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Amid Reagan praises, here's a voice of dissent

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The Reagan revolution began in 1980 in Philadelphia, Miss.

Philadelphia, a speck of town north and east of Jackson, is infamous as the place three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 for registering black people to vote. Now here came Ronald Reagan, Republican presidential aspirant, opening his campaign at a fair that for generations had served as a forum for segregationists, and offering thinly veiled support for their cause.

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"I believe in state's rights," he said.

His death last weekend has to it, as you might expect, a sense of national moment. Flags at half-staff, long lines snaking into the Capitol to pay final respects. His widow weeps, his supporters grieve and I'd have been content to leave them their space, to watch it all in respectful silence.

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Except that it's getting kind of deep around here, if you catch my drift. Any deeper and we'll all need hip boots.

I refer, in case my drift goes uncaught, to the fulsome media tributes that have attended the former president's death. Not just fulsome, but uncritical, bereft of balance, lacking perspective.

If all you knew of Ronald Reagan is what you saw on newscasts or read in the initial coverage from The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Miami Herald, you'd think him a cross between Wilford Brimley and John Rambo, a twinkle-eyed grandfather with a fondness for jelly beans who single-handedly saved America, kicked the Commies in the butt, and maybe even found a cure for the common cold while he was at it. You'd never know about what he said in Mississippi.

It's hardly uncommon to speak well of the recently departed. And there is certainly much about the former president's tenure that merits celebration. He restored "can do" to the American lexicon, his vibrant optimism a jolt of adrenaline after the dour Carter years and the criminality of the Nixon gang. He pushed communism to the breaking point. He called the Soviet Union what it was - an empire of evil. He changed the political landscape.

But my point here is that some of us also knew another Ronald Reagan, and he was conspicuous by his absence from much of last week's coverage.

Some of us remember his cuts in federal lunch programs for poor children and his claim that ketchup is a vegetable.

Some of us remember Americans dying by the thousands from AIDS while their president breathed not a word.

Some of us remember finding homeless people sleeping under freeway overpasses.

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And some of us were there when the cities imploded, rent by a cheap and insanely addictive new drug called crack. It turned our mothers into prostitutes, our fathers into zombies, our children into orphans, our communities into killing fields. We looked to the White House for help and received in response a ruinous "war on drugs" and this advice from the first lady: "Just say no."

To the degree those things are missing from their analyses, news media embarrassed themselves last week. They rewrote history and slapped on a happy face. It's not an issue of respecting the deceased. It is, rather, an issue of telling the whole truth.

So let me say this for the record: Some of us watch these proceedings with the sober respect you'd have for any loss of life, but also with dry eyes. The media have sold us a fraudulent version of history. Everybody loved Ronald Reagan, it says.

Beg pardon, but "everybody" did not.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.


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