Michael Reagan, Ed Meese, and other people we never would have heard of it if if hadn't been for Ronald Reagan have been complaining about the movie The Butler, which stars Forest Whitaker as a fellow who, like Jack Torrence in his position as caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, has always been the black butler at the White House. At least, that is, until he quits his job rather than continue to serve Ronald Reagan, who is depicted as something less than the twentieth-century's most enlightened mind on civil rights. Since the butler worked for eight different presidents--a detail that allows for such innovative casting choices as Robin Williams playing Dwight Eisenhower Liev Schreiber as LBJ, and John Cusack as Nixon, and I'm not making any of this up--the movie has only so much time to dwell on the historical details. But for The Butler, the last straw is Reagan's decision to veto sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. Reagan's defenders would argue that this was a complicated and painful decision, but a necessary chess move in the context of the Cold War and the struggle to the death with the Soviet Union.
This happened in 1986, a year after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party and began the thawing process that, four years later, would put him out of work, big time. At the time, Reagan's approach toward dealing with the Soviet Union--five or six years of bellicose rhetoric and missile build-ups and proxy wars in Latin America, followed, after his popularity took a hit in the Iran-Contra scandal and Gorbachev became the first and last of the four Soviet leaders of his time in office who he actually met, by lots of throwing kisses and assurances that everything was gonna be all right--looked like it was kind of made up as he was going along, and nobody liked both ends of it; the people who'd cheered his refusal to even talk to the head Commie, whoever he was, when into deep shock when Reagan spent the last couple of years of his term saying that the new head of the evil empire was an all right guy and, between the two of them, they were just going to wind down this meshugginah Cold War business.
Ever since it turned out that the two of them were just winding down that whole meshugginah Cold War business, a revisionist theory has become popular among conservatives--including the ones who spent Gorby's 1988 visit to Washington staggering around with their hands on their chest doing Fred Sanford imitations--that Reagan always knew that the Soviet Union was on its last legs, even when he was pretending to believe that it was a mighty juggernaut on the verge of crushing us all, and so engineered a massive, unnecessary defense build-up just to scare the Russkies into splurging on their own built-up, in a foolhardy attempt to keep pace with us; the idea was always to trick them into bankrupting themselves, so as to speed up their death throes.
If that's the case, though, maybe Reagan could have chosen to be on the right side of history, with regards to South Africa, without doing his side any damage in the Cold War. If America had sided with Nelson Mandela instead of P. W. Botha, how many days would that really have added to the lifespan of the Soviet Union? At the time, Reagan's Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, seemed to sum up his boss' attitude about the apartheid government, and those suffering under it, when he told reporters that he didn't expect much of an outcry over the decision: "Are the women of America prepared to give up all their jewelry?"
I guess we can argue about whether Reagan's position on South Africa, and whether it revealed a lack of sympathy for blacks struggling under the yoke of a cruel, unfair, even murderous white government. (In his published diaries, Reagan reveals a streak of angry impatience with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who just didn't seem to get it that, unlike Latin Americans and East Europeans, white Africans had to be treated gently, sympathetically, handed carrot after carrot and never getting the stick, for meaningful change to come. By acting as if he knew something about the situation of black South Africans that Reagan couldn't understand, Tutu clearly got under the Gipper's skin. But it should be said that, at least in the sections made available to the public, Reagan never once called Tutu "uppity.")
We can also, if you really want to, argue about Reagan's opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and his claiming, in front of KKK stronghold Stone Mountain, of Jefferson Davis as a "personal hero of mine," and his incendiary speeches about a mythological "welfare queen"with multiple fake names and Cadillacs paid for by the Joe Taxpayer, and his opposition to a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, on the grounds that he believed--as later as 1983, when he was obliged to sign the law into effect, and presumably until the day he died--that King had been a paid Soviet agent? (When asked at a press conference whether he still believed that King had been on the KGB payroll, Reagan, referring to the sealed FBI files on King, oozed, "We'll know in about thirty-five years, won't we?")
