WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER: Ronald Reagan would have turned 97 this Wednesday-just one day after Super Tuesday-were he still alive. You’d be excused for not remembering that Reagan actually died nearly four years ago, given how fiercely the Republican presidential candidates have been grasping at the hem of his garments. McCain (John), Romney (Mitt), and Huckabee (Mike) have all sought to wrap themselves in Reagan’s mythos the way American women were advised to wrap themselves in Saran Wrap-and nothing else-when their husbands trudged home from a hard day at the office.
In both instances, the results were transparent and failed to achieve the desired results.
McCain, seeking to reassure card-carrying conservatives that he is not the irascible moderate they know him to be, is most desperate to portray himself as a loyal footsoldier in the Reagan Revolution. Given that Huckabee really is the true conservative in the race-search all you like through McCain’s many over-the-top quips and quotes and you will never find anything like Huckabee’s remarks equating environmentalism to Satanism-you can see why the likable bass-plunking creationist from Arkansas might have his nose out of joint. And since no one has a clue who-or what-Romney is, the best he can do is hold a public seance to conjure Reagan’s ghost.
Now don’t get me wrong. I did not know Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was not a friend of mine. But I can tell you these guys are not Ronald Reagan. At best they’re political necrophiliacs, abusing the dead for sexual favors without even the courtesy of foreplay. At worst, they’re more like Ed Gein, the infamous ghoul from Wisconsin who used to prance about his house draped in the skins of human carcasses he’d exhumed.
But even Reagan deserves better than this. Given that he became an honorary Santa Barbara homeboy, I’m inclined to file legal papers barring any of the Republican Wanna-Bes from taking further advantage. I’m surprised the Young Americans for Freedom-who run his ex-ranch, his shrine, and his museum-have not objected already. In the future, only candidates who can demonstrate some genuine consistency with the ideals and actions of the former president should be allowed to invoke the Gipper’s holy smoke.
The real question, though, is why anyone would want to. Putting it kindly, Reagan’s legacy is deeply mixed. A decent man with a superficially sunny disposition, Reagan trumpeted fiscal conservatism while spending like a drunken sailor; during his watch, the national debt jumped from $700 billion to $3 trillion. Under his watch, the national deficit achieved untold proportions, though they’ve since been eclipsed by the current White House occupant. A hardliner when it came to law and order, Reagan’s administration flagrantly violated the law by secretly selling missiles to Iran-then regarded as a rogue, terrorist state-and using the proceeds to illegally channel funds to anti-communist terrorists in Nicaragua (the Contras) despite explicit Congressional prohibitions against doing so. No one could prove that Reagan either knew or approved what his underlings did, so he never took the fall. During Reagan’s so-called war on drugs, Contra dope dealers flooded American cities with their cocaine-though they were hardly the only ones-and American addicts were provided the cold comfort of “Just Say No.” Tough new sentencing laws were passed that had the practical effect of putting crack addicts-predominantly black-behind bars far longer than coke fiends, who happened to be predominantly white. Only in the past few months have the courts acknowledged the inherent unfairness of these sentencing laws, and tens of thousands of federal prisoners will soon be released, en masse. Somehow I doubt much attention has been spent on rehabilitation in the intervening years.
While Santa Barbara Democrats are energized like never before-even if split in their affections between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama-local Republicans seem utterly bereft. The tough-talking Rudy Giuliani had captured a few hearts and minds throughout the South Coast, but after Florida voters demonstrated that the more you know the guy, the less you like him, Rudy’s Santa Barbara sails were left fluttering in the wind.
On election night, local Republicans were all but hibernating. The most they could muster was a gathering at the home of former Carpinteria city councilmember Greg Gandrud. Given Gandrud’s prickly relations with some of his fellow Republicans, it’s hard to imagine this was a boisterous event. But I’m not counting out Arizona’s McCain by a long shot. Even if the party establishment made an art form of hating the man in the past, he remains their last best shot.
The evangelicals never found a sturdy branch on which to roost, and thus split the social conservative vote due to their innate bigotry of Romney’s Mormonism. But the encouraging news here is how the evangelicals learned to dislike Romney for who he was, rather than his religious affiliation. That’s measuring progress in microns, I know, but progress nonetheless. By now I’ve heard several Democrats say without a trace of embarrassment how they’d support McCain over Clinton, so I regard the man as a potent threat.
It’s worth noting, though, that Santa Barbara enjoys at least one major connection to the McCain camp. Former Arizona governor Fife Symington, one of McCain’s political bosom buddies, now lives in town and is active on the board of the Botanic Garden. Like McCain himself, Symington got caught up in the savings and loan scandals, and he was forced to resign from the governor’s mansion in 1997 after being convicted of fraud and extortion. That conviction was later overturned, and as the government readied its case for appeal, then president Bill Clinton put the matter to rest by pardoning the man. Before stepping down, however, Symington achieved even more notoriety by explaining how he’d personally witnessed UFOs. At one press conference, Symington reportedly had an aide dress up like a space alien. He explained he was trying to reassure the public with an effort at humor. I’m hoping that Symington will bring McCain to Santa Barbara. Far more than any of the other candidates running, McCain is comfortable with the unrehearsed give-and-take of the smaller town hall meetings. If nothing else, it would be fun.
In the meantime, that whirring sound you’re hearing is not the UFOs overhead; it’s Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave.