Hello and welcome to post four in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. We left off in our last post promising to get to President Obama’s frank address of race, so let’s begin.
There’s a second threat to our democracy. And this one is as old as our nation itself.
After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent…
… and often divisive force in our society.
Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.
You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.
—The last comment is important. Older members of the HP who describe their childhoods in the 1970s to teenager today may as well be talking about another planet. While it’s true that hidden racism is no better than outright racism, it’s easy to forget what outright racism represents: a consensus that there’s nothing wrong with it. Overt racism is a sign that people feel comfortable expressing racism; they don’t expect anyone to challenge or reproach them. In America 50 years ago, it was okay to be openly, outrageously racist. In America today, it isn’t, because those 50 years were spent stripping away the social justifications of and legal supports for racism. The biological arguments for racism, the “oh come on, it’s just a joke” arguments for racism, the “this is the way it’s always been” arguments, the “this is how God intended” arguments—all were at last relentlessly, righteously assaulted as the nation pushed to live up to its mandate of liberty and justice for all.
But, as the president says, that doesn’t mean racism ended. Racism will never end. It’s part of human nature. And that means the fight against racism must never end. We have to rise above our nature. All of us will always have more work to do, but if we do it, we will get closer to being free of racism, as close as it is possible to come. We cannot afford to have the work of the last 50 years undone by anti-Americans who want to go back to the old days. Their mythical view of an all-white America that was happy and strong and rich would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to this nation.
If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.
—This single sentence says so much. Here the president is frank about how neo-conservatives and white supremacist/fascists do indeed frame every economic issue. This began with Reagan. His 1984 “Morning again in America” ad (you can find it easily on YouTube) was 90 seconds of showing only white Americans while a voiceover talked about hardworking people buying houses and getting married and thriving. (Yes, for exactly two seconds a black and a Latino child are shown watching an American flag being raised. But apparently when they grow up these non-white children will not contribute to America’s wealth, strength, and happiness.) Since then, “hardworking” and “middle-class” have come to be code words for “white” and “native-born”. Anyone who isn’t hardworking and middle-class is a non-white criminal. In the last presidential campaign, these ceased to be unspoken codes, as neo-conservatives and fascists and other Trump supporters applauded his description of Mexicans, Muslims, and other non-white immigrants as criminals, and stood by Trump’s refusal to call the KKK a hate/terrorist/white supremacist group.
If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.
And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.
That is what our Constitution and highest ideals require.
—A loud minority of Americans want a zero-sum game. They feel that any and every advance by people unlike them (non-white, immigrant) comes only at their expense. If anyone else wins, it’s because they lose. That’s why they want to repeal laws against discrimination, ironically by claiming those laws discriminate against whites/white men/native-born white Americans. These people are Americans in name only, as they would violate our Constitution to enrich and (so they think) protect themselves.
But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.
We have to pay attention and listen.
—It’s hard to feel a lot of compassion for white men in western society. They still have every advantage when it comes to being educated, hired, well-paid, catered to politically, and identified as the “average person”. White men do still have all the advantages, even after 50 years of economic, cultural, and technological change. Again, it’s the zero-sum mentality at work: any change for white men is seen as an alarm bell that the God-ordained proper world order is being destroyed. Not all white men feel this way. But the ones who do should only be paid attention and listened to as part of an effort to re-educate them to be Americans.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.
So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
—Bubbles have always existed. They’re not the product of social media. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries in America were always firmly ideological—Republican or Democrat, nativist or pro-immigrant, for blacks or for whites or for Jewish people, etc. But the harm of bubbles is intensified by social media. Now we don’t even have to know that we are buying “our” paper for “our” people; we can go online to a site that pretends to be objective while it peddles ridiculous and harmful, divisive and undemocratic opinions, or, more and more often, lies. People become used to arguing with other people only when they leave those social media bubbles, not within them, and the right to argue a point is confused with the right to win an argument. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the “information wants to be free” movement that destroyed paid journalism was an anti-democratic plot after all…Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )
Aimlessly leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, not even we at the HP could have been expecting to see John Winthrop’s name come up, but such is the power of myth.
In an article on the nature of the political debate over the middle class in America, the author (Michael Kinsley) referred to a speech the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave in 1984 in which he lambasted then-President Reagan for ignoring the poor by talking about “two cities”, one rich, one poor. The author said this:
Cuomo’s ‘two cities’ imagery was a poke at Reagan, turning of of his favorite lines against him. In almost every speech he gave, it seemed, Reagan would refer to America as “a shining city upon a hill”, meaning an example for the rest of the world. Reagan got that from the Puritan preacher John Winthrop (though probably not directly). What Winthrop had in mind was a moral example, the but metaphor works on many levels.
