Home / General / Two Parties, Distilled To Their Essences

Two Parties, Distilled To Their Essences


Ah, Saint Ronnie (with an assist from everybody’s favorite genteel segregationist, William F. Buckley Jr.):

Brack Obama displayed inspiring leadership on Friday. He also promoted public health, fought bigotry, and helped calm raging paranoia. His heroic act? He hugged somebody.

Nina Pham, the first person to be infected with Ebola within the United States, had just been declared disease-free and discharged from the National Institutes of Health. Obama is a rational, science-friendly guy, so he knew she wasn’t any danger to him. It didn’t take courage to hug her.

And yet, another modern president failed a similar test. Facing the greatest public health crisis of his administration, Ronald Reagan was not heroic. He was a dithering coward.

The hateful, homophobic, racist response to the AIDS crisis is one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history. Within a few years after the first AIDS cases were reported in 1981, scientists knew the disease was transmitted primarily by sex, blood transfusions, and shared needles.

That knowledge didn’t stop the prejudice and fear mongering. HIV-positive people were fired from their jobs, forbidden from entering the country, kicked out of the military. Jerry Falwell claimed AIDS was “God’s punishment not just for homosexuals” but for a “society that tolerates homosexuals.” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in a widely syndicated column that people diagnosed with AIDS should have that fact tattooed on their buttocks. Schools refused to enroll children with HIV. When a judge ordered a Florida school to admit young brothers Ricky, Randy, and Robert Ray, their neighbors burned their house down.


But Ronald Reagan? He didn’t do a goddamn thing. He was president when the first cases were reported. He was president when Congress, the National Academies of Science, and anybody with a sick loved one or a conscience called for the federal government to do more to fight the medical and social crisis. He let his reprehensible press secretary Larry Speakes, Reagan’s face to the media, repeatedly joke about AIDS.

Read the whole etc.

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  • Too bad I can’t punch the actual Ronald Reagan now. I really would enjoy punching him, because he was a reprehensible character who deserved to be punched.

    • DrDick

      You can still piss on his grave, however, and I heartily encourage you to do so.

  • j_kay

    I know, let’s set our house zombie on Reagan. But, wait he was WAY too brainless. poor Zombie Macdonald would starve, aww…. It’s no good, sigh.

    • weirdnoise

      Reagan’s senescence was pretty obvious even during his first term. Frankly, I never had the feeling that he was much in control of things, but rather was easily led by whatever emotional appeal his handlers would make to him — which he then would obediently project to the public.

      • CP

        Why I’m looking forward to reading Perlstein – not just The Invisible Bridge, but the book on Reagan’s actual presidency that I imagine will eventually come (TIB was just his rise to power, right?) I don’t so much want to know about the empty suit, as his administration and who was really deciding what.

  • Thlayli

    Pedantic note:

    That’s “reprehensible acting press secretary Larry Speakes”. James Brady retained his official position for the entirety of the Reagan administration.

    Probably the only admirable thing they did.

    • joe from Lowell

      Shallow note:

      Larry Speakes was the greatest Press Secretary name of all time, until the appointment of Josh Earnest, which sounds like the name they would give a press secretary on Word Girl.

      • Malaclypse

        I was always fond of terHorst, both for the name, and for resigning over the Nixon pardon.

  • Dithering coward is far too kind, and I think wrong. A dithering coward might have remained silent out of fear of poor public opinion.

    RR was a proud bigot who did not give a shit because he saw AIDS as dandy disease that got rid of undesirables. So, tie the Surgeon General’s hands, talk about it. Let the press secretary make jokes about it. Smile and nod while your besties in the Moral Majority shriek about Gawd’s Judgmint.

    But, he was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease so it’s nasty and mean to judge him for something that happened 20+ years before his death.

    • I think it’s fair to say that he was in the early stages of Alzheimers and a vile shitweasel.

      • Aimai

        Right. Would younger race baiting, sexist, union busting, red baiting, homophobic, divisive, selfish, Reagan done any better?

        • rea

          And the frustrating thing about Reagan–as soon as one of his good friends turned out to be a gay man with AIDS (Rock Hudson), Ronnie began to do something.

          • Aimai

            “Turned out” to be a gay man? Its not like Reagan wouldn’t have known plenty of more or less out gays in Hollywood.

