On the convention floor, Detroit, 1980. Photo via Landov
"Ronald Reagan and the conceptual auto disaster. Numerous studies have been conducted upon patients in terminal paresis (G.P.I.), placing Reagan in a series of simulated auto-crashes, e.g. multiple pile-ups, head-on collisions, motorcade attacks (fantasies of Presidential assassinations remained a continuing preoccupation, subjects showing a marked polymorphic fixation on windshields and rear-trunk assemblies). Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender. Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto-disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan's head of the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities. In 82 per cent of cases massive rear-end collisions were selected with a preference for expressed faecal matter and rectal haemorrhages. Further tests were conducted to define the optimum model-year. These indicate that a three-year model lapse with child victims provide the maximum audience excitation (confirmed by manufacturers' studies of the optimum auto-disaster.) It is hoped to construct a rectal modulus of Reagan and the auto-disaster of maximized audience arousal."
So began J.G. Ballard's short fiction, "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan," a remarkable and remarkably prescient piece written in 1967, 13 years prior to Reagan's nomination as his party's candidate for president at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. His running mate was a former congressman from Texas and one-time director of the Central Intelligence Agency named George H. W. Bush. They ran on the theme, "Make America Great Again," and won by a landslide, in large part due to a crumbling US economy—the national debt was nearing a trillion dollars—as well as the ongoing Iran hostage crisis, walloping the incumbent Jimmy Carter with 489 Electoral College votes to his measly 49. Of course, by the time Reagan left office the national debt had tripled to almost $3 trillion.
As we look back to that moment, it's worth noting that just three days before voters went to the polls the National Rifle Association gave its endorsement to Reagan, marking the organization’s first time backing a presidential candidate. Little more than three months into his first term, an attempt would be made on Reagan's life by John Hinckley, Jr., a young man obsessed with Jodie Foster, already famous at 14 for her portrayal of Iris, a child prostitute in Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver. Having seen the movie more than a dozen times, Hinckley identified with Robert De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, a former marine and Vietnam vet who tries to save Iris and plans to assassinate a U.S. senator. Hinckley was intent on impressing Foster, whom he had stalked and sent numerous letters to, one of which closed, "Hang onto my dream and we will fly to the netherworld of happiness." He purchased a .22-caliber revolver in a pawnshop on Elm Street in Dallas—the same street as the Texas School Book Depository—and went on to meet his fate in Washington. In retrospect, and offering no regrets, he would describe his attempt on the president as "the greatest love offering in the history of the world."
Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, 1976. John Hinckley, Jr. postcard to Foster, 2/15/81
The incident is a dramatic example of how, frame-by-frame, Reagan's political life, beginning with his governorship of California, would be filtered through a cinematic lens. This is perhaps because his very mentality was based on filmic memory, a lens through which the world can only be understood as a sequence of illusions. Unlike paintings and dreams, movies are diversions of make-believe. They exist in the realm of the unreal, offering brief escape from the cold, hard facts of the everyday. What the audience sees onscreen always supersedes the mechanism of its creation, from the script to the editing room, the collage-like piecing together of perceived reality. Reagan was well aware that reality exists as so much malleable matter, and was thus able to transition almost effortlessly from a career in movies, television, and advertising, to political life—worlds of artifice and persuasion that, as he helped us to understand, are forever intertwined.
In his presidential bid, Reagan also received the support of PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a union he would go on to break. Today, you could fly from Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, DC to Detroit, which recently earned the distinction of being the largest city to declare bankruptcy in American history. The Joe Louis Arena, where the 1980 convention was held, will soon be replaced by a new home for the Detroit Red Wings. The arena may cost strapped taxpayers in excess of $400 million, and at a time when some officials have suggested selling off the holdings of the city's museum to satisfy a long line of creditors. Christie's auction house was hired to appraise selected works that were purchased by the city, and estimated they would fetch between $452 and $866 million, a drop in the bucket when one considers Detroit’s $18 billion debt.
The collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the most important in the country. It encompasses antiquity and modern art, including canvases by masters such as Bruegel, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Caravaggio, and van Gogh, with works by Willem de Kooning, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Francis Bacon among its contemporary holdings. The recent auction record set for a Bacon triptych at $142 million must have given city officials pause for thought. After all, who needs an old crusty painting when you can go to a hockey game in a brand new arena?