Kinsley clearly did not get his information about John Winthrop directly from any historical source, as Winthrop was not a “preacher” at all, but a political leader who was elected many times to be the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between its founding in 1630 and his death in 1649. It’s a little tricky, perhaps; the line “a city upon a hill” comes from a sermon Winthrop wrote while the Puritans were still on their sea voyage to the New World. The final section of that sermon is the section we set apart and study as the “City upon a Hill” speech.
Why would Winthrop write a sermon if he wasn’t a minister? Because the Puritans held four things very dear: reading the Bible, attending sermons, engaging in conference, and lay prophesying.
Each of these, in that order, was key to opening up one’s soul and consciousness enough to become aware of one’s own salvation (if it existed—but that’s another long story we cover here). The first two are clear; the third, conference, was just talking with other people who were seeking religious light about what you read in the Bible and what you heard in sermons. The Puritans were extremely social, and their religion was founded on the idea that you must put your heads together—no one person could ever get as far in understanding God’s will as a group could. The Puritans needed and relied on each other for support during the difficult and, in England, the dangerous process of following their religion.
That’s exactly what Winthrop is talking about in the City on a Hill section of his sermon. Go read it here. It is an exhortation to the people to support and love and help each other, to put others first and self last.
So that is what conference meant to the people Winthrop was leading to America, and he was giving a sermon to them as part of conference. One of the striking innovations of the Puritan reform of Anglicanism was that every church got to hire its own minister. In most churches, there is a governing body—bishops, archbishops, pope, whoever it may be—that assigns a minister or priest to a church. The people have no say. But the Puritans said each congregation was independent—no overall, hierarchical governing body could tell it what to do. (That’s why in America they came to call themselves Congregationalists.) If a congregation could not agree on a minister, they went without one until they found one they could agree on. And if there was a shortage of good, reformed ministers, a congregation waited without one until one became available.
In the meantime, the deacons of the congregation preached and did everything the minister would except give communion. That was one of only two sacraments recognized by Puritans, and it had to be done by a minister. Having lay people lead the church was called lay prophesying. It could and did happen even after a minister was found, as members of the congregation were encouraged to share their light during and after church services.
The people crossing the Atlantic had not chosen a minister yet. So they asked their most important lay leader, John Winthrop, to preach them a sermon in the meantime. And he did such a masterful job that it has come down to us through the centuries. Once the people landed in Fall 1630, Winthrop and other lay leaders chose John Wilson to be the teacher of First Church in Boston. (Every Puritan church that could afford to pay them had both a teacher and a minister. Roughly, the minister was the administrative leader of the church who represented the church in meetings with other ministers and with the government; he also visited members of the congregation and gave them spiritual advice. The teacher was the scholar who wrote and preached sermons and published them, as well as other theological works.) Wilson served the church on his own until John Cotton was called as minister in 1632.
So that’s why Winthrop preached a sermon even though he wasn’t a minister. He was engaging in conference with other believers and lay prophesying. To go back to our Vanity Fair article, Winthrop was indeed talking about setting a good example in Massachusetts, but not in the pompous way implied in the article (“a moral example”). He wanted the people to treat each other well so that they would receive God’s blessing, and once they had done this, others would see the blessings that God gave to those who serve him and do the same. But most of all, when Winthrop said “we will be as a city upon a hill” he meant that any failures would be painfully visible to all—he might as well have said “we shall be as a city within a fishbowl”. All previous English colonies in North America had failed (Roanoke) or were failing (Plimoth [too small], Jamestown [small and wretched and chaotic]). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was being watched by all, particularly Spain and France, to see if it too would fail.
The stakes were high all around, then, when Winthrop gave his sermon; it became justly famous for urging people to find their best natures in a situation when people often did their worst. The least we can do is understand who Winthrop was and what he wanted for this new world.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
So what is the takeaway from our excruciatingly long and terribly close reading of Reagan’s 1989 farewell address? It’s one that isn’t unique to Reagan, certainly; it’s a conclusion Americans have drawn almost for as long as there has been an America: mandating an ill-defined patriotism as the measure of our national good is un-American.
Many presidents have urged Americans to support “my country right or wrong”. Reagan was not the only one. Many presidents have urged Americans to define patriotism as never questioning or criticizing national policy. And many presidents have urged Americans to see every war the U.S. fights as just, and never to question our military actions overseas (and to see military service as the highest or only form of patriotism).
But those presidents were usually countered immediately and publicly by Americans who realized and pointed out that this is not the American Way. High-profile Americans were willing to demand real patriotism, which means putting our founding principles of liberty and justice for all first above all other goals and desires, and taking personal responsibility for the preservation and exercise of those principles
Since Reagan, however, there has been an increasing trend away from real patriotism. So much has changed, even since 1989. The Internet has created a wide avenue for shaming and attack that deters many people from even getting involved in debates because those “debates” are actually uninformed dogfights focused on personal attack. Cuts to education funding have dumped civics education onto the scrap heap, so that most Americans have no idea what our founding principles are, and have to rely on the warped interpretations they get from political campaigns run by people as uninformed as themselves. History education has been hit hard, too, so that many Americans do not know their own history and have few examples of real patriotism to summon up for inspiration. Terrorist acts, beginning with September 11th, have been made an excuse to hail military action and military service as the only real patriotism, which is an astounding turnaround from the national opinion when Reagan took office, when the long ordeal of the Vietnam War had made U.S. military action unpalatable for most adults.
