In 1980, Ronald Reagan had been preparing to become President, a role he had cherished, for at least ten years. He wanted it more than his acting career. Reagan had stumbled into acting. He had the two essential requirements, for a motion picture actor of his early days… a pleasing face and a distinctive voice. He burst out of the pack of young actors with a “boyish charm” that was as distinctive as if “Andy Hardy” had finally grown up. He never got the girl, but in real life, he got a pretty good paycheck and an interesting mate in a serious actress by the name of Jane Wyman.
He had a good run at acting at a time when not many people were making much of a living at anything, acting in over 50 feature films, not all memorable but still a highly visible Hollywood star. He volunteered for the military in WWII and followed orders to do what he was told, which was to make films that helped motivate Americans to work hard to win. After the war, he made more movies, but as he aged, he found that boyish charm doesn’t pay as well as when you stop being a boy and had to carry a movie on your own to get the big paydays. He wasn’t a character actor nor was his name a big “box office” draw. Movies were becoming more serious and he wasn’t, generally speaking, a serious actor.
But he had a couple of things going for him. He was a well-known brand, and he was true to his brand. That is, his personality was what he portrayed on the screen. He was a charming guy, and most people think…even his political enemies…that he was a guy who was reasonably honest with himself and with others. But, like everyone else, he had to make a living.
At that time, with the luck of the Irish and the help of a new and totally devoted (and very Conservative) wife, along came television. Television had the unique property of raising up actors as television stars and then losing many of them to motion pictures—to Hollywood on the other side of the country. In acting terms, it might as well have been the other side of the planet.
Many actors used television as a training ground for their acting careers in films. People like James Garner, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen and numerous others gained enough skill or visibility on television to allow their agents to sell their talent to the motion picture industry. Some made it and some didn’t, but in those early days of television, an actor could switch from television to films and it was a step up. On the other hand, going from films to television was considered going from the major to the minor leagues.
Reagan, who had already been elected as head of the Screen Actors Guild, was one of the few who went the other way…from film to television…and did so successfully. But it wasn’t done on his acting ability. General Electric, considered one of the most politically conservative companies of that era, hired Reagan not to act, but to introduce their weekly, hour-long, largely western themed television dramas and to be spokesman for the company.
Reagan may have faced a dilemma. This was a wonderful opportunity for a former movie star who had been reduced to appearing at the Last Frontier hotel in Las Vegas as emcee of an act that including performing chimps. But, even though he began to move to the right with the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, he was still a man who had been a strong and very public Liberal Democrat. During the period after 1954 when he became the spokesman for General Electric’s “GE Theater,” Reagan may have begun to believe in the content of all those speeches he was making for General Electric.
General Electric was no different from any other big corporation except that they had vast resources coming from a broad line of both industrial and consumer products associated with electricity. Thomas Edison had formed the company in 1890 and it had grown in all areas of electricity from turbines to consumer appliances from that date. As the world electrified, in lighting and industry and transportation and consumer products, General Electric became one of the leading companies in the world. With a solid base of funding from electricity itself, it could reach out into many other areas, as it continues to do today, as the world’s largest corporation, with over 300,000 employees.
As a company with ties to what is not only a basic service but what has become a public need, offering so many services and reaching into the lives of every American, it is no wonder that GE became independent and conservative. It is no surprising that they would take umbrage at government regulation and what they might feel is interference in their operations. After all, they provided an excellent service and they operated by market rules. Government, in the case of a company of GE’s size, was less of a help and more of a hindrance. As they saw it, they needed security and transportation systems. Otherwise, they felt…simply stay out of our way.
By the time they met Ronald Reagan, they had been in business for a shorter period than we have had jet aircraft today. When Ronald Reagan acted in his first movie, not all parts of the United States even had electricity. The conjuncture of these two forces, the industrial power of GE and the communications skills of Ronald Reagan would kick off one of the most successful political careers in American history. And they would cause more damage to the United States than even the Great Depression.
What Reagan began to believe…and not just because his paycheck depended upon it….he was already rich through some reciprocal land deals developed by his former agent, Lew Wasserman…was that government should simply get out of the way and let citizens fend for themselves. His conflicts gradually changed from what corporate America can do to harm the worker to what big government can do to harm the corporation, and therefore the worker.
He saw the obvious…that corporations make the world go around, especially in creating jobs. Particularly in those days before he became President and set in motion, false economic philosophies that have been carried to extremes to gut the American workforce, create price as the only measure of a product and make work a commodity subject to the lowest bid.
On social matters, he was less persuaded that an iron policy was right. But he did not want to expand government services further. He was against Medicare and welfare. He thought that we coddled mental patients and often restricted their movement and ordered that some be set free. He believed that government was too big and taxes too high and America was not safe from Communist expansion.
