“Emperors” Reagan & “Bush I”

Pop goes the president: from president as celebrity to celebrity president(s), “right in time” for a neoconservative revolution

The “culture wars” that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s reached pop culture in the ‘80s, creating what could be labeled a series of “pop culture wars” that continues until today. On the one hand, the increasing age in the Baby Boom generation of now-parents meant that family entertainment was on the rise—often vapid but innocuous fare targeted towards younger children. Situation comedies on television, born in the 1950s, witnessed something of a renaissance in the ‘80s, offering a wider diversity of families but still, by and large, appealing to traditional “family values” in shows like Diff’rent Strokes (featuring adopted/foster children), Who’s the Boss? (featuring a typical gender role-reversal with a male live-in housekeeper/nanny for a divorced female executive’s children), Full House (featuring a widower who enlists two other men to assist in his three daughters’ upbringing), and The Cosby Show (a cultural landmark with an upper-middle class African-American family featuring a physician father and lawyer mother). While these shows tackled “serious” issues, one could usually count on them being resolved in 22 minutes or less—22 minutes being the length of a broadcast, excluding commercials.

Commercial entertainment for selling albums and singles in the music industry witnessed a renaissance as well, driven by the new short film: the music video. Originally promotional videos with very little production value, the 1980s boom in music videos with experienced directors and big budgets led to the creation of music television networks (literally, “MTV”) and offered increasingly countercultural, sometimes-controversial content. The degree to which these videos conformed or broke from gender norms in particular caused concerned conservatives to ask for greater restrictions on their content from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Nonetheless, music videos, in the beginning at least, focused on “mainstream” pop music, ignoring more “unmarketable” genres like death metal, synthpop/techno, or the most dangerous for music executives at first, politically incisive forms of inner city cultural expression that we now call “rap” or “hip-hop.” These movements remained “underground” until corporations could be convinced of their ability to sell. (Therefore, for enthusiasts of hip-hop, “old school rap” has been cited as having more edgy, targeted political content—whereas more current artists have been chided as having “too commercial” a focus in their beats and their lyrics. Like most things pop-cultural, the jury’s still out.)

The big screen witnessed a similar trend: whereas “new wave” directors and screenwriters emerged in the ‘70s, by the ‘80s such “artists” were more and more shepherded into “independent film,” whereas studio movies became more and more “blockbuster” productions, especially after the success of Star Wars in late May 1977. The rise of sequels and franchises meant big profits from “bankable” intellectual property, whereas original visions were riskier and given smaller budgets, targeted more for “Oscar season” at the end of the calendar year rather than the summertime.

An excellent case in this transition is the Rambo series. The first film First Blood was a serious psychological portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder from a Vietnam vet who is harassed by police in the Northwest, relives his torture in North Vietnam, and fights back. However, later entries in the franchise focused less on psychology and more about jingoistic revenge for America’s tarnished post-Vietnam reputation, with the soldier John Rambo returning to Southeast Asia in later installments—and, even more ridiculous, to Soviet-invaded Afghanistan to continue his one-man Cold War. (Even that most identifiable pop symbol of the Cold War, James Bond, rode around on horseback with the Afghan freedom fighters in the 1980s—scenes uncomfortable to watch now when one realizes that the hero is riding with the forces from which al-Qaeda and other terror elements would later emerge.) Hollywood was not trying to push a national (or, more accurately, nationalistic) agenda, but films featuring “strong male leads” performed very well compared to those with more complex, emotional characters.

Therefore, it should be no great surprise that the next occupant of the “emperor” position after Carter should be a former Hollywood strong male lead himself. Ronald Reagan, Hollywood star of the ‘40s and ‘50s and “friendly witness” (like Walt Disney) for the Hollywood HUAC hearings, made not one career out of his image—but two: first a career as a tough actor, and then a career as a tough conservative politician.