Since Reagan economic growth has been prized above all else, and is so important that corporations have been given rights of personhood, corporate money openly controls elections from the state to the presidential level, the federal government failed to take any substantial or lasting legal action to prevent another financial collapse like the 2008 Recession because big business is so much more powerful than the federal government, and Congress is working hard to remove any taxation of estates valued at over $5 million. The shining corporation on a hill is king.
In his speech, while reflecting on the “trickle-down economics” that he introduced, Reagan said this about the critics who pointed out that it would begin a terrible wealth gap: “What they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”
Sometimes it seems that we live in an America where radical and dangerous stances (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-separation of church and state, anti-environmental health) are considered right and desperately needed to return America to a mythological perfect past where everyone was white, straight, either born here or a “good” (read white) immigrant, and Christian. That is a depressing legacy of Reagan.
But we must not give in to despair. The pendulum always swings, and it will swing back away from this radicalism because there will always be Americans who fight for our founding principles. Our job is to be those Americans.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on Reagan’s farewell address of January 1989. In this section, the final one, Reagan shares his final thoughts on our nation’s history and identity, and gives his parting presidential warning.
I’ve been asked if I have any regrets. Well, I do. The deficit is one. I’ve been talking a great deal about that lately, but tonight isn’t for arguments, and I’m going to hold my tongue. But an observation: I’ve had my share of victories in the Congress, but what few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn’t win for me. They never saw my troops, they never saw Reagan’s regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every call you made and letter you wrote demanding action. Well, action is still needed. If we’re to finish the job, Reagan’s regiments will have to become the Bush brigades. Soon he’ll be the chief, and he’ll need you every bit as much as I did.
—This is oddly phrased in the fifth sentence, but Reagan is thanking a new category of political activist, one that was indeed born during his presidency and has ballooned to gargantuan proportions today: “grassroots” attack activism. The elder statesmen here at the HP remember modest kitchen tables in the 1980s covered in urgent, nay hysterical letters from many different political groups, mostly Christian-affilitated, demanding that the housewife recipients immediately write letters of protest to Congress about pending legislation or just general wrong-headed and dangerous political and social trends. The price of inaction was the fiery destruction of the U.S. in a communist, atheist lake of fire. Such were the beginnings of “Reagan’s regiments”, brought fully to flower by the Tea Party activists, PACs, and paid political ads of today.
Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.
—The most glaring omission from this section is a definition of “what America is and what she represents”. Older Americans know what “it” means, they absorbed “it” through their pores in that better, more wholesome and true America that existed before the evil 1960s (“35 or so years of age” in 1989 translates to people born by 1954). It is in the mid-60s that good in America came to a screeching halt.
It is funny to note that earlier in this speech Reagan spoke of celebrating the anniversaries of his 39th birthday, and when he gave this speech in January 1989 he was almost 78, but now suddenly he is 35 or so. Clearly he does not want the values he is celebrating to come off as ancient and inapplicable to all but the elderly.
The only clue we have about what “it” is is war: “the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio”. Patriotism comes up after that sentence, and one feels that it is actually patriotism that is “what America is”—America is patriotism, America is love of America. Let’s go all the way with our syllogism: love of America is love of America. But no—at the very end “democratic values” are at last brought forward. But that throwaway mention at the very end of a stirring paragraph about war and patriotism, in which fighting in a war is the only way to honor your country and patriotism itself is a virtue, is not very convincing.
But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom-freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs production [protection].
—Ah, the 60s have done a number on Americans. Young parents and young people in the media think “an unambivalent appreciation of America” and “well-grounded patriotism” are passé. Where to begin?
First, what does “appreciation of America” even mean in that sentence? An “appreciation of America” seems different in kind from a respect for America’s First Amendment rights. You don’t appreciate rights, you exercise and uphold them. You protect them from attack. You may appreciate the Constitution for enshrining those rights, but again the word itself summons up an inescapable image of people being grateful for something they may or may not deserve to have. “I would appreciate it if you’d get that book for me”—you don’t have to, and that’s why I appreciate you doing it. “I expect to be allowed full exercise of my rights” is different from “I appreciate being able to exercise my rights.” The former establishes that no one has to earn rights; the latter insinuates that we are lucky to be granted rights and could lose them if we’re not grateful enough.
Next, what is “our spirit”? And what, more ominously, is “reinstitutionalizing” it? “Spirit” must be taught in schools and churches and the media so that Americans understand that their freedom is equal parts vital and fragile. Again, it seems like a spirit of appreciation/groveling: teach Americans to be grateful that they are granted the favor of having freedom and rights for some unknown reason or for no good reason. That’s not what our Constitution says: it says we have unalienable rights from God, natural rights that no human can grant or take away. To be human is to have these rights to liberty. Our government in the U.S. lives up to and honors that state of being, it doesn’t create it.
Last, since when is “freedom of enterprise” in the Constitution? Usually presidents and Americans talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Reagan’s triad is freedom of speech, religion, and “enterprise”, and they all work together: churches and corporations should have the freedom to “reinstitutionalize” their agendas by getting religion back into schools and allowing corporations to rewrite the law, and the federal government would be trampling freedom if it regulated business or separated church from state.
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.
—American history has two poles: its European founders the Pilgrims, and WWII. Specifically, our bombing of Tokyo and our invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe are singled out—two times when the U.S. was on the attack. If we forget what we did (military attack) we won’t know who we are.
Look, no one is more on board with the idea that WWII was a just war than the HP. The U.S. had to be on the attack in that war, and its victory over imperial Japan and the Nazis was crucial to the existence of justice and liberty on our planet. But there is more to defending liberty than shooting bullets in a war. Americans can and must defend liberty every day at home, by respecting others’ rights and exercising their own. If we don’t do that, if we don’t uphold democracy here, then how and why should we go to war to preserve democracy elsewhere? If we allow money to corrupt our politics and religion to control our government, and if the only entities in this nation who have true liberty are corporations, then, and only then “we won’t know who we are.”
This is more than “civic ritual”. This is the “it”, this is what America is and what she stands for, and what it means to be an American. “Nailing” people is not. What is that dinner table conversation supposed to be? So far, it would be a list of battles and bombings and wars and would not include one word about how we preserve freedom at home.
And that’s about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
—John Winthrop a) did not consider himself as living in America, b) was not a Pilgrim, c) was not looking to establish freedom of religion as we know it, and d) did not call it a “shining” city on a hill. The “shining” part is pure Camelot nostalgia demanding that we believe that the earliest white settlers in America were heroes dedicated to freedom and democracy. Winthrop was a Puritan creating an outpost of the kingdom of England where reformed Anglicanism could be practiced and brought to a state of perfection. And when he said “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he meant that all of the failures of his settlement would be visible to the world; it was about the pressure of doing well when everyone is watching.
But Winthrop was a “freedom man” [sic] who was heavily involved in the first codification of law written in what would become the United States, the 1641 Body of Liberties that promoted freedoms Reagan would have “nailed” him for in a minute. Like making it illegal to abandon the poor to poverty, and making it illegal to use legal tricks and jargon to win a court case, and making it illegal for business owners to cheat their customers.
Again with big business in Reagan’s corporation on a hill, “humming with commerce”. And his city is not quite open to “all” the pilgrims from lost places hurtling toward darkness, as the U.S. fought a prolonged battle against refugee immigration from Asia and Latin America during his administrations.
We’ve done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for 8 years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.
And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
—Oh yes, they made a difference. The deregulation, corporate personhood, resentment of taxation, religious affiliations with politics, and indignant refusal to help the less fortunate through federal programs begun by Reagan’s men and women, the Reagan revolution, still goes strong today.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
As we move along through Reagan’s final speech from the Oval Office in January 1989 in our series on his farewell address, we come to his reinterpretation of the Constitution and the purpose of the American people.
When you’ve got to the point when you can celebrate the anniversaries of your 39th birthday, you can sit back sometimes, review your life, and see it flowing before you. For me there was a fork in the river, and it was right in the middle of my life. I never meant to go into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. But I was raised to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you. I was happy with my career in the entertainment world, but I ultimately went into politics because I wanted to protect something precious.
—The bit of folksy humor that begins this paragraph quickly transitions into something far darker. Reagan is a happy entertainer who is forced by a great danger to change careers and enter politics. What danger? Well, it is set up by this seemingly innocuous description of himself: “I never meant to go into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. I was raised to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you.”
What does this mean? It’s a bold non-sequitor: why would going into politics contradict a belief in “paying your way”? Why is an intention to go into politics the opposite of pulling your own weight? For Reagan, and for the American people who had listened to him and lived with his economic and political policies for eight years, however, the meaning is very clear. Politics is government, and government is bad. The president who introduced the concept of the evil “welfare mother” (or “welfare queen”), who decimated unions and worked hard to convince the nation that anyone on unemployment or welfare or Medicaid (but not Medicare) was a dishonest, un-American liar and cheater would of course see those people as not “paying their way”, as asking for blessings to be bestowed upon them from the government for no good reason. And the government who bestows those undeserved blessings is bad; it is a threat to democracy itself. So entering that government was a tough move for Reagan that he only took out of dire necessity.
Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car, and we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years.
But back in the 1960’s, when I began, it seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things — that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, “Stop.” I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.
I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: “As government expands, liberty contracts.”
—First paragraph? Fine. The comment about all the other constitutions in the world is incorrect, but we can go with the general flow of this statement about our own form of government. (Although the original wording was “We the States”, which kind of ruins it for Reagan, because originally the framers wanted a political unit, the governments of the states, to dictate terms. “The People” is more folksy for Reagan but was actually a very hard sell at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where most framers were intent on building up the power of state governments.)
Now for the second paragraph. What can those “rules and regulations” in the 1960s that were so threatening to our democracy be? Yes, it was the Great Society legislation of the Johnson presidency, including civil rights legislation. Reagan was closer to those 1787 delegates who wanted to speak in the name of the state governments than he was to “the People” in that he was not a fan of the federal government telling states what to do. He was not a fan of affirmative action or the Equal Rights Amendment or any of the social legislation passed by Congress under Johnson to guarantee equal protection under the law because that legislation was federal. Reagan found unlikely bedfellows in the South on this topic. Reagan believed that the federal government—and the state governments, too—should not pass any social legislation to help groups that faced entrenched racial, sexual, or ethnic discrimination. Those people needed to get with the American way and help themselves—to pay their own way, like white people did. Like he did.
The dangerous social legislation quickly morphs into dangerous taxation, because many of the social programs Johnson started (like Head Start) were federally funded. Taking money from some Americans to help other Americans was “taking more of our money, more of our options, more of our freedom.” Who “our” or “we” is is unspoken, but it’s clearly referring to hardworking white America.
Reagan is not kidding when he says “I stopped a lot of what needed stopping.” Taxes were cut (and then raised, but only to pay for defense spending), welfare was crucified in an intense attack campaign, Medicaid spending, education spending were all cut in an attempt to give hardworking white America back its money. Then Reagan says “man is not free unless government is limited… as government expands, liberty contracts.”
This is an echo of his First Inaugural speech in 1981, in which he said:
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
We hear much of special interest groups. Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.
The “economic ills” are social programs to help the poor and discriminated against, and “they will go away” because we must do “whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom”. Like our ancestors, we will fight tyranny; the tyranny of democracy, apparently. The “elite” government that created social programs that take money from good hardworking white people and give them to “special interest groups” will be destroyed, and balance and democracy will be restored when the neglected, oppressed white American is safe from having to help those insidious special interest groups. By 1989, Reagan was satisfied that our democracy was safe from helping people.
It’s ironic that later in this speech Reagan will reference John Winthrop’s City on a Hill address. He clearly did not read the part where Winthrop said
…we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberallity, we must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own—rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with…
—“We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities”: in other words, people who have money must give some of it to those who don’t. That’s the democratic ideal our nation would be founded on 157 years later. Reagan claims that the “breed” he is describing has no ethnic or racial divisions, but his eight years of demonizing black and Latino Americans as “welfare queens” and criminals proved that to be untrue.
Nothing is less free than pure communism—and yet we have, the past few years, forged a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet Union. I’ve been asked if this isn’t a gamble, and my answer is no because we’re basing our actions not on words but deeds. The detente of this 1970’s was based not on actions but promises. They’d promise to treat their own people and the people of the world better. But the gulag was still the gulag, and the state was still expansionist, and they still waged proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Well, this time, so far, it’s different. President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms and begun the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also freed prisoners whose names I’ve given him every time we’ve met.
—We segue with Reagan to the outside world again, and to the Soviet Union, the epitome of the unfree state that America will become if we don’t stop giving money to the poor. We will pass over the fact that the U.S. was also fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to say that this first mention of Gorbachev is very interesting in hindsight, as this speech was given in January 1989; by that time, Moscow had already begun to lose control of some of its republics, and in just a few months the Soviet people would vote for delegates to the new Congress of the People’s Deputies. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The Revolutions of 1989 that would dissolve the Eastern bloc were just months away. Gorbachev would allow all of this to happen, and would facilitate the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a democratic Russia.
Yet to hear Reagan tell it, it is Reagan alone who is pushing democracy, lecturing Gorbachev on what freedom is, and giving him the names of political prisoners to release. “President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms” is the understatement of the century.
But life has a way of reminding you of big things through small incidents. Once, during the heady days of the Moscow summit, Nancy and I decided to break off from the entourage one afternoon to visit the shops on Arbat Street — that’s a little street just off Moscow’s main shopping area. Even though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately recognized us and called out our names and reached for our hands. We were just about swept away by the warmth. You could almost feel the possibilities in all that joy. But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed their way toward us and began pushing and shoving the people in the crowd. It was an interesting moment. It reminded me that while the man on the street in the Soviet Union yearns for peace, the government is Communist. And those who run it are Communists, and that means we and they view such issues as freedom and human rights very differently.