Then there's Reagan's 1980 campaign appearance at the Neshoba County Fair, where he talked about his love of "states' rights." That phrase is a dog whistle for segregationists who didn't appreciate the federal government throwing its weight around and giving their colored folk the right to vote, and the fair was held in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which will always be best known as the site of the murder of the three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan did that just sixteen years after the murders, and you can ask William Faulkner if sixteen years is a long time in the South. For a long time, even conservatives would shake their heads admiringly at the audacity and sheer gutsiness of that stroke in the Republican "Southern strategy." Now, though, when the vote of every angry white man who goes to the polls isn't enough to get someone elected President, conservatives are inclined to either deny that the Southern strategy ever existed, or else insist that it was a long time ago, so let us speak of it no longer.
A few years ago, David Brooks had a crying fit in the pages of The New York Times, writing that this little thing keeps coming back by people who think it shows a degree of cynical racist pandering in Ronald Reagan. On the side of the argument that believes this is so, there is the fact that you'd have to be pretty stupid to think that all those signifiers--what Reagan said, where he said, who he said it to--just happened to pile up by accident. Speaking for the defense, Brooks argued that this has to be a mistake, because Ronald Reagan couldn't have been racist, and wouldn't have even wanted the vote of a racist person, because he was Ronald Reagan, the nicest man in the world. Shit, even Michael Reagan goes that extra mile of saying that his father couldn't possibly have been even a little bit racist, because he used to play football, and there was a black guy on the football team. and of all the best friends Ronald Reagan had, that black guy was one of them!
Reagan is also the President who named Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court. Elaborating on his dissent from the recent Supreme Court decisions that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and California's law barring same-sex marriages, Scalia recently said that "It's not up to the courts to invent new minorities that get special protections." By "special protections," Scalia appears to be referring to laws that guarantee people different from him the same rights that he, as a white heterosexual male, takes as a given--the right to marry, to be protected from harassment and discrimination on account of his skin color and sexual orientation, things like that. No one thinks that Scalia's right to marry or to vote or buy a house he can afford in a neighborhood he likes is a special protection; it's just the way it is. How much of a stretch is it to see his use of the phrase "special protection," when these rights are extended to gays or blacks, as evidence that he doesn't think they should necessarily have such rights, so long as there's a white heterosexual man out there who feels uncomfortable about it?
I throw blacks in there with gays on this one, because based on his recent vote in favor of the decision that gutted the Voting Right Act that Ronald Reagan wasn't crazy about either, Scalia also thinks that laws upholding blacks' right to vote is also a "special protection"-- for "new minorities," a phrase that makes sense only if you're of a certain age when the word "minority," in this context, was understood to mean some group that had been hassled by The Man (or, in the case of woman, the men) and was now demanding its fair share of the pie. It's a word that it's hard to imagine Scalia saying without sneering, though in the most important decision of his career, Bush v. Gore, he stood up for the idea that members of a minority--rich, arrogant sons of former Presidents--should have their right to be appointed to the highest office in the land, and make daddy humbled yet proud, specially protected from the majority of people who had voted for the other candidate.
At the same time that Scalia was being fitted for his black robe, William Rehnquist, who was appointed to the Court in 1972 by Richard Nixon--coincidentally, the first Republican presidential candidate to put the Southern strategy into use--was named Chief Justice, despite his having written a memo, as a clerk for Judge Robert Jackson, that defended "separate-but-equal" laws, and another memo arguing that the Supreme Court would do well to leave the issues of segregation and blacks' right to vote alone, because "It is about time the Court faced the fact that the white people of the south do not like the colored people," and had no business inconveniencing these white people. (When these things came up at his 1986 confirmation hearings, Rehnquist claimed that these statements reflected the views of his employer, and not his own, but it seems safe to assume that he was lying, since we know that he was evil.) Rehnquist is also known, as a young man, to have hung out at polling places harassing blacks who tried to vote, which is one of the reasons we can state, without fear of being contradicted by any sensible or decent person, that he was, in fact, evil.
Of course, the hearings in 1986 were a mere formality--Chief Justice is just a title, and nothing was going to get Rehnquist removed from the Court on which he was already a fixture. Maybe, if he had been applying for a seat on the Court for the first time, he would have been rejected on the basis of these charges. Or maybe not. We know that Samuel Alito is a deeply committed racist and sexist, because he belonged to a deeply racist and sexist organization called the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, and no one would belong to such an organization unless its views were near and dear to his heart, because that would be so stupid. When Alito was named to the Supreme Court by George W. Bush in 2008, and the subject came up, Alito swore under oath that he "disavow[ed]" and "deplore[d]" the group he had been a member of. His wife, hearing him characterized as a member of a group he belonged to, fled the room in tears, ensuring that the news story of his hearings would be that mean liberals had made a lady cry by pointing out that her husband was who he was.
