On November 4, 1980, the United States chose for its leader, Ronald Reagan, who marched
into the White House promising smaller government, lower taxes, and less
federal intrusion in people’s lives. At the time, he was the oldest man ever to
serve as president of the United States. Yet his smile and rugged good looks projected
the youthfulness of his days in Hollywood when he was an actor. And when he spoke, his
endearing voice and a familiar nod of his head soothed America, assuring the
country that everything would be fine, even on its worst days, as he would
relate stories to the public equipped with a moral value.
It was the defining genius of Ronald Reagan to
find tales of hope and optimism to sustain his vision of a brand new America. His predecessor Jimmy Carter had spoken of
limits and the obligation to sacrifice. However, Reagan rejected that notion.
After two decades of troubles that included assassinations and urban riots, the
agony of Vietnam and the disgrace of Watergate, energy crises and
double-digit inflation, the nation was ready for Reagan’s notion to “dream
The Reagan Presidency Defines the Eighties
Reagan’s feel-good conservatism embodied the
1980s, which ushered in a restoration of pride and prosperity, but he had
little concern for pressing social and economic problems, and Reagan’s
appealing surface simplicity concealed a multitude of contradictions. He
championed a return to family values, though he was the first divorced
president in U.S. history and was estranged from some of his children. He cultivated
fundamentalist Christians of the new religious right, calling for “a
spiritual revival, a return to a belief in moral absolutes,” but seldom
attended church. He preached old-fashioned habits of work and productivity
while maintaining a relaxed, hands-off management style and getting more sleep
than any president since Calvin Coolidge.
To many, Reagan’s appeal was the straightforward
simplicity of his political agenda. It was highly conservative, and in domestic
matters, ran directly counter to nearly half a century of liberal policies. He
declared, “We must balance the budget, reduce tax rates, and restore our
defenses.” He also advocated “getting the government off people’s
backs” by reducing federal regulations on the environment and business.
In addition, Reagan had despised income taxes ever
since his Hollywood days, when the top rate was 91 percent. As a
presidential candidate, he seized upon a tax-cutting scheme called supply-side
economics. According to his plan, tax reductions would stimulate the economy by
providing incentives for investment, thereby generating so much growth and new
taxable income, that the government would actually gain revenue.
Critics labeled the idea “voodoo
economics,” a phrase coined, ironically, by Republican George Bush before
he joined the Reagan ticket as vice presidential candidate. However, in seven
years, Reagan and the Democratic Congress slashed the highest tax rate on even
the richest Americans from 70 percent to 28 percent.
At the same time, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” and pushed for
the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. Under Reagan, annual defense spending had
ballooned from less than $200 billion under Presidents Ford and Carter to
nearly $300 billion in 1985. “America is back and standing tall,” he proudly said
of the newly strengthened armed forces.
Reaganomics and American Greed
Reaganomics sparked the biggest bull market in the
history of Wall Street. Yet much of the financial frenzy had little to do with
the kind of entrepreneurship that Reagan envisioned. Instead of investing in
research, capital development, and higher productivity, many businesspeople
chose to devote their energy to mergers and takeovers. Using huge sums of
borrowed money, corporate raiders bought out sound companies and then sold them
off piece-by-piece to pay creditors and squeeze out a quick profit, typically
at the cost of laid-off workers.
In the movie Wall
Street, the character named Gordon Gekko captured the new morality of the American
during the eighties when he said, “Greed is good. Greed is right.”
Those who had “IT” were expected to flaunt “IT”. Consider
that the sales of stretch limousines doubled every year during Reagan’s first
term. And when First Lady Nancy Reagan decided the White House needed new
china, she bought $200,000 worth, with private donations.
Demographers identified a new class of society
infatuated with wealth and material possessions. These were mostly the yuppies,
which was a word used to identify “young urban professionals”.
Yuppies of both sexes ate “power lunches” and “dressed for
success” by “wearing power suits”. They were hard-driving
overachievers, who worked out in trendy health clubs and sustained their energy
through drug use, as they worked on their MBA degree, which stood for master of
business administration, but was widely held to mean “Making It Big in America.”
Shopping malls became the symbol for American
materialism, and citizens of a growing economy shopped for new technology like
microwaves, VCRs, and cordless phones that relied on the dime-size
microprocessor chips that transformed American life. Transcending all of these
new developments was the personal computer, which in the 1980s became a staple
in homes and a standard in every office.
Economic Disparity and Homelessness
If heightened prosperity and a renewed national
pride were the good news, there were also discouraging developments. The
economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots deepened. Even the
middle class shrank. In just five years, 150,000 of the farmers who were
central to Reagan’s nostalgic vision of America went bankrupt. Most of Reagan’s newly created
jobs were in services, many of them positions in low-paying sectors such as
fast food. Working-class families were often able to stay above water only
because wives began taking job outside the home at a growing rate. By the end
of the decade, mal-distribution of income had reached the point that one-tenth
of Americans controlled two-thirds of the nation’s wealth.
And the poor got poorer. Partly as a result of
federal budget cuts in food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid, as the per capita
income of the bottom 20 percent of American families actually dropped when
adjusted for inflation. The bulge of population living below the poverty line
broadened from 11.7 percent to 15 percent. One in five children was living in
poverty, and too many of them were living on the streets. The number of
homeless children and adults grew larger amid urban affluence and conspicuous
consumption, reaching three million.
Many of the homeless were victims of something called
“deinstitutionalization”, which is the well-intentioned policy that emptied
out psychiatric hospitals but left thousands of former patients with no place
to go and no ability to manage on the outside. Others were homeless because of
cutbacks in federal housing assistance.