We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this: I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.
—For Reagan, the KGB still run the Soviet Union and “while the man on the street years for peace, the government is Communist”, and will never allow freedom and human rights. One gets the feeling that Reagan would be genuinely astounded by what happened in the Soviet government just a few months after this speech. Yes, Gorbachev was very “different from previous Soviet leaders”. The folksily boxing and poker metaphors at the end would all be made obsolete by the open and unimpeded dismantling of the Soviet government led by Gorbachev.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Welcome to part 2 of our close reading of President Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address of January 11, 1989. Here we pick up from where we left off in part 1 with Reagan explaining the “American miracle” that won him the respect, at last, of all those aristocrats at the G7 meeting in Ottawa.
Well, back in 1980, when I was running for President, it was all so different. Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that “The engines of economic growth have shut down here, and they’re likely to stay that way for years to come.” Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact is, what they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”
—That “highly respected economist” was Lester Thurow, and his complaint was with Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” theory which said that if you cut income taxes and suspend all federal regulation of business, you will get business owners with plenty of cash on hand to expand by any means necessary and voila, you will have more jobs and more output and a booming economy. This enticing idea won many people over to Reagan in 1980 and 81. He advertised it during a 1981 speech with this graph:
With “their bill” the average family’s taxes would skyrocket between 1982 and 1986, while with “our bill” they would drop then flatline. What proof do we have today that unregulated business and banking combined with massive tax cuts for business and banking and the rich did not work? Notice at the top of Reagan’s chart: the average family income is $20,000. Three things come to mind: even in 1980, average family income was much higher than this, at about $48,000; next, no family today could live on $20K a year; and last, it is precisely the poorest families that are paying the highest taxes today. “Our bill” has achieved what “their bill” could only dream of.
But in 1989, Reagan could boldly state that “what they called ‘radical’ was really ‘right’. What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed.'” Luckily, presidents give their farewell speeches long before the effects of their economic programs have fully played out.
And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.
Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates, and the people produced more than ever before. The economy bloomed like a plant that had been cut back and could now grow quicker and stronger. Our economic program brought about the longest peacetime expansion in our history: real family income up, the poverty rate down, entrepreneurship booming, and an explosion in research and new technology. We’re exporting more than ever because American industry became more competitive and at the same time, we summoned the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad instead of erecting them at home.
—Reagan is correct in saying that his economic program was not new; Harding and Coolidge both slashed the taxes paid by the wealthy. Harding cut them from 73% to 25% in just two years. Both men also slashed federal regulation of business and banking. And the 1920s ended in the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. Reaganomics, as the plan came to be known, was indeed a “rediscovery” of a certain human value—the desire for wealth—over the founding principles of this nation.
Where to start with the second paragraph; “the people” didn’t really have their tax rates cut—that was mostly for the wealthy, and even Reagan actually had to raise taxes in 1982 and 1984 to offset spiraling defense spending. That long “peacetime expansion” was fueled by an enormous increase in Cold War military spending. Family incomes were up but did not keep par with inflation, and we “summoned the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad” mostly through exploitive (and unregulated) business practices.
Common sense also told us that to preserve the peace, we’d have to become strong again after years of weakness and confusion. So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year we toasted the new peacefulness around the globe. Not only have the superpowers actually begun to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons—and hope for even more progress is bright—but the regional conflicts that rack the globe are also beginning to cease. The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone. The Soviets are leaving Afghanistan. The Vietnamese are preparing to pull out of Cambodia, and an American-mediated accord will soon send 50,000 Cuban troops home from Angola.
The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we’re a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours. And something else we learned: Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling where it will end. We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.
Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from the ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980’s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.
—There is nothing more wryly ironic than celebrating a “new peacefulness around the globe” that you brought about by arming yourself to the hilt. It is absolutely true that under Reagan the U.S. did have its first nuclear arms reductions treaties with the Soviet union. No argument there. But that’s why under Reagan we a) boosted our conventional weapons and armed presence around the world and b) started looking toward unconventional nuclear weapons (like the Strategic Defense Initiative dubbed “Star Wars”) that weren’t covered by the SALT agreements.
What the “great movement” is that we began, or what “believing in ourselves” means to Reagan we don’t know. When Americans really believe in themselves, they believe in their founding principles, and realize that bringing peace to the world can and should be achieved by setting an example for real democracy and supporting democracy wherever it is found. To Reagan, in this speech believing in ourselves sounds a lot like believing we have the right to take our status as a military superpower to the next level.
