Ronald Reagan

John Chambers – The Real Master of Disguise: Studio 6, Argo, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

John Chambers was a respected makeup artist in Hollywood. But most people did not know until recently that Chambers, an Academy Award Winning makeup artist, also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for most of his career. Chambers, the man behind “The Planet of the Apes” masks did some of his best work for “the company” and it will never be seen. Recently, the movie “Argo,” directed by Ben Affleck, delivers some aspects of what Chambers did for the CIA in one operation in 1979 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

John Chambers was born and raised in Illinois. During World War II, the young Chambers served as a medic technician. After the war, Chambers came home to Illinois and worked at the Veteran’s Hospital in Hines, Illinois. There, Chambers began his first work in prosthetics. Hines helped soldiers from the war with fake limbs and prosthetics for their face. The skills Chambers developed at the hospital led to his getting makeup gigs. First was NBC in 1953, and then later Universal Studios. His work on TV in the 1960s included the shows The Munsters and Spock’s ears on Star Trek, and ironically, masks on the TV show Mission Impossible. In 1968, Chambers did his greatest work developing the masks for “The Planet of the Apes.” His work resulted in a special Academy Award just for his efforts.

In addition, Chambers mentored many future make-up artists. Some would call him a surrogate father, His influence in the industry was far-reaching. Famed makeup artist Michael Westmore (Star Wars, Star Trek) said of John,

“John had a reputation for being a very talented individual. I was in my last year of my apprenticeship at Universal and John basically had knowledge of doing everything. John’s forte from working as a dental technician in the Army was teeth — he taught me how to make teeth. When I got the job supervising [‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’] I made all the alien teeth.”

All the while, Chambers had begun working with the CIA in developing disguises. By the late 1960s, Chambers had befriended a young CIA agent, Tony Mendez. Mendez had first sought help from Walt Disney, but is was Chambers who helped Mendez design “disguise kits” for operatives. Chambers helped Mendez with CIA missions in Laos, Poland, and Russia. In 1979, Mendez called upon Chambers once again. However, this time, Chambers’ connections in Hollywood were of more importance than his makeup skills.

In 1979, the people of Iran rose up against the Shah of Iran, the ruler of the nation since the early 1950s. The revolution was led by a religious group headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The people of Iran lashed out at the Shah’s largest supporters, the United States. The Shah has been placed in power by the CIA when the group helped overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. The wrath of the people of Iran toward the US never faded. In the days after the revolution, students and other radicals surrounded the American Embassy in the capital of Tehran. Eventually, the embassy is taken over and the staff, or most of it, was taken hostage. However six Americans made it out of the embassy and wound up being hid in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.

The Canadians informed the US about the hostages. However, months went by before a plan was designed late in 1979. Mendez sought help from his old pal, John Chambers. Together, along with Bob Sidell, another special effects guru (Who would later do the makeup for E.T.), they would concoct a scheme that could only work in the movies.

Mendez’s experience in the cloak and dagger game was extensive. As stated in a Wired magazine article,

“He’d once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen — using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison — so they could arrange a meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them with a “jack-in-the-box.” An officer would wait for a moment of confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.”

Artwork by Jack Kirby

This mission was to be a little different. Mendez would travel to Tehran and bring the hostages home disguised as a film crew. Chambers and Sidell set up a fake studio, Studio 6 (named for the six Americans). In just four days, the three men set up the company that included business cards, letter head, stationary, and artwork designed by legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk).

An office was created at Sunset Gower Studios and Chambers found a script based on an aborted project on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light. That project never got off the ground because of embezzled funds. Mendez renamed the film project “Argo” after the ship of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. Ads were placed in Variety magazine and The Hollywood Reporter stating that principal photography would begin shooting in March 1980.

Studio 6 Artifacts

The Script

Business Cards and Envelopes

The letter Mendez carried about the production

The ads place in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter

While Mendez flew to Tehran with approval of President Carter, Chambers and SIdell had to actually run Studio Six films. The office contained three phone lines (2 regular lines and 1 secret line from the CIA), posters, typewriters, and some left over  film canisters. In the movie Argo, the office was sparse. In real life, Sidell’s wife Andi was constantly answering the two regular phones. Writers and other Hollywood producers were calling to get their own projects off the ground. The ad in the Hollywood Reporter ensured the office would stay busy when it said,

“Their first motion picture being Argo, a science fantasy fiction, from a story by Teresa Harris … Shooting will begin in the south of France, and then move to the Mideast … depending on the political climate.”

