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© 2004 The Beast

DYING QUIETLY

The Finks get the Fanfare

By Matt Taibbi


OLD SOVIET JOKE: Man wakes up in the morning and starts to get dressed to go to work. He goes into the closet and finds that all of his shirts are hideously wrinkled. So he says to his wife:

"Hey, woman, what's the deal? Why are all my shirts wrinkled?"

The wife, still half asleep, answers that it wasn't her fault. She says she was doing her housework on schedule the day before, when she turned on the television. On channel 1, they were showing the Party Congress. So she switches to channel 2: Party Congress. Exasperated, she switches to channel 3. What was on there? You guessed it: Party Congress.

"After that," she says, "I wasn't about to turn on the fucking iron. Do your own goddamn shirts."

Half of America was probably wearing wrinkled shirts this week. Hell, I even took my watch off last week after Ronald Reagan's storied ascension to the Wooden White House started to get out of control.

Boy, America sure likes to mourn its dead. But not all its dead, of course.

Take Ring Lardner Jr., for instance. Ring was famous enough. He won an Academy Award for screenwriting. He wrote the script for Woman of the Year and was responsible for the birth of one of the more celebrated icons of American culture: the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movies. He also wrote the screenplay for one of the funniest movies in American history, M*A*S*H*, which in turn gave birth to one of the longest-running television shows in our history.

Not a bad resume, but Ring had a problem. He had been a member of the communist party in the early 30s. This became an issue in the mid-40s when, just like Ronald Reagan, his Hollywood career was beginning to take off. Like everyone else who was called before the House Un-American Affairs Committee at that time, Lardner was given a way out. He could have confessed in private to the FBI and named names, if he wanted to keep working in movies. And if he wanted to stay out of jail, he might have invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked the famous "Are you now, or have you ever been..." question.

Lardner did neither. He refused to implicate anyone he knew, and moreover he refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment before Congress. Lardner believed it would have been wrong to "confess" in any way to having legally belonged to a legal political party. So when the vicious Chairman of HUAC, J. Parnell Thomas, asked him about his communist past, Lardner answered: "I could answer that the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I'd hate myself in the morning."

Lardner was ruled in contempt of Congress and sentenced to 10 months in Danbury. He did his time, and when he got out, he was blacklisted in Hollywood for almost 20 years.

For the years Lardner was away, Ronald Reagan was at various times president of the Screen Actors Guild and then governor of California. When faced with the same choice Lardner had been given by HUAC, Reagan took what history this week proved to be the more honorable course. He cooperated with the committee, appearing as a friendly witness, joking with panel members about wearing spurs in the service and angrily denouncing the presence of communists in Hollywood (some of whom, it must be said, were the leaders of a new screenwriters union whose picket lines Reagan had crossed). After the HUAC hearings were over, Reagan continued his principled stand, serving as an informant for the FBI (code name: T-10) and along with his wife, Jane Wyman, providing names of suspected communists. He also tried to institute a policy in the Screen Actors' Guild of forcing members to sign loyalty oaths.

But of course, you say, Reagan was not a communist. He had nothing to hide. Well, apparently he did. When he became governor in 1966, Reagan had to fill out a security clearance form to have access to the University of California's atomic research. On that form Reagan lied about having been a member of the Committee for a Democratic Far East Policy in 1946, which was later deemed subversive by HUAC. He also lied about having been on the American Veterans' Committee, which had also been deemed "communist-dominated" by the HUAC successor, the Burns committee.

Were the HUAC/Burns designations bullshit? Of course they were. But so were the charges against Lardner. And Lardner chose to stand up to them, while Reagan chose the course mainstream America proved this week it considers acceptable: He lied and squirmed and groveled his way around them.

How about Mario Savio? The leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement died quietly in 1996. He ought to have been mentioned this week, because Savio was very much responsible for Reagan getting elected to the governorship of California. He was the one who started all that fuss in 1964 when he challenged the University of California's rule that said that students could not hand out political literature—in particular about the civil rights movement—on University grounds. While Savio spent time in and out of jail for nonviolent protests, Reagan swept into office on a promise to "clean up the mess at Berkeley." We learned this week that people who campaign for the right of blacks to vote while this is still controversial go to jail at the time and die quietly later on, while people who cooperate with J. Edgar Hoover to brand protesting students as communists (Reagan did this in 1966) and use helicopters to spray campuses with tear gas (Reagan did this in 1969) are elevated to national prominence in their day and celebrated as national heroes when they die.

How about Daniel and Phil Berrigan? The two Catholic brothers were a pain in the ass in life, protesting against war for decades and serving about 21 years in jail between them over the course of their lives. In the 60s when Reagan was saying things like, "It's silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas," Dan Berrigan was burning draft cards and, famously, apologizing for it. "Our apologies, good friends, for this fracture of good order, for burning of paper instead of children..." For their antiwar actions the Berrigans went into hiding and then to jail. When they got out, they started campaigning against the nuclear arms race, just in time for Ronald Reagan to make a mockery of the whole idea of peace by renaming the MX missile the "Peacekeeper."

They both died quietly.

Reagan's legacy was a generous one. He made it acceptable in America for people to stand up for their belief that "if you've seen one tree, you've seen them all." Because of Reagan, America can now safely think that homeless people are homeless "because they want to be homeless," that people who go hungry at night do so because they're "on a diet," that Mt. St. Helens caused more sulfur air pollution than cars, that welfare recipients were "a faceless mass, waiting for handouts," that too much federal education aid causes a drop in corporate profits.

We celebrated Ronald Reagan's death for a week because we believe in covering our asses to protect our careers, naming names if we have to. We gorged ourselves on this elaborate military funeral because we just love being a country that laughs at the Savios and Berrigans of the world for their embarrassing quality of standing up for peace. We lionize Reagan because he represents our best qualities: our callow patriotism, our hatred of losers and the poor, our fear of change, our xenophobia, our total mediocrity. He was the champion of these things and he died to great fanfare. It's America's better nature that dies—has died—quietly.

 

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