If his statements about countries around the world embracing democracy and capitalism and rejecting “the ideologies of the past” (read socialism and communism) were true, then under Reagan the U.S. would not have been fighting dozens of covert wars against communists and socialists in Asian and Latin American nations throughout his two terms. Many Americans in the 1980s protested U.S. coups and civil wars in foreign nations as the opposite of “the moral way of government” and the opposite of democracy and profound good.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We feel the need of a close read here at the HP, and circumstance has led us to choose Ronald Reagan’s last speech from the Oval Office in January 1989. It’s an interesting way-back machine for us in 2015, in that the 1980s are not that long in the past, yet the constant references to Reagan by conservatives and others, especially during election years, make it see as if that administration was at once recent enough for these people to remember and have opinions about, but also part of a long-ago past we are light years away from now. Yet it’s clear that we are living every day with the impact of Reagan-era economic policy. The deregulation of industry, tax cutting ideology (if not always practice), anti-government (“government is the problem”) and pro-military stances are all certainly the mantra of most conservatives today, to the point where one might be forgiven for believing this is a long-standing mantra, deeply part of the American soul and history, when really it was thrust into being not quite 30 years ago.
Well, let’s get to the speech:
My fellow Americans:
This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We’ve been together 8 years now, and soon it’ll be time for me to go. But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of which I’ve been saving for a long time.
It’s been the honor of my life to be your President. So many of you have written the past few weeks to say thanks, but I could say as much to you. Nancy and I are grateful for the opportunity you gave us to serve.
One of the things about the Presidency is that you’re always somewhat apart. You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car someone else is driving, and seeing the people through tinted glass—the parents holding up a child, and the wave you saw too late and couldn’t return. And so many times I wanted to stop and reach out from behind the glass, and connect. Well, maybe I can do a little of that tonight.
People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The sweet part is California and the ranch and freedom. The sorrow—the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.
—It’s rare that a presidential speech so clearly betrays its writer. It’s very hard to believe that Reagan would ever have found these words, simple and straightforward and yet eloquent—nay poignant—on his own. The writer (whom we assume to be Ken Khachigian, but correct us if we’re wrong) found precisely the words Reagan would want to say, to express his folksy, aw-shucks—yet poetic—persona. It’s almost as if Reagan is parroting his own Reaganness.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.
—This is an astounding paragraph. It’s short and has no complex terms, but it manages to a) personalize the president, whom we can picture looking out the window in the morning; b) compare Reagan to Lincoln by saying both men share great and terrible burdens of leadership; c) favor Reagan over Lincoln, because Reagan can look out over a prosperous nation made so by his own policies, whereas Lincoln presided over the disaster of Bull Run. How things have improved since then! —and all thanks to Reagan.
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one—a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980’s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again—and in a way, we ourselves—rediscovered it.
It’s been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.
—The sentence “It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people” is unwittingly laughable. “Way” back seven years ago is odd, and then for the president to refer to Vietnamese refugees not just as “boat people” (a colloquialism acceptable in private speech but not from the Oval Office), but as “the boat people” is unsettling. It’s too much along the lines of “the Jews”, “the feminists”, “the gays”—a little dehumanizing. And, just for the record, the real height of renewed refugeeism from Vietnam began in 1986, just two years before his January 1989 speech.
Next, the folksiness merges indistinguishably into a corny type of patriotism: of course the American sailor was “hard at work”, and “young, smart, and fiercely observant.” And then suddenly we are all that sailor; we are all beacons of freedom, emblems of liberty, people who stand for something. Now, we at the HP agree that this is what Americans are when we live up to our founding principles. But Reagan makes it clear that his presidency, not those principles, is responsible for this American identity, or really more for the recognition of that leadership role by non-Americans. “In the past few years”—i.e., during his two terms—America has re-established its good standing in the world and Americans have come to believe in their own virtue and purpose again, after… well, after what? What has been preventing us from feeling this way?
The fact is, from Grenada to the Washington and Moscow summits, from the recession of ’81 to ’82, to the expansion that began in late ’82 and continues to this day, we’ve made a difference. The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two things that I’m proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the people of America created—and filled—19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership.
—Okay, the two things that have been keeping us from having pride and a sense of purpose in the world were a bad economy and a loss of morale. The bad economy started in 1981, the year Reagan took office, but the implication of recovery beginning early in his first term is that Reagan inherited the bad economy and quickly fixed it (“we’ve made a difference”). It is startling that he completely elides the Crash of 1987, in which we endured one of the largest and most devastating stock market falls in our history which resulted in $1 trillion in total loss of wealth amongst Americans. It simply did not happen, because “the expansion that began in late ’82 continues to this day”.
Something that happened to me a few years ago reflects some of this. It was back in 1981, and I was attending my first big economic summit, which was held that year in Canada. The meeting place rotates among the member countries. The opening meeting was a formal dinner for the heads of government of the seven industrialized nations. Now, I sat there like the new kid in school and listened, and it was all Francois this and Helmut that. They dropped titles and spoke to one another on a first-name basis. Well, at one point I sort of leaned in and said, “My name’s Ron.” Well, in that same year, we began the actions we felt would ignite an economic comeback—cut taxes and regulation, started to cut spending. And soon the recovery began.