The museum also boasts Detroit Industry, a series of wall paintings created between 1932-33 by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company on the initiative of Edsel Ford, the only son of the company's founder, the murals were controversial for their content—primarily because of figures that were racially integrated, though an accurate reflection of the city's diverse workforce—and for the fact that the commission was awarded to a Mexican painter rather than an American. Rivera, in a sense, was seen as an illegal alien artist.
Rivera's mural celebrated the major role that the city's workforce played in America's technological achievements, literally helping to set it on the road to recovery against the backdrop of the Great Depression, when unemployment soared as high as 25 percent. At the dawn of the 80s, when Reagan took office and a once great company like Ford had hit the skids, gas guzzlers ruled the road. The Ford Ranchero, which last rolled off the assembly line in 1979, got 12 city miles to the Saudi gallon, and 15 out on the range, as the country ran on fumes.
The current jobless rate in Detroit is over 16 percent, and in Washington it’s almost 10 percent. While the median price of a single-family home in DC is around $800,000, there are hundreds of fixer-uppers in Detroit selling for under $5,000. And a Warhol canvas from the museum in Detroit? Will it one day be hung in an apartment in Dubai? These are but a few of the pitiable legacies of Reagonomics, and so much for making America great again. As for Jimmy Carter's endorsements in the 1980 election, even Ben Affleck could tell you that he might as well have been backed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
A Cinematic Dystopia
So how is it that Ballard came to imagine Reagan as a presidential candidate more than a dozen years in advance? Though best known for Empire of the Sun, which was turned into a film by Steven Spielberg, Ballard is more highly regarded for his 1973 cult novel Crash (published four years earlier as a short story titled "Crash!"). Long considered unfilmable, it was produced by Harley Cokeliss as a film text in 1971, narrated by and featuring its author, and brought to the big screen by David Cronenberg in 1996, starring James Spader and Rosanna Arquette. Succinctly described by John Waters as being "about people that are erotically turned on by car accidents, and they fuck and have car accidents through the whole movie," the dispassionately grotesque contours of Ballard's narrative prefigure the porno-forensic articulation of "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan."
But the answer to the author's prescience can be found in the moment of the text's creation, 1967, not long after Reagan became Governor of California, an office he would hold for eight years. Reagan, a former B-movie actor, would have appealed to Ballard as the very locus and absurdity of celebrity culture in a troubling, convulsive time. In focusing on him alongside some of the most iconic figures in this period, Ballard overlays the military-industrial complex with its Hollywood counterpart, the entertainment-industrial complex. (One can only imagine the author's complete lack of surprise when, in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Moreover, had he not been Austrian by birth, one wonders if, like his predecessor, the former body builder may have easily carried on from "governator" to president.)
By the time Ballard arrived at Reagan as a subject worthy of psycho-sexual/political dissection, he had already published the stories that form a trilogy of experimental fiction which investigates the celebrity death-drive of the 60s. Comprised of "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe," "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," and "Plan For the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy," and all dating from 1966, they appeared, along with "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," in Ballard's collection, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Within the book, the Reagan text had as its protective shield the genre of science fiction, a designation the author himself would have rejected, having asserted, with his usual clarity of vision, that "Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire."
After being issued in England as a stand-alone booklet, the Reagan text was open to attack and became the subject of an obscenity trial, with its publisher, Bill Butler, duly brought before the magistrate. When Ballard was interviewed by Butler's defense lawyer, happily conceding that his piece was intended to offend, the author was told that he would make an excellent witness—for the prosecution. Upon the book's imminent American appearance, Doubleday was compelled to destroy almost the entire first edition. Some speculate that as few as ten copies survived.
In something of an implausible act of revenge, though one which took a dozen years to extract, a number of still-unknown former Situationists got hold of letterhead stamped with the seal of the Republican National Committee, upon which they printed Ballard's Reagan text, replaced his offending title with the innocuous, "Official Republican 1980 Presidential Survey," and managed to distribute copies to delegates on the convention floor in Detroit, one of the most audacious acts of political theater in our time.
What must the attendees have thought when they read:
"Motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan reveal characteristic patterns of facial tonus and musculature associated with homoerotic behavior."
Reagan, who would ignore the AIDS crisis until nearing the end of his second term—more than six years after its initial discovery and in the wake of 20,000 deaths—was the first and only president to register blind indifference in the face of a national health disaster. Reagan, our only divorced president, a delinquent father who was estranged from various children in his lifetime, who courted the Christian right but never went to church regularly in Washington, would wonder: "maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."
