Imagine the Worst

In 1984, Mother Jones asked writers and artists to imagine what another four years would be like under Ronald Reagan.

| Sat Oct. 1, 1983 3:00 AM EDT

If Ronald Reagan gets re-elected, which I think will happen, he will continue to be an actor who pretends to steer the United States of America. He will go on spinning a great ship's wheel this way and that, although it is connected to nothing but the floor of the set. He will go on issuing orders to a nonexistent engine room, "Full speed ahead" or "Half speed ahead" or whatever, which will, then as now, be solemnly reported on the front page of The New York Times.

His compass might as well be a bowl of goldfish and his barometer a cuckoo clock, for the real power in this country now resides entirely elsewhere, in the hands of anarchist money managers and militarists and so on. When Mr. Reagan performs, I am reminded of a seafaring drama written for radio by the late comedian "Archie" Ed Gardner. He cast himself as the captain of a ship in terrible trouble, and he electrified his crew with this salty command: "Scuttle the barnacles!"

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Mr. Reagan never wanted real power anyway. No actor ever does. He wanted an acting job, and he got it, and he will get it again. An actor will do anything to get on stage, to pretend before an audience to be this or that, while real lives are being led in some other part of town. It is a credit to the majority of the American people who vote that they understand the powerlessness of the presidency, realize that their function, for the fun of it, really, is to approve or disapprove hams sent over by Central Casting. Who, for example, could exhibit the truer grit while guiding a team of malamutes through a blizzard of soap flakes driven by a wind machine—Fritz Mondale or Ronald Reagan?
No contest.

A personal note: I made a lot of money, a lot for me, about 12 years ago—and my publisher took me over to the Chase Manhattan Bank to meet a money manager. I decided not to sign up with him, but he promised to do his best to make my money grow, even as the planet became poorer. It would keep pace with inflation and then some. As though to reassure me, he declared that he would not, in effect, allow his judgment to be addled by patriotism. If the United States turned out to be a relatively inhospitable place for my money, with workers getting high wages and expensive social benefits and so on, he would send it overseas. How fast could he do this? In two shakes of a lamb's tail.

So long, Youngstown, Ohio. Hello, Seoul.

As for militarist anarchy: Nobody, obviously, can prevent the Pentagon from spending our children's and grandchildren's money however it likes—no matter how foolishly or wastefully or crookedly. No braking mechanism exists. I remember The Atlantic reporting years ago that getting officers of the Army Corps of Engineers to testify before Congress about where all the money was going was like "rounding up the Vietcong for an appearance on the Lawrence Welk Show." Things have gotten a lot worse since then, and Caspar Willard Weinberger, who can't act for sour apples, has a little steering wheel all his own. He grabs for the emergency brake, which comes off in his hand, and the gorilla in the rumble seat wraps it around his neck, and so on.

It goes without saying that this uncontrolled militarism, based as it is on the powerlessness of the presidency, is not only ruinous financially for our heirs but bloody as well. I read in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1971) about the Japanese militarism during the early 1930s, which in turn militarized this country and led to World War II in the Pacific. The Japanese Army, of its own volition, engaged regularly in battles on the Chinese mainland. "The civilian government in Tokyo," I read, "found itself powerless to stop the army, and even army headquarters was not always in full control of the field commanders." Later on it says, "Each advance by the military extremists resulted in a new compromise concession to them by more moderate elements in the government, and each of these in turn brought greater foreign hostility and distrust."

I think to myself, "Gee—that sounds a lot like the CIA and all those other patriots of ours down in Central America now."

Reef the spanker and spank the reefer, me hearties. Open the seacocks! Full speed ahead!

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