Progressive Writers Bloc

Reagan as Magician:
The Pre-Presidential Years

By Uncle Bill Warner

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Remember that subversive populist allegory which gave us so many political insights and also the number one popular song of all time, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow?" Remember "The Great Oz" who was in reality just a con-man controlling his image from behind a curtain that screened him from public view, so people saw only the face projected on the wall enhanced by smoke and mirrors? Actors and politicians, some think, can hoodwink the public and, like magicians whose stock in trade is deception, divert people' s attention and sell then a fake reality. Well, amidst the present orgy of adulation surrounding the passing of our 40th president, it is becoming more and more clear that Reagan's strength came from being all three: actor, politician, and magician.

Maybe you are old enough to remember the manufactured fears following World War II which kept America scared enough of the "commies" to do all sorts of things like blacklisting Hollywood writers, like Yip Harburg who wrote "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", the most popular song of all time in America, and convincing people that supporting a huge armaments industry with their taxes was necessary to our safety. Ronald Reagan, then President of the Screen Actors Guild, in 1947 testified before the "House Un-American Activities Committee- HUAC, against his "left-leaning" colleagues in Hollywood which helped over 300 of them find themselves out of jobs. The myths THEY were creating were myths of the people (populism), Many among the rich and powerful in this country, the ones who buy and sell Congressmen, approved and applauded Reagan's testimony. These people could not stand to have anyone else selling a populist version of progressive reality to the public.

I really became aware of Ronald Reagan when he got elected governor of California. The first thing I, as a teacher, was aware of, was his 10% cut in the education budget, which was part of his across-the-board cut for all services provided by the state including health clinics, and other programs for the benefit of the poor and defenseless. None of his policies that I know of were aimed at the abuses of wealth. Instead it seemed like all his "reforms" were affecting those with the least political power, such as school kids, welfare recipients, and minorities.

He publicly flogged the idea that he was for cutting taxes and reducing government. That was the image. A peek behind the curtain reveals a state budget that soared from 400 billion a year to 800 billion a year during his governorship! There were thousands of new employees on the state payroll by the end of his term. A magician says one thing as a diversion, and does another. Yet many people, ignoring the facts, bought the rhetoric, and still cite his "cutting taxes and reducing the size of government" among his accomplishments!

One of his favorite answers to the problem of unemployment was to cite "all the jobs listed in the Los Angeles Times classifieds." He pointed out that with so much work available, anyone who wanted to work, could find it. Many Californians bought into that view without ever really thinking that the number of jobs were not all that impressive given that the L.A. area had over seven million people at the time, and that almost all of the jobs were looking for people such as "Systems Analyst with five years experience" or similar. The reality of joblessness was dismissed as easily as a magician makes a rabbit disappear. Reagan was the consummate magician.

I became even more aware of his presence the year I, a poor teacher, paid more in income taxes than the millionaire Governor, who paid nothing at all due to tax loopholes. Suddenly the star of "Brother Rat" and "Bedtime for Bonzo" was not just someone I could turn off on the TV. He was shifting the tax burden downward to me! In his anti-tax campaign, he stated that "taxes should hurt," meaning that people should be painfully aware of the taxes they had to pay so they would oppose them. Well, paying more than he did hurt, all right!

He defended his policy of higher college tuitions, citing figures that showed that college enhanced lifetime earnings, so therefore they would appreciate their education more if they had to work bussing tables to pay their way through. The fact that a tired student is not at his/her best escaped him, as did the idea that these people were going to someday serve society and not just themselves.

Who can forget Reagan's disastrous environmental policies, based on ignorance and faulty data? He blamed over 90% of our air pollution on trees. His opening up of California to despoliation is legend. Environmentalists still groan about his comment in reference to logging Northern California redwoods, "A tree is a tree, how many do you have to see?". His idea was just to leave enough trees by the roadsides for people driving through to enjoy, despite the fact that without the "back up" forest, these trees would not be able to sustain themselves.

Then I remember the year when Governor Reagan started closing the mental hospitals in California, and we suddenly had a lot of crazy homeless people on the streets. One of these released mental patients, Herb Mullin, murdered 13 people in Santa Cruz. The foreman of the jury that found Mullin guilty blamed the deaths on Reagan. Mullin's poor parents could not afford the $100 a day it would have cost to keep him in a "privatized" hospital. When I first came to California the homeless problem was but a fraction of what it is today, and though I do not blame Reagan for all of it, there was certainly a dramatic increase when he closed the state hospitals and turned loose a lot of people who could not make it on the outside.

The Mullin story is an example of an anecdote. Admitedly it is an extreme example, but it is a true incident and it underlines the reality which is born out by statistics. Reagan, however, never hesitated to use mythical anecdotes as "evidence" for his altered reality, completely at odds with statistics. The crowning example was his image of a "welfare queen" driving her Cadillac to pick up her public assistance check. For Reagan, the plural of "anecdote" was "data." Divert people's attention to an image and away from the reality of the situation. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

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