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(June 11, 2004)

        I didn't share his vision, but I have to say he was a great gentleman who inspired the nation---even the world. His leadership was undeniable, and his impact on peace cannot accurately be measured. It is no stretch to say that his courageous 58 years of public service(!) will be felt for decades to come. Yes, he was a credit to his country. That countless millions mourn him today is testimony enough to his importance, no matter what one might think of his work, his words, his legacy.
        That's why I have decided that, yes, his image belongs on a ten-dollar bill.
        You might disagree, feeling that his accomplishments do not merit an honor traditionally reserved for our "Founding Fathers" and most hallowed presidents. Place him in a pantheon with Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington? Well, why not? It's true he had a vastly different style and impact than such beloved American figures, but then, he would have been the first to admit that he was no Abraham Lincoln.
       Ironically, it was Diane Sawyer, a person for whom I have exceedingly low regard, who said it best, last Sunday morning in a special edition of "Good Morning, America":
        "A giant oak has fallen in the forest of our lives."
        What an apt phrase! Of course, Diane was talking about the late president, Ronald Wilson Reagan. I'm talking about the late great Ray Charles.
        Leadership? Ask anyone in his band. World peace? What does more to engender happiness, and break down cultural and national barriers, than music? As for being an inspiration, well, how many people do you know who grew up black, dirt poor, sightless, yet created art cherished in every country on the planet?
        Putting Charles on U.S. currency would be a breakthrough; making him the first African-American, and first physically disabled person, to hold such an honor. What a tribute to American ideals, courage and character!
Ray was a star who believed in peace, and Reagan was a star who believed in "Star Wars."

     Those who are pushing to have Reagan's face on the ten-spot are just, pardon the expression, blind. Reagan seemed an affable, well-intentioned fellow, but he couldn't sing to save his life, and I never once saw him at a piano. And I'll take the Raylettes anytime over Reagan's back-up singers. I mean, Ed Meese, James Baker, Michael Deaver, Don Regan, Howard Baker? Are you kidding?
        But let's not be frivolous here.
        I must admit that Ray cannot match Reagan's achievements as president. After all, he never bypassed Congress and the Constitution to secretly sell arms to Iran in order to free American hostages, using the profits to fund Contra "freedom fighters" credited for killing over 30,000 in Nicaragua, and to support terrorist death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala.
        Ray never directed the Department of Agriculture to classify ketchup as a vegetable, as Reagan did in September, 1981, in an attempt to slash $1.5 billion from the federal school lunch program. Ray didn't ignore the AIDS crisis for the first six years of his presidency, under-funding federal programs to fight it because "maybe the Lord brought down this plague" and "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments." Never mind that AIDS killed 50,000 during that time, including women and children.
        Ray can't claim to have cut taxes for the rich, or to have slashed social programs to the extent that mental hospitals shut down, releasing their patients to wander. He didn't preside over the worst recession since the Great Depression, the tripling of federal debt, or the birth the great American shame of homelessness---which created a vagabond population equivalent to Atlanta. And trust me, Ray had nothing whatsoever to do with funding and backing Saddam Hussein against Iran, and supporting Islamic radicals in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union (including a fellow named Osama Bin-Laden.)
        Ray didn't bust any unions, either, as Reagan did with the striking air traffic controllers---thus playing with the safety of millions of people who use commercial airliners. And he certainly did not support Apartheid in South Africa. Ray never accused trees of being responsible for air pollution, nor paid tribute to fallen Nazis in a German cemetary. And he did not turn down the greatest nuclear disarmament deal in Cold War history to hang on to a fairy tale defense system known obnoxiously as "Star Wars."
        Nope. Ray can't compete with that record.
        But Reagan can't compete with Ray's record. Any of 'em. I'll take "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Born to Lose," "I've Got A Woman" over any of Reagan's movies---hell, over any of his speeches, for that matter. People will still be playing Ray singing "Georgia" and "What'd I Say" when most Americans have forgotten how to spell "Reagan" (assuming that they know now, a dicey proposition.)
        The Great Communicator? Compared to Ray Charles? Hit the road, Jack.
        Of course, both men overcame hardship. Reagan was the child of an alcoholic father, and Ray went blind at the age of seven. Reagan was out of work for two weeks during the Depression, and Ray was destitute. "Even," as he said, "compared to other blacks, we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground."
        Education-wise, though, Reagan probably has Ray beat. The 40th Prez was a star athlete and drama student at Eureka College in Peoria, Illinois; Ray attended St. Augustine's School for the Deaf and Blind in Florida, as a charity case. Reagan learned to act; Ray learned Braille and typing and basket-weaving. He picked up piano, more or less, just by listening to a neighbor playing it on the other side of the wall.
        Ray avoided military service because he couldn't see; Reagan avoided combat because of nearsightedness. (Call that one a draw.)
        What about initiative? Well, Ray figured out math and its correlation to music, learning to compose and arrange in his head. Reagan figured out the correlation between liberal actor friends in the Screen Actors Guild and dirty commie-rats. He turned away from his FDR/Democratic roots and testified against fellow entertainers for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
        Ray went on to make millions of people of all races happy, and win 14 Grammies.
        Reagan went on to make millions of mostly white Americans happy, and win elections as Governor of California and President of the United States.
        Ray shot heroin in the '60s. Reagan sent National Guardsmen with bayonets against college kids protesting Vietnam and various other things at UC Berkeley. (Call that one a draw, too.)
        Ray was a star who believed in peace, and Reagan was a star who believed in "Star Wars."
        Ray sang "You Don't Know Me." (Okay, not fair. You can't compete with that.)
        Reagan said, "Facts are stupid things," and Ray said, "I knew being blind was suddenly an aid. I never learned to stop at the skin. If I looked at a man or a woman, I wanted to see inside. Being distracted by shading or coloring is stupid. It gets in the way. It's something I just can't see."
        Reagan saw a shining city on a hill. Ray saw childhood images of his mother, who told him, as his sight vanished, that he was going to have to be tough, and make his mark on the world. (I'd give the edge to Ray, there.)
        Ray played organ, saxophone, and clarinet.
        Reagan played opposite a chimpanzee in "Bedtime for Bonzo."
        With all due respect to the charming, gracious late president, this is no contest.
        My money's on Ray Charles, and I'd like to see Ray Charles on my money.

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