Ronald Reagan had such a sunny smile and genial manner, that it’s hard for some people to understand what a thoughtless, heartless, plastic, white supremacist prick he really was, deep down.
Yes, we know he fired all the air traffic controllers, wickedly popularized the fabricated and vicious concept of the “Welfare Queen” and refused to deal with or even to speak of AIDS as the epidemic raged for years.
But nobody’s perfect. And optimism in a leader really does matter! A leader is a dealer in hope!
Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, perhaps you’re squirming a bit now. I mean, really? The Gipper? A thoughtless, heartless, plastic, white supremacist prick?
I didn’t see it either, while I was coming of age in a white little Republican town in Ohio when Reagan was president.
Wait, why are we talking about this?
Well, as close Writing Boots readers know, I listen to boring things in order to sleep, and one night last week I was trying to doze off to a press conference from Reagan’s visit to Moscow near the end of his second term, in 1988.
A question was asked about a delegation of Native Americans who had apparently traveled to Russia (?!) to try to meet with Reagan because he would not meet with them at home to hear their grievances.
And as soon as Reagan began his answer, the mask fell off.
You should definitely watch the video. But let’s lay our eyeballs on the words themselves:
“Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land,” Reagan began. “We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called ‘preservations’—or the reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had always lived, there on the desert, on the plains and so forth.”
The seething “just a little something.” The benevolently white supremacist “we have provided.” The utter mischaracterization involved in “they, from the beginning, announced.” (When was that announcement made, exactly? On the Trail of Tears?) The unbelievably dismissive reduction of a thousand decimated ways of life across a continent to, “and so forth.”
It gets worse, as Reagan goes on to say, “Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, ‘No, come join us, be citizens, along with the rest of us …”
People who ask what aggrieved Americans are still carping about hundreds of years after the original crimes against them ignore the fact that only about 30 years ago we had a widely admired president (still remembered fondly by many) who believed America’s mistake with the Indians was having “humored them,” by “providing” them reservations to live on.
Reagan concluded: “I’m very pleased to meet with them, talk with them at any time and see what their grievances are or what they feel they might be. Ah, you’d be surprised: Some of them became very wealthy because some of those reservations were overlaying great pools of oil, and you can get very rich pumping oil. And so, I don’t know what their complaint might be.”
It took me awhile to get to sleep after that. I didn’t sleep, in fact, until I set aside my astonishment that my own beloved father could have happily voted for a savage like Ronald Reagan (and we pretend to be shocked by Donald Trump cuz he talked about shithole countries?) … and started musing about the irreplaceable revelations that can be found in primary sources.