I was 12 when I fell for Ronald Reagan. It was the spring of 1976, when the B-actor and A-plus pitchman was mounting his right-wing challenge to the accidental president, Gerald Ford. After squandering an early lead in the polls and losing several key primaries, Reagan had to win my home state of North Carolina to salvage his chances for the GOP nomination—and his political career. So there he was, in my factory city’s plug-ugly auditorium, introduced by Jimmy Stewart and playing the role of a whole new Mr. Smith, eager to go to Washington and challenge the corrupt and godless enemy who’d stolen the freedom of everyday Americans: big, bad, grasping, evil Government.
The Gipper explained it all: How the Eastern liberal elites had ruthlessly conspired to steal the hard-earned wages of working stiffs like my daddy. How they’d used their ill-gotten gains to enrich welfare queens and union bosses and commie professors. But he conveyed this anti-democratic nihilism with a warm wide grin and an infectious, aw-shucks chuckle. I didn’t know it then, but Reagan was performing a terrible miracle: turning a rich man’s politics into an uplifting, flag-waving, Disneyesque populism.
I ate his bullshit up. And so did North Carolina Republicans, who gave Reagan a surprise victory and kept his hopes alive. But then, just a few months later, the strangest thing happened. Being a precocious little political geek, I watched every minute of the Democratic National Convention on our color-challenged TV—and was confronted, on its opening night, with a whole ‘nother brand of American idealism. It came in the form of the keynote speaker: a black congresswoman (say what?) from Houston, Texas.
Like Reagan, Barbara Jordan spoke of “the feeling that the grand American experiment is failing, or has failed.” But the solution she offered was worlds apart. Where Reagan peddled black-and-white nostalgia, this shocking woman spoke of Technicolor truths, of racial, gender and class inequities. But she did not dwell on lamentations: “I could recite these problems and then I could sit down and offer no solutions,” she declared. “But I don’t choose to do that.”
What Jordan chose to do was inform the country that the government was not inevitably our enemy, for all its failures. “The people are the source of all governmental power,” she declared. If we didn’t take that power, she warned, we would “cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual.
“If that happens,” she asked, “who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?”
Where Reagan had tickled my fancy, Jordan had blown my tiny mind—and ruined a right-winger in the making. She’d delivered one of the greatest political orations in American history, a prescient antidote to Reaganism.
But here in Jordan’s home state, 35 years later, we are now confronted with the dire consequences of the disastrous choice most Americans and Texans made—the embrace of a 12-year-old’s politics, of the simplistic fictions of the Reagans and Bushes and Rick Perrys. Millions of Texans suffer, every second of every day, while the rich get fatter and the corporations get meaner and the people’s government gets demonized. And those sufferings are about to be multiplied, as a $27 billion budget deficit created by Perry and his tax-slashing cronies threatens to decimate our already pathetic schools, to sentence our mentally ill to lives of desperation, and to condemn our impoverished elderly to die, uncared-for, in nursing homes with zeroed-out funding.
To care about any of this, we are told, is to be socialist, to be anti-American. Barbara Jordan told us something different: That we can either swallow the rich man’s lie that government is our enemy, or muster up the courage to make the government our own again.
Interestingly enough, in this centennial year of Reagan’s birth, it is also the 75th anniversary of Jordan’s. And as hard as it may be to imagine, we still have a choice—the one that Jordan articulated so masterfully on that July night of America’s bicentennial year.
“Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit sharing in a common endeavor, or will we become a divided nation?” Jordan asked. “There is no executive order, there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.”
No president, and no governor. The decision is still ours to make.