            • jim, some guy in iowa

              those were *different* kinds of gays, though, in reagan’s mind, than the ones who suffered from aids. once it happened to someone he knew *then* it became more than just a joke or something to fear and loathe. we’ve seen that kind of turnabout fairly often in the last couple of years regarding gay marriage. i dunno. it seems to me a primary difference between liberals and conservatives is the latter’s disinterest in even trying to put themselves in someone else’s shoes- especially someone maybe less socially “acceptable” to other conservatives

      • He’d be pushing the record for living with the disease, wouldn’t he?

        But to be slightly serious for a moment, I don’t get why people seem to bring it up whenever he’s mentioned. I don’t see ignoring AIDS or shitting on the poor or being a racist douchebag or spooning with the Moral Majority as being uncharacteristically Reagan or Republican. But maybe people who remember his stint as governor have a different view of the man.

        But if the thought is he had it but it wasn’t yet impacting his cognitive function or personality, why bring it up?

        And if the thought is he had it pretty much when he was first elected and it was impacting his behavior (making him into an asshole) then it seems you have to do a lot of scrambling to explain how he had the disease and it was progressing but it did so so slowly that he was able to hide it for two terms and the USSR never caught wind of it or they did but didn’t mention it out of politeness (Ha ha aha ha haa)… It’s a lot easier to say “This man was a bad human being and a worse president.”

        • Clinicians I know are happy to point out prodromal signs of cognitive deterioration from footage from Reagan’s first term. Alzheimers comes in several forms, some faster progressing, some slower.
          I’m saying that Americans elected as president someone who was a career shitbird and whose brain was turning to spam.

          the USSR never caught wind of it or they did but didn’t mention it out of politeness
          Did the US make much of a fuss about Brezhnev’s deterioration?

          • Clinicians I know are happy to point out prodromal signs of cognitive deterioration from footage from Reagan’s first term.

            I’ll assume this is different than Fristing. But do all of the clinicians agree that he exhibits pre-symptomatic behaviors?

            • Schadenboner

              It’s different primarily because this is retroactive. We know how the story ends, we’re just reading back to find the hints.

              Fristing is not.

        • Warren Terra

          There’s a famous story about Reagan, at the time the US was intervening in the Lebanese Civil War (so, first term) receiving the Lebanese Foreign Minister (or ambassador?) in the Oval office. The distinguished visitor explained at great length and in great detail the origins and nature of the ongoing religious, sectarian, and ethnic conflicts that were bringing tragedy on the nation he represented, talking for a very long time to Reagan’s apparent rapt attention. When he had finished his discourse, he waited for a response from the most powerful man in the capitalist world. Reagan said: “You know, your nose looks just like Danny Thomas’s”.

          This was the man: whether moronic or tragically debilitated I do not know nor care, but whatever the cause incredibly shallow and dim, and frequently lost in reveries of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s.

          • Mike G

            There are plenty of those stories around.
            In former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s autobiography he recalls a meeting with Reagan at the White House. Hawke asked Reagan a general question about nuclear disarmament, Reagan riffed through a stack of 3×5 cards in his hand, recited a canned answer and smiled expectantly. Next question, he flipped through the cards again and read from them. The entire meeting was nothing but a few pleasantries and Reagan reading from cards.

            It’s disgusting that Repukes have made a saint of out this dimwitted, easily manipulated cardboard-cutout. But he typifies their core values of shallowness, style over substance and being an adept con artist.

            • Tehanu

              Guv Raygun’s signature is on both my UCLA diplomas (B.A. and M.L.S.) — bad timing on my part; if only I’d been born sooner or later. I thought I hated him then, but that was before he opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, ratcheted up his moral blindness at Bitburg, took the solar panels off the White House, and connived with the ayatollahs — not to mention Iran-Contra and (getting back on topic) the AIDS epidemic. There’s not one single thing he ever did that I consider worthwhile or valuable … and he still looks better than the clowns the Greedy Old Pricks are lining up behind today.

  • rea

    Ronnie was pretty contemptible, but our current politicians (including one claiming a “D”) are just as capable of combining brutality, ignorance, and publicity seeking,


    • Ah yes, the similarities are so obvious.

      What’s the Latin for “Both sides do it”?