Mendez was able to implement the plan a little differently than in the movie Argo. However, due to the nature of the political climate at the time, the Canadians were given credit for the caper. Chambers, Mendez, and Sidell would not be given their due until the 50th anniversary of the CIA in 1997. Then surprisingly, the Agency acknowledged their role in securing the six Americans from Iran. Chambers was given an award by the CIA. Surprisingly, Mendez was allowed to write a book about his career during the Cold War.

Chambers would not be so lucky. He passed away in 2001. He does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his career as a makeup artist. This event of Studio 6 was part of the cloak and dagger aspect of the time period of the Cold War. Mendez and Chambers had worked together before and they would work together again. However, it would always be in secret.

The six freed Americans had to keep the role of Chambers and Mendez a secret for many years. In the film, actor John Goodman played John Chambers. Sidell loved Goodman’s portrayal. Sidell said,

“Johnny Chambers had a little bit of arthritis … he had a little bit of a limp in his left leg. John Goodman has the same limp — that was like the icing on the cake. […] John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers”

Sidell was thought to be dead and was not part of the prep for the film but he did give the film his approval, 

“When Affleck saw me at the after-party, he looked me up and down and said, ‘You are in pretty good shape for a dead man.’ I think what happened was Ben knew that John Chambers was dead and I think they made the assumption that I was too.”

The freed Americans meet with President Carter

Surprisingly, here is a PBS video about the event from 1980. No mention of Chambers or Mendez is made.

An interview with Mendez

For further reading:

Mendez’s account to the CIA:

Tony Mendez’s book, “The Master of Disguise

Wired Magazine

Chicago Tribune


Ronald Reagan and the PATCO Strike: Broken Promises and a Broken Union

When Ronald Reagan was running for President in 1980, he sent the following letter to the director of the Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization (PATCO).

Dear Mr. Poli:
I have been briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation’s air traffic control system. They have told me that too few people working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment has placed the nation’s air travellers in unwarranted danger. In an area so clearly related to public safety the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly.
You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety….
I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers.
Ronald Reagan

But when the election was over, Reagan showed no sympathy for the soon to be striking workers. On August 3, 1981, the members of PATCO went on strike. Reagan gave them 48 hours to return to work and they would get to keep their jobs. He said,

“They are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

Almost 2,000 would return to work. Using provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, Reagan planned to fire those who did not return. He did. 11,435 of them. PATCO never regained their strength, influence, nor did it ever come to represent the nation’s air traffice controllers again. Reagan broke the union.

To understand the strike and Reagan’s actions, events have to put in context. PATCO was formed in 1968 with the help of attorney and airplane enthusiast, F. Lee Bailey. Airplane travel was still in its infancy and air traffic controllers had far fewer flights in the 60s than they do today. However, in the 1970s, trade and travel by air began to supplant rail and road traffic. With the advent of air conditioning in the southern and southwest US, the US was expanding into the Sun Belt. With the growth south, air traffic dramatically increased. In addition, overseas travel and trade also grew exponentially. As a result, air traffic controllers had more airplanes to literally juggle in the air.

John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 in 1962 giving federal employees the right to bargain collectively. Section 2 delineates strike provisions.

SEC. 2. When used in this order, the term “employee organization” means any lawful association, labor organization, federation, council, or brotherhood having as a primary purpose the improvement of working conditions among Federal employees or any craft, trade or industrial union whose membership includes both Federal employees and employees of private organizations; but such term shall not include any organization (1) which asserts the right to strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, or to assist or participate in any such strike, or which imposes a duty or obligation to conduct, assist or participate in any such strike, or (2) which advocates the overthrow of the constitutional form of Government in the United States, or (3) which discriminates with regard to the terms or conditions of membership because of race, color, creed or national origin.