What did bewildered delegates think when Reagan was compared to the most evil, reviled figure of the 20th century, with our most disgraced president thrown in for good measure, and in wholly unsavory terms suggesting our entwined fear, fascination, and complicity?
"The continuing tension of buccal sphincters and the recessive tongue role tally with earlier studies of facial rigidity (cf., Adolf Hitler, Nixon) … Parallel films of rectal images revealed a sharp upsurge in anti-Semitic and concentration camp fantasies (cf., anal-sadistic fantasies in deprived children induced by rectal stimulation.)"
Surely they were shocked by the vulgarity and the repeated references to children as victims. And yet Ballard somehow foresaw that Reagan would one day serve not only as president, but as a pivotal cause of deprivation and death among American children. Corresponding to the growth of unemployment under his administration was the loss of medical insurance. How many of those delegates cheering in the arena for their candidate in 1980 would find themselves, within a year of Reagan's election, out of a job and with no health benefits as unemployment in Michigan rose to become the highest in the country? And alongside the rise in unemployment came a sharp increase in infant mortality. Under Reagan, as Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of The United States, "New requirements eliminated free school lunches for more than one million poor children, who depended on the meal for as much as half of their daily nutrition. Millions of children entered the ranks of the officially declared 'poor' and soon a quarter of the nation's children—twelve million—were living in poverty. In parts of Detroit, one-third of the children were dying before their first birthday."
Reagan, who in a 1964 televised speech had joked: "We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry every night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet." And who two years later referred to unemployment insurance as "a prepaid vacation for freeloaders." Twenty years later, when he was president, Reagan appeared on Good Morning America and attempted to defend his callous disregard for the increasing phenomenon of destitute Americans, people with no roofs over their heads and no safety net to protect them. Reagan claimed, "What we have found in this country, and maybe we're more aware of it now, is one problem that we've had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice."
L: Ronald Reagan speaks out. R: Homeless in the USA.
Back in Detroit, how far the jaws of Republican delegates must have dropped when they encountered evermore disturbing scenarios in Ballard's text:
"Vaginal intercourse with 'Reagan' proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2 percent of subjects. … The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. … Multiple-track cine films were constructed of 'Reagan' in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto-collisions with one and three-year-old model changes, (c) with rear exhaust assemblies, (d) with Vietnamese child-atrocity victims."
Talk about bringing the war home. But Reagan had already done that himself as governor of California when he set the National Guard loose on demonstrators at San Francisco State University in 1967, where he was labeled "The Fascist Gun in the West." Reagan, who had glibly admitted to having been a C student at best, not only believed in asserting his full authority and silencing dissent, but may have been motivated by feelings of intellectual inferiority combined with greater political ambition. (Running for President in 1980, he famously weighed in on government assistance for higher education by asking, "Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?")
At UC, Berkeley in 1969—which Reagan characterized as "a haven for communist sympathizers … and sex deviants"—his true nature asserted itself in a devious game of entrapment. Students who had been allowed to assemble in a campus quad were blocked from leaving and, as if in a scene from Apocalypse Now, were tear-gassed from helicopters that circled ominously above.
Reagan's bitter hostility toward those who availed themselves of publicly funded higher education (‘copters never descended upon Stanford) is easy to understand in retrospect. Not only was the state paying the bill while the students questioned its very authority, but every student was one less body to enter the army and/or low-paid workforce. On behalf of the wealthy investors who backed Reagan in politics, and expected returns on that investment, as governor, and later as president, he would wage nothing less than class war, beginning in the classroom.
On May 15 of 1969, a day later referred to as "Bloody Thursday," Reagan’s chief of staff, Ed Meese, sent California Highway Patrol and police to chase down thousands of protestors at People's Park in Berkeley. The authorities shot demonstrators in the backs with buckshot, and some bystanders were hit with shotgun rounds. A 25-year-old student, James Rector, watching from the roof of the Telegraph Cinema, was hit in the chest and died four days later. Alan Blanchard, shot in the face at point-blank range with birdshot, was permanently blinded. (A number of photographs taken that day are credited to Kathryn Bigelow—one and the same as the director of the films Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker?) Less than a year would pass before Reagan offered a final word on student unrest when, on April 7, 1970, he chillingly announced, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement."
