Necessary Illusions: The United States of America and the Cannibalization of History
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Peter Baker’s blockbuster was published in The New York Times last Saturday. Titled “A Four-Decade Secret: One Man’s Story of Sabotaging Carter’s Re-Election,” it was a massive story detailing the confessions of Ben Barnes, former Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and Lieutenant Governor, who laid out his participation in a scheme carried out by former governor John Connally on behalf of the Ronald Reagan presidential campaign to prolong the captivity of American hostages in Iran in order to win the 1980 Presidential Election.
This was largely an open secret. The 52 hostages were released after 444 days of imprisonment and torture on January 20th, 1981, just moments after Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. The timing was conspicuous and, as Washington, D.C. is nothing if not a nest of rumors, most everyone of consequence knew the so-called October Surprise was a work from the beginning. Baker’s exclusive, and Barnes’s confessions - supposedly inspired by Jimmy Carter’s ailing health - were momentous, however, as these types of stories often go untold and fall through the cracks of history.
Listen to Danielle Moodie, Nick Hauselman, and myself discuss the Reagan revelations, as well as the leadup to the rumored indictment of Donald Trump, on the most recent episode of The Muckrake Podcast.
The publication was met with some remarks by the journalist class on social media. It is, after all, the kind of story that those affiliated both wish they could have scored themselves and, also, the kind of thing that entices anyone enamored, or at least obsessed with, Beltway milieu. As could be expected, and resembling the cocktail and rubbed elbows environment that D.C. inspires, it was more of a passing talking point, something to discuss for a moment before moving on. All of the weight and context evaporated almost instantaneously. A serious and pressing instance of treason was relegated within hours to something of a forgotten footnote. Barnes’s participation quickly transformed into a stumper of a future Trivial Pursuit question.
“A serious and pressing instance of treason was relegated within hours to something of a forgotten footnote. Barnes’s participation quickly transformed into a stumper of a future Trivial Pursuit Question.”
This bizarre and troubling moment joins many others that form the backbone of American history, including the revelation that Richard Nixon personally submarined a potential end to the Vietnam War in order to boost his presidential ambitions. There has been little to no coverage on the major networks. Our political leaders, on both sides of the aisle, have been almost completely silent. It was a brief blip to be discussed within the media class, almost exclusively to praise the journalistic effort and novelty as opposed to the larger ramifications.
History, unsurprisingly, flows on. Ronald Reagan’s image remains virtually untouched and unchallenged. It brings to mind a moment with Reagan and the aforementioned Nixon in 1971 that was revealed in Nixon’s tapes in which the then-Governor of California called the President and referred to Africans as “monkeys.”
Looking into history is unsettling. As someone whose career and time is spent digging down beneath the sparkling, red, white, and blue veneer and finding the muck, I can tell you the experience is often unpleasant. But what is it about the United States, Ronald Reagan, and our media and political class that makes for such bald-faced denial and aggressive cannibalization?
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Ronald Reagan is one of the essential load-bearing figures in modern American mythology. With the Republican Party this is beyond obvious. Primaries often devolve into contests over who can bow before his memory the most. Nearly every speech in Congress and before rallies at some point or another has to mention his name. Since its inception, Fox News has been peddling Ronald Reagan nostalgia porn. Segments feature sepia-toned photographs of him. Loving montages of Reagan and his wife Nancy riding horses on their ranch. Hosts randomly wishing for a return to the bygone heydays of the 1980’s.
But the GOP is not alone in this worship. The Democratic Party has continually engaged in their own veneration. The rightward turn in the 1980’s and 1990’s was based, after all, on a reproduction of Reaganism and the acceptance of the Neoliberal policies he represented. It continued through the Clinton Administration and then with Barack Obama, who regularly referred to Reagan as an inspiration. In the media, a palatable story of the era continued to be told, including an emphasis on Reagan’s “victory” over the Soviet Union and a bipartisan utopia in which the president and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill were best friends and occasional allies.
Those previous two instances are also fictitious. Reagan didn’t defeat Communism anymore than O’Neill and him were friends. But these are incredibly convenient fictions for a nation built on a foundation of convenient fictions. Because the United States of America has for the entirety of its history weaponized the digestion of history and regurgitation of mythology. The story we tell ourselves about who we are and why we do what we do is one of the most effective and dangerous weapons we have ever fashioned. The nationalist narrative of America is as sacrosanct to many as any religion.
Reagan benefits from both his timing and his background as a Hollywood actor. When he took office in the 1980’s as stagflation represented the crisis that transitioned the New Deal to Neoliberalism unchained it was a matter of building bridges from one era to another. Carter had toyed with the notions with varying results. The so-called Volcker Shock laid the foundation for the transformation, and Reagan’s ability to paint the disaster as “Morning in America” was absolutely vital to the handover. In fact, his tenure as president was more like his tenure in Tinseltown than many would be comfortable admitting. Like Donald Trump, he cared little for policy or specifics and worked scant hours. What mattered, like the 45th President, was the appearance that was presented to the world.
That sales-job was vital. The timing of Reagan’s presidency and the coat of paint he supplied the entire operation - which has redistributed, based on some estimations, tens of trillions of dollars from the bottom up - made the entire thing possible. It created, as a a matter of strategy, a TV-ready product that could be sold and distributed in order to re-contextualize what amounted to grand theft and perpetuated intentionally extreme inequality. And that story, that mythology, is absolutely necessary for the operation to continue on as things grow worse.
Within the political sphere, most understand the con-job. Many were there when it happened and many played a role in forwarding the agenda and cast the votes. They grew rich and they grew powerful. In regards to our media, the concocted story is essential. It streamlines history into an easily swallowable narrative while obfuscating many of the complicated and unseemly aspects. In fact, to pundits, even those who understand the deeper layers at play, the entire thing was a masterful performance. And in Beltway culture, that’s literally all that matters. It has nothing to do with fairness or context, but who is most capable of winning “the game” that politics has become.
The revelations from this past week are inconvenient. Barnes’s confessions provide interesting talking points when addressing “the game” of hardball politics, but working to address the gravity and weight of them is simply a nonstarter. After all, much like the banks that have to be continually bailed out using taxpayer money, Reagan has become too big to fail. To begin troubling these widely-accepted and utilized mythologies, to wrestle with his incompetency, his hypocrisy, his racism, his cruelty, and documented instances in his periphery of outright treasonous behavior, would trouble the entire house of cards.
You could no more update a national understanding, no matter how accurate, of Ronald Reagan than you could begin to trouble the collective history of Manifest Destiny, the tug-of-war between the promises of Freedom and Enslavement, or the intricate lie of a constantly improving nation. This is why the GOP is attacking education, warping history, and why there is very little being done outside of the grassroots movements to head it off.
Because this system, as it is constructed, absolutely requires that none of this is ever disturbed. Which is why we hardly see national fights over this in which anything changes. Why these revelations haven’t resulted in hearings or even a discourse about what happened in 1980 and what it says about Carter, Reagan, our politics, and our history.
To do so is to chance watching everything fall.
And, like risking the possibility those hostages could have been freed prior to Election Day, that simply isn’t something that could be left up to chance.