The über-avuncular Ronald Reagan seems to be everyone’s favorite president these days. For those who were there at the time, this brief history of the ’80s serves as a reminder of a different man and mood.
Reagan promised a “nostalgic, flag-wrapped conservatism.” What he delivered made the country safe for Dick Cheney’s mean-spirited us-against-them view of the world, which had plenty of critics but few on-the-barricades opponents. Martin (History/Bryant Univ.; The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America, 2004) reminds us that there was plenty of oppositional politics during Reagan’s two terms, not principally on the floor of the Congress but instead courtesy of loosely knit alliances of environmentalists, feminists, liberals, leftists, progressives, civil-rights activists and antinuclear/antiwar types. These alliances, writes the author, largely “made possible the age of Obama.” ACT UP, for instance, alienated conservatives but drew needed attention to the AIDS crisis in the days when it was first emerging and was very little understood. Ultimately, its consciousness-raising even forced a formerly dismissive Reagan to acknowledge that the AIDS threat was real, and not just confined to the gay community. The antinuclear/antiwar community, from the women of Greenham Common in Britain to the Ground Zero activists here, brought such pressure to bear on both Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev that arms-reduction talks were all but inevitable. Given that Reagan seems to have been inclined already to ending the spread of nuclear weapons, that assertion is debatable. Less arguable is the role that the widespread anti-apartheid movement in the United States, including corporate- and academic-divestiture campaigns, played in ending whites-only rule in South Africa.
A readable stroll into the bad old days of Piss Christ and Jesse Helms—and guaranteed to make you dig up your Black Flag and Minor Threat tapes.