Reagan's words would serve as a declaration of war against Americans who sought to exercise their rights to assembly and free speech. (Deputy Attorney General "Buck" Compton, who Reagan appointed as an associate justice of the California Court of Appeal in 1970, dismissively insisted at the time that “free speech, civil rights, [and] rights to assembly have all become “clichés.”) With Reagan's implicit blessing, it was open season on dissenting students, and the governors of at least two other states—Jim Rhodes of Ohio, and John Bell Williams, the openly racist governor of Mississippi—heard him loud and clear.
L: National Guard at Kent State, May 4, 1970. R: The bullet-riddled dorm at Jackson State, May 15, 1970. Photo courtesy Jackson State University
Within a month, on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen had fired on protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four unarmed students, and wounding nine others. Eleven days later, on the campus of Jackson State, a black college in Jackson, Mississippi, two students were killed and 12 injured by police who fired in excess of 150 rounds, mostly into a women's dorm building. The tragic events at Kent continue to overshadow those at Jackson, where students were not protesting the war, but instead railing against the abusive, racist environment that they were subjected to on a daily basis. In 1970, civil rights in the South was still literally under fire. Reagan himself freely admitted in a 1966 interview with the Los Angeles Times, "I would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
The challenge for segregationists, particularly in reaction to the black power movement, was to devise new ways of keeping black people in their place, to never let them forget just who was in charge. It was no great stretch for them to see that if you can get away with shooting white students in the Midwest, nothing much stands in the way of shooting black students in the Deep South. After the incident in Jackson, wounded students were left lying on the ground for 20 minutes before ambulances were summoned, while police calmly collected their spent shell casings.
L: Ronald Reagan in Death Valley Days, photo via AP. R: Aiding an injured student at Kent, photo courtesy Kent State University
Rather than silence dissent, these assaults, clearly intended to serve as a brutal deterrent, may have had quite the opposite effect. The incidents shocked the country, calling even greater attention to the war at home and prompting millions of students and faculty to strike, forcing the shutdown of their high schools, colleges, and universities. Who can say how many, until then watching from the sidelines, were suddenly politicized? In a song written in response to Kent State, Neil Young began, "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio." He might just as well have written: "Tin soldiers and Reagan coming."
Rather than facing blame for inciting what amounted to state-sanctioned murder, Ronald Reagan was eventually propelled toward the White House. In the 1967 words of Ballard, "The profound anality of the Presidential contender may be expected to dominate the United States in the coming years."
Four months prior to the shootings at Kent, the artist Robert Smithson had created an earthwork on the campus titled Partially Buried Woodshed, not far from the bloody scene. Created by piling dirt upon the roof of an old utility shed until its support beam cracked, the work would later be seen as a memorial to the students shot down there, a symbol of the war waged against free speech and its internment. A year later in his essay, "A Cinematic Atopia," Smithson wrote: "Somewhere, at the bottom of my memory are the sunken remains of all the films I have seen, good and bad; they swarm together forming cinematic mirages, stagnant pools of images that cancel each other out." He might have been speaking, in a mental leap forward, of Reagan's own entropic mind and its eventual collapse.
At the 1980 Republican Convention, delegates had to confront images in the Reagan text that were simultaneously offensive, horrific, and banal, and were implicated in their revulsion:
"Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender's hair style. 65 per cent of male subjects made positive connections between the hair-style and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hair-styles were constructed."
And more shocking to the senses:
"The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear-exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, and (d) a child-victim of sexual assault. In 89 per cent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm."
Here, we can't help but be reminded of one of Reagan's most famous remarks, made at the beginning of his political life, although it turned out to be less than prophetic for his own trajectory: “Politics is just like show business. You need a big opening. Then you coast for a while. Then you need a big finish.”
Those days seem both long ago and not so far away. The smoke has cleared but the mirrors remain. In the Reagan text, with his calmly measured, forensic language, Ballard comes firmly to grips with both the superficiality of the man and the general public's inability to penetrate its surface, desiring but denied, consuming and being consumed by the cine-spectacle of violence and its graphic undertow. This is the dual fantasy/fiction that Ballard saw as invading everyday life in the 60s, which he exaggerated to view more clearly. This is the fantasyland that was exploited by the Reaganites, who reshaped America into the theme park that it is today. But it's not so easy to say, "That was then," as if the past somehow can't haunt us if we refuse to be spooked. Gore Vidal's acerbic construction was never more true: The United States of Amnesia.
