A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign

Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan

Nancy Reagan gave my generation three words: “Just Say No.” Some hail this slogan as pure genius in this country’s “war against drugs” in that it curbed drug use. Others believe Reagan’s program began what is now a school-to-prison pipeline igniting “zero tolerance” policies in schools.

Nancy Reagan haunted my teen years like a waifish starlet in red.

As a Generation X child, I was 11 when Ronald and Nancy Reagan entered the White House in all their glorious Republican red.

My mother was no Reagan fan; her brother who lived in South Carolina worshipped the couple. And I do mean worshipped – almost as much as God but not quite, because in the Bible Belt God always comes first and then Reagan if you’re a true conservative. It was through the prism of the knock-down-drag-out fights between my mother and uncle that I realized that politics was dirty business. Really dirty. The talk at the supper table over fried catfish could go from calm and collective to explosive in a matter of minutes with the mention of one word – Reagan.

My teen years, when you really do form your core values, timed perfectly with Reagan’s eight years in the Oval Office. I absorbed myself in Princess Diana, MTV, music (specifically Duran Duran), fashion, art, makeup and journalism. Nancy Reagan was, whether I realized it or not at the time, a supporting cast member in my life. She was a high-profile First Lady who was constantly in the news, and she embodied the high-rolling ‘80s with her designer dresses, fine china (I know. It was paid for by private funds) and glitzy guests at the White House. Who could forget Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta?

But Nancy gave my generation something else. Three words to be exact: “Just Say No.” Some hail this slogan as pure genius in this country’s “war against drugs” in that it curbed drug use. Others believe Reagan’s program began what is now a school-to-prison pipeline igniting “zero tolerance” policies in schools.

For kids my age, it was a joke. I mean, honestly, it was.

Confession: I have never done drugs – not even pot – because I have such a haywire allergies that I knew any drugs would kill me or land me in the hospital with some reaction no doctor had ever seen. But I knew plenty of people who did drugs in the Eighties, and, if anything, Nancy Reagan gave them something else to rebel against beside their parents – the government.

I knew kids who smoked pot before coming to school, at lunch and after school and probably in the bathroom whenever they got the chance. I knew kids who preferred going to their car at lunch and inhaling liquid paper from a Ziploc bag. I knew kids who did cocaine and kids who sold it. I knew one guy who was a dealer and then became a narc, sniffing out his friends. He later worked for a politician.

None of these people ever told me about their drug use or asked me to do drugs with them, but I was a nosey-posey student journalist and I eavesdropped. A lot. And I knew Nancy Reagan’s glorious plan that everyone hailed was such a joke. How many times did I hear kids laugh about “Just Say No”? Hundreds, I bet.

Later in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton became president, my generation either kept smoking pot or graduated to the drug of the era – Ecstasy. Once in an art gallery in Little Rock, a girl was tripping on some unknown drug and the owner refused to call paramedics. Fortunately, a woman stepped up and called 911, and the girl was carted off to the hospital. Even in the last 10 years, I’ve lost friends — long past the age of knowing better — to drug overdoses.

Now, many of those teenagers from the Reagan years want marijuana legalized. Many of them are dealing with children of their own hooked on drugs far worse than pot like heroin or cocaine. Some of them are even hooked on those very drugs themselves.

Drugs have even played a role at times in politics this year with the heroin addiction in New Hampshire and other states becoming an issue during many of the Republican and Democratic debates.

Maybe Nancy Reagan saved a few lives with her “Just Say No” campaign. Maybe someone besides myself said “no” and actually give Nancy credit for it instead of an allergy.  If so, I’d really like to meet that someone. I have my doubts. Even my uncle couldn’t say “no”; he loved his Valium as much as his Grand Old Party. Ultimately, Nancy’s slick slogan was like a lot of things in the Eighties — a glossy platform but lacking any real substance.

Suzi Parker, TBS’ cultural writer, is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Echo Ellis: Adventures of a Girl Reporter,” “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The Daily Beast and numerous other publications. She is also a contributor to the Amazon.com bestseller, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox (She Writes Press) Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/National Archives/in the public domain

  • tishgrier

    I always saw her as a mean little lady who took a moral high ground when she should have showed more compassion (esp. during the AIDS crisis) Thanks Suzi for your un-sentimental look back at Mrs. Reagan.

    • m freewald

      When her husband “Ronnie” pardoned those related to those funding the “Contras'” by importing cocaine to be sold to fund an illegal war, well… why does the GOP act as that
      Reagan walked on water? Let’s Just Say NO to that BS

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