Rosy Outlook Hid Ugly Facts From Reagan
By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page B01
Ray Lamb's story was the kind that Ronald Reagan so winningly used to turn the policies of the world's most powerful nation.
I met Lamb in 1988 in Alderson, W.Va., on a farm atop a mountain, a place where men like him who lived on Washington's heating grates could go for sanctuary.
Ray Lamb had been on the streets since 1981. He was a bright man and carried a Bible with him, as well as books about beekeeping. He also drank -- a lot. At the farm, where no alcohol was allowed, Lamb spent weeks by himself in a tiny log cabin, praying and reading. He read religious works and inspirational tracts. When I was there, he was deep into a volume called "The Incredible Human Potential."
"When I come here," Lamb told me out in the cabin, "I quit drinking fast, and it is great. I can even see a little better. Everything's changing for me. I take a deep breath, sit out here, watch the sun rise, eat off the land. Berries. Nuts. Find a honeycomb."
President Reagan could hear a story like Lamb's and spin it into a lesson for us all about the power each of us has to rise up from the depths and grab hold of life's opportunities. This was more than an actor's ability to enliven a character; there was in Reagan an imaginative empathy that connected with people of all walks.
Reagan would have left out the rest of Lamb's story, the part about how he had been working and functioning up until 1981, when Reagan fired all of the country's air traffic controllers because they had launched an illegal strike. Lamb had been a controller for 17 years, working in Leesburg.
"Ray's world fell apart," said Michael Kirwan, a saintly man who would drive the homeless of Washington to that farm and knew Lamb well. Kirwan, who has since died, would not have blamed Lamb's fall on the president, nor do I.
Sacking the controllers and hiring new ones was classic Reagan, a dramatic demonstration that, despite his amiable manner, he meant business. It was one of his boldest, most effective moves.
But it was also classic Reagan in that the president did what he believed was right and was able to maintain absolute deniability about any pain that resulted from his actions because he filtered out such bad news. He could say with apparent honesty that he didn't know his administration had traded arms for hostages in the Iran-contra scandal. He could say that there couldn't be much unemployment because the Sunday paper was chockablock with help wanted ads.
And he could visit Congress Heights Elementary School in the District and get chummy with his student pen pal, Rudolph Hines, and even travel to the Hines family's wretched patch of Southeast for a fried chicken dinner, yet remain oblivious to the hopelessness, dysfunction and utter separation of that part of this nation.
Those of us who never quite got the adoration that Reagan engendered couldn't get past his seeming blindness to the homeless and the jobless and the lost. Reagan freed Americans to believe that looking out for number one was morally and socially okay, that a happy and consuming middle class would lift up those below.
But what came out of those years was an ever-wider gap between the incomes and experiences of the haves and the have-nots. In this city, Experience Unlimited, the great go-go band, sang of Reaganomics, "No matter what they cut back, we're going to say, 'Ooh la la la' to that," and a generation that saw no way out other than the foolish dreams of hustling and pro sports was lost to crack, music videos and a deepening disconnect from the ideals of work and family.
The picture of Reagan we see this week is filled with the soft images and gentle words his administration worked so hard and effectively to create, and there can be no question that he was an extraordinary politician and ultimately far less doctrinaire than some admirers make him out to be.
Almost since the day he left office, those who were captivated by his idea that the selfish life could be a morally upstanding one have sought to turn Reagan into an icon. Soon, the campaign to put a Reagan memorial on the Mall will begin anew. It doesn't seem to matter to that crowd that Reagan himself signed into law a bill that barred any memorial from being built until 25 years after the honoree's death. Like their hero, they can't be bothered with the facts.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company