For PATCO, this provision is crucial. Whiile trying to improve the working conditions, the union leadership, under, Poli was seeking several conditions an increase in pay for controllers who earned between $20,462 to $49,229. The increase was to be $10,000! In addition, the union sought a five-day 32-hour work week with the ability to retire aftre 20 years. The federal government felt as if PATCO was holding the government hostage. The total cost of this compensation package was estimated to have been $770 million. Poli argued that the controllers had earned these stipulations due to the stresdful nature of their jobs. The FAA, in bargaining, counter offered a $40 million package with the shorter hours, but only a 10% increase in pay. Many pundits found that offer to be more than fair except PATCO. 95% of the membership rejected the offer.

In the past, Presidents have intervened on behalf of the public welfare to stop labor strife. Theodore Roosevelt threatened to once take over the coal mines and Harry Truman threatened to have the army run the railroads after World War II. But for Reagan, this was different. PATCO were federal employees. The other aborted strikes involved employees of business. However, a resulting strike by those workers would have a drastic effect on the nation’s economy. For this same reason, Reagan felt he had to take a stand, be it right or wrong by the perception of labor.

Up until this time, PATCO had been seen as the preeminent government labor organization.It had successfully, over the course of the 1970s, received huge gains in compensation and conditions for its workers. However, not every labor action had been successful for them. In 1970, the “Easter Uprising” was a massive “Sick out.” The FAA responded by shifting controllers to out of the way positions such as Baton Rouge. By the time of 1980 and Reagan’s letter, the FAA was just as fed up with the FAA as the public. The FAA began contingency plans in case of a strike to ensure the uninterrupted service of air travel and trade.

Between August 3 and 5 in 1981, both sides overreacted to each other. Negotiations between the parties had broken down. Each side used extreme measures to try to achieve their goals. When PATCO went out on strike on August 3, its leadership and membership thought the government would cave as it had throughout the 1970s. But this was Reagan. Despite his promises, his administration was prepared to send a message to all government employees that there was a new sheriff in town, and that sheriff was a lot tougher than the last three (Nixon, Ford, and Carter). It was a huge risk for Reagan. If major air traffic accidents occurred, then the Union would win. If the skies were safe, then Reagan would. The people and their lives became pawns in a labor strife.

After Reagan issued his pronouncement on August 3, 1981, he gave a press conference. His opening statement was unique:

Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL – CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.

It was in recongition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: “I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.”

It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

Reagan tried to balance his comments in the context of his past. But then again, there he stood, as a supposed proponent of labor, telling them if they did not report back to work, he would not only fire them, he would also seek criminal charges through the Attorney General. It was baffling.

The results were quick. Less than 2,000 workers returned to work. On August 5, Reagan fired those remaining on strike. The FAA hired new workers and trained them rapidly. Over the course of the next five years, PATCO tried to get its membership back to work. By 1986, the FAA relented and began hiring some back, but a new union was in place to represent the air traffic controllers. PATCO was dead. Its own hubris and Reagan’s erratic and eccentric bravado had finished it off.

During this time, the Union tried to use the courts to their advantage as they filed lawsuit after lawsuit against Reagan and the FAA. Eventually, PATCO had no more war chest to spend as it had no dues left.

Author Joseph McCartin states the long term impact of Reagan’s PATCO actions:

Reagan often argued that private sector workers’ rights to organize were fundamental in a democracy. He not only made this point when supporting Lech Walesa’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland; he also boasted of being the first president of the Screen Actors Guild to lead that union in a strike. Over time, however, his crushing of the controllers’ walkout — which he believed was justified because federal workers were not allowed under the law to strike — has helped undermine the private-sector rights he once defended.

Workers in the private sector had used the strike as a tool of leverage in labor-management conflicts between World War II and 1981, repeatedly withholding their work to win fairer treatment from recalcitrant employers. But after PATCO, that weapon was largely lost. Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise. Phelps Dodge and International Paper were among the companies that imitated Reagan by replacing strikers rather than negotiating with them. Many other employers followed suit.

By 2010, the number of workers participating in walkouts was less than 2 percent of what it had been when Reagan led the actors’ strike in 1952. Lacking the leverage that strikes once provided, unions have been unable to pressure employers to increase wages as productivity rises. Inequality has ballooned to a level not seen since Reagan’s boyhood in the 1920s.

