Ronald Reagan and “Are we doomed?”

American exceptionalism?

9-28-1982 President Reagan speaking at the podium at his 13th Press Conference in the East Room

Kelly Sedinger had two somewhat related questions.

I’ve come to believe very strongly that the election of Ronald Reagan is the inflection point whereupon everything went in the wrong direction. Thoughts?

Ronald Reagan is one of the most beloved Presidents ever. He regularly appears in the Top 10 lists of best Presidents.

This one, e.g., quotes a scholar who wrote about the Gipper “winning the Cold War, restoring American economic prosperity rooted in Judeo-Christian values, and optimism about America’s exceptionalism… He understood a) what the Soviet threat was about, b) what we needed to do to defeat it, and he left Bill Clinton a very strong hand. In many ways, we’ve been living off borrowed military capital of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, when he inherited a military in disarray.”


Yet, I think Kelly is mostly right. Every economic survey I’ve seen has shown that the disparity in the pay ratio between CEOs and employees began in earnest during his administration, thanks to tax cuts for the rich. The cliche that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is largely true.

These measures also added to the debt. As a percentage, the debt went up more under Reagan than any other 20th or 21st-century President save for the war Presidents Wilson and FDR, and the latter, who served over three terms, was also dealing with the Great Depression.

The New York Times review of The New Jim Crow, which I quoted : “The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America.”

Reagan’s response to the AIDS epidemic before 1987 was notoriously awful.

30  March 1981

I’ve long believed that the success of Ronald Reagan in getting his legislative agenda passed in 1981 was partly due to surviving an assassination attempt. And with humor, no less: “Honey, I forgot to duck,” cribbed from boxer Jack Dempsey’s line to his wife the night he was beaten by Gene Tunney in 1926.

The Guardian article concurs. “Such displays of wit and courage under fire helped humanise Reagan and deliver a political boost that shaped his presidency. ‘His personal style of leadership endeared him to people on both sides of the aisle not only in Congress, but around the country… “I think the president and his team were smart enough to realise that here was an opportunity for his brand to demonstrate leadership and put forth ideas that he always believed in but now would perhaps have a greater chance of enacting because of his popularity.'”

During a Presidential debate in 1984, when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be President. Reagan replied, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Walter Mondale, his Democratic opponent, laughed.


As much as I despised his policies, I understood his appeal. He was an actor, after all, and could call on a line in the script to respond to many situations.

On Quora, a guy named Jonathan Kurtzman learned from Reagan’s staff “how he prepared his speeches… He’d switch words to fit his voice, but then the secret was that he’d read the speech with a pencil and he’d underline each phrase so the words fit his natural breath, his natural cadence, and the emphasis he wanted. An old professional acting trick. 

At the time, I wished he were a king with no Constitutional responsibilities at the time. He could go out and give those rah-rah speeches.

Reagan’s terms showed one inflection point. But at least he was still communicating regularly with House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

We fell off the cliff after 1994 and sleazy Newt Gingrich’s Contract On America. Oops, it was the Contract WITH America. It is an easy mistake for me to make. It’s strange, too, because President Bill Clinton was largely a fiscal conservative.

On balance

Scale of 1-10, with 1 being “We are doomed” and 10 being “We’ll get through this and we’ll be better for it”, how do you feel about America right now?

I’ll give us a 2. The greatest issue is climate change, which will screw up everything from food supply to transportation to the inability of homeowners to get affordable insurance for their properties.

The US is becoming a ‘developing country’ on global rankings that measure democracy and inequality.   U.S. Education Rankings Are Falling Behind the Rest of the World. We’re not among the 10 Countries With the Best Public Health Systems. Or the top 20.   There’s so much more that I’d become depressed if I delved any further.

Yakkity yak

Meanwhile, listening to many of the 2024 Republican candidates who waffle about whether the actions of djt before and after the 2020 election were illegal and immoral is very disheartening. And watching tainted dudes like Gym Jordan and Matt Gaetz grilling Attorney General Merritt Garland would have been laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

You don’t need me to note that the information Americans take in is so fractured that we often operate in different realities. More worrisome, “death threats have become rampant as MAGA culture twists norms and makes once-marginal forms of violence mainstream.”

So why 2 instead of 1? Irrational optimism? Believing that there are enough people who believe in the American promise to turn things around? Yeah, probably. When one is a person of faith, you hope. Maybe it’s like rooting for the Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets, all of whom sucked in 2023. Maybe next year. Or not.

I’ll address all of Kelly’s other queries soon.

Reclaiming the American flag

More personal context

I’m working on a project, and that project is me. I’m working on reclaiming the American flag.

It isn’t easy, though. My family, to my recollection, never hung the flag outside the house. And there was never one outside of my grandmother’s house either.

Though I don’t recall ever discussing it with my parents when  I grew up, I got the clear message from my father that the overt signs of patriotism were not his thing. I’m convinced that it was a function of bigotry he experienced in the military in 1945 and 1946 and dealing with racism subsequently.

By the time I was in high school, there was an “America, love it or leave it” mentality, which I associated with literal flag waving.