The fact that many of us willingly create and delete our own fictions, endless surfaces that are reflectively opaque, raises a leading question. If you can never see what's on the other side of the black mirror, is anything actually there? The illusion of choice, and thus of free will, is today most effectively compressed in a handheld device, where a vast array of information is at our fingertips while the world is kept at arm's length. Regular doses of avoidance/diversion, supremely banal forms of self-repression, are not only self-administered, but we pay for the privilege. That dissent remains alive is the only hopeful sign, even in a time when dissent is once again the single greatest trigger for greater social control.
We all—including the president—have our parts to play, but Ballard injects his own particular dose of reality into the equation when he suggests that it probably doesn't matter who occupies the Oval Office. "He is," Ballard asserts, "merely the Chairman of the Board. The President of the United States bears about as much relationship to the business of running America as does Colonel Sanders to the business of frying chicken. He is a warm, reassuring smile on the packaging." Ballard concludes that America has had "great, great presidents as well as corrupt presidents, and I think in the case of some, almost the same man." To which we might add: every president is an outlier, but not an out-and-out liar.
"Fragments of Reagan's cinetized posture were used in the construction of model psychodramas in which the Reagan-figure played the role of husband, doctor, insurance salesman, marriage counsellor, etc. The failure of these roles to express any meaning reveals the non-functional character of Reagan. Reagan's success therefore indicates society's periodic need to re-conceptualize its political leaders. Reagan thus appears as a series of posture concepts, basic equations which re-formulate the roles of aggression and anality."
Movies provided a means for Reagan to connect to reality, particularly as his grasp became less firm, and as the past took on greater presence for him than the moment in which he stood. But would it also possess a significant believability?
In her book, Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, Frances Fitzgerald tells us how the President most likely conceived of missile defense, without any help from NASA or the Pentagon, or any scientific proof, but directly from his personal recollection of the movies.
"In 1940, appearing in the Warner Brothers thriller Murder in the Air, Reagan played an American secret agent charged with protecting a super weapon that could strike all enemy planes from the air. Seed planted in Reagan's brain. Then in 1966, Alfred Hitchcock released a Reagan favorite, Torn Curtain, in which American agent Paul Newman works on developing an anti-missile missile. In words that must have made Ronnie tingle, Newman's character asserts: 'We will produce a defensive weapon that will make all nuclear weapons obsolete, and thereby abolish the terror of nuclear warfare.' Sound familiar? Reagan used almost the exact words in selling missile defense from the office, 17 years later."
Looking back on Reagan in the introduction to the 1990 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard remarked:
"Ronald Reagan's presidency remained a complete mystery to most Europeans, though I noticed that Americans took him far more easily in their stride. But the amiable old duffer who occupied the White House was a very different person from the often sinister figure I described in 1967 … The then-novelty of a Hollywood film star entering politics and becoming governor of California gave Reagan considerable air time on British TV. Watching his right-wing speeches, in which he castigated in sneering tones the profligate, welfare-spending, bureaucrat-infested state government, I saw a more crude and ambitious figure, far closer to the brutal crime boss he played in the 1964 movie, The Killers, his last Hollywood role. In his commercials Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan's manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other. Above all, it struck me that Reagan was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth. Though the man himself mellowed, his later presidency seems to have run the same formula."
Death Valley Days
Within two years of leaving office, Alzheimer's had overtaken Reagan’s mind. When he went for a walk in the park near his home, he always had a Secret Service agent to accompany him, although that would have been the case regardless. Rumor has it that, on occasion, after being greeted by a well-wisher who was cautiously allowed to approach, Reagan would mention to the agent, beaming with a sense of satisfaction, "They still remember me from my movies," without the slightest recollection that he had at one time been President of the United States. While this is a disease that is so particularly cruel, how many of us can't help but think of Alzheimer's—particularly with his callous indifference to AIDS, the poor, and his general lack of compassion—as the man's divine retribution?
The Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Library, with the Presidential limousine, code named Stagecoach, in the foreground.