McCartin’s succinct analysis of the long-term aspects of the conflict mark what a turning point in history it was. However, the distorted view of labor and its rights by some today can also be seen as an overreaction to labor’s right to exist. This viewpoint can be traced back to Reagan and PATCO. There is a huge difference between PATCO’s right to collectively bargain working conditions, salaries, and benefits for its members versus Wisconsin Governor Walker’s denying the existence of said rights to exist at all. PATCO may have over played its hand and underestimated Reagan’s own hand. Reagan never did deny PATCO’s right to exist whereas today, the situation for unions is tenuous….at best. In the end, Reagan took a huge risk putting lives in the air at risk. On the other hand, PATCO did not do itself any favors with its prodigious demands. And, ultimately, neither side compromised putting the public at risk. As a result, today, compromise is a dying word.

For Further Reading:
Joseph McCartin – Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.

The 1985 Farm Crisis: What One Hand Giveth, the Other Taketh Away

Things do not happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes years for events to unfold. In 1985 farmers throughout the Midwest US struggled to keep the family farms that had been in their families for generations. Corporations hovered like vultures waiting to pick on the next farmer whose bank foreclosed on the farm. It was something right out of the Great Depression, albeit, 50 years in the making. The resulting crisis would cause Ronald Reagan to slightly bend his economic model to get the farmers through the crisis.

During the Great Depression, the Agricultural Adjustment Act began a policy of subsidizing farmers to not grow certain crops and to leave certain fields fallow. Due in part as a reaction to the Dust Bowl, but more so, the FDR administration wanted to raise the price of crops to help farmers. By controlling the supply, the government felt the price would fluctuate less. Due to mechanization fueled by gasoline power tractors, combines, and other farm equipment, the American farmer was producing more crops than ever before. For 40 years, the system worked and it worked well. However, things started to unravel for the American farmer beginning in the middle 1970s.

Several factors merged to create the crisis.

1. Technology continued to evolve. Not only were machines partly responsible, but also new methods of farming and irrigation along with new insecticides and herbicides combined with genetics changed drastically how much one farmer could produce. In 1940, one American farmer could feed 15 people. But 1960, that number increased over 400% to 65.

2. To keep up with the changes and to grow more, farmers leveraged themselves by borrowing money to support their expansion of their operations.

3. Interest rates were very low in the beginning of the 1970s. Farmers borrowed more because it was a good deal.

4. The price of oil and gasoline skyrocketed in the OPEC Embargo in 1973. The cost of farming grew immensely.

5. As a result, the economy turned south.

6. Jimmy Carter did not help. When the USSR invaded Afghanistan, the US placed an embargo on farm products to the USSR.

7. As foreign markets dried up, debt piled up. Farmers began to struggle to survive as farm prices continued to sink.

In 1978 and 1979, farmers drove their tractors to Washington to protest Farm policy. An estimated 3000 farmers went and some even stayed for the winter camping out on the mall. The policy did not change except for a moratorium on foreclosures from the FHA.

When Reagan took office, things were not much better. Bumper stickers could be seen around America to protest their plight.

  • “Crime Doesn’t Pay… Neither Does Farming.”
  • “Corn is in the barn, but it’s not worth a darn.”
  • “Parity Not Government Charity.”
  • “All we want for Christmas is 100 percent parity.”
  • “If you eat, you have a stake in the farmer’s plight.”

Reagan’s economic philosophy did not mesh with the growing crisis. In fact, Reagan initially cut subsidies to farmers. When the economy did not improve, banks began to raise interest rates and the crisis grew. Foreclosures skyrocketed. Violence became an everyday aspect of rural life. If a farmer was having an auction to sell off machinery or to auction off the land, sometimes shots were fired, people were killed, or kidnapped. The banker and the auctioneer became the villains of the heartland.

Farm life had changed drastically since the 1930s. The number of farms shrank while the average size of the farm grew. It took fewer and fewer people to run a farm and the population of rural America was turning greyer. In Nebraska, it was estimated that 1/3 of all farms were at risk in the 1980s of being foreclosed. Farm support groups began to grow to help farmers save their farms. It was not enough.

By 1985, Reagan was wanting to end all subsidies and let the market dictate what the price of farm products should be.  Deregulation was Reagan’s dream. However, the crisis was turning into a nightmare. Bob Dylan, in an off handed comment at Live Aid, said the organizers should take some of the money and give it to the farmers. Three people were listening that day: John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young. The three men would put together a benefit concert called Farm Aid to aid the farmers. It would be held at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.