The BCHS incident

When I was in eleventh grade, there was about a week when we didn’t have the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker. So one day, my homeroom teacher, Harvey, decided our class should do so. I refused to stand. That “liberty and justice for all” stuff, I felt, was a lie. The face of the homeroom teacher grew increasingly red as he repeated the request, and I remained seated.

During the first period, trigonometry, this burly adult sat a couple of seats behind me. I figured he was evaluating the newish math teacher. In fact, it was the new principal, Dr. K.

I met with him and my father, who he had called, either during lunch or after school. Dr. K asked if I were an adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses since the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that “expelling a student who doesn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance … violates the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and religion.” That ruling, coincidentally, was eighty years ago on this very date. (It reversed a SCOTUS ruling in Minersville School District v. Gobitis only three years earlier.)

No, I said. We worked out a compromise that I would stand for the Pledge but didn’t have to say it. Oddly, in twelfth grade, as president of the student, I recited it over the loudspeaker. By then, I had decided the words were aspirational rather than factual.

I like red, white, and blue.

I should be clear that I’ve always liked the actual flag. They were going to add a star and stripe for every state that joined the union. The fact that they pivoted back to thirteen stripes, I thought, was very clever.

I’ve been to Arlington National Cemetery and the military cemetery in North Carolina where my parents are buried, and I find the rows of flags quite moving.

SCOTUS has recognized flag burning as protected speech. While I agree with the concept philosophically, it bothers me when I see it, and  I would not do so myself.

Indeed, I’m more aware of 4 U.S. Code § 8 – Respect for flag than most people who claim to revere it, for instance:

d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. (i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. I came across this pin of a flag with a cross on it; this Christo-Americanism I found highly unsettling.

And the literal embrace of the flag by djt I find utterly grotesque. (Does the fact that his birthday is June 14 somehow create a rationale in his mind?)

And yet

When the US was preparing to go to war in Iraq, and I actively opposed it in the six months before I began, the peaceniks were dubbed not “real” lovers of their country.

Still, if I Google “liberals reclaiming the flag” I find articles like this from USA Today (2018) and this from Politico (2020) and this from the New York Times (2022). I agree with most of the sentiments contained therein.

Maybe this would work for me. From NPR: “Many have chosen to fly the flag next to other symbols to give it more personal context. For some, that means raising the Stars and Stripes along with a ‘Make American Great Again’ banner. For others, the American flag is flying alongside a gay pride banner or Black Lives Matter sign.” OK, not the MAGA sign, but…

Independence goes only so far

a MORE hostile regime?

independence dayMy Independence Day meanderings.

“If you’re a Republican, you can’t even lie to Congress or lie to an FBI agent, or they’re coming after you.” Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said this during an interview on NewsMax. “They’re going to bury you. They’re going to put you in the DC jail and terrorize and torture you and not live up to the Constitution there.”

As CNN‘s Laura Jarrett noted in 2017: “Federal law makes it a crime to ‘knowingly and willfully’ give ‘materially’ false statements to Congress, even if unsworn – which is not to be confused with the more general crime of perjury for lying under oath.”

“It is also – surprise, surprise! – against the law to lie to the FBI. It’s right there in the US Code – and carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.”

But it may be unreasonable for Louie Gohmert to know these complicated details. After all, he’s only been a member of Congress since 2005. (Does he WANT people to lie to HIM?)

If I thought Louie was uniquely… operating on a different plane, I could laugh it off. But I see a lot of these folks in the halls of Congress.

Nowhere to go

I found a section of the post by Arthur about his realizations rather sad. “In the time since [his husband] Nigel died, I realised that I don’t feel ‘at home’ anywhere: He was my home in an existential sort of sense. In a physical sense, however, I’ve lived in New Zealand so long now—it’ll be 27 years in around five months—that this place is quite literally home.” I understand his pain.

Yet it also stirred a very different type of anxiety in me. “The reality is that after so many years away from the USA, the land of my birth feels like a foreign country—actually, far too often it seems like an alien planet.” And I haven’t been away from the United States, but too often, I get the same feeling.

“As we grow apart, as I grow older, and as events there make my homeland utterly unrecognisable to me, I suspect there may well come a day when I could be permanently separated, particularly if a more hostile regime comes to power in the future—and how could I possibly rule out that prospect when I can no longer say it’d be impossible?”

Yes, sometimes I feel similarly, but without the luxury of a second passport. “If the USA really does collapse, I’m safe here and also have an already well-established life. However, that’s also true even if the USA manages to shake off the disease it caught in 2016 and repair itself.”

I’m having serious doubts that self-repair is even possible. It all feels that too much is going in the wrong direction.

And yet

Yeah, I still try to study the issues since that’s what a citizen does. And certainly, I ALWAYS vote because I’m a stubborn old poli sci major who actually thinks that local elections are just as important as the national ones, if not more so.

It’s not optimism that drives me to try to change my little piece of the world. Maybe it’s having a kid who’s really not a child anymore, not to mention nieces. All that hokum that our children are our future? There’s some non-cynical part of me that believes it.

I suppose I could have opted for a rosier star-spangled Fourth. But this is the best I could muster.

