He Wasn‘t a Crook, Just a Bad Actor

GREG HELLER-LaBELLE
Pitt News Editor In Chief
University of Pittsburgh

I was a Reagan baby, just like most of my undergraduate colleagues. I was too young to remember Grenada, old enough to catch the last half of Iran-Contra and still remember vividly the president’s call to tear down the Berlin Wall. None of what I do remember, however, came sans parental commentary.

Growing up in my house, Reagan was a dirty word, a synonym for all the things about government of which I should be ashamed. He was glib, a fake politician who couldn’t hack it as a real actor, a proponent of goals that helped the people he liked and left the rest for dead. Worst of all, he cut taxes. Well, the worst was something else, but he cut a lot of taxes.

As with all things, time has worn that bright hatred to a duller sheen, and I’m anxiously awaiting a time, in my wildest liberal dreams, when my parents and Fox News anchors can stop writing one-sided eulogies, and get around to actually evaluating Reagan as a president, and not just a public myth.

Like I said, it’s in my dreams.

Reagan, like Kennedy before him, seems destined to remain more of a legend than a reality. In Kennedy’s case, we use his lack of time to justify our acceptance of the legend, because no one could be expected to do anything in three short years. In Reagan’s case, we have many excuses: the Cold War, which occupied so much of his time; the terrible economy he inherited from Jimmy Carter; the sad end we had to watch him and his family suffer through.

That used to bother me about Kennedy, and it used to bother me about Reagan, but both are reminders that sometimes the job one does is less important than how one does the job. Kennedy made it OK to be smart and younger than people expected, to be a Catholic from New England and still care about the whole country, to be a white man who cared about the black people he never actually helped.

Reagan made it OK to be older and more responsible than people expected, to be a Westerner and a politician at the same time ’ though neither by birth — to be a rich man who cared about the poor people whose standard of living was dropping every day.

The wonder of a president who’s more symbol than reality is that everyone gets to make him a symbol of tremendous personal importance. My Reagan is different from that of my parents, that of our current president — who fancies himself the Great Communicator’s second coming — and that of all of the Democrats of Western Pennsylvania, who voted for the man regardless of the effect his policies had on their employment status.

Reagan, for me, will always be a shining example of how great numbers of people can swallow the thought of ends justifying terrible means. He’ll also be a reminder of our country’s strange Freudian desire to have a father figure in times of war, even when we could really use someone who knows something about economics.

Most of all, he’ll continue to be a man whose legacy, for all its billing as one of communication and unity, was more about destruction than anything else. Even in his greatest moments, Reagan was more about tearing down than building up. There’s a national debt joke to be made there, but you can insert your own; I’m just not feeling up to it right now.

We give him credit for winning the Cold War — for some reason, we don’t share that credit with Truman or anyone after him — because his continued containment, tough talk and surrogate violence in other nations led to the breaking apart of the Soviet Union, and the aftershock entropy there still hasn’t stopped.

I’ve always wanted to ask someone in Serbia about who won the Cold War. Again, in my wildest liberal dreams, that sad Serbian answers me in perfectly accented English: “I don’t know, but I can tell you who lost.”

All of which is part of the game, and Reagan handled most of it about as well as anybody would have, or at least as well as he could have. Certainly, handling the country during the 1980s was a rough job, and the decisions he had to make are as unenviable as the positions of the people they affected.

But it was one decision that dominates my feelings about Reagan and, like so many shames in history, it was less the making of a decision than the lack of one that is the worst of all.

Around the time the Centers for Disease Control started noticing a “gay cancer” afflicting homosexual populations, my father was working in an emergency room in a largely gay area of San Francisco. He started to see patients with strange diseases, diseases no one should have. They didn’t, most of the time, live very long.

In the next six years, the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and the surgeon general would all weigh in on the worst epidemic of the generation. There would be thousands of reports, the diagnosis of HIV by a French (and, one year later, an American) laboratory, and a giant quilt started in San Francisco to commemorate the mounting death toll.

My cousin Stephen would join my father’s patients and about 40,000 other people who were dead before Ronald Reagan ever said the word “AIDS” in public.

Greg Heller-LaBelle is the editor in chief of The Pitt News. E-mail him at [email protected]