Ten years ago Ronald Reagan’s body at last caught up with his brain. Do you all remember the tears, lip biting, and hysteria that greeted his death? Iraq was neither a rogue nor failed state but a stretch of land plunged into barbarism. 2004 was a presidential election year. But for a week there was no news. The piety and credulousness of the coverage were in my lifetime unprecedented. I can’t remember dissenting voices allowed on air. In those years before social media when “sharing” internet writing meant emailing links I got a couple of astonished responses to Christopher Hitchens’ obituary. Those familiar with his work know the most memorable line by heart:
I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn’t like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter’s briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn’t, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.
I’m fond of “rictus of senile fury” myself.
But the man fascinates me because nature reveres a vacuum. I tried to summarize this fascination a few years ago. I would now add that I agree with Charles Pierce: the Beltway establishment allowing Ronald Reagan and George Bush to avoid impeachment – both of them! – remains the worst recent blot on the Republic. Worse than Watergate. A secret government comprised of National Security Council, State Department, and CIA, with its own budget, air force, and command structure, sold arms to Iran through Israel for the ostensible purpose of freeing hostages. Swollen with confidence, they dumped Israel and through the efforts of a ghoulish lieutenant colonel raised the price on the missiles and funneled the money to the Contras, thanks to whom thousands and perhaps millions of pounds of drugs poured into Arkansas, Florida, and the West coast (Columbian drug cartels, never wont to work outside the capitalist system, helped).
Inhabiting this bureaucracy was a rogue’s gallery of retired intelligence officers, paramilitary thugs, gun merchants out of a Warren Zevon song, and, saddest for me, Cuban exiles who believed involvement in yet another extra-constitutional farrago (remember who was arrested for the Watergate burglary) would convince the Pentagon of the utility of aiming an SS-20 missile into Fidel Castro’s bedroom. When the news broke and panic paralyzed the White House and it really did look like indictments were coming, Reagan allowed aides and the commission of drunken septuagenarian mandarins he appointed suggest he was too stupid to understand what was going on and, oh, it was Don Regan’s fault. To summarize: we sold weapons to the mullahs who lined the pockets of the terrorists responsible for the 1983 Marine deaths in Beirut (in fourth grade we had to write condolence letters to the mothers and wives) and winked at those mullahs who then used those weapons against our ally Iraq in their decade-long war, all to Saddam Hussein’s deep amusement. We accepted drugs under the nose of a First Lady who cautioned Gary Coleman to “just say no.” Worse, we allowed politicians and media hacks to propagate the insidious fiction that the American public had no appetite for impeaching a deranged old man.
Enough. Declassified Soviet and American papers show the intensity with which Reagan opposed his most adamantine henchmen by insisting he could treat with Mikhail Gorbachev. James Mann’s authoritative The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan preserves the cries of indignation from – who else – Charles Krauthammer, never one to ignore any gesture that wasn’t a middle finger from a cowboy straddling a cruise missile if he couldn’t compare it to Neville Chamberlain tapping his umbrella. Reagan deserves credit. But Speaker of the House Jim Wright, next in line after the vice president, could have negotiated with Gorby too.