The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Politics is just like show business, you have a hell of an opening, coast for a while and then have a hell of a close."...  ...Ronald Reagan.

Commentary of the Day - June 8, 2004:  Reagan - The Ultimate Salesman.

Ronald Reagan's passing at age 93 this past week brings to mind the complex nature of the 40th president of the United States of America.  Reagan had an uncanny ability to convince the public of his sincerity even though the veracity of his public remarks often were in doubt.  His optimism and affability were infectious, and unlike some of his conservative colleagues, he maintained cordial relations with many in politics who did not share his views.  And, unlike many on the right, he was able to compromise.  Though he held strong core beliefs, he was more pragmatic than most other conservative politicians.

Reagan honed his communication skills as a sportscaster, a motion picture and television actor, and as a pitchman for General Electric.  In the end he had become the ultimate salesman.  He had both a great sense of humor, and the ability to believe fully in the product that he was selling.  Although he often conflated myth with reality when he was speaking, he never came across as phony.

History ultimately will render a judgment about the effectiveness of his two terms as Governor of California and his eight years in the Presidency.  But, his popularity during his tenure in these offices cannot be denied.  He was dubbed the "teflon president" because the scandals of his administration never seemed to tarnish his reputation.  Though the Iran-Contra affair remains one of the low points in American diplomacy and probably would have sunk most other presidents, Reagan somehow avoided being tarnished by it by being rather straight-forward in accepting blame while telling us most sincerely that the wrongdoing was carried out by underlings without his knowledge.

While the economic and foreign policy aspects of the Reagan presidency rightly will be the focus of historians and political analysts for years to come, he also had an effect on other aspects of public policy (including education) that often is not widely appreciated.  For example, during his tenure as governor here in California he closed most of the state mental hospitals.  He and his advisors recognized that the advent of psychotropic drugs made it possible to control many of the symptoms of serious mental illnesses such schizophrenia, and to allow those suffering from these diseases to function again in society.

He convinced the legislature (controlled at the time by Democrats) that it would be cheaper, more humane, and more effective to treat the mentally ill in community "half-way houses".  The legislature, with some help from civil libertarians, bought into the idea and closed many of the state mental hospitals.  This trend eventually worked its way across the country.  Unfortunately, the money needed to set up community mental health clinics never materialized at the level needed for an effective system; and, changes in the laws championed by advocates for the mentally ill made it nearly impossible to force mentally ill individuals to remain on needed medications.  The unintended consequence of Reagan's no doubt sincere efforts to reduce government expenditures for the mentally ill and to provide them more humane treatment surrounds us every day.  A significant part of our homeless population is comprised of mentally ill people who do not take their medication on a regular basis, and who do not receive the support that they need to cope with the stresses of everyday life.

Reagan became governor at a time when student unrest over the war in Vietnam was reaching a crescendo.  Protests on campuses up and down the state were becoming uglier by the day, and the Reagan administration cracked down hard.  Some of the most vocal and violent protests took place on the University of California Berkeley campus.  In response, Reagan sent in the national guard to quell the demonstrations and used his position as an ex officio member of the Board of Regents to engineer the dismissal of U.C. president Clark Kerr.

The animosity between Reagan and his adversaries on the University of California campuses led him to cut the budget of the "elitist" U.C. system by 10%.  At the same time, he ingratiated himself to middle-class voters by approving modest increases in funding for the more egalitarian California State University system.  State budget shortfalls during his first term required further cuts to the higher education budget, but throughout his two terms as governor Reagan consistently favored the California State University system over the U.C. system.  But, for all his rhetoric about cutting budgets by the end of his second term the state's overall higher education budget actually had increased slightly.  Neither the U.C. nor the State University System fared very well under his Democratic successor, but the gradual erosion in the quality of the University of California had its origins in the first Reagan term.

When he was running for his first presidential term Reagan campaigned on the abolition of the federal Department of Education, and on cutting the federal education budget (along with the remainder of the federal budget).  However, he never was able to do either.  Early in his first term as president he did succeed in eliminating most of the National Science Foundation's science education programs.  Initially, only the graduate fellowship programs survived Reagan's budget ax.  But without Republican majorities in Congress, these programs eventually were restored and expanded.

Reagan had more success in cutting student aid funds and in shifting federal education programs to the states through block grants.  Terrel Bell, Reagan's first Secretary of Education, actually resigned in protest over the extent of these budget cuts.  This was unfortunate because his replacement, William Bennett, was a far more doctrinaire critic of higher education.  Many of the political appointees on Bennett's staff seemed to take great joy in running down public education, and in maneuvering around court-ordered desegregation programs.  However, in the final year of Reagan's second term, Bennett actually supported increases in student aid funds, and in the federal education budget.  Perhaps the most significant policy shift that took place during this period was the transition from student aid grants to student loan programs.  These programs, which had strong support from conservative banking interests, helped to broaden the base of support for students seeking higher education but in the end leave most college graduates heavily in debt upon graduation.

In the end Reagan's quest for a smaller, less expensive federal government was a failure.  The size of the federal bureaucracy had increased by some 68,000 workers, taxes had been raised, and the deficit had doubled by the time he left office.  But, he was such a good salesman that most Americans thought otherwise.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.