Drugs and AIDS
Public health officials faced new problems of
epidemic proportions. On the drug front, the hot new item was cocaine. An
estimated 22 million Americans had tried the drug by 1982, though it was so
expensive that actor Robin Williams quipped, “Cocaine is God’s way of
showing you were making too much money.” Despite the dangers of addiction
and other health problems, “coke” became the recreational drug of
choice among Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street brokers, and
athletes. One of the latter, University of Maryland basketball superstar Len Bias, had his life snuffed out by the drug
just as he stood on the threshold of what promised to he a dazzling pro career.
In 1985, cocaine began to appear in a much cheaper
and more highly addictive smokable form known as crack. The easy availability
of this rocklike variant ravaged the urban ghettos. The federal government
launched a “war on drugs,” and Nancy Reagan headed up the campaign to
“just say no.”
The other major new public health problem was
AIDS. Although the first cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome were
reported in 1981, the gruesome disease did not become the focus of national attention,
and fear, until four years later, when it killed actor Rock Hudson. The Hollywood star had been a friend of the Reagans, but the
president generally ignored the disease, which struck hardest at male
homosexuals and intravenous drug users. Reagan did not even mention AIDS in a
public speech until 1987. Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Americans
were thought to be infected with the AIDS virus, and more than 50,000 had died
because of it.
The Environment, Social Issues, and Culture
Old perils and new ones threatened the
environment. The biggest oil spill in U.S. history befouled the wildlife and pristine waters
and shoreline of Alaska’s Prince William Sound after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground. Scientists warned about
newly discovered ecological threats. Above Antarctica a hole the size of the U.S. reportedly had opened in the ozone layer, which
shields the earth from dangerous ultraviolet rays. Smoke from coal-fired power
plants in the Midwest wound up as acid rain falling on the lakes and
forests of the northeastern United States and Canada.
The Reagan administration tended to ignore these
new dangers while busily rolling back enforcement of existing environmental
regulations. Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, James Watt, had served
as legal counsel for western business interests dedicated to private
development of federal lands. Watt eased restrictions on strip mining, leased federal
preserves to mining companies at bargain-basement rates, and opened up vast
expanses for offshore oil and gas exploration. Other social and political
movements that had gained momentum in the previous two decades also felt a
conservative backlash. Reagan and his allies opposed two key civil rights
initiatives: busing to integrate public schools and affirmative action. The
women’s movement suffered setbacks as well. In 1982, the proposed Equal Rights
Amendment to the Constitution fell three states short of the 38 needed for
adoption. Another key tenet of feminism, the right to choose abortion, came
under growing attack from forces that called themselves pro-life.
At the same time, however, individual black
citizens and women scored important breakthroughs. Sandra Day O’Connor was
named to the U.S. Supreme Court by Reagan in 1981. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first woman
astronaut, followed two months later by the first African American astronaut in
space, air force lieutenant colonel Guion Bluford. In 1988, the Reverend Jesse
Jackson made a serious run for the Democratic presidential nomination, gaining
the second highest number of votes in the primaries. Geraldine Ferraro became
the Democratic candidate for vice president the same year.
A year later, black politician Douglas Wilder was
elected governor of Virginia, once the home of the Confederate capital. Also
in 1989, General Colin Powell became the first black chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. The decade’s two leading TV personalities were Oprah Winfrey
and Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby, through his top-rated sitcom, gave white
Americans a look at middle-class African American life, becoming America’s dad, many years before sexual assault charges
shattered his reputation and career. Oprah Winfrey helped to change the lives
of millions of American women when she first began airing her show nationally.
American culture changed radically during the
decade. Hip-hop became a national craze, especially for African American youth
looking for a way to be heard. Parents everywhere were mystified by the rhythms
and appalled by some of the lyrics. Television also changed, as the dominance
of the three broadcast networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—was successfully challenged
by cable TV, and a new network FOX.
The decade’s most far-reaching events during the
1980s took place in the nations dominated by the Soviet Union since World War II. The precise role played by
Reagan’s massive defense buildup in these developments would become the subject
of fierce debate. But the man who set them in motion was Soviet premier Mikhail
Gorbachev. Soon after he rose to power in 1985, Gorbachev unleashed radical
reforms on the stagnating Soviet system. His policy of openness brought new
freedom of speech, and his restructuring nudged the Soviet Union in the direction of a free market. Gorbachev also
negotiated missile-reduction agreements with Reagan.
Then, while Reagan’s successor, George Bush,
watched from Washington in fascination and disbelief, the Soviet leader stunned
the world by relinquishing control over Eastern Europe, control that had long been a drain on the
failing Soviet economy. In June 1989, just when the Communist Chinese
government was cracking down on protesters rallying for democratic reform in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square,
Gorbachev was bringing home the Red Army.
Without Soviet tanks to protect them, communist
dictators soon fell to democratic forces in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. In November 1989, less than two months from the
end of the decade, East Germans broke free and accomplished what liberty-loving
people everywhere had never expected to see. The Berlin Wall, that hulking
symbol of Soviet oppression came tumbling down.
During the decade, the stage was set for
democracy’s victory in the Cold War. And Nelson Mandela of South Africa emerged from prison to begin leading one of the
world’s most amazing peaceful transformations from racist oppression and
exclusion to democratic freedom. Yet for all this progress, the Reagan years
saddled the United States with grave problems. The government ran up the
largest deficit in American history. Working people suffered as the value of
their wages declined, their collective-bargaining powers withered, and public
All of these items and more will be explored as we
move through the eighties year-by-year to bring together in one book, the
biggest headlines from 1980-1989.