For the last 20 years, I have never been a big fan of the textbook. They serve a small purpose to a very small point. For me, the small point of the textbook is to have it be the basis for an argument. As a teacher of US History, I try to have my students make arguments and analysis based on facts. An opinion usually sneaks in here or there, but that is fine once in a while. The past week has found me ending a unit in my history classes. The foundation for the unit is the shift from a moderate populace to a more conservative one in the 1980s. At the center of this shift is none other than Ronald Reagan.
I have blogged about Reagan before. He is an enigma, a wildly popular president and for the life of I have a hard time understanding why sometimes as I look at the record. However, as a teacher, I have to make my own students make their own choices.
Whether it was SDI, the conservative movement, cartoons, supply side economics, or one of many other events, I have been slowly accumulating lessons about the Gipper. 20 years ago, he took up one day. Now, he takes up six. The reason for the change has been the effect Reagan still has on the Republican party and on middle America. I grew in Reagan country and still live here as an adult. I have not always agreed with his policies and I have not agreed with his legacy. For the students, the enigma of how Reagan became so influential is perplexing.
The Unit Begins
1. The Malaise
The Fallout of Watergate and Vietnam are examined in this introductory lesson. Topics include the Halloween Massacre, the continuing energy crisis, the election of 1976, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the continuing malaise during the Carter presidency.
2. Culture of the 1970s
Students learn about the fabulous and the dangerous late 1970s culture through my eyes. I talk about my days of nerd heaven between Star Wars and beginning to play Dungeons and Dragons. I also take about the scourge of Disco and the coming of Punk. New technologies are also discussed like the Microwave and cable TV.
3. Reagan and his first term
In the third lesson, I finally get to Reagan. We discuss his background of growing up in nearby Tampico and Dixon and his early career. We reminisce about HUAC and discuss his time as Governor of California. Finally, we get to the election of 1980. After a short PPT presentation, the students read about his first term and discuss things that went well and things that didn’t. Students discuss the merits of his presidency and do a cartoon worksheet which.
4. The Great Communicator
Five speeches are examined as students make a product about Reagan’s speaking ability. A Time for Choosing, the Challenger Speech, Tear Down this Wall, Evil Empire Speech, and the Iran Contra Speech. The goal is to break down the elements of what made Reagan and effective speaker. Here are two of the speeches…
Students review Reagan’s first term. Then a discussion is held about why people are certain denominations of money. Bills are discussed and not coins. Then in small groups, they read a balanced account of economic indicators about Reaganomics. Students make a t-chart and place the items in either good or bad.
With the advice from former president Richard Nixon, Reagan concentrated on economic issues his first six months in office. Reaganomics was the name given to the supply-side economic theory which Reagan based his economic plans. It operated on the belief that the economy was struggling in large part because of excessive taxation. With more money going to taxes, individuals and corporations were unable to invest capital to stimulate growth. The plan called for massive tax cuts in order to stimulate investments. The economic growth would then `trickle down` to the workers. Supply side economics also called for budget cuts to counteract the loss of revenue from the tax cuts. Reagan followed this model in creating his budget plan in 1981. Reagan put together legislation that cut government expenditures by $40 billion and created a three-year tax cut plan for individual and corporate income taxes. The tax cut was the largest in history and was expected to jump-start the economy. However, after the bills passed in the summer of 1981, the country fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Interest rates fell six points.
Eight million new jobs were created as unemployment fell.
An eight percent growth in private wealth.
According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1996, the number of people (white, black, and Hispanic) below the poverty level increased in almost every year between 1981 (31.8 million) and 1992 (39.3 million).
We were $994 billion in debt in fiscal 1981, when Carter left off, and $2,867 billion when Reagan leaves office in fiscal 1989. The rough number is 2.85 times as much in 1989 as in 1981.
The primary reason the deficit grew during the Reagan years was the Cold War military buildup.
Tax cuts did revenues increased in fact in almost a straight progression from pre-Reagan years.
The trade deficit quadrupled.
The 1986 Tax Reform Act is widely considered to be the best piece of American tax legislation since the adoption of the income tax. It is the opposite of Reaganomics. Over its first five years, it closed more than $500 billion in loopholes and tax shelters. As a result:
•Major U.S. corporations that previously had paid little or nothing in income taxes due to loopholes were put back on the tax rolls, and corporate taxes were increased overall by a net of more $100 billion over five years.
•A huge wasteful tax-shelter industry for high-income individuals was shut down.
• Tax rates on capital gains income were raised to the same level as on other income.
• Millions of moderate-income working families got tax relief through a major expansion of the earned-income tax credit.
• Taxes on most families (on average, all but the best-off tenth) were reduced. (The table shows the tax changes by income group.)
• The income tax was substantially simplified for most filers.
The average annual growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP) from 1981 to 1989 was 3.2 percent per year, compared with 2.8 percent from 1974 to 1981 and 2.1 percent from 1989 to 1995.
During the economic expansion alone, the economy grew by a robust annual rate of 3.8 percent. By the end of the Reagan years, the American economy was almost one-third larger than it was when they began.
When Reagan took office in 1981, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. In the recession of 1981-82, that rate peaked at 9.7 percent, but it fell continuously for the next seven years. When Reagan left office, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent.
Real median family income grew by $4,000 during the Reagan period after experiencing no growth in the pre-Reagan years; it experienced a loss of almost $1,500 in the post-Reagan years.
The savings rate did not rise in the 1980s, as supply side advocates had predicted. In fact, in the 1980s the personal savings rate fell from 8 percent to 6.5 percent. If the median family was better off why did their savings go down?
In 1993 Clinton raised the taxes on the rich, the opposite of Reaganomics, opponents argued that this would stop the growing economy. That did not happen.
