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For Some, Unpleasant Memories

Times Staff Writer

While the first adoring crowds were lining up to view the casket of former President Ronald Reagan near Simi Valley, Bill Williams was 50 miles away in South Los Angeles, getting ready for the lunch crowd at Speedy & Gwen’s Bar-B-Que on Western Avenue near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Martha and the Vandellas were playing over the loudspeakers, and Williams wasn’t giving much thought to the Great Communicator.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 10, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Reagan memories -- An article in Wednesday’s California section about blacks’ and gays’ memories of Ronald Reagan stated that actor Charlie Vaughn wrote a “terse, obscene, two-word” e-mail to playwright Jon Bastian in response to news of Reagan’s death. The e-mail was written by another actor.

The 55-year-old maintenance man said he didn’t like to see anybody die. But Reagan, he said, “didn’t care nothin’ for blacks. That’s the bottom line.”

Reagan’s death Saturday unleashed a flood of fond remembrances and stirring tributes from around the globe.

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More than 105,000 mourners have flocked to Reagan’s presidential library to pass by his flag-draped coffin, and thousands more are expected to pay their respects when his body lies in state Thursday at the Capitol rotunda.

But in pockets of Los Angeles, Reagan’s hometown, and in the cafes of West Hollywood -- a city only minutes from the Reagans’ Bel-Air estate -- his death stirred memories of the often divisive policies of his 1980s administration.

Many African Americans like Williams remain bitter over Reagan’s perceived neglect of the poor. And many gay men like playwright Jon Bastian still feel Reagan “did nothing, basically” about the AIDS epidemic that exploded during his eight years as president.

“I keep hearing people say, ‘Reagan changed America,’ and he did,” Bastian said. “But the thing is, he didn’t change it for the better.”

The former actor’s laissez-faire approach to domestic issues -- and his famous declaration at his first inaugural address that “government is the problem” -- won over a large majority of American voters who agreed that the federal government had grown too powerful. It also angered liberal voters.

AIDS activists said Reagan did too little to combat the epidemic, and criticized the president for waiting until 1987 -- six years after the discovery of AIDS -- to deliver his first major speech on the subject.

Reagan’s philosophy made political enemies among African Americans, who recalled the federal government’s role in ending segregation. Reagan also angered blacks when he refused to support harsh sanctions against apartheid South Africa -- though he denounced apartheid itself -- and flirted with the idea of weakening the Voting Rights Act.

At a conference of big-city mayors, Reagan made headlines for failing to recognize the only black member of his Cabinet, Samuel R. Pierce, greeting him, “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”

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Pierce replied, “I’m a member of your Cabinet, Mr. President.”

Former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger said, “If Reagan made a mistake, it was a political mistake in not making more of an effort to speak to the black community.”

In the 1980 election, 11% of black voters chose Reagan. In 1984, he received 9% of their vote.

Lawrence Tolliver, the longtime proprietor of a popular barbershop on West Florence Avenue, said few of his customers have changed their minds about the man since then.

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“He just never felt comfortable in our community,” Tolliver said. “He never reached out to us, and we never reached out to him. So when we see the people on TV crying and weeping, it’s hard for us to figure out why.”

Though he did not have the same widely regarded rapport with black audiences as former President Bill Clinton, Reagan did make some inroads into Los Angeles’ African American community: In 1984, he earned the endorsement of the late Rev. E.V. Hill, a onetime confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an influential preacher at Los Angeles’ Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

At the 1984 Republican convention, Hill praised Reagan for improving the economy and increasing funds for black colleges and job-training programs.

“There have been some cuts, but there’s a whole lot left in,” he said. “America needs four more years of Ronald Reagan.”

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But many like Tolliver still hold a detailed list of grievances against the former president.

Although Reagan kicked off a high-profile “war on drugs” during the 1980s, Tolliver blames Reagan, in part, for South L.A.'s ongoing drug problems, citing the administration’s support for Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator who was later convicted of drug trafficking, and for the Nicaraguan Contras, some of whom had alleged drug ties.

Tolliver said Reagan began having a negative impact on inner-city neighborhoods as California governor when he accelerated a process of shutting down state mental hospitals, sending a cascade of mentally ill patients into the streets.

Yes, Tolliver said, Reagan helped defeat Soviet communism. “But the crazy people are still here on the streets,” he said. “That’s the legacy he has to deal with today.”

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Reagan supporters were equally scarce at Jack’s Family Kitchen, a packed South L.A. lunch counter where meals are served up under whimsical portraits of black life and a newspaper photo of golfer Tiger Woods.

Greg Bowen, 50, a preacher and Vietnam veteran, blamed Reagan for cuts in his Veterans Affairs healthcare benefits.

And he remembers when his uncle, an air traffic controller at LAX, was fired by Reagan after the president’s highly publicized standoff with the 11,700-member union in 1981.

“He crippled a lot of people,” Bowen said. “There were a lot of people who needed assistance and he took it off.”

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L.A. native Dennis Beacham, 41, said many blacks failed to benefit from Reagan’s trickle-down economic policies and cuts in poverty programs.

“Ronald Reagan’s famous quote is ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ ” Beacham said, referring to Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall.

“But what about coming to South-Central L.A. and saying, ‘Tear down the walls of poverty -- tear down the walls of illiteracy’?”

Melvin Walker, 47, a retired Army master sergeant, was in the crowd when Reagan made his famous Berlin speech.

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He said many blacks struggling to get by had a hard time seeing Reagan’s great triumph: expanding and modernizing the armed forces -- and in so doing, hastening the fall of Soviet communism.

Reagan believed the best way to help the poor was to end “the generational cycle of dependence” created by government assistance programs, said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a longtime Reagan ally.

Among many gays, the Reagan era is overshadowed by AIDS and the toll it took on co-workers, friends and lovers. By the time Reagan publicly addressed the issue, an estimated 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed as having the virus that causes the disease.

Alan Hochberg, 60, said his longtime monogamous relationship with another man sheltered him from some of the panic of the time. “But of course I was losing people around me, people I worked with,” he said. “It was a tough time.”

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For years, Hochberg said, Reagan “never said a word about AIDS. He never said it existed. I don’t know if I was angry or I was disappointed more than anything else.”

Hochberg, who grew up in a politically liberal New York household, said those feelings lingered, even as the world paid tribute to the former president.

“How do I feel these last few days?” Hochberg said. “I feel nothing.”

Sitting a few chairs away at a West Hollywood restaurant Tuesday, Tom Harris, an HIV-positive gay man and registered Republican, said Reagan shouldn’t be blamed for the AIDS epidemic.

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The 72-year-old said he understood why it might have been difficult for Reagan to speak directly about homosexuality.

“It was the way we were raised in those days,” he said. “You just didn’t talk about it.”

A few blocks away at a church on Santa Monica Boulevard, actor Charlie Vaughn took a break from rehearsals for Jon Bastian’s latest play to describe his first reaction to Reagan’s death after Bastian e-mailed him the news. It was a terse, obscene, two-word sentence.

Vaughn, 27, was a toddler when Reagan ran for president in 1980. He said he looked up to Reagan as an icon, a “fantastic” patriotic symbol who “looked the way a president ought to look.”

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“But when I was 18 or 19 years old, I started coming out, and I started hearing the Reagan horror stories,” Vaughn said. “As an adult, hearing that somebody you looked up to did such bad things was an awakening.”

Vaughn said he still respected Reagan for the “gentlemanly” figure he cut in the White House.

“But in some things, he was a product of his time,” Vaughn said. “I think he was caught in a lot of misinformation and old-time values.”


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