Sunday, June 06, 2004

Ronald Reagan, Norman Rockwell Devotee.....Sort Of

Ronald Reagan was governor of California during my tenure as a UCLA undergradute. Admittedly, those were not friendly times on most college campuses for conservative politicians. Reagan was not a friend of University of California, though, or anything it stood for. I've never been able to muster up much admiration for the man.

He was a trained actor who developed a passion for conservative politics. He was comfortable on TV, of course, and had decades of experience using the media to build his career. He knew how to deliver lines when they meant nothing to him and he knew how to make his audience feel good. That's the definition of acting.

By all accounts, he was fairly egoless and had a pleasant, easygoing temperament. He was not affectionate, though, and had zero compassion for those less fortunate than him. He was never close to his children. He and Nancy shared an uncommonly close love, bound together by a need for security and comfort born of insecure childhoods. They created their own tiny universe.

His vision of America was straight out of early Norman Rockwell art, with young dating couples and boys fishing and small town doctors. Rockwell's early Saturday Evening Post covers perfectly captured the atmosphere of Reagan's cherished youth in rural Illinois. After the turbulent 1960s and 70s, we longed nostalgically for those times, and we wanted to believe Mr. Reagan that innocent times could return to America. He made us feel good again.

HIs vision of America was not the one captured in later Rockwell art, with forlorn, praying ethnic faces in "The Golden Rule" or the black schoolgirl surrounded by US marshalls in "The Problem We All Live With."

He was notoriously detached from detail, and intellectually incurious. He rarely read books, and took a nap most afternoons, even as President. As a UCLA student, I remember that university education was a low priority on his political agenda. He successfully pushed the first tuition fees for the UC and CSU systems. He fired UC President Clark Kerr, who refused to use violent force to quell legally-held student protests. Reagan attempted to bar several professorial appointments, because their views differed from his. He just didn't comprehend the role of a public university in a democratic society.

What bothered me most about Ronald Reagan, American political leader, was his shallowness in dealing with many issues. If it wasn't his passion, it didn't exist in his world. And he had few passions. For instance, the down and out were not of concern to Mr. Reagan. According to the LA Times, families living below the poverty line increased by 1/3 under Reagan economic policies. He radically cut federal funds for medical care for the poor. He simply turned thousands of mental patients out into the streets with his budget cuts. He refused funding for the fledging disease AIDS, when a small amount of funding could have inhibited its expansion.

He said in 1984 on the TV show Good Morning America, "You can't help those who simply will not be helped. One problem that we've had, even in the best of times, is people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice." Again in 1988 when campaigning for reelection as President, he said of his opponent, "You know, if I listened to him long enough, I would be convinced that people are homeless, and people are going without food and medical attention, and that we've got to do something about the unemployed."

President Reagan was an affable man with a genial smile, a gracefully humble sense of humor, and a love of jelly beans, shoot-em-up Western movies and his Nancy. He demonstrated an unyielding commitment to defeating Communism. He was the right, uncomplicated man at the right time to accelerate the end of the Cold War.

But unlike Norman Rockwell, he had no heart.

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