Josephine Baker: I knew so little

Genius in France

Josephine BakerI knew that Josephine Baker was a famous black entertainer starting in the 1920s. Yes, I was aware that she left the United States because of its open segregation laws. She was a big star in France. That’s about it.

That is until I was watching CBS Sunday Morning while waiting for my train to arrive. This segment is rightly titled The legacy of Josephine Baker.

First a bit of biography. “She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but a perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin.” After a brief and difficult career in the US, her career thrived in Paris.

I’m fascinated by how France has been perceived as this sanctuary, at least for a little while. Some of the notable transplants, at least for a time, included James Baldwin and Lenny Kravitz. My noted activist cousin  Frances Beal lived there for a few years. And American soldier Henry Johnson, for years, got a lot more recognition for his World War I exploits by the French than by his home country, the US.

A star over there, but…

For Josephine Baker, a “1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfeld Follies proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power, newspaper reviews were equally cruel (The New York Times called her a ‘Negro wench’), and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.”

She was active in the French resistance during World War II. “She performed for the troops” and… smuggled “secret messages written on her music sheets.” The French government later awarded her medals for her valor.

In the 1950s, “she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as ‘The Rainbow Tribe.’ aided by her third husband, composer Joe Bouillon. Josephine wanted her to prove that ‘children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.’ She often took the children with her cross-country.” She raised two daughters, from France and Morocco, and 10 sons, from Korea, Japan, Colombia, Finland, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and three from France.

Civil rights advocate

But she did make it back to the United States again. I was struck by this dialogue in the CBS piece.
Reporter: “How long are you going to stay?”
Baker: “You want me to stay, don’t you?”
Reporter: “I’d like you to stay. I think you could help the Negro movement in the United States.”
Baker: “Oh, don’t say that.”
Reporter: “Why not?”
Baker: “Because it’s not a Negro movement. It’s an American movement.”
True enough.

She spoke at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents, and much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

Triumphant return

Josephine Baker “agreed to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall” in 1973. “Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage.

“On April 8, 1975, Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50-year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12.”

And in 2021, she has been inducted into France’s Pantheon, the first black woman, the first performing artist, and the first American so honored. She joins Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie among the 80 so honored.

Peculiar year for American workers

The appropriately named Johnny Paycheck

It’s been a fascinating year for American workers. Job opportunities are coming back after being devastated by the pandemic. Yet it is clear that organizational leaders who expect the workplace to get back to “normal” are surprised.

Employees are quitting in masses. “Nearly 3.6 million Americans resigned in May [2021] alone. But it’s not an issue that’s specific to a certain industry, role, or even salary — it’s a workplace issue.

“A new Gallup analysis finds that 48% of America’s working population is actively job searching or watching for opportunities. Businesses are facing a staggeringly high quit rate… and a record-high number of unfilled positions. And Gallup discovered that workers in all job categories, from customer-facing service roles to highly professional positions, are actively or passively job hunting at roughly the same rate.”

Take this job and shove it 

From The Atlantic: “Why the sudden burst of quitting? One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work. Up and down the income ladder, workers have new reasons to tell their boss to shove it.

“Lower-wage workers who benefited from enhanced unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic may have returned to the job and realized they’re not being paid enough.” The poor pay has been true for decades, BTW.

“Now they’re putting their foot down, forcing restaurants and clothing stores to fork over a higher wage to keep people on staff.” This means that some workers are getting close to, or exceeding, the $15 per hour wage so many have demanded for several years.

“Meanwhile, white-collar workers say they feel overworked or generally burned out after a grueling pandemic year, and they’re marching to the corner office with new demands… Gallup finds that it takes more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them, and next to nothing to poach most disengaged workers.”

Daily stress

There is a global workplace survey commissioned by Gallup. In the United States and Canada, workers there “reported the highest rate of daily stress in the world during 2020.” Working women, younger workers were more stressed than their counterparts. “Only about one in three U.S. employees and one in five Canadian employees are engaged at work. Burnout prevention requires both high engagement and high employee wellbeing.”

It’s not just MORE money workers desire. Americans Are Willing to Take Pay Cuts to Never Go Into the Office Again. “A new survey shows 65% of workers who said their jobs could be done entirely remotely were willing to take a 5% reduction to stay at home.” But NOT a 20% reduction.

It could be worse

From Newsweek: In June, “The Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit that claimed the Minneapolis-based Cargill and the American arm of Switzerland-based Nestle ‘aided and abetted’ slavery by knowingly buying cocoa beans from farms that used child labor.

“Six African men brought the lawsuit, claiming that they were trafficked from Mali as children and forced to work long hours, then locked up at night, at cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, the world’s leading producer of cocoa. The group sought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of themselves, as well as who they say are thousands of other former child slaves.

“But justices ruled 8-1 that an appeals court improperly let the lawsuit against the food companies go forward in the U.S. as the respondents’ injuries ‘occurred entirely overseas’, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a majority opinion for the court.

A 2020 report funded by the U.S. Department of Labor found that the cocoa industry in West Africa was exploiting 1.6 million child laborers and that the use of child labor has risen despite industry promises to reduce it.

True? Fiction?

The American Dream. The Forgotten Employee.

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