Not surprisingly, students understand most of the economic discussion held. As a class we discuss which fact goes on which side. Most of the time it is clear cut, but there are some facts up for debate. Students look at a graph and answer some questions about the chart and conservative thought. Then, using the t-chart, the students determine whether Reagan should be put on the $10 bill replacing Alexander Hamilton.
6. Foreign Affairs
Students review what they already know about Reagan and foreign affairs from his speeches. Then a cartoon is analyzed. Students get a blank map and using text boxes and arrows, they read their textbook and fill out where the hot spots that Reagan had to deal with. Reagan’s dealing with Central America are discussed as well as Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Reagan Doctrine. Students then get a worksheet to analyze the Iran-Contra affair. In the worksheet are what other options did Reagan have and other solutions to the problem.
Students go to the computer lab and read a PPT a student did for National History Day about Reagan and SDI. At the end of the PowerPoint are a series of questions about how SDI influenced foreign affairs in the summits with Gorbachev and the functionality of SDI today.
8. Reagan in Cartoons
Students go to the computer lab and analyze a selection of about 30 cartoons about Reagan. Students pick out ten and explain how the cartoons reflect the presidency of Reagan – both good and bad. Using what they have learned in previous lessons as evidence, the students put it altogether.
While the Reagan Lessons are over, the unit continues for another week and a half as students examine George H.W. Bush, Desert Storm, the Clinton Legacy, Columbine and 1990s culture.
Altogether, the unit lasts about 4 weeks. It is a unit that is always evolving. As more and more information is released and more and more documents are released from the Reagan era, then lessons can be built around investigation and argument. I think that next year, I would like to add some video which discusses the presidency as a whole and add some polling data about his popularity. In addition, I would like to add a scenario or a simulation for the students to investigate Iran-Contra or dealing with the Soviets.
At its core, the lessons are about using the evidence to make arguments for both sides as the students form their own opinions and learn multiple points of view.
On August 9. 1974, my friend Dean Harrison celebrated his tenth birthday. That same day, Richard Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford took over the Presidency and the Republican Party would never be the same. No longer a moderate force in American Politics, the party of Eisenhower shifted from the center to the right. In the fall of 1975, Gerald Ford cemented his stamp on the party in what has become known as the Halloween Massacre.
When Ford took over, most of Nixon’s staff that were not in jail remained on the job. Ford put his own stamp on his administration by firing Henry Kissinger as the National Security Adviser, William Colby as the CIA Director, and James Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense. In were Brent Scowcroft as the NSA, George HW Bush as head of the CIA, and Ford’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld, would take over at Defense. Ford’s actions took the nation by surprise.
To many Americans, his actions seemed abrupt, not to say panicky. Instead of strength and certainty, he conveyed the impression that he was bumbling and dominated by political motives. 1
Those political motives would be Ford’s possible re-election in 1976. At the same time, it was also announced that Ford’s Vice-President, Nelson Rockefeller, would not be on the ticket should Ford win the nomination in 1976 (which Ford did). The moderates had been purged.
While today one might see the machinations of the massacre as being done by Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, at the time Ford took all the credit.
Ford insisted that he only wanted to field “my own team” in the crucial area of national security; he invoked the word team 16 times during a 33-minute televised press conference, four times in a single sentence. He exulted, “I did it totally on my own. It was my decision. I fitted the pieces together, and they fitted excellently … These are my guys.” 2
Also coming into the limelight replacing Rumsfeld as Ford’s Chief of Staff was one Dick Cheney. At the time, the purge was seen as a risky maneuver, but in hindsight it was a momentous shift in the thought process of the Republican Party. “Gone” was governing from the center and “in” was governing from the right. The conservatives wasted no time.
Rumsfeld and Cheney quickly gained control of the White House staff, edging out Ford’s old aides. From this base, they waged bureaucratic war on Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, a colossus of foreign policy, who occupied the posts of both secretary of state and national security advisor. Rumsfeld and Cheney were the right wing of the Ford administration, opposed to the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, and they operated by stealthy internal maneuver. The Secret Service gave Cheney the code name “Backseat.” 3
It is interesting that even in 1975, Cheney’s and Rumsfeld ‘s tactics were still the same as they would be in the Bush administration some twenty five plus years later. Outed in recent books, Bush at War, State of Denial, Plan of Attck, Fiasco, and Gamble, the machinations of the two now have brought down the party that has put America on the brink, both financially and by stretching our military thin by fighting two wars at once.
In the coming years the party will try to rebuild after the crushing defeat of McCain by Obama in 2008. The party is fractured and doing so in public. This fallout could take years as the status quo of the conservative wing avoids changing in any fashion to move to the center. In fact it is going public by condoning, even rationalizing, its mistakes of the last 8 years which led to them being voted out. Be it on talk shows or the radio, the party is sinking in public forums from the defeat. It is odd that one of the people who helped to build the conservative Republican Party of today is trying to hold it together against all the forces of nature and the changing demographics and goals of America. Abortion, Gay Marriage, National Security, and other stalwart issues of the Republican party are not on the mind of most Americans. What is on their collective mind is the economy, energy independence, education, cheaper health care, dwindling savings, and the environment.
The first words of Frank’s Herbert’s Dune proclaim: “Every revolution carries within it the seeds of its own destruction”. What Ford created by bringing the conservatives forward in 1975 ultimately may doom the party and the Republicans could go the way of the Whigs. For if the Republican Party cannot come up with new ideas, even their old ideas will soon be forgotten.
1 – “Ford’s Costly Purge”. Time Magazine. November 17, 1975.
2 – Blumenthal, Sidney. “The Long March of Dick Cheney”. History News Network. November 28, 2005.