

Reagan must be credited with reducing federal spending on social programs, particularly welfare, and increasing federal spending on defense programs. Along with that switch in priorities came massive deficits. The Russians could not compete.

The grovelling press forgot to mention a very pertinent fact, considering we recently observed the anniversary of D-Day. How many recall that it was good ol’ Ronnie who put a wreath in a German cemetery where numerous SS troopers lie buried?

How about his remarks on “winnable nuclear war,” recallable nuclear missiles, trees causing pollution, and his hobnobbing with Guatemalan thugs? Remember voodoo economics, the budget deficits, tax cuts for the wealthy, his salutes to fascist generals in Argentina, tax credits for segregated schools, his embracing of Manuel Noriega, assassination manuals, and invading Grenada, where we gunned down some Cubans who were building an airport?

The biggest betrayal of what we consider American values was Reagan’s involvement in Iran-Contra. That bloody and disgraceful episode began with what has become known as the “October surprise.”

Ayatollah Khomeini was holding U.S. hostages in Iran. Jimmy Carter was trying to get them back, but he would not yield to Khomeini’s bullying demands to release them. Quietly, Reagan and his vice-president, George H. Bush, made contact with Khomeini and begged him to release the prisoners, but not before the election. They sealed the deal by providing the grim Iranian leader with U.S. weapons.

The money from that disreputable transaction went to finance the Contras who were fighting the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. That was a favorite cause of Reagan’s because he believed the Sandanistas were Communists. From that grew the death squads and the torture and deaths of thousands of Nicaraguan peasants.

Investigative reporter Greg Palast was there. He wrote: “In 1987 I found myself in a crappy little town in Nicaragua named Chaguitillo. The people were kind enough, though hungry, except for one surly young man. His wife had just died of tuberculosis.

“People don’t die of TB if they get some antibiotics. But Ronald Reagan, big-hearted guy that he was, had put a lock-down embargo on medicine to Nicaragua because he didn’t like the government that the people there had elected.

“Ronnie grinned and cracked jokes while the young woman’s lungs filled up and she stopped breathing. Reagan flashed that B-movie grin while they buried the mother of three.”

But none of that, we must have our rituals and our myths. It’s mourning in America. Reagan was the guy in the white hat, even though his policies nurtured the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and assisted in giving rise to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Agence France Presse furnished a different perspective just days after Reagan’s death. It reported: ‘Reagan, determined to check arch-foe Iran, opened a back door to Iraq through which flowed U.S. intelligence and hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees even as Washington professed neutrality in Baghdad’s war with Tehran. Sales of UH-1H helicopters and Hughes MD-500 Defender helicopters were approved by Washington. Though sold as civilian aircraft, nobody objected when they were quickly converted for military use.”

Yes, Reagan built up the regime of Saddam Hussein with guns, tanks and chemical weapons. He helped set the time bomb we are now getting blasted by on a daily basis.

Yes, but he was our most popular president, the TV pundits proclaimed. Sam Donaldson termed it “unprecedented popularity.” Sam, and lots of other Republicans, might be surprised to learn that Bill Clinton enjoyed a 66 percent approval rating when he left office, compared with Reagan’s 63 percent. That’s according to Gallup poll data. Franklin Roosevelt had a 66 percent rating after three-and-a-half terms.

Poll data shows Reagan did not rate much more than any other post-World War II president. In his first two years, Ronnie’s ratings were pretty low. His average approval rating was 52 percent, ranking him sixth of the last 10 presidents. Kennedy, Eisenhower, George H. Bush, Clinton and Johnson all topped him. In his first term his rating dipped below 50 percent and hit 46 percent during Iran-Contra.

Ronnie was portrayed as a friend of the working man because he spoke out for labor rights in Poland. At the same time, however, he was leading anti-union efforts (remember the air traffic controllers) at home and strongly supporting foreign regimes that suppressed workers and murdered labor activists.

He was hailed as a champion of small government, but he greatly increased the size of Defense Department budgets and named federal judges who systematically boosted government’s power to intrude on the lives of its citizens.

He was anti-gay bigotry, despite his son’s proclivities, and he could not bring himself to address AIDS. But by golly, he had a great smile and a nice, pleasant disposition. Yep, it’s mourning in America.

Frederick Sweet, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, saw the reality of last week’s media sideshow. Sweet said: “The purpose of this media extravagance is to both assist in the re-election of George W. Bush and to boost ratings and income for the media corporations. If this requires rewriting facts and rewriting history, if this means disregarding reality, well, the show must go on.”

And so it shall. After all, myths are much more fun and more comforting than facts.

Sources: Norman Solomon, Greg Palast, Intervention Magazine, The Guardian, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, Toronto Star

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