As a soon to be college senior, I made the trip from west central Illinois with my friends, Jim Jones and Craig Schaeffer. We left at 6 in the morning and got home at 3 in the morning. It was a day filled with many memories of great acts (BB King, Beach Boys, Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar, Tanya Tucker, Bob Dylan, and many more). I remember it was cold, chilly, and overcast. When the concert started, the sun came out for a brief period but as soon as Bon Jovi was roundly booed, it turned in to an all day soaker. It did not let up until 8 p.m. However, the concert did raise national awareness about the farm crisis.

Mellencamp, who would routinely criticize Reagan, was from the heartland of Seymour, Indiana. His 1985 album, Scarecrow, contained the title track, Rain on the Scarecrow, about the farm crisis. It had been my impetus in attending. The title track laid out what was happening around the center of the country.

Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn
Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm
I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land
When I was five, I walked a fence while grandpa held my hand

Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud
And son, I’m just sorry, there’s no legacy for you now
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow

The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the farmers bank foreclosed
Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land
He said, “John, it’s just my job and I hope you understand”

Hey, calling it your job, ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight
And grandma’s on the front porch swing with a Bible in her hand
Sometimes I hear her singing, “Take me to the promised land”
When you take away a man’s dignity he can’t work his fields and cows

There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow

Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard
And ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms
I think about my grandpa, my neighbors and my name
And some nights I feel like dyin’ like that scarecrow in the rain

Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
This land fed a nation, yeah, this land made me proud
And son, I’m just sorry, they’re just memories for you now
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow

Copyright 1985 by John Mellencamp

Shortly after the concert, the Reagan administration began to take the crisis more seriously. When 15,000 farmers showed up for a rally in Ames, Iowa, the crisis had to be taken more seriously. It was turning in to a political issue. Throughout most of rural America, the Republican party is king. By not dealing with the crisis Reagan was threatening to alienate his constituency at the price of sticking to his economic morality of deregulation. Had Reagan stuck to his economic guns, the Republican party could have been lost. Instead, Reagan made the first of many deals to ensure the continuance of the American family farm. Beginning with the 1985 Farm Security Act and grain deals in 1986 and 1988, farm policy became a priority for Reagan. Kansas Senator Bob Dole spearheaded moves in 1986 to increase the aid, and along with Dick Lugar from Indiana, more aid followed in 1987.

Former Nebraska state senator Elaine Stuhr reflected back on the crisis.

“”No, they weren’t. And that’s one of the reasons I think that the women coming together and being supportive and partners in their family farming operations certainly gave them a better understanding of what we were going through. And times were very, very difficult. In fact I was looking at several clippings where bankers said that this was probably one of the most difficult times because of the very low prices. I think corn was like a $1.50 [per bushel]. And then our high interest rates – the rates of inflation [actually interest rates were] going to 19, 20 percent. Even over. We lost many, many young families. I think probably the biggest notice was farm women went to work in town. If there was any opportunity to find employment, this was the time when women would work just to buy groceries and have groceries on their table. It was a very difficult time. And I think one of the reasons was about in 1973 Russia bought corn. And prices were good, up to $3.00, $3.50. And land prices escalated, as well. And so, people were paying as much as $2,200, $2,500 an acre for land thinking the prices would stay up, the interest rates would stay low where they were. But then the culmination of all these things happening in the late 70s and early 80s and that just put the squeeze on many families. And they simply couldn’t make it.”

For many farmers, the way of life they always knew was threatened. More than $25 billion was poured into subsidies in1986. By 1987, there added an additional $4 billion and talked of overhauling the Farm Security Act. For most farmers, things did not change much after the Farm Security Act. Many still lost the farm and a way of life was shattered. Farmers relied more on grassroots groups than government. F arm Aid has given out over $37 million in aid in the past 25 years. Other grassroots groups continue to aid farmers today. While rural America continues to shrink under a growing urbanized country, the number of farms continues to shrink along with the number of farmers. Reagan, even after getting the aid for farmers, still wanted to deregulate the farm industry and price controls. And for many of the corporations that process the agricultural products, that deregulation did take take place just not in the price of crops and meat. While Reagan gave with one hand, the other hand oversaw the change in a deregulated processed foods industry. Today, only a few corporations oversee the processing of agricultural products. In addition, the selling of the products is now also done by a few regional supermarket chains.

