In the last post, I talked about some of the things that have had a profound effect both on our society and on me personally during the first 30-odd years of my life. With that as background, any reader should keep in mind that when I speak of the effects on me, what you read is the unvarnished truth. What you read about society in general is subject to one’s point of view, to a degree, so you’re reading my opinion, willingly labeled as such. You may disagree.
By the advent of the 1980’s I was a full-fledged adult, with all the attendant ambitions, obstacles, and cares that afflict all of us. The decade’s civic scene began to unfurl with the 1980 elections, pitting President Carter against the former governor of California, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Carter had not had a “good” term as president. The shadow of the Iranian hostage crisis, 444 days of American diplomats being paraded in front of TV cameras as props to Iranian “revolutionary” talk. Carter at one point ordered a military rescue attempt, which failed. Reagan railed all through the months of campaigning about how this should never have happened and wouldn’t, under Reagan’s leadership.
In the end, Reagan, with some help from Carter himself, succeeded in persuading many voters that Carter was simply not up to the job of running the country. Stumbles over the Iran situation and the failed rescue attempt stacked the deck in Reagan’s favor. Reagan also struck many as a very affable, though tough-minded, sort–one who would not let the United States be pushed around on the world stage. He was seen as a strong backer of the US military forces arrayed around the world. This appeal was aided by the impression that the US economy, which by the 80’s had begun losing jobs to cheap foreign labor markets, would thrive under his stewardship. Millions of blue-collar voters who had formerly been staunchly Democratic flocked to this “feel-good” message. Perhaps emblematic of Reagan’s overall philosophy was his enthusiastic peddling of something called the “Laffer Curve,” an economic theory that speculated that government revenues would rise if taxes were lowered. Seemingly self-contradictory on its face, nonetheless, it received serious discussion. David Stockman, the (then) young economic Svengali of Reagan troops, endorsed it, though he later was caught calling it “voodoo economics.”
The Reagan years were a mix of intervention abroad, a diminished economy at home, and an immune-to-blame president who smiled through it all. Notable missteps during Reagan’s years included putting ashore several hundred Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, at the time the scene of hot conflict among Israel, the stateless Palestinians, and shifting allies of both; almost 300 US servicemen died in a terrorist truck bombing of their quarters. Also, his administration cooked up a complex three-cornered deal under which Iran (the same country which had seized US diplomats as hostages and was proclaiming everlasting hostility to US policy) would receive US weaponry in exchange for funds that would be funneled to the contras from Nicaragua (a group of Nicaraguans supposedly dedicated to the overthrow of the “socialist” Sandinista government of that country; their leadership lived principally in Miami, from where they gave rousing speeches to their adherents and collected aid from the US). At the center of this quagmire was the bumbling Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who gained belated and unwelcome fame some time after the fact when it became known that he had traveled secretly to Iran as Reagan’s personal representative, bearing a cake shaped like a key.
The country passed through the Reagan years and his vice-president, George Bush, became the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1988. Bush won in the reflected glow of Reagan, who was somehow now in the early stages of canonization by Republicans, and by Bush’s aggressive smears of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who, as governor of Massachusetts, had permitted the early release of a criminal named Willie Horton, who then killed someone. Thus Dukakis was never able to escape the label of “soft on crime,” and as in the Nixon campaign of 1968, it became a drag on the entire national Democratic slate.
Good things of the 80’s: little that I can remember. The Soviet Union imploded, largely because its economy was too small for the arms race it was in with the US. Republicans to this day and probably into the distant future claim that Ronald Reagan was solely responsible, but that seems to me to be a lot like saying a rooster is responsible for the sunrise. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is not always good logic. Successive administrations since Truman’s had authorized and spent the huge amounts of money for the arms race that eventually bankrupted the USSR.
Bad things: an aggressive, poorly thought-out and poorly executed foreign policy on the part of the USA. The rise of an economic school of thought that held that there were no proper constraints on acquisition of wealth, and that those left behind in this quest on the part of some were left behind strictly because they lacked ambition or the intention to work hard. Oh, and taxation of profit was inherently evil.
Personal: I left teaching to enter the US State Department’s Foreign Service, to the consternation of many family members. I can still recall my beloved grandmother asking me sternly, “Why in hell would anyone want to go and live in those damned foreign countries?” I didn’t try to change her mind. I took my own skill set (passable knowledge of two foreign languages; a lot of curiosity) off to Washington and became an FSO (Foreign Service Officer).
I was outside the country for the entire decade except for short visits to the US for vacation or training, so I will concede that I am not the best person to evaluate what was happening in the United States, but it seems evident that the 90’s were the decade of Clinton, for good or ill, love him or hate him. He defeated President George H. W. Bush in 1992, and a substantial part of the US public lost its connection to reality. Polarization not only continued but deepened as talk radio saw the advent of Rush Limbaugh and several like-minded talkers who labored incessantly to convince John Q. Public that Clinton was evil incarnate and guilty of basically anything they could think of. The Republicans went so far as to impeach President Clinton on flimsy, unserious charges. The impeachment effort failed, having wasted countless legislative hours and millions of dollars.
I did, however, see firsthand how other countries see us. It is practically an article of faith in the Dominican Republic that in one of the several interventions there by US Marines in the early 20th century, the Marines found large deposits of oil, and capped them to wait for a US takeover when necessary. The Democrats’ loss of their Congressional majorities in 1994 was reported in Zaire (now Congo again) as the result of Clinton’s Zaire policy. I personally think that roughly 75% of the American public would be hard-pressed to find Zaire/Congo on a map. There are more, but…some other time.
Bad things from the 90’s: the appearance of Fox “news,” which loves to proclaim “We report, you decide.” Translation “We editorialize, you repeat.”
Good things: Not all that much, but Wall Street largely slipped its leash and started playing games with the nation’s money. The boom was good while it lasted.
Good things and bad things: widespread use of computers and cellphones. Too much exposition for a brief blog post.
Personal: I advanced in my career and my kids grew up. Pretty boring stuff for the reader.
The 21st century
You know, I can’t go on with this; it’s too much for a blog, I’m tired, and I’m sure the reader is bored. We’ve seen two presidential administrations this century, one glaringly incompetent, the other unable to gain any support from the opposition party for any action, because, you know, the President is a Muslim or a foreigner or a socialist. Or something. You could look it up. On Breitbart. Or somewhere. Or tune in to Fox News. Yeah, that’s it, Fox News.
Bad things: too many to list, but Dick Cheney is enough for a lifetime of nightmares. The internet, where suddenly millions of people with nothing intelligent to say spend all day saying it.
Personal: I’m now retired and I have time to write a blog! I promise I’m not one of those with nothing intelligent to say.