RENDERING UNTO RONNIE: Say what you want about the Santa Barbara City Council, but at least that fractious body knows how to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, which, in case you missed it, occurs this Sunday. By contrast, Santa Barbara’s Young America’s Foundation — the equivalent of the Vatican when it comes to deifying our 40th president — couldn’t have botched it worse. They invited Sarah Palin to give the keynote speech extolling Reagan’s legacy. I’m no fan of Reagan’s, but even I know he deserves better than this. It’s not merely that Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan. Hell, not even Ronald Reagan was Ronald Reagan. But as The Empire crumbles, couldn’t they come up with someone better than a sassy, brassy, loud-mouthed MILF with no record of actual accomplishment to read the eulogy? About the only thing Palin has in common with Reagan — whose life history she has famously mangled in a speech this summer extolling the patron saint of the GOP — is that both were fatally underestimated by their opponents.
If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then Palin demonstrates that ignorance — which she passes off as Coco Chanel populism — is scarier still. Reagan was a movie star who converted his celebrity into political power and helped give birth to a conservative movement. He served two full terms as governor of California — then with a population of 18 million — before later claiming the White House. By contrast, Palin seeks to convert an anorexic record of political service into the sort of over-saturated celebrity reserved for the likes of Angelina Jolie. Thanks to Roger Ailes and the Fox News empire, she has famously succeeded. But if experience counts for anything, Palin barely gets to three. She was mayor of a town with less than 9,000 people. She was governor of a state with less than 700,000. And then she quit halfway through her first term. As Republican vice-presidential candidate, Palin both unsettled and inspired, but clearly proved to be an anvil around the neck of her running mate, John McCain. Palin’s sustained rise to political prominence is enough to reaffirm anyone’s faith in cynicism.
By contrast, Santa Barbara’s much maligned City Council has observed the imminence of Reagan’s centennial by wrestling with the dark aftermath of his legacy. The council has devoted at least six hours during the past two weeks debating to what degree City Hall should intervene to help those homeless who are seriously mentally ill. While debating whether to allocate $1.5 million of city funds on a small project that would provide supervised housing for the mentally ill who’ve managed to make it off the streets and begun turning their lives around, Councilmember Dale Francisco, leader of the conservative faction, blamed the ACLU for having closed down all the mental asylums that otherwise would have been there to house these individuals. By providing such services, Francisco worried Santa Barbara would be effectively inviting other homeless people to the South Coast. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, to invest those funds in rental housing targeting moderate-income individuals because, he said, rental housing is the only practical form of affordable housing? Francisco’s remarks reminded me of the old adage “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
That there are no horses left in the stable has much to do with Reagan. Reagan’s landmark tax-reform legislation of 1986 effectively gutted almost all the tax advantages that accrued from building rental housing. With its passage, developers simply stopped building rental housing. Until that changes, conservatives like Francisco should stop pretending rental housing poses a viable alternative to government-subsidized affordable housing — which they don’t like — or increased building densities, which they like even less. As to the dearth of mental institutions in which to warehouse — and occasionally even treat — the chronically mentally ill, the ACLU certainly had an impact. But nowhere nearly as big as Reagan when he was governor. As governor, Reagan signed into law the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which made it vastly more difficult to institutionalize the mentally ill against their will. Before then, however, it was pretty damn easy, leading to abuses made famous by movies of the time like Shock Corridor and The Snake Pit. And that’s where the ACLU came in. Back then, the thought was that community-based mental-health clinics would spring up to take the place of “insane asylums,” and these would care for the mentally ill on an outpatient basis. Counseling and new psychotropic drugs would take the place of straitjackets, cold-water treatments, and electroshock. How naively optimistic such thinking was we’ll never know. Facing a serious budget crisis at the time, Reagan did what all governors always do; he declared war on programs for the mentally ill. It’s almost impossible not to. In the first place, treatment is really expensive. How effective it is, no one really knows. And the patients — by virtue of their illness — are notoriously aggravating and almost impossible to sympathize with. As a result, $30 million that would otherwise have funded this network of community mental-health clinics got transferred to the general fund, where it was devoured by other departments. Reagan, even then “the great communicator,” disparaged California’s asylums as “the biggest hotel chain in the state,” and in one fell swoop slashed funding for 3,724 mental-health workers, whom he described at the time as “head shrinkers.” In hindsight, it’s clear to see that a whole lot of babies got tossed out with that bath water. And we see them — or their like — wandering the street, talking to themselves, screaming at no one in particular, and in some instances, doing much worse.
Reagan, it should be acknowledged, was hardly acting in isolation, so it’s not fair to lay all the blame for this problem at his doorstep. But it’s also worth noting that as president, Reagan remained as callous to the mentally ill as he was as governor, vetoing a major mental-health reform act passed by Congress in 1980 and slashing funding for federal mental-health programs. In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Ronnie. I, for one, plan to attend the festivities. But don’t worry, I’ll take my meds first. I’ll have to.