Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

In March 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, fired Rita Lavelle on charges of having abused the $1.6 billion Superfund that the US Congress had earmarked for cleaning up chemical spills and hazardous waste dumps. Allegedly, Superfund monies were being steered to Republican officeholders seeking relection. A few weeks later, Burford, along with twenty other EPA employees, resigned after Congress cited her for contempt in refusing to hand over Superfund records.

The US president in March 1983 was Ronald Reagan. His response to the news included the following line: ‘This whole business has been a lynching by headline hunting Congressmen’.

In September 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned. In responding to critics of a Watt-created commission, he had said that his commission included ‘every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.  And we have talent.’

The US president had a response for this resignation too. He admitted Watt had ‘an unfortunate way of putting his foot in his mouth’ but then went on to insist Watt was ‘really the victim of a two and half-year lynching.’

In The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (Harper Perennial, 2009)pages 169-170 of which serves as source for the notes above–Sean Wilentz notes that ‘Reagan often referred to press and congressional investigations as lynchings.’ (The James Watt story is taken from: Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York 2007), 185, entry for October 8-10, 1983.) These two instances appear as part of a distinct pattern of speech in describing political adversity.

Comparing violent, murderous events to considerably more benign activities is a fairly common rhetorical strategy among journalists and politicians alike. The most common and widespread instance of this is the almost constant invocation of martial metaphors and language when talking about sports. In more recent times, that natural killer of hundreds of thousands, the tsunami, has been routinely compared to almost anything that is sudden, widespread, or remotely threatening. Perhaps you have heard of the tsunami of election commercials which await us in the next few weeks? Or the tsunami of Christmas shopping commercials which will inundate and engulf us? Perhaps modern life drenches us with a tsunami of ennui?

Still, even having accounted for the widespread deployment of this bit of verbal pyrotechnics, it still seems incontrovertible that only a ‘special’ talent could use, as part of his political linguistic arsenal, a word that has such a gruesomely violent history in the associated domain of interest . It also, of course, requires that political leader, in the modern age of mass media coverage, to be surrounded by incompetent media advisers. And lastly, and most depressingly of all, it perhaps requires that leader to be afforded an almost bizarre tolerance by his electorate, one perhaps not so attuned to the history invoked by the word in question.

Note: Next week, the Wolfe Institute of Humanities at Brooklyn College will be hosting Sean Wilentz as its 2012 Robert Hess Scholar in Residence. A full week of panels, talks and round-tables is planned; the program for the week is now available. Please contact me if you have any questions and/or are interested in attending.

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2 comments on “Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

  1. JR says:

    Ronald Reagan is a great example to bring up. Here is a guy that so many people love and invoke for what he seemed to stand for. I see it and hear it all the time, and I also liked many things that he did.

    Having said that, it’s a classic case of personality trumping action, in many respects. Here is a great example that you lay out. Overusing “lynching.” It’s poor form, I agree. I am somewhat conflicted on words in general, because, while I don’t know the etymology of this word, I suspect that it may have a history that’s longer than the terrible things that occurred in this country, and I wouldn’t necessarily consider it verboten, in the appropriate context. The above is not that.

    Ronald Reagan is championed by conservatives, but there is a great irony in that. He was one of the biggest government spenders around. He blew up the deficit with the star wars. Often, conservatives turn a blind eye to defense spending, at the expense of their own credibility.

    Here is a guy that from a fiscal perspective, I repeat, a fiscal perspective, was left of Clinton.

    It’s just another example of how what people say or seem to stand for often trumps substance. Your post above is an example of that.

  2. Rob Israel says:

    It seems to me that Reagan (and there are countless examples before and since) got away with this because of distance from history. This is a disconnection from the meaning of a word which thereby allows it to be repurposed.

    Your tsunami example is not a bad one. However, you are also playing the game in both directions: there has never in recorded history, before 2004, been a deadly storm of this magnitude. So to associate “tsunami” with that kind of death and destruction is only a post-2004 mindset. It’s similar to post 9/11: meaning changed.

    Anyway, my point is that in 100 years (or probably a lot less) when people say “what a holocaust!!” or “oh, that’s so 9/11″ it’s not that the speaker is insensitive or the verbal hyperbole is such a stretch, it’s because we have once again removed the *meaning* of the phrase and reshaped it to our own ends. It’s not the same word anymore.

    What I leave out is the fact that Reagan, in using it so, helped disempower the word and *lessen the act* within history. Yes, I said it. He diminsihed the horror of lynching. Fuck him. Words have power and to re-associate an act, with all it’s social and historical gravitas, to a media attack, not only exaggerates it’s new usage but dismisses it’s former horror. Is that what you meant in your essay?

    Once last tangent. Time: it diminishes everything. All human activity. The Light. The darkness. It’s all less under the scale of ‘great time.’ The brutality of lynchings, the evil of the holocaust, the terror of the Inquisition, the repression of the McCarthy trials; none of these really can be fathomed by humans, removed, in time and space, from the moment-to-moment experience of these events.

    And I guess that is your point: the power of language, gives, and it takes away.

    It takes true empathy to even fathom these events from afar; an empathy that these re-classifications and post-modern re-contextualizations completely strip from our experience. I’m not saying we aren’t capable. I’m just saying Time makes it more and more difficult. The amount of empathy required is, well, beyond words.

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