Wow. There go my twenties…
An egocentric response to the death of Ronald Reagan, the man whose presidency defined almost all of my politics between the ages of 21 and 29. I don’t think Reagan ever proposed a policy or a program, espoused a bill or advocated an idea that I didn’t think was shabby, bogus, illegal, immoral, or simply dumb. From supporting the death squads in El Salvador to the money he wasted on the anti-missile defense – a trillion dollar monument to our now dead pharaoh, which will outlive us all, and never, ever work – Reagan’s presidency galvanized me, at least.
Not that I don’t have a sneaking affection for the guy. There was something so Hollywood corrupt from the thirties about him, like a Raymond Chandler character who, inexplicably, was NOT involved in a murder. A Terry Lennox with permanently ink black hair and – unlike Lennox – a good woman (and a good woman’s astrologer) to guide him through the rough times. I could never get mad at Reagan the person. This, perhaps, was the famous Teflon. Listening to Bush do his usual lipsynch speech – has there ever been a president less able to make a simple speech? – I thought about how smoothly Reagan would have responded, in his salad days, to the news of his own death. The man knew how to talk. Bush, I despise. Reagan has earned some retrospective respect.
Memories, memories. I landed in New Orleans in 1983, just back from a year in France, and plunged, as much as I could plunge, into politics. I joined CISPES, for one – a now defunct organization, then devoted to stopping the support of the contras, and the support of El Salvador’s death squads. Little did I, or anybody, know that the real trouble would be coming from the CIA station in Islamabad, with its gleeful and insane support of a jihad that we are all now paying for. That was way too far away for me. In 83, many of my friends, or friends of friends, in N.O. were – for complicated reasons I won’t get into here – doctors, and they all loved Ronnie. This made sense to me. They were all ferocious about the tax cuts, ferociously investing in various of the schemes that had been let loose in the national bloodstream by the loosening of all regulatory rules. In my part of the country, that meant setting up S&Ls and diverting billions into the pockets of crooks. It was a party.
But the real love for Reagan came from a different strata of people, who could only have been invented by Don Delillo. I mean the truly sinister clique, the retired CIA people, the states rights racists, the ones with the murky pasts. I’d lived in Louisiana off and on for years. Louisiana is different. It is the kind of state that would produce both Lee Harvey Oswald and David Duke. Oswald bothered me, like a shadow out of the corner of my eye, whenever I went out with my comrades to protest against another Yanqui atrocity in Central America downtown. Oswald was not the doppelganger of my preference – I prefer to think of myself as a poete assassine, rather than a poete assassin. Those demos -- such scenes – plainclothesmen hovering around, openly displaying video cameras and recorders, rumors of rightwing Cubans with batons massing on other streets, and the chants which we would bellow out: the people/united/will never be defeated.
A prediction that has been falsified countless times, bellowed with the enthusiastic convinction of mice bitching about mousetraps. Nice to march to in the street, but, as a practical slogan, worthless.
New Orleans press was fiercely for the contras. I remember the Picayune doing a big series about Guatamala in which it was pretty overtly suggested that mass murder might be in order. Can’t have communism on our doorstep. It was that kind of time. Perhaps we should remember 50,000 some Guatamalan peasants were slaughtered, while Reagan’s administration provided their slaughterers with military aide.
Well, there is one thing that keeps small powerless leftist splinter groups going: the bottomless faith of the FBI in their dangerousness. The “mutual delusions of each vice/such are the gates of paradise”, to parody Blake. So it was with CISPES. The New Orleans group started to crumble in 1984. The FBI had penetrated it – as if there were anything to penetrate – and had cornered one young guy from El Salvador. This guy was illegal. Now, at the time, sending someone like that back to El Salvador was equivalent to murdering him. So the FBI said that was what they were going to do, if he didn’t ‘name names.” Next thing I knew, one of the people I worked with at Tulane ( a man I shall call Peter) was receiving calls from the FBI – at work. Peter was an ardent leftist, but in terms of his subversive potential, the FBI had the wrong man – his sneakiness was devoted less to overthrowing our liberties than to cheating on his girlfriend. However, his girlfriend, who was the Nicaraguan consul to New Orleans, was eventually picked up too, and expelled from the country for spying. Supposedly, she had made a map of the New Orleans harbor. Even now, that makes me laugh – the only spying she was doing was following around Peter, to find out if he was cheating on her. If she could draw a map to her house from two blocks away, I would be astonished. We are not talking about a cartographically endowed woman.
Of course, LI loved the idea that the FBI was closing in – it validated both our sense of self importance and our idea of what the FBI does. Alas, even after he made elaborate precautions – telling the neighbors, for instance, that if the FBI came for him, he was going to ‘call them over as witnesses” – there was no party.
Later, reading the Times, we put it together. The FBI just wanted to pre-empt CISPES threatened demonstrations against Reagan at the Republican convention in Dallas.
And now he is dead in L.A. God rest his bones.