Reagan’s success in the 1980 election ushered in an era sometimes called “The Reagan Revolution.” After the “New Left” became more and more fractious in the ‘70s, the “New Right” or the neoconservative movement solidified a coalition of different national interests, appealing both to those with short-term (economic) values and those with eternal-term (religious) values. Groups like the “Moral Majority” wanted a strong voice in politics, arguing for a “return” to “family values” that had been increasingly questioned by the radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s. While the “New Right” wanted the government to take moral stands on issues of private life, it also wanted the government to take less of a stand in the public sphere, arguing for a reduction in federal aid and regulation.

However, that was domestically—the “New Right” also wanted the government to take a bigger stand against “godless Communism,” the new theocratic regime in Iran, and to return to the tough stance of earlier “emperors” like Truman and Eisenhower. As such, Reagan’s time as “emperor” echoes something of those earlier days of the Cold War: economic prosperity and booming pop culture, but simmering tensions overseas and domestically at the same time.

Reagan vs. the “evil empire”

Reagan’s stance on the Soviet Union was quite clear from the 1950s on—like the movie heroes he portrayed, cowboys among them, his morality was black-and-white. In a 1983 speech, Reagan warned a group of evangelical Christians not “to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” Elsewhere in the speech he called “all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness” and the Soviet Union in particular “the focus of evil in the modern world.”

As the above quote indicates, the spirit of compromise and arms race limitations under the previous three “emperors” broke down under Reagan’s uncompromising foreign policy. The arms race re-doubled (more accurately, re-tripled) between the Soviet Union and the United States and it was during the early ‘80s that the now-computerized defense systems nearly brought on WWIII, if not for the grace of Lt. Col. Petrov. Furthermore, we know now that the ‘80s were the only decade during the Cold War that the arms race was actually close—the Soviet Union had “called the bet” that Reagan and the neoconservatives had laid down on the “nuclear poker table.” Both the Soviet and American defense budgets skyrocketed—ultimately leading the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s. Nonetheless, in the event that anyone had thrown their cards on the table, that would have been game over for the world.

Reagan’s commitment to “defense” like the proposed “Star Wars” initiative to block missiles from space was matched by a “good offense” against Third World supporters of radical-left-leaning philosophies. In addition to supporting the arming of rebels against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. Marines were stationed in Lebanon during the most chaotic days of the Lebanese Civil War. Like the Eisenhower administration, the Reagan years saw more “Third World” proxy wars between the Soviet sphere and the American sphere in both the Middle East and Latin America. The connection with these two seemingly-disconnected Third World territories on the Cold War chessboard would later get the administration into trouble but, during his first term, the covert operations were still covert but nonetheless widespread.

For instance, right-wing rebels in Nicaragua nicknamed Contras were opposing a Marxist-influenced party named the Sandinistas. Meanwhile, in nearby El Salvador, a right-wing military government persecuted left-wing rebels. So, the Reagan administration supported the rebellion in Nicaragua but supported the government of El Salvador—while the Soviet Union did the reverse. In order to suppress another leftist military government on the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, “Emperor” Reagan sent in ground troops in a full invasion for the first time since Vietnam.

The situation was even more complex in the Middle East. Iran was caught literally in the middle of the Soviet-Afghan War on one border and the military dictatorship of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq along another border. Furthermore, Iranian elements were supporting the more-religiously-motivated elements of the Lebanese Civil War. In order to bargain for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran—which Congress had prohibited—and then gave the secret funds to aid the Contras in Nicaragua—which Congress had also prohibited. The resulting “Iran-Contra Affair” ruined the careers of many associated with Reagan during his second term, and would have resulted in prison sentences had not his VP George Bush pardoned the guilty parties when he ascended into the “emperor” seat. Even with all the bad publicity, the short-term results were not impressive: the secret arms sale directly resulted in only three hostages being released.

