The President of the United States is not obligated to remain in town every time a band of aggrieved Americans comes marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, but had Ronald Reagan stayed close to home on the last weekend in April, he might have found the experience illuminating.
As it happened, the chief executive was at leisure in Maryland when some 75,000 demonstrators strolled past the White House on their way to a rally at the Capitol. Evidently believing Mr. Reagan was on the premises, some protesters shouted cheery choruses of “Wake up!” in the general direction of the presidential sleeping quarters—a cry that was not so much political imperative as an attempt to make sure the government’s highest-paid employee was out of bed and on the job. The hour was only 1:00 p.m., after all, and Reagan’s appetite for sleep is wellknown to be voracious.
What summoned the multitude on this occasion was concern about U.S. foreign policy judgments as they come to bear on South Africa and Central America. Presented in its simplest form, the message of those trudging through the Saturday drizzle was that the Reagan administration is suffering from a debilitating strain of schizophrenia.
While, in South Africa, the White House supports a regime that extinguishes dissent with stunning finality, Reagan seeks to preserve a questionable rebel movement in Nicaragua whose objective is not only to reform the existing Sandinista government but to throw President Daniel Ortega out on his ear. Since both positions— for Pretoria, against Managua—are advertised as being in the larger service of democracy, it is no wonder that significant numbers of Americans suspect President Reagan has shuffled his note cards once too often.
U.S. policy toward the Sandinistas may, indeed, betray an alarming confusion, a fatal lack of consistency, a barroom sense of global politics, but the President is adamant. Throughout his career as a politician, Reagan has demonstrated a peculiar instinct for focusing on the irrelevant, or the fantastic, or the convenient, while ignoring the actual and important. His obsession with Nicaragua is only among the latest examples.
Before he was elected, Reagan was
mightily exercised by Jimmy Carter’s plans for the Panama Canal, you may remember. Carter had the dangerous and radical notion that the Panamanians ought to have control of the waterway that slices their country in two, but Reagan saw things differently and sought to portray Carter’s gesture as infamy. Also, Reagan was very, very excited about the possibility of a balanced budget in those heady days before he took office. Why, Nancy and he hadn’t the least difficulty paying their monthly fuel and phone bills, and Reagan saw no reason for the country to do anything less. Once elected, Reagan set about plunging the nation into such spectacular debt that recovery may not be possible until the 21st century. And yet we are instructed not to snipe. It is the thought that counts.
For sheer and unexcelled zaniness, however, nothing outdoes Reagan’s socalled “Star Wars” plan. Here we have
The thousands in the drizzle were among those convinced that Reagan has shuffled his note cards once too often.
the most powerful man in the world insisting, against the best opinion of the scientific community, that we can hang netting over the solar system and haul in enemy missiles as though they were a school of bluefish. Recently, a panel of the prestigious American Physical Society said, with admirable politeness, that the President’s plan was “highly questionable,” and one member of the study group was bold enough to state, “I am 99.9-per-cent sure it won’t work.” Unfortunately, Reagan’s reading of the situation is precisely opposite. Star Wars, says the chief executive, will render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” So there it is.
When the presidency deteriorates to the level of a continuing Saturday Night Live instalment, almost anything can happen. Take the scandal known as “Contragate” for proof. Here was an improvisational adventure that involved double-dealing, arms sales to the Iranians and the funding of the Nicaraguan “resistance” with questionable monies. The mess was an embarrassment as much for its sloppiness
as its criminal potential, but what else could be expected? Early on, the tone was set when the White House delivered a Bible autographed by Ronald Reagan to Iranian officials and ordered a chocolate cake for the Ayatollah Khomeini. If this were done, assumed the President’s crack foreign policy team, the leader of Iran would cease describing America as the devil’s own dominion and be moved to hoist the Stars and Stripes in his front yard.
The protesters who trooped to Washington were suggesting in their own way that President Reagan may know as little about the American citizenry as he does the Ayatollah. Throughout the march, there were references to the demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s, and at moments the scene looked as though it had been yanked from the network video archives. Twenty-foot puppets bobbed above the throng. Rainbow banners fluttered. Peter, Paul and Mary sang Blowin’ in the Wind. The faithful exchanged peace signs and embraces and assured one another that, at last, this was the beginning of the end.
Now there is no doubt that the gathering was freighted heavily with nostalgia and that the rhetoric was as familiar as many of the faces. Periodically, the converted find it useful to hear the old sermons preached again. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the determination of the crowd or to assume that the march was simply a class reunion for peace freaks whose hair has gone sparse or who lately have discovered the wonders of support hose.
Conspicuously present at the demonstration, for instance, were rank-andfile members of organized labor and thousands of college-aged individuals. Unionists came in defiance of conservative labor chiefs who worried about Communist infiltration. The youngsters came because they are the children of people who walked down Pennsylvania Avenue 15 and 20 years ago and because there may be more intelligent life on campus than generally is believed. Perhaps it is premature to declare the doldrums of the 1980s over and announce a rebirth of social involvement. Certainly, we should spare Mr. Reagan the reports that people are back in the streets. This is a President who does not appreciate unsettling news. Shhh, then, everyone. Just let him be.
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