For further reading:

Teaching Reagan: Constructing a Unit Based on Argument

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…

5. Reaganomics
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.

Inflation averaged 12.5 percent when Reagan entered office, was reduced to 4.4 percent when he left.

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.

7. SDI
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.

Ronald Reagan and the Conservative Movement – A Revolution? A Reaction? A Reform?

I have always joked that in the rural Illinois school district where I teach that there are two types of students: there are those who are conservative, and there are those who are more conservative. And such is the case throughout most of rural Illinois. What was once the Land of Lincoln is now Reagan Country. Conservative values reign in the small towns and countryside outside of Chicago. It has not always been that way. But, how did Reagan establish his values as a Conservative at a time when the Moderates ruled the Republican hierarchy, not only in Illinois, but all throughout the country?

For Ronald Reagan, he grew up in one of these small towns in northern Illinois, 12 miles from where I grew up. However, it took a while for those Conservative values to take hold in Reagan. Many people forget that Reagan was originally a Democrat in the 1940s and 1950s. As head of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan, while a staunch anti-communist, was quite liberal. Things for Reagan changed in the early 1950s. The first event that influenced his shift from the left to the right occurred when Reagan would meet, and marry, actress Nancy Davis. Combined with Reagan’s work for the General Electric Theater TV show, Reagan shifted to the right, an almost libertarian point of view. As part of his duties as host of the show, Reagan would travel across the country and met people at GE plants across America. It was during those tours meeting the middle class that his philosophy began to shift to less government intrusion and lower taxes. In the early 1950s, the tax rate for Americans earning $10,000/year was at 38% (which very few did – the minimum wage was not even a $1/hour). For 8 years, Reagan work for GE actually turned into a political apprenticeship of sorts.

Reagan’s conservative philosophy was rooted in the words of John Winthrop. The famous City” on Hill” from the 1600s defined Reagan’s vision, and version, of conservatism and of America.

“for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us”

It is out of the “City on a Hill” that the Reagan Conservative philosophy is born. At a commencement speech at his alma mater, Eureka College, in 1957, he stated:

Looming large in your inheritance is this country, this land America, placed as it is between two great oceans. Those who discovered and pioneered it had to have rare qualities of courage and imagination nor did these qualities stop there. Even the modern-day immigrants have been possessed of courage beyond that of their neighbors. The courage to tear up centuries-old roots and leave their homelands, to come to this land where even the language was strange. Such courage is part of our inheritance, all of us spring from these special people and these qualities have contributed to the make-up of the American personality.

Reagan had a vision of what America was supposed to be, what is was once, and what it could be again.

In the 1960s, Reagan’s philosophy began to move more to the right. At a time when America was moving to the left, and New Dealers were roaming the halls of Congress, Reagan stood in stark contrast to mainstream politics. In 1964, Reagan supported Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Reagan’s stump speech became the foundation of his philosophy.

I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this.

It’s time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, “We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government.”

This idea — that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream-the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.

Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, “What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.” But the truth is that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector.

Yet any time you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being opposed to their humanitarian goals. It seems impossible to legitimately debate their solutions with the assumption that all of us share the desire to help the less fortunate. They tell us we’re always “against,” never “for” anything.

We are for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we have accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem. However, we are against those entrusted with this program when they practice deception regarding its fiscal shortcomings, when they charge that any criticism of the program means that we want to end payments….

We are for aiding our allies by sharing our material blessings with nations which share our fundamental beliefs, but we are against doling out money government to government, creating bureaucracy, if not socialism, all over the world.

We need true tax reform that will at least make a start toward restoring for our children the American Dream that wealth is denied to no one, that each individual has the right to fly as high as his strength and ability will take him…. But we can not have such reform while our tax policy is engineered by people who view the tax as a means of achieving changes in our social structure….

Have we the courage and the will to face up to the immorality and discrimination of the progressive tax, and demand a return to traditional proportionate taxation? … Today in our country the tax collector’s share is 37 cents of every dollar earned. Freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp.