Equal rights for all, without exceptions made according to skin color or gender or sexual orientation, and without any bullshit about extending equal rights to someone who is in some way different than "the majority" being a "special protection," is the most morally clear-cut issue of the last century, period. There was never any moral or intellectual ground for arguing otherwise, and that if that was ever anything less than crystal clear, it became crystal clear in the dying days of jim Crow, when supposed intellectuals like Rehnquist and William F. Buckley were reduced to insisting that the government couldn't fix what Southern voters had no intention of fixing themselves because... well, just because this was the way it was, and if white people wanted it that way, who cares what the black people wanted? (The arguments against same-sex marriage are at about that level now, since opponents have been reduced to saying that, if two men can get married, it will degrade the institution and make good ol' Ma and Pa feel less special about their marriage, some-fucking-how.)
The first thing to say about this is that there were always plenty of white people, even in the South, who didn't like "separate but equal" and hated losing a piece of their souls every time they were forced to be party to it just as a part of getting through their day. And I imagine that, for every piece of white shit who's sort of resentful of the Civil Rights movement and feels that he has cause to feel aggrieved because he can't say "nigger" and Kanye West can, there are several white Southerners who've come of age since 1964 who are grateful as hell to all the people who stepped up before they were born or came of age and changed the world they'd have to live in, for the better. The second thing is that there's no way to argue against the Civil Rights Act and all that came after it without being at least a little bit racist, whether you're Barry Goldwater making the argument in 1964 or Rand Paul making it today.
I get it; anything the federal government did has to be tainted with original sin. But it's a fucking fact: this country was not going to magically fix itself. And when white property owners won't sell to blacks, or black kids aren't allowed to go to the good schools where the white kids are, and William "Lurch" Rehnquist is waiting to lean on the black people who show up at the polling place on election day, and you pretend to believe that the property owners and the other goons have the right to watch out for their own interests and stroke their own prejudices that outweigh the consumers' and voters' right to a level field, I'm sorry--you've made an obscene and illogical choice, and it's reasonable to assume that skin color is what tipped the scales in your mind and drove you to make the fateful decision to talk gibberish.
Because in the end, what we're talking about are Americans, and one group of Americans are fucking over one group of Americans and expecting the government and the cops to back them up, or at least not bother them about it. In the end, tolerance of this shit comes down to people looking at the whole, vast, endlessly fascinating race of people called Americans, and not being able to separate them into bundles according to physical qualities, some of which are, regrettably, different than their own. This becomes painfully clear whenever someone like Bill O'Reilly or Pat Buchanan goes on the air and comments on, even, God help us, laments the idea of an America where white people aren't clearly the dominant culture, preferably with the ones who have penises getting an extra vote. You could call this stuff racist, or bigoted, but better to call it by its true and most repulsive word. It's un-American.
This brand of un-Americanism has increasingly taken the form of slandering American heroes, like John Lewis, a favorite target of the late Andrew Breitbart. Breitbartians and other deep thinkers like Ted Nugent now routinely lump Lewis and President Obama in with cynical hustlers like Al Sharpton, which, cutting though I guess they think they're being, does not really say much for their ability to deny that all black people look alike to them. Or, if you really want to laugh till you puke, you can read some of the tributes to Martin Luther King as a great conservative hero, some of which complain that King, the great vocal opponent of the Vietnam war and supporter of a guaranteed annual income, has been misused by those who would invoke his name to push a whole liberal agenda, oh horror! King, the man Ronald Reagan didn't trust, is now talked about by Republicans as if he were one of their own, because he's an official American saint; whether they believe it or not, Reagan himself is only a Republican saint, and these, again whether they believe it or not, are not synonymous terms.
The Civil Rights movement and its supporters in Congress and the White House did great things for Americans. I suspect that people like Rehnquist and Scalia, and Reagan too, thought that it did great things for black people--and I also suspect that people who think like that feel that anytime black people gain something, white people must have lost something. It's simple mathematics, right? Any time you hear someone talking about civil rights and he invokes the dread word "guilt," whether he's complaining about other people like him feeling guilty or insinuating that other people unlike him are trying to make him feel guilty, you're hearing someone admit that the thought of all Americans being equal doesn't fill him with joy, and the alternative doesn't fill him with dread. When Scalia talks about "new minorities," referring to the same people who've been hiding in closets and getting the shitty end of the stick for centuries, he's saying, "I don't care how guilty you feel--I've already given up enough."
The Civil Rights movement was part of the most morally pure, necessary reform movement in America in the last half-century, and the Civil Rights Act the most necessary piece of legislation, and for more than forty years, there's always been someone on the Supreme Court who would have voted against it if he'd been able to at the time. Scalia, Alito, and the other Justices who voted to cripple the Voting Rights Act didn't do it because they no longer thought it was necessary. They never thought it was necessary, or desirable. But it took them until now to feel sufficiently cornered, sufficiently aggrieved, enough like a minority to go after it, knowing they'd look like activist anarchists and setting off a shit storm. After decades of reaping votes by claiming solidarity with voters who think they live in a trailer because the blacks on welfare got to the store of life first and boosted all the good stuff, Republicans find themselves living in a world where a man--a black man--can win the Presidency without the majority of the white vote.
Seriously, forget your manners for a minute: given everything we've heard him claim to believe in the course of the past quarter of a century, how do you think Antonin Scalia, Ronald Reagan's remaining champion on the Supreme Court, feels about that? I think we know for sure now. If there's one first thing that everyone who serves a democracy ought to agree on, it might be that the opportunity to exercise the right to vote should be made as universal and accessible as possible. The Justices who made an end to early voting and restrictive photo-I.D. requirements an option, and the Republican legislators who were ready and waiting to take them up on it, are interested in doing everything they can to maximize the vote of the people who they expect will agree with them, and minimizing the vote of everyone else. There does come a point where partisanship in high places looks more than a little like treasonous acts.
A man like John Lewis put his life on the line for what was right and stood up to actual forces of tyranny. For this all Americans are in his debt, and he will have a special moral stature and authority for the rest of his life. When Tea Partiers and people on Fox News talk about him as if he were some kind of thug, all they do is reveal their seething envy of that moral stature and authority. When cretins talk use words like "tyranny" and "slavery" to express how they feel about paying taxes so that some poor kid they don't know can have a free school lunch, they're demanding a moral authority commensurate with the one civil rights marchers earned when police dogs and fire hoses were turned on them, and it's pathetic and obscene. In his dissent on the ruling on Prop 8, Scalia wrote, "By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition." There's the rub. For most of the post-Civil War period, in too much of the country, segregationists--people who violated the basic law that America is a country made up of Americans, not people of one skin tone and then everybody else--got to run things pretty much their way.
They were wrong, and they were bad people by definition, but no one denied they had the power. And though they lost their stranglehold on power, there were still plenty of segregationists who stayed in powerful positions until they were so old they were heading back to the tree, and people like Reagan were there to postpone, for as long as possible, the transition to a world in which no respectable person would dare suggest that he would have sided with J. Edgar Hoover, or even Bull Connor, over Martin Luther King. Even now, with Barack Obama in the White House, there's Scalia, the still-living embodiment of the ugliest aspects of Reagan's world view with none of the charm, hanging in there, hanging onto his power for the rest of his life if he likes, and he feels victimized, because in addition to living in a country where legally mandated bigotry isn't as acceptable as it used to be, he's not only not as solidly a part of the majority culture as he'd like: he also has to live with the worry that, by current standards, he's a bad person.
The fact that he put a cry for help like that in a legal dissent has to make you wonder if that bothers him even more than feeling his power slip away, just as you have to wonder if the worshippers at Ronald Reagan's shrine feel that it doesn't matter how many airports are named after their guy; if people insist on thinking he had a bigoted streak, just because he gave such a convincing appearance of having one, it'll all be for naught. This all could have been overcome, and a lot of nit-picking and prevaricating could have been avoided, if these gentlemen has simply made the decision, earlier in life, to be Americans instead of bigots, which would have left open the possibility that they could be good people. It seems unlikely they would have taken it. But given what a wonderful time they must have had using their power, it seems a little rich for them to now complain about being judged for the ways they used it.