It was clear that Iran was a new anti-American force on the world stage, with the ayatollah regularly calling the U.S. “Big Satan” and Israel “Little Satan.” However, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, the resulting Iran-Iraq War led former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to exclaim, “It’s a shame they both can’t lose.” After a nearly-decade-long war that featured trench warfare and poison gas like WWI, that’s just what happened. It came to light, after the fact, that both the Soviet Union and the United States had supported Iraq and Iran in order to maintain the balance-of-power between a secular dictatorship (Iraq) and a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy (Iran). Even after an accidental bombing of the U.S.S. Stark in 1987 by an Iraqi fighter jet, the U.S. maintained if not increased its public support of Saddam Hussein’s fight against the Ayatollah, all the while maintaining Iran as a buffer zone between the dictatorship in Iraq and the Soviet-invaded territory in Afghanistan. Though in later years, such “assistance” to Iraq and Afghanistan would be deeply regretted, the Cold War victories—or, in the Iran-Iraq War case, stalemates—were seen as the immediate front-burner concern.

Reaganomics—short-term gains, long-term deficits

In both 1980 and 1984, Reagan’s Democratic—and even some Republican—opponents claimed that increased defense budgets, reducing inflation, and reducing taxes at the same time would be very unwise from a long-term perspective. However, Reagan’s success with this argument highlighted (and highlights) the appeal of the neoconservative approach to economics. For years, Republicans had objected to the use of federal tax money to create/support programs that were national in scope and potentially bogged down by bureaucracy. The argument expanded in the ‘80s: not just against the use of tax money, but against the amount of tax money being asked by federal government. “Reaganomics” (also called supply-side or trickle-down economics) proposed that reducing taxes will benefit the entire society, creating an environment ideal for entrepreneurs and ensuring that more tax money comes in overall, even if the amount/percentage from individuals will be less. While deregulation had actually begun under Carter, as we have seen, Reagan turned it into something of a religion, cutting federal budgets across the board (with the exception of the defense budget), such as loosening restrictions and regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency that had begun under his Republican predecessor Richard Nixon.

Even though this did not have an immediate effect on the 1982 recession, by the 1984 election “Reaganomics” seemed to be working so well that Reagan received the most electoral votes of any president ever—more than 500. Reagan’s vice president (and former CIA director) George Bush’s victory in ’88 ensured that this fiscally conservative approach continued throughout the ‘80s, but at a huge cost—literally. The federal budget reached record-high deficits that continued to escalate, to the extent that members of Congress proposed a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. (The amendment was never passed, as anyone who looks at current federal budgets might detect.)

All the hits, and all the misses: those “retro” ‘80s trends that keep popping up today

Actor Ronald Reagan defies bad guy Wallace Beery in a dramatic scene in the film, ‘The Bad Men,’ Hollywood, California, 1941. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

As a rancher who flew many weekends from D.C. to California to “ride herd,” Reagan was a cowboy beyond the silver screen and was something of an icon to Western conservatives, who bristled at the increased EPA regulations of the ‘70s. Even though he was (at the time) the oldest president elected to a first term, his youthful charisma and personal popularity defined the Zeitgeist just as much as the youngest elected president, John Kennedy. On his way to surgery after his 1981 assassination attempt (by a deranged fan of Hollywood actress Jodie Foster), Reagan was joking with the doctors and was seen with his horses in California within a week.

Like Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan—the first First Lady of a divorced president—contributed much to the focus on “family values” and the mystique of her husband’s time in office. Nancy Reagan spearheaded the domestic War on Drugs campaign called “Just Say No.” However, as with the War on Drugs in Latin America, the campaign was a mixed success: when cocaine became the “fashionable” drug of choice and its inner-city cousin crack cocaine hit the streets, the drug trade became more profitable despite (or—its critics argued—because of) the stepped-up “war.” For Boomer parents who had grown up on the counterculture, “liberated” drug use and sexuality was more and more part of American culture—even as younger people were cautioned against such liberation in the ‘80s.

The fate of the “hippies” might best be exemplified in the twin fates of the YIPpies, the members of the Youth International Party who ran “Pigasus” for president in 1968. While one of its leaders, Abbie Hoffman, descended into an alcohol- and substance-abuse-fueled depression, another—Jerry Rubin—turned his back on the political/economic goals of the movement and became a Wall Street stock broker in the bull markets of the ‘80s. The term “yuppie” was born in an article about the former yippie who was now a “young urban professional.”

