Had enough of the ill-informed, hagiographic coverage of President Ronald Reagan’s passing? The insipidness of the American press needs no further elucidation here. But I can’t let the moment pass without pointing out two of my own most vivid recollections of his presidency, issues that have received little notice this past week.
In the early 1980s, I was a reporter covering the South Side of Chicago and northwest Indiana. It was home to the U.S. steel industry’s largest concentration of factories and workers, an ethnic melange of Eastern European ethnics, blacks and Hispanics. Though integrated at work, the workers lived in segregated communities that were mirror images of each other. They owned small but comfortable homes, downed beers by the six-pack and believed their backbreaking labors had earned them a small but cherished place in the American mosaic.
But by early 1983, sky high interest rates enacted by Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker and an accelerated depreciation tax policy enacted by the incoming Reagan administration had encouraged companies to monetize their aging factories. Instead of spending the cash on modernizing the mills, they shut most of them down and invested elsewhere.
This deliberate dismantling of a huge swath of the U.S.’s aging industrial base drove unemployment in the region to 25 percent — a level not seen since the Great Depression. Layoff notices arrived not in batches of hundreds or thousands but in the tens of thousands. Over a two-year period, an urban landscape that had once been home to a great civilization became a barren wasteland.
You’d think that a president confronted by a human tragedy of such mammoth proportions would at least pay a visit to the area, express his concern for those whose jobs had been destroyed, shine the light of his fabled optimism on the nightmare that their lives had become. Fuhgeddaboudit. It never happened. Nor did his government ever come up with a single program beyond paltry trade adjustment assistance and superficial job training programs to ameliorate their plight.
The second great tragedy I witnessed during the Reagan years was the AIDS epidemic, a plague that was first identified in 1981 when five young homosexual men in Los Angeles came down with a rare form of skin cancer. By the mid-1980s, HIV/AIDS was killing tens of thousands of Americans per year. The obituary pages of the nation’s leading newspapers read like a dirge for the worlds of high fashion, literature and the arts, where many gay men had made their careers.
What was the Reagan administration’s first response to this crisis? In 1983, Presidential press spokesman Larry Speakes made a tasteless joke about “gay cruising” when a reporter dared ask about Reagan’s response to the epidemic. His government did not begin appropriating money to NIH to begin studying the disease until 1985. It took until 1987 — one year before leaving office — before the president made his first public utterance about AIDs.
If the test of a country is how it treats its least fortunate citizens, then the U.S. has gotten low marks throughout much of its history. But Ronald Reagan’s response to the two great domestic tragedies of his presidency set a new standard for callousness, one that we live with to this day.