Are you willing to spend time studying the issues, making yourself aware, and then conveying that information to family and friends? Will you resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community? Realize that the doctor’s fight against socialized medicine is your fight. We can’t socialize the doctors without socializing the patients. Recognize that government invasion of public power is eventually an assault upon your own business. If some among you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals from customers, clients, or even government, recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile hoping he’ll eat you last.

If all of this seems like a great deal of trouble, think what’s at stake. We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.

They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right. Winston Churchill said that “the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits-not animals.” And he said, “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

Goldwater lost and lost big. Despite the loss, Reagan’s views did not waver. In 1965, Reagan came out against Medicare and other government programs including welfare. In 1966, Reagan dipped his feet into politics when he ran for Governor of California.

Despite cat calls for his lack of actual political experience, Reagan surprisingly defeated incumbent Governor Pat Brown. His charm, and down home family values, sparked an interest in the populace. Over the next eight years, Reagan further established his conservative values. It is one thing to have those values, it is another to govern with those values. Reagan struggled and at times compromised his values and then wished he hadn’t. His first action, a 10% across the board cut in government spending, met with disruptions and discontent at many college campuses across the state. For the first time, many college students in California would have to pay tuition. They were not happy. Protests broke out. Reagan was not afraid to use force to keep the peace on those campuses. Using the National Guard to occupy Berkley for 17 days, while Conservative, came across as an extremist at the time. However, Californians did not see it that way. The majority of Californians liked Reagan’s reaction. To 1960s Californians, they now had a hero in a time of massive change in the country.

Whether it was abortion, dealing with the antiwar movement, or communism, as Governor, Reagan honed his media and governing skills. After his 1970 re-election, Reagan set out in his second term to follow through on his own values of less government, lower taxes. He succeeded in restructuring welfare by working with the Democratic legislature of California. His second term was quite a success in California. A groundswell began for Reagan to run for President.

The national political scene had changed by 1976. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Republican mainstream was very moderate. With Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the mood of the Republican Party was slowly changing. President Ford’s firing of Nixon’s appointments was shocking as the moderate wing of the party was replaced by more Conservative thinkers. Ford, using his Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and a young Richard Cheney, began a shift in the party away from Nixon moderates. In 1976,  America was not ready for a Conservative President. Ford beat out Reagan for the Republican nomination but the experience brought Reagan’s political views to a nation. Jimmy Carter would win the presidency and the next four years set up Reagan and his conservative views as a stark contrast to Carter’s. A new Republican Party would be born.

The 1980 campaign saw Reagan run on a just a few key ideas
1. Less Government
2. Stronger Defense
3. Anti-Communism
4. A belief that America could be strong again

Here is an ad that touted Reagan’s experience as Governor and his views on Government

America responded overwhelmingly to Reagan, and against Carter, and a shift to Conservatism in America reached fruition. Reagan’s effect on future Republicans would be huge. This coming school year (1011-2012) sees National History Day using the theme of: Revolution, Reaction, and Reform in History. While Reagan’s conservative beliefs have reshaped the Republican Party, these beliefs, their formation, and influence would be an excellent topic to do a project on. I know two of my students have already expressed an interest. For me, as a paper judge as well, what I would look for in this project is how the times and experiences of Reagan shaped his political philosophy. And was that philosophy a reaction to the times? Finally, how did the Conservative philosophy actually reform politics besides beliefs about the role of government? What actions are considered Reaganesque? I would really enjoy a project that delves deeply into this issue.

For further Reading and Resources for any student doing a NHD project on Reagan
Not only is there a 4 hour video on Reagan, but there is wealth of resources including primary documents, quotes, and interviews.

Reagan at 100: A Cartoon Legacy

By Herb Block

On Sunday, February 6, 2011, Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday will be celebrated in the nearby towns of Dixon and Tampico. To many Republicans, Reagan is close to the second coming of Christ. Reagan is quoted more by modern Republicans than the man most associated with the party in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. But to most historians, Reagan’s legacy is not what modern Republicans claim it to be. In fact, it is quite mixed.