Two years later, another economic summit with pretty much the same cast. At the big opening meeting we all got together, and all of a sudden, just for a moment, I saw that everyone was just sitting there looking at me. And then one of them broke the silence. “Tell us about the American miracle,” he said.
—One’s jaw is left on the floor after this anecdote. Let’s go through it: the president of the United States, a founding nation of the G7, was completely unrecognized at the 1981 G7 meeting in Ottawa. No one spoke to the president of the United States. He had to sit quietly like “the new kid in school” and had no role to play in the summit. Somehow, Reagan (and his speechwriter) believe that we will believe this.
Then Reagan segues to some good old-fashioned American chauvinism: not only are the big bullies at the summit foreigners, but they are French, with wimpy names like Francois, and German, with aggressive yet laughable names like Helmut. The leaders referred to are of course Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. “They dropped titles”—classic foreigners. Snobby representatives of the nobility, and totally contrasted with Reagan, who represented the class-free, all-equal U.S. Somehow, it’s also upsetting that two world leaders who meet often would call each other by their first names; the implication is that Reagan, the president of the U.S., does not know the attendees at the G7 and therefore can’t join in their conversation. But finally, Reagan gets bold and just like the U.S. in the 20th century, asserts himself with the Europeans and becomes their leader. He gives his simple, wholesome, free-of-monarchical-taint, good American name—Ron—and forces his way into the group. His economic plan sparked the massive U.S. recovery and when the world leaders met again, “everyone was just sitting there looking at me”. The Cinderella transformation is complete! Now all those snobby foreigners want to hear about “the American Miracle.”
This is so clearly a bit of fantasy that one wonders, quite seriously, whether Reagan really believed it himself. It’s possible that that is how he perceived it by January 1989, because it fits into his personal mythos so well.
We’ll break here, and come back next time with Reagan’s description of his economic miracle.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )
Hello and welcome to the final post in our series on the Watergate Crisis, in which we ask the depressing question, Why have Americans forgotten about Watergate? This series has only given an outline of the terrible challenge to our democracy posed by President Nixon’s actions, and those of his top advisors. Their attempt to put the executive branch above the law and create an imperial presidency, if successful, would have allowed the president, any president, to commit any crime s/he felt was necessary to achieve her/his goals. Whether or not the president’s goals were good ones would be immaterial.
The American public’s response to this attempted hostile takeover was spectacular. They rose up almost as one to protest. Network news, newspapers large and small, and the man on the street all knew that the Constitution was being violated and they all refused to sit back and accept that. Nixon was out of office once his criminal activities and determination were clear. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The reaction was so swift and complete, and Nixon out so quickly (and immediately pardoned by Gerald Ford, so there was no long criminal trial after his resignation), and Americans so eager to leave the sordid episode behind them, that Watergate was collectively buried. More Americans today know about George Washington’s alleged infidelity (a complete lie, by the way) or Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality (don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely) than the actual, open, undeniable crimes committed by Richard Nixon.
But we think the amnesia surrounding Watergate is caused by something far worse than a quick burial. One of the long-term effects of the crisis was a deep mistrust of the federal government. This is so inexplicable. Representatives of the federal government, notably the Watergate special prosecutor Cox, Attorneys General Richardson and Ruckelshaus, the Supreme Court, and all the members of the Senate Watergate Committee heroically resisted efforts to corrupt them. It was men within the president’s inner circle who committed and/or ordered the crimes, not the machinery of the federal government. The federal government rejected the attempt to transgress the Constitution, and the next two presidents after Nixon, Ford and Carter, made strenuous efforts to restore the dignity and honor of the executive branch. Yet somehow, over the 1980s, the message of Watergate became “You can’t trust the government.”
Perhaps the controversial/criminal actions of the Reagan Administration, coming so soon after Nixon’s, became merged with Nixon in the public mind, and led people to believe that the government had not been trustworthy since Kennedy.
Or maybe the steady decrease in civics education from the 1970s on created new generations of Americans who have no idea why Nixon’s actions were criminal.
Or maybe the imperial actions of President George W. Bush, and over a decade of invasion of privacy and other constitutional violations, notably by the Patriot Act, have made Americans forget that the president is not supposed to govern by executive order.
Whatever the reason, it’s bad news to forget about Watergate—what it threatened, who stood up to it, and how the Constitution and good government triumphed. If we begin to believe as a nation that we have “never” had good government, that “all” presidents are corrupt, or that the president is “supposed to” rule the nation like a king, then Nixon wins, corruption wins, and it’s as if Bill Ruckelshaus never stood up to the power of the president who told him he had “no choice but to obey” and said, “I have a choice—I can resign.” We all have the choice to refuse to obey when our Constitution is threatened, whether it’s by the federal government, or by our own ignorance.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )