Reagan's address to the country about the Iran-Contra affair in November of 1986, perhaps the moment where the end of the Reagan era began
I've been thinking a lot recently about the 1980s, and also how that decade was more complex than just Reaganomics, cocaine, spandex, and synthesizers. When Reagan won reelection by a whopping landslide in 1984, he and everything he stood for seemed unstoppable. In two years, however, the cracks began to show, even though the year 1986 may very well have marked the highest cultural saturation yet of Reagan values. It was a year of yin an yang, and for that reason fascinating to look at thirty years later.
In some areas of popular culture, the triumph of Reagan seemed complete, especially in pop music. Just check out the list of the top ten singles of that year:
1 Dionne and Friends,"That's What Friends Are For"
2 Lionel Richie, "Say You, Say Me"
3 Klymaxx, "I Miss You"
4 Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald, "On My Own"
5 Mr. Mister, "Broken Wings"
6 Whitney Houston, "How Will I Know"
7 Eddie Murphy, "Party All The Time"
8 Survivor, "Burning Heart"
9 Mr. Mister, "Kyrie"
10 Robert Palmer, "Addicted To Love"
That's right, not one, but two songs by Mr. Mister. It's a completely forgettable list of mediocre music, perfectly representative of the Reagan era's cultural blandness and homogenization.
That cultural saturation of Reaganism is most evident in Top Gun, the highest grossing film of that year, and one big, long shiny love letter to the machinery of war. The Hollywood that a decade before produced the likes of Apocalypse Now! and Coming Home was now making MTV-influenced war movies with the subtlety of an old school John Wayne flick. Top Gun is practically a recruiting video for the Navy, and is so over the top in its gung ho patriotism and homoerotic masculinity that it almost seems like a Paul Verhoeven satire a la Starship Troopers. At the end, Maverick gets to shoot down a bunch of Soviet MiGs without any international consequences.
By the end of the year, however, Top Gun's summer movie magic would start to look like the relic that we joke about today. In October Reagan and Gorbachev met for a summit meeting in Iceland that now looks like a permanent thawing in the Cold War. The days of "evil empire" rhetoric and fear of nuclear war were numbered, if not over. In late December of 1986 a very different war movie entered limited release: Platoon. Oliver Stone's film, the first about Vietnam by a veteran of that conflict, struck a very different tone than Top Gun and would go on to win the Oscar for best picture. Other recent films about Vietnam had been bloody revenge fantasies or POW rescue flicks, like Uncommon Valor, Rambo, and the Missing In Action films. Now the war was being portrayed much more realistically, and as a tragic mistake.
The shift from triumphalism to questioning mirrored the larger political fortunes of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Early in the year he got to have a Top Gun moment when he ordered American ships to Gulf of Sidra and bombed Colonel Gaddafi's home after a terror attack on American GIs. The mass approval of this action seemed to signal an end to the "Vietnam Syndrome."
Yet all was not well for Reagan. After almost six years in office, his party lost the Senate in the 1986 election. He was facing increased criticism over his inability to publicly address AIDS, which would kill over ten thousand Americans in that year. At the end of the year, in November, news of the Reagan administration's illegal trade of arms for hostages with Iran and later illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras first broke. The scandal would consume the Reagan administration, and even though it would not turn into another Watergate due to Oliver North's destruction of incriminating evidence, it would take a big hit on Reagan's popularity. His age started to show, and he now appeared feeble, and not always in control of the situation.
In 1987 the short-lived Reagan-era consensus would be broken. The stock market crash later in the year would call Wall Street's new growth into question. The newly Democratic Senate's refusal to accept Robert Bork's nomination would open a new front in the culture wars, which would be fought with much greater intensity. The Cold War would cease to be such a distraction from the decaying domestic sphere, and AIDS, the neglect of America's cities, and growing inequality would be put much more in the foreground of the national conversation.
The ultimate failure of Reagan's promise to bring "morning in America" was perhaps prophesied by an event that burned itself on the psyche of my generation: the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January. It was not just any other space program disaster, since NASA had been using that mission to promote space exploration to children via the participation of a non-astronaut teacher, Christa McAuliffe. This meant that many, many kids saw the explosion live, as it happened. For me it was a sad tragedy, but also a sign of the vulnerability beneath the massive wave of nationalism being pushed on us. Six astronauts and a teacher had to sacrifice their lives in an ill-fated attempt to maintain an image of Reagan's America that was soon about to be completely faded.