Nancy Reagan Appears on ‘Diff’rent Strokes’, 1983

Exhibit / August 15, 2017

Object Name: “The Reporter,”  Season 5, Episode 22 of Diff’rent Strokes
Maker and Year: Tandem Productions/NBC, 1983
Object Type: Television episode
Image Source: TV Guide cover from TV Guide Cover Archive, TV Guide listing from Garage Sale Finds
Description: (Michael Grasso)

As part of her anti-drug Just Say No campaign, First Lady Nancy Reagan made a guest appearance on the NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes (1978-1986) on March 19, 1983. In the episode, titled “The Reporter,” Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman), a reporter for his school newspaper, breaks a story on drug pushers at his school and submits it to a major city newspaper. The story attracts the attention of the First Lady, who visits and thanks Arnold for his work in exposing the presence of drugs and reminds everyone in Arnold’s classroom (and at home) to “Just Say No to Drugs.”

The U.S. government’s “War on Drugs” was beginning to heat up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with the arrival of South American cocaine on America’s shores in Miami. But narcotics prohibition had been a top concern of the government ever since the repeal of the 18th Amendment forbidding the sale of alcohol, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term. Passage of the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act in 1934 and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was pushed by big business and big media interests at the time, tapping into racist fears that marijuana would lead to social mixing of the races, which would in turn lead to miscegenation. In 1970, in the aftermath of the Summer of Love and the explosion of drug use in the counterculture, the Nixon Administration passed and signed the Controlled Substances Act. This Act, passed in response to Timothy Leary’s successful case in front of the Supreme Court, created the dangerous drugs “Schedules” and much of the federal infrastructure for Nixon’s declared war on “Public Enemy Number One.” As with the 1930s Acts, much of the hysteria around drugs in the early 1970s was deeply embedded in racial fear and fear of political unrest.

Nancy Reagan’s taking on the anti-drug campaign was not the first example of a First Lady addressing drug abuse. For former First Lady Betty Ford, it was a personal issue. She’d developed an addiction to painkillers and was the subject of an intervention by her family in 1978. In 1982 she would found the Betty Ford Center, a drug treatment facility that became noteworthy for its treatment of the rich, famous, and powerful. A two-tiered drug recovery system, where the wealthy paid to alleviate addiction in luxury while the poor and people of color languished in jails and prisons at an exponentially-increasing rate, was the status quo from the 1980s onward.

All of this is cultural, historical, and political background for this particular episode of Diff’rent Strokes. The overall conceit of the series is that wealthy New Yorker Philip Drummond decides to look after the two sons of his Black domestic servant after she passes away. Drummond eventually adopts Willis and Arnold Jackson. The culture clash between two young Black boys from Harlem and Drummond’s and his daughter Kimberly’s Park Avenue lifestyle is mined for laughs throughout much of the early run of the series. Given the fraught politics around transracial adoption and the blithe way the series often papers over these real concerns, Diff’rent Strokes offers a microcosm of the greater racial politics of the era. Mr. Drummond’s taking in Willis and Arnold can be seen as a pointed Reagan-era answer to the problems of Black poverty and disenfranchisement in America: a supposed victory of private, individual philanthropy and charity over government programs or reparations.

The plotlines in later seasons come down very much on the “Very Special Episode” side of things, tackling issues like racial discrimination, eating disorders, hitchhiking, and, perhaps most infamously, child molestation in the two-part “Bicycle Man” episode (which appeared mere months before “The Reporter” in 1983).

The Just Say No campaign that Nancy Reagan championed began as an outgrowth of sociological work on “inoculation theory” as a way to prevent the influence of peer pressure among schoolchildren. This method, focusing on inculcating a broad social resistance to outside persuasion, was a reaction to the “brainwashing” of U.S. soldiers by their North Korean and Chinese captors during the Korean War. This research was put to work in the greater field of public relations almost immediately after its development, and became key to many public service campaigns throughout the postwar period, eventually being co-opted by advertising and political influencing at large. Hearing the phrase “Just Say No” delivered by the former actress First Lady would prepare a young person to resist the temptation of drugs with an easy-to-remember line, pre-packaged by Madison Avenue advertising executives. This “philosophy” was strengthened and expanded in years to come with the establishment of the D.A.R.E. program (also in 1983) in Los Angeles and eventually nationwide. D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, was begun by Daryl Gates’s notoriously racist LAPD in very much the same vein as the Just Say No campaign, except with the explicit involvement of law enforcement as “teachers” in school systems, using the same “inoculation” techniques to encourage children at an early age to resist drug use.

While all of this drug education was going on in the 1980s in suburban schools, the aforementioned explosion in minority incarceration over drug offenses accelerated, thanks to racially-based inequities in sentencing enabled by the ostensible “difference” between powder and crack cocaine. All the while, the U.S. government, on one hand fighting this multi-front War on Drugs, was implicated in trafficking those very same drugs to help right-wing Contra insurgents fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

The aftermath of this multi-faceted, government-run 1980s cultural propaganda campaign against drug use led to a generation of people of color imprisoned for excessive sentences based on racist zero-tolerance laws, while a generation of supposedly “inoculated” grown men and women today suffer from one of the worst drug scourges ever experienced on American soil, a crisis enabled by often-legally-prescribed opioids, facilitated by government for decades thanks to the lobbying machinations of Big Pharma. Who’s to “Just Say No” to a doctor’s prescription, after all?

Diff’rent Strokes cast members Dana Plato and Todd Bridges both suffered from substance abuse problems in the years following their time on the show, with Plato passing away from an overdose of painkillers in 1999.

4 thoughts on “Nancy Reagan Appears on ‘Diff’rent Strokes’, 1983

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