Reagan Roundtable: Ronald Reagan and California by Kanani Fong

by Kanani Fong

Well, there’s a lot of hullaballoo about what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. I can’t remember a time when Ronald Reagan wasn’t part of the lexicon of California politics, even recollecting the time his face was printed on the DMV handbook. His signature even appeared on my school Report Cards. (Back then the Superintendent, the Principal’s sigs were also included).

Ronald Reagan was the sunny transplant from the midwest, the person who was proof that you could invent yourself here in the land of (then) orange trees, mild weather, and movie stars from Marlene Dietrich to Mae West. He was in radio, then movies, the president of SAG, a democrat, a republican, governor, and president. He even had a beautiful wife, and two children who were the kids he created –free thinkers. They even disagree with many of his viewpoints, but frankly, he would not have minded. Reagan was the kind of self styled rugged individualist that most people are comfortable with, one step removed from the suburbs. It was the Hollywood version of a ranch –horse trails, brush to clear, minus the livestock or orchards other ranchers depended on for their livelihood.

He was part of that golden era that I grew up in, where everything seemed possible. The state universities were very low cost, the schools were at the top of the nation, and the freeways (actually thanks to Gov. Edmund G. Brown), were smooth black lines that wound their way from mountains to desert and over to the Pacific Ocean. When I was growing up, we never asked about anyone’s religion, and it never occurred to us to casually pigeonhole anyone as liberal or conservative, democrat or republican. We were (above anything else) Californians –which was pretty damned swell. It is easy to get nostalgic for those days, but to marinate in it for too long, makes it difficult to see the changes he started and the challenges we have ahead.

One of the things he’s remembered for most during his time as governor was the closure of mental hospitals. It wasn’t only for economic reasons. There was a new classification of medications now available to people with everything from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. The idea was that medication could control the raging symptoms, patients should be able to return to work or at least –to leading a peaceful life.

It was a theory that turned out to be imperfect and imprecise. To use a ranching metaphor: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Not only did the mental hospitals close, but services critical to long term patient care took a shaking. Social workers, psychiatric clinics, psychological services all became very poor step children as this trend started in on a Federal level in years to come. Mental health casework was added to the list of things that got shifted to the local cops.

Today, as we see more men and women return home from war, there’s a need to increase the amount of money we spend on both the state and federal levels to ensure mental health treatment and also enhance a sense of well-being. This isn’t limited only to psychotherapy, social work, and psychiatry, but expanded to ensure that our veterans can engage in a variety of therapeutic activities. Yoga, hiking, nature retreats, and the humanities. Even park lands are part of this landscape of wellness. Obviously, the level of awareness must be raised not only to increase and safeguard federal and state mental health offerings, but to encourage private organizations as well. We must be as passionate about their long term needs over the next 50 years, as we are about …well, for me, small businesses.

We need help returning them to the kind of world that Ronald Reagan personified, but perhaps was a bit too remote to fulfill it. Verdant green hills, a broad expanse of blue sky, and a friendly hand of help and protection when it is needed so that people can stand with others. A place where we we not only clear the brush on our land, but also create a trail for others. Is it a dream, a vision of Hollywood? Perhaps so. But we can only keep trying.

4 thoughts on “Reagan Roundtable: Ronald Reagan and California by Kanani Fong”

  1. Hey Kanani

    Thanks – I didn’t catch that when I posted your piece here- I’ll go in and edit later this morning

  2. I remember California 60 years ago the same way. I came here to college in 1956. Aside from the smog, now gone thanks to air improvement, it was paradise. Pete Wilson was the last governor to keep the lid on the Democrats’ spending. Now, the money goes to interest groups while the infrastructure crumbles.

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