A different gipper from this side

They took note in the mainstream media a few days ago of the 25th anniversary of what was trumpeted as an iconic utterance from President Ronald Reagan, his exhortation to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with reference to the infamous Berlin Wall: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” If one were to judge from the reporting of mainstream media types, remembrance of Reagan’s celebrated words, and their significance in the unfolding of history, comes across as something straight out of the propaganda mill of any outfit dedicated to the ex-president’s continuing adulation. The wrong-headed inference is that upon Reagan’s warning or demand or whatever it was, the Soviets hopped to it and down came the wall.

Reagan, the actor, could be counted on to give full dramatic flair to delivering any such loaded lines, and his performance with the Wall speech was no exception. But it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that, dramatic flourish and all, Reagan’s call for action was the cue for ready compliance by Gorbachev and the Soviets. Gorbachev, to his credit, recognized during his “glasnost” and “perestroika” stint at the helm that the time had come for modification of the super-militarized state on which his predecessors had insisted. With or without Reagan’s blast, a Berlin Wall was probably hardly likely to endure in Gorbachev’s vision. Bill Clinton, after he became president, apparently sought Reagan’s ear on occasion. While running in 1992, though, against Reagan’s former vice president, George H.W. Bush, Clinton had a rather dismissive retort when the other side tried to take credit for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration taking such credit, Clinton noted, “was like the rooster claiming credit for the dawn.”

The big noise over the Reagan pronouncement 25 years ago also underscores the existing divide between people of color and the rest in the perception of Reagan as president. If Black America is not as inclined as others to join in the lionizing of Reagan, no one ought be surprised. Here’s a guy who, in debating Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign, made the outrageous comment that he had never been aware of racial prejudice in this country. Even more astonishingly, there was hardly a peep heard from mainstream media following such a colossal hoof-in-mouth episode. Carter seemed overwhelmed by the office in his one term, and the fiasco in the desert that became the Iranian hostage rescue attempt was perhaps the perfect caption for the Carter image of overall weakness. That Reagan could coast to a landslide victory even after making such a ludicrous remark about the history of race relations in the country, spoke volumes, in the process not exactly inspiring confidence about African American-related issues being part of a national agenda in the age of Reagan.

Reagan toed the line on the by then established formula of an obligatory black face in the cabinet, with the inclusion of “silent” Samuel Pierce as secretary of housing in both his terms. Presumably Reagan became a bit more aware of the solitary African American cabinet presence as time wore on. But it didn’t say much for the president’s familiarity with the housing secretary, that early in the Reagan tenure Pierce was once addressed by his boss as, “Mr. Mayor.”

The vestiges of Reagan’s earlier role as a union man, in a manner of speaking, when he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, seemed well behind him by the time he got into the White House, given the anti-union, hardball front he presented in his confrontation with the air traffic controllers. Subsequently, the administration’s “bad dude” demeanor toward the union community telegraphed a message to African Americans that was anything but positive, the union collective providing urban blacks, particularly, with a source of empowerment that has been difficult to find elsewhere in the society.

Symbolically, though, the conduct from Reagan that probably stands as the most egregious “diss” to people of color was the rigid opposition he posed to the naming of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. Reagan signed the enabling legislation only after it became clear that had he vetoed it, there were votes enough for an override. It is one of the great anomalies of American history that Reagan’s signature is the one affixed to the bill that commands national observance of the King birthday in January. But what does it say of Reagan (who was routinely said by all, blacks included, to be the absolute charmer in personal encounters), that he clearly found no merit to honoring the martyred civil rights icon in this fashion? One harks back to that incredulous debate show-stopper about prejudice.

And, more importantly, what does it say of the legions who, if they had their druthers, would have Reagan forthwith installed as a Mt. Rushmore addition. The conservative element fawned over Reagan then and idolizes his legacy today because he dared to bring a take-no-prisoners swagger to his role on both the foreign and domestic fronts. Never mind that domestically, for instance, we are yet to see any proof of viability of the vaunted “trickle down” economics espoused by Reagan and company.

They will no doubt long continue, on the right, to throw up Reagan as embodying everything to be desired in the quintessential leader. There are abundant reasons for a vastly different take on him from this side.