      This quote is gold, though:

      Ah, Cuomo and Christie, the Abbot and Costello of profoundly cynical, opportunistic and meanspirited political hackery.

      • Aimai

        The judges will accept Hekyl and Jekyl as well.

        • Malaclypse

          Statler and Waldorf are also acceptable alternatives.

    • TopsyJane

      Ronnie was pretty contemptible, but our current politicians (including one claiming a “D”) are just as capable of combining brutality, ignorance, and publicity seeking,

      Not to mention those Democrats on the campaign trail calling for more stringent measures. Admittedly, they’re running scared, but they’re also not helping. None of this bodes well for what might happen should a real epidemic threat arise in this country.

      I’d like to think that a generic Democratic president would have been better on AIDS and in an overall sense he probably would have been. At least a Democratic administration would not have behaved as criminally. I also think a less conservative Republican of that era might have acted better.

      In fairness a Republican administration of today wouldn’t get away with it, if only because gays are a much more powerful and organized political force now — thanks in large part, of course, to the radicalizing effect of the AIDS crisis.

      I saw the old HBO movie “And the Band Played On” recently, and coincidentally it opens with a scene depicting the early Ebola crisis in the 70s and drawing the parallel with AIDS. (The movie also contains, helpfully, generous footage of Reagan administration officials to remind of you afresh of exactly how vile they were.)

      Back then Ebola never got out of the jungle, but there was a lot more rain forest back then to get out of.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    Hmmm, but I could swear that I’ve been told here many times that the bully pulpit was a myth and that it’s all but impossible for the president to change public attitudes on policy issues….

    • Aimai

      No– the bully pulpit argument has nothing to do with the attitude of the public but rather with the intentions and goals of politicians–a select, cynical, professional, group whose courses and goals are not susceptible to sentimental manipulation.

    • Malaclypse

      Did Obama stop morons from freaking out over Ebola? Or did he just do the right thing?

    • rea

      As has been explained here about a zillion times, nobody claims that the president can’t influence public opinion on the broad issues of the day, but the problem is, that’s not an effective tool to get particular bills through Congress

    • What does this have to do with this post?

      Regardless of the overall efficacy (and you should take rea’s point!), the fact is that Obama is better on public health than Reagan was (Reagan was outright scum on AIDS).

      In any case, a good deal of the literature on bully pulpit failure points out that change is quite possible, but net change in the desired direction (without loads of other factors) fails due to e.g., countermobilization and polarisation. I don’t see how that’s different here.

    • Halloween Jack

      You’re confusing the bully pulpit with the Green Lantern ring, as so many do. Hint: one does not actually exist.

      • Lee Rudolph

        If the Green Lantern itself exists, there are plenty of rings floating about and surely any one of them could be charged, if someone really, really tried to do it!

    • joe from Lowell

      Evidence of Obama’s action changing either public opinion or the position of government officials would be a welcome addition to your comment.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I could swear that I’ve been told here many times that the bully pulpit was a myth and that it’s all but impossible for the president to change public attitudes on policy issues….

      [Cites where I said that Obama or Reagan affected public opinion on these issues omitted.]

      • Joe_JP

        besides, saying one of them “affected” public opinion as compared to green lantern major change in policy is not the same thing … both DID “affect” public opinion in some significant ways, probably

  • Joe_JP

    The doctors and nurses who put themselves at risk to minister to the sick to me should be the sort of people blessed by the self-professed Christians [cited since Reagan et. al. were/are so into that sort of thing] in this country. Hypocrisy is nothing new, I realize.

  • paleotectonics

    Was Reagan even conscious of what was going on during his second inauguration? I’ve read a handful of things, hardly definitive or even necessarily clinical, in both directions. IOW, who the hell knows*.
    But, it doesn’t actually matter.

    He was a pathetic excuse for a human being. Nothing he did in office was good. The conclusion, then, is that when he was conscious, he was a horrible person. When he wasn’t conscious, he did what he was directed to do by horrible people.

    His grave needs to be dug up, salted and burned.

    *(The reason I mention the second inauguration – The best article I read, seemed as legit as I could figure, so large salt grains plz, really questioned his presence at that inauguration. As mentioned above, everything said in this regard is monday-morning quarterbacking, but I’d like to find that again.)

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