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No Kindly Grandpa, Reagan Was Cold, Indifferent

by Alexander Cockburn

to more on Reagan's shameful legacy

They keep talking about Reagan being a "big picture" man, indifferent to petty detail. The phrase gives a false impression, as though Reagan looked out at the world as though at some Cinemascope epic, a vast battlefield where, through those famous spectacles (one lens close-up, for speech reading, the other long-distance) he could assess the global balance of forces. Wrong. Reagan stayed awake only for the cartoons, where the global balance of forces were set forth in simple terms, in the tiffs between Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, or Tom and Jerry.

When he became president, and thus "commander in chief," the Joint Chiefs of Staffs mounted their traditional show-and-tell briefings for him, replete with simple charts and a senior general explicating them in simple terms. Reagan found these briefings way too complicated and dozed off. The Joint Chiefs then set up a secret unit, staffed by cartoonists. The balance of forces were set forth in easily accessible caricature, with Soviet missiles the size of upended Zeppelins, pulsing on their launchpads, with the minuscule US ICBMs shriveled in their bunkers. Little cartoon bubbles would contain the points the Joint Chiefs wanted to hammer into Reagan's brain, most of them no doubt to the effect that "we need more money." Reagan really enjoyed the shows and sometimes even asked for repeats.

Back at the start of 1983, Reagan authorized a disinformation campaign, calling for a "public diplomacy" campaign superintended by the National Security Council and "designed to generate support for our national security objectives."

The press would buy any threat from the Reaganites, no matter how preposterous. Grenada "lay athwart vital U.S. sea lanes," thus threatening all trans-Atlantic trade. Reagan loved to trumpet the threat of the "Soviet-supplied and trained" Nicaraguan army rampaging north through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico before descending like a wolf on the fold, in this case Harlingen, Texas, with Corpus Christi prostrate in its path a few score miles north up state highway 77. These were the glory days of the "threat inflaters," practitioners of the dark art like Robert Moss, Clare Sterling and Arnaud de Borchgrave, along with the dragoons in Paul Nitze's Committee on the Present Danger.

The press dutifully relayed their fantasies, even the very mad one about a Nicaraguan invasion. In 1987, ABC ran a solemn and much discussed series called "Amerika" about a Soviet takeover of the Midwest.

"Amerika" tied into another rich fantasy of the Threat Inflaters, that there was a vast "civil defense gap," to the advantage of the Soviet Union. At a given signal from the Kremlin a large proportion of the Soviet population would vanish like moles into subterranean shelters and emerge in the post-holocaust world, presumably to cross the sea and till the irradiated acres of the Midwest on which they might live, until they moved into beachfront property in Southern California, welcomed by such film quislings as had survived the McCarthy years.

Hearing all the cozy talk about the Gipper, young people who were spared the experience of his awful sojourn in office probably imagine him as a kindly, avuncular figure. He was a vicious man, with a breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of decisions. This indifference was so profound that Dante would surely have consigned him to one of the lowest circles of hell, to roast for all eternity in front of a malfunctioning TV set and a dinner tray swinging out of reach like the elusive fruits that tortured Tantalus.

I pulled Reagan's hair once, in the company of the late Murray Kempton. It was in 1976, when he ran for the Republican nomination. There was unkind talk in the press about him dying his hair, possibly even wearing a toupee. His handlers made him and his hair available for inspection in New York, and we stood in line to take a close look for traces of dye or a hairpiece.

I gave his thick thatch of apparently genuine hair a tug to make sure. He took it calmly, as placid as a cow in a country fair. I'm sure that if I'd asked to check his teeth, he'd have opened up, right on cue.

Reagan's rhetoric was anti-government, but in fact, he was pressing programmatically for a different use of government power, in which the major corporations would occupy a much stronger position. The tendencies he presided over were probably inevitable, given the balance of political forces after the post-war boom hit the ceiling in the late 1960s. Then it was a matter of triage, as the rich made haste to consolidate their position. As a PR man, it was Reagan's role, as it was Thatcher's, to reassure the wealthy and the privileged that not only might but right was on their side.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 16, 2004 (

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