He cut taxes by 50% at the top level but did not cut government. He expanded the military by a factor of four, making General Electric and Bechtel Corporation, his supporters, very happy and even richer than they already were. On the other hand, by the end of his second term he had made American citizens poorer by $2.14 trillion. He set into motion a budget policy that hid from the American people the fact that every year we were becoming poorer by about $500 billion.
It seemed so easy. Despite the fact that we had an average of 7.5 percent unemployment during his two terms, people felt better. More of their money was going into their pockets, just as he had sought. It became the fiscal policy of the Republican Party to have low income taxes, yet continue to expand government. It will all take care of itself, the Republicans said.
Here’s how it will work, they said. Lower taxes will mean more money to put to work in the economy which will mean more jobs which will mean more taxes which will pay back the cost of lowering taxes. Americans will get some more money in their pockets. The average maybe a thousand dollars. Not bad. The rich, well, the rich went from 70% of their income in taxes to 28% in taxes. So for the rich, it was a windfall. Still, it was not a bad theory. Sounded good. That is, it might work in a movie. Or a science fiction thriller.
But it was not so thrilling as the deficit grew to $5 trillion by the time Clinton walked through the White House door or could only be maintained at $5.16 trillion by the time George W. Bush came into office. By then, every man woman and child in the United States had been appropriated a debt of about $23,000 and it would climb.
Ah yes, then came George W. Bush and the roof caved in. With the House and Senate and Presidency in Republican hands, spending suddenly became important. And rather than working to decrease pharmaceutical prices, the Right Wing, over all Democratic votes in the House and some Republican votes, passed Par D to the Medicare program. That added a huge amount to the debt of every American and did very little to help senior citizens with drug bills because, as they got subsidies, the pharmaceutical companies kept raising prices. In fact, between the time the bill was signed and the time it went into effect, the drug companies raised prices by 26%, virtually guaranteeing that there would be no benefit.
And now, suddenly, the deficit was not important. Vice President Cheney said publicly that he and the President had “proved that it was not important.” Well, it probably was not important to him. He had made $44 million selling government contracts to Halliburton. It wasn’t important to George W. Bush. He had made $21 million sitting behind home plate at Texas Rangers games, a job his father’s contacts had gotten him. But it is important now that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rove and all their co-conspirators have stolen another $6 trillion dollars during their 8 years in office, and thrown the country into a huge recession. Now we all owe about $50,000 apiece and we have 11% unemployment, the Wall Streeters that Bush sent Chris Cox to de-regulate have made billions, if not trillions on what should be illegal trading, and the Neocon Republicans vote no on every single thing that will help the people.
Yet tea baggers go into the streets on behalf of Republicans for who-knows-what causes and, after only 6 months in office…the worst since 1933…call Obama a “Nazi.” We have lost our minds as a society. There is no hope. Not because of government, but because the people are so superstitious, selfish and racist.
It turns out that Reagan was wrong and his followers who bastardized the Conservative philosophy and turned it into a scheme for looting the American government were not only wrong, they were often criminal. More often, in fact, than the convictions of only some of them would indicate. They somehow made off with another $6 trillion, increasing your debt and mine and everyone who lives in this country to a total of $12 trillion…over $11 trillion of which have happened only during the Presidencies of Ronald Wilson Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush. The other roughly $800 billion had been built up from the beginning of the country, and was only that high because of the Viet Nam war and its aftermath.
So what was the biggest lie, Reagan’s biggest lie? It was the most dangerous lie of all, the one you tell to yourself to justify taking the wrong path. Reagan’s instincts were good. He knew that government should only be as large as it needed to be. But he also knew that GE and the other corporate giants wanted, eventually, what we have now. Big corporations selling cheap products to a mass market of workers who make barely more than minimum wage.
He may have even known that what he was doing would lead to jobs abroad and no jobs here, no good jobs, no core jobs, no jobs manufacturing things. He may have seen the middle class splitting into a management segment, where they have jobs and health care as long as they do what they are told. And a clerical segment, where jobs are a contract assignment that can be terminated any time labor is cheaper somewhere else in the world.
Did Reagan see it coming? It doesn’t matter. He knew that GE was setting him up. He was no dummy. He grew up in the recession. He had those qualities that we call Midwestern, even though they are the same in Portland and Trenton as they are in Des Moines…the betterment of everyone for home, family, school, church and local community. He knew but he lied…to himself. He bought the big lie, that everything will “trickle down.”
He sold himself first. You can almost see one of the GE p.r. execs pulling him aside, saying it to him at some local manufacturing plant in the southeast or northwest. Just before he went on stage to tell the employees how lucky they were to be working for GE. .