Though such yuppies led the way to “gentrify” inner-city neighborhoods, statistical white advantage remained fairly entrenched overall, as it does today—even as the standard of living increases, the statistical standard of living for African-Americans is below the statistical standard of living for Caucasian-Americans. Though “consideration” of race in affirmative action for college admission was supported by the Supreme Court, the Rehnquist Court—the successor court to the liberal Warren and Burger Court years—affirmed that racial quotas were not constitutional. Reagan’s welfare deregulation policies, to liberal critics, seemed as blithely ignorant of race as Eisenhower’s. With the failure of busing, most public school systems were de facto segregated, even when they had been legally integrated for 30 years.

Pop culture like the emergence of politically-motivated hip-hop and The Cosby Show did little to simmer tensions that had been developing for decades. Popular culture was becoming an increasingly private rather than a social experience: televisions were no longer gathering points for a whole family, public arcades gave way to personal video game systems, and a radio set with speakers became a Walkman with earpieces. As Doc Brown not-so-inaccurately noted in Back to the Future (1985), everyone in the ‘80s had a movie recording studio/theater (a camcorder) because media mattered when even the president was an actor. Though much had changed since the “nifty” ‘50s, even the legacy of the ‘50s was unclear in the ‘80s—Martin Luther King Day was made a federal holiday over the strong objections of Reagan and many conservatives.

As with the ‘50s, “underground” critics of the ‘80s made clear their hatred of the “family values” and “traditions” attempting to be conserved by the neoconservative movement. This was nowhere more apparent than in the LGBTQ+ community, as Reagan and his Surgeon General C. Everett Koop were silent throughout Reagan’s first term about the growing AIDS epidemic, which affected that community above all others at that point. Even when Koop addressed the epidemic and scientifically explained the sexual spread of it, many criticisms emerged about even engaging in the discussion of a “taboo” topic—similar, in some ways, to the repressions of the 1950s.

To further the point, the lasting social/political legacy of the ‘80s and early ‘90s is unclear even today. Controversy erupted after a “home video” on a VHS camcorder recorded police brutality in 1991: showing a group of Caucasian Los Angeles policemen beating a drunk African-American motorist named Rodney King. It hopefully doesn’t take a Ph.D. in History to note the parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice decades later. Will such calls to justice only increase in the next 30 years, as our recording technology gets even more advanced and mirco in size, or will such calls not be needed anymore?

An epilogue for the Reagan years: “Emperor Bush I”

Reagan’s VP rode the ride into victory in 1988, but could not continue to ride it in 1992. George H.W. Bush’s infamous ’88 campaign promise, the 6-word phrase “Read my lips: no new taxes,” proved to be his undoing four years later. After compromising with Democrats in 1990 for an increase in taxes, the lessons in “Reaganomics” were (temporarily) paused.

By the ‘90s, the “empire” found itself, for the first time since 1945, without an “empire”—evil or not—to compete against. Perhaps the CIA’s biggest source of embarrassment throughout the Cold War was in failing to predict the economic and then political collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Bush maintained a strong “empire” stance for the United States when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in summer of 1991 and, for the first time since 1945, U.S. and Russia (the now-former Soviet Union) found themselves on the same side. At first fighting Iraq with economic sanctions, Bush then deployed a U.S. military force to push the Iraqi forces back. (Many conservative critics of the time would have preferred a removal of Hussein from power—with, as it turns out, a good degree of hindsight approval.)

Nonetheless, with both the recession of the early ‘90s and a popular third party candidate Ross Perot (arguing for decreased governmental bureaucracy) working against him, Bush’s term was a one-term coda to Reagan’s 1980s hit song. George H.W. Bush was not as charismatic a performer as his former boss—or compared to an up-and-coming Arkansas governor who played the saxophone on night-time TV leading up to his 1992 election.

IRAQ – FEBRUARY 01: US soldiers take oath to the US army on an Iraqi destroyed tank in Iraq on February 27th, 1991. (Photo by Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

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