[from June 2004 issue]


If we are to believe Mayor Williams, the answer has to be a resounding “Yes!”

Buried in his otherwise gracious June 8th official statement expressing appropriate condolences were the following words: “His conservative politics and old-fashioned values were balanced with warmth, humor and unbridled optimism about the future of America. As we honor him in this time of mourning, we cannot help but recall his vision.”

Presumably, the mayor assumed he was expressing the heartfelt views of his constituents. While we do not disagree with the mayor’s characterization that Reagan espoused “old-fashioned values,” or that he presented to the public at large and, apparently to those who knew him well, a delightful personality imbued with “warmth [and] humor and unbridled optimism,” we fear that the mayor got carried away by implying, through his closing phrase, “we cannot help but recall his vision,” that President Reagan’s “vision” was one that we genuinely admired then and cherish now.

Not necessarily true in this overwhelmingly Democrat city.

Of course, Mayor Williams is pretty new here; he wasn’t exposed to the negative social downside that Reagan’s “vision” brought to our streets, so he has no experiential context to guide him as he tries to be “mayoral” in his public pronouncements about the man who, contrary to his platitude near the end of his presidency about our “shining city on the hill,” really had absolutely no truly felt regard for our city. Those of us who have made our lives here know this; the out-of-towners do not.

One particularly dreadful example of what the Reagan philosophy and its follow-up by the then President’s own mandates and actual implementation by his minions--many of whom were some of the worst public servants since the days of Warren G. Harding (think Interior Secretary Watt, Attorney General Meese, to name but two)--can be found by recalling the overwhelming problem with the homeless.

What was especially awful was the absolute lack of compassion by the federal government regarding the fate of so many who were being driven into the streets, largely as a result of social service cutbacks brought on by a fanatic zeal to slash federal spending, mainly through the gimmick of mandates to the states and localities which had insufficient fiscal resources to begin with. The predictable result, as citizens and visitors here in our city were exposed to on a daily basis, was a vast army of pathetic homeless persons in ill-health thanks to hunger, inadequate clothing, no health insurance--in fact, no longer any meaningful social “safety net” that we had prided ourselves as a civilized society in providing for those in need.

For example, Reagan latched on to an especially progressive policy that the Carter Administration had begun to put in place, a two-pronged initiative that was widely applauded as a major step in bringing about the long overdue idea of “mainstreaming” persons with mental illness or developmental disabilities into the daily life and nurturing of the community rather than continuing the outdated and discredited practice of isolation away from the real world.

So it was that “de-institutionalization” became the mantra during the Carter years and in the latter part of his one term the federal government began implementation. Locally, that meant, first of all, that responsibility for the work carried on at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital was being transferred to the DC government and that patients who were determined to not be a danger to themselves or others would be moved into community-based facilities where they could start the process of re-learning the skills necessary to live independently and to be successfully employed, thereby regaining (or maybe even for the first time) their lost dignity and self-worth. What better prescription for ensuring improving mental health?

One of the leading local models for such community-based programs was then, and continues to be, The Green Door here in Dupont Circle--nationally-recognized and locally admired for its outstanding work and for its proven results.

The problem that quickly emerged with the de-institutionalization initiative, however, was that very early on it became apparent to the newly installed Reagan Administration bean counters--100 percent encouraged by the new President’s many strongly stated pronouncements--that this was a way to save vast sums of federal dollars. And so they embraced these programs of de-institutionalization.

But what they did not embrace was what the architects of de-institutionalization had intended as an integral part of these programs, and which had been key to the Carter Administration’s acceptance--that funds which had previously been used to maintain persons within institutions would now be diverted to networks of community-based services such as The Green Door. That was to be the second prong, but it never materialized and so persons who were now sent out into the world had nowhere to turn, were left to their own devices, which meant being abandoned in the streets.

So, here then was just one example of how the Reagan “vision” was a heartless fraud on society’s most vulnerable and, also, in many ways, a fraud on hard-working taxpaying citizens who’s municipal governments were left with an incredible social and fiscal burden.

Such policies spoke volumes about President Reagan’s vaunted “old-fashioned values” which our mayor wants the world to believe we citizens of this city so equally admire. When we hear spoken of “old-fashioned values” we hear code words that send a message of harking back to earlier centuries where only the upper classes were not routinely thrown to the dogs in the filthy streets, the debtors prisons, and worse. So, Mr. Mayor, please don’t talk to us about “old-fashioned values” in the same breath as extolling the virtues of the Reagan era.