I, myself, have blogged on the legacy of Reagan before (and here, too). He truly is an enigma to me. As the chief executive, no major legislation that has any effect exists from his terms. NONE! Granted, there was a Democratic Congress, but still, he could not get one thing passed that impacts our lives today? Is Reagan’s legacy wishful thinking? Sure, he made Americans feel good about themselves after the malaise of the 1970s. But unemployment went down slightly (after an initial jump to 10% in 1982) over the eight years. Reagan’s greatest strength as chief executive was his ability to deliver a good speech. And that he did…time after time after time. But does that make Reagan a great President? To some it does.

As I sit and work on my doctorate from time to time, my second topic of choice was always how Reagan is treated in textbooks. Looking at the US History textbook, Reagan gets two sections in a chapter on the rise of the Republicans. Once section discusses supply side economics, the other section Reagan’s fight against Communism. My friend and former Union Representative, Dave, recently wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper derailing against Ronnie on this auspicious occasion.

To the Editor:

The utter failure of “Reaganomics” is part of President Ronald Reagan’s legacy.

This is relevant as we celebrate Reagan’s centennial in the fourth year of the Great Recession. Reagan’s unabashed pursuit of “supply-side” economics in the belief that cutting taxes for the rich would result in their investing it productively helped to transfer income upward. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer.

Reagan’s unabashed pursuit of deregulation helped to further the lack of restraint and responsibility on Wall Street and in corporate suites, leading us down the path to the economic situation we are in today.

Reagan’s unabashed assault on unions helped to weaken any voice for working people and contribute to a decline in wages for a generation. Workers turned to credit to sustain their standard of living, and the bill came due.

When Reagan took office, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 8 percent of all income. Today, the top 1 percent takes 23.5 percent of all income. Uncontrolled greed has left our nation weaker, and that is part of Reagan’s legacy.

Finally, Reagan’s unabashed assault on government helped weaken a belief in democracy. The government belongs to all citizens. We elect our government. We do not elect corporate CEOs. Yet the latter’s inordinate power in our nation today is indisputable.

In all fairness, Reagan was president for only eight years. Those who followed largely continued in his path, including Democrats. “Trickle-down” economics has had a 30-year run, and it has failed. It’s time to move on.

While Dave did throw in some good facts about class income and union breaking, he forgot the most important thing – the deficit skyrocketed under Reagan. Government spending increased! When Reagan said Government was the problem, he wasn’t kidding!

What most people have trouble with understanding is the dichotomy between what Reagan said and what he did. They were always the opposite. Reagan was a believer in the economic policies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics: lower taxes, lower spending, deregulate, and end welfare systems. While Reagan never achieved Friedman’s policy, Clinton would. In theory, Reaganomics worked when there was a new revolution like the Internet and computers to drive the economy. But that is not very often. Domestic affairs were not Reagan’s strongest suits.  Those belonged to speeches and dealing with Communists.

Reagan gave three of the most memorable speeches by a President in my lifetime. The first was on the Challenger disaster. The others were at the Brandenburg Gate telling Gorbachev to “Tear Down this wall!” and the third speech was on the Strategic Space Defense Initiative. All three were filled with a toughness, an optimism, and a will to improve life for Americans. Here was Reagan’s finest shining moment:

His role in foreign affairs is mixed. The Iran Contra Scandal rocked the nation and many Americans thought he should resign. When terrorists killed over 200 Americans with a truck bomb in Lebanon, Reagan tucked tail and brought the rest home. In dealing with the Soviets on the a new Start Treaty, Reagan was in his element in playing the role as the leader of the American people. And you know, maybe that’s what Americans needed at the time. “Give the people what they want” is a phrase that goes back to the Roman Empire and Reagan did that in spades. Reagan seemed quite prophetic at times about communism:

“The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”

As a model for economics, Reagan was not one. For Reagan, we had a man whom Americans loved for his humor, toughness, and sense of right and wrong – his demeanor was more like ours than a politician’s. His philosophies on economics have never really panned out on their own. In fact, they have done more damage than good.

As someone who teaches history for a living, nothing quite tells the story of the Reagan dichotomy like a cartoon. And over the years there have been several which I use to teach what an enigma Reagan is. Nothing quite reaches kids like a cartoon. It teaches them to connect several items together and provides a basis for dialogue and debate about the merits of the point of view of the cartoonist.

By Kirk Anderson

By John Sherffius