If you happen to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, there is one display that is sure to stand out: a Röhm RG-14 revolver, identical to the one used by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 30, 1981, complete with a set of bullets, though perhaps not including the one that punctured his lung. It is there to remind us of his Teflon armor, for on that day the president, codenamed "Rawhide" by the Secret Service, was not wearing a bullet-proof vest. That he survived the attempt is a key piece of a puzzle, "the Reagan mystique," that remains incomplete. As Reagan famously asked in one of his movies, eyes wide in panicked disbelief, "Where's the rest of me?"
Most American presidents are preoccupied with their legacies—many while still in office—and yet there Reagan was, in his not-so-golden twilight, perhaps never for a moment showing the least bit of concern for his own. No longer aware of why he was recognized those days in the park, or that he had once been shot and came so close to death, the essential fact of who he was had been lost to the man himself. While many tend carefully to Reagan's legacy, it is in the end a last will and testament of sorts, with claimants and relations estranged, and it can only be forever contested.
Although we are often told not to speak ill of the dead, doesn't this really depend on the body in question and what's at stake? For even in death Reagan continues to pose a threat to the well being of this country, and by extension the rest of the world. Ronald Reagan is gone yet lives on, partially buried, perpetually exhumed, no matter how many nails are driven into his memory-coffin. Why, then, write anything else? Even an obituary to an obituary? The fact that Reagan is a hero to the neo-cons who are invested in his ongoing deification should be reason enough, with praise flowing from all sides, even from our current chairman of the board. But there's more, and it takes us back to the period in which Ballard wrote the Reagan text, to the winter of 1967-68, surely a winter of discontent. It was then, as reported verbatim by History Commons, that civil disturbance plans were set into motion at the Pentagon.
“In the wake of anti-war demonstrations and urban rioting in several US cities, the Pentagon establishes a set of civil disturbance plans designed to put down political protests and civil unrest. Conducted under the codename Operation Garden Plot, the new program significantly increases the role of the military in training for and intervening in social uprisings. The Pentagon develops contingency plans for every city considered to have potential for uprisings by students, minorities, or labor unions. … Operation Cable Splicer, for instance, covers the states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. Each region will conduct exercises and war games to practice and develop its individual plans. To oversee the operations, the Pentagon establishes the Directorate of Civil Disturbance and Planning Operations. The directorate will operate from the basement of the Pentagon in what becomes known as the 'domestic war room.'”
February 10, 1969:
California Governor Ronald Reagan, along with a variety of other local, state, and federal officials, kicks off a regional exercise known as Cable Splicer II at the Governor’s Orientation Conference. … Governor Reagan addresses an audience of approximately 500 Army officials and troops, local and state police officers, military intelligence personnel, private executives, and state legislators. “You know,” he says, “there are people in the state who, if they could see this gathering right now and my presence here, would decide that their worst fears and convictions had been realized—I was planning a military takeover.”
In other words, a coup d'etat in these United States, or laying the groundwork for the bloodiest of Westerns, a far greater and more terrifying fiction than even Ballard might have imagined. The fact that he foresaw where Reagan might end up, that he was able to conceive that narrative in 1967, is because Ballard clearly saw where America was heading. As the governor of California, Reagan probably couldn't have been elected president. Not only was he still too close to Hollywood and to his betrayals there, he was simply too volatile and too ruthless—cast in stone as the "tough guy" when he auditioned for top billing—he was too far from the softer, folksy, grandfatherly part he would later accept. After all, what plays on a small stage in a turbulent time doesn't translate well to a bigger arena once a sense of innocence has been forever lost.
Reagan came from the West, the last refuge of the outlaw and murderous expansion, of "heroic" and senseless violence in America. JFK had been shot in Dallas, and RFK not far from the Hollywood sign. These were productions that could only have been staged in the West. So too were the attempts on the life of Jerry Ford. The attempt on Reagan's life, just blocks from the White House, was a visible sign that he had brought the cinematic Wild West with him, a shooting that was filmed for all to see. And just like in the movies, the star survives.
That certain persons in 1980 took Ballard's text and dropped it upon unsuspecting delegates at the 1980 Republican convention remains remarkably unparalleled, for a more plausible incendiary device has never been so brilliantly set off. If only one of those operatives would come forward now, to let us know how the mission was planned and accomplished, how the "official report" was received, and what really happened that day. After all, enough time has passed, and was this really anything more than criminal mischief? Where the presidential contender was concerned, his crimes and sins had been committed long before, although there were so many more to come.