Both Republican candidates battled to claim the mantle of the Gipper. John McCain calls himself "a true Reagan Republican." George W. Bush retorts, "It is not Reaganesque to say one thing and do another." The pundits keep score but, once again, miss the point. If McCain wants to enjoy another episode of his now-famous penchant for public self-flagellation, that's his business. But Bush's exercise in unctuous untruth appears to be accepted at face value. It's as if Reagan, now diagnosed with Alzheimer's, has given the rest of us amnesia.
For Ronald Reagan was many things, but most undeniably he was a pathological liar. True, he also gave every impression of being an unbelievable moron (which is why Saturday Night Live could once parody his pathetic excuses for the Iran/contra scandal with a skit that depicted Reagan as--get this!--brilliant and competent). His worshipful, if fanciful, biographer Edmund Morris even calls him an "apparent airhead." The President's famous cluelessness was so obvious during his years in office that his defenders would attempt to deploy it as a defense of his actions, as if he were a small child or a beloved but retarded uncle. The President tended to "build these little worlds and live in them," noted a senior adviser. "He makes things up and believes them," explained one of his kids.
Recall that ol' Dutch frequently made arguments about history based on movies he half-recalled. He thought he'd liberated concentration camps. He invented what he called "a verbal message" from the Pope in support of his Central America policies, news to everyone in Vatican City. In 1985, Reagan one day announced that the vicious apartheid regime of P.W. Botha had already "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country."
Not only did Reagan make things up, he also forgot some things that most of us consider pretty important. Morris, for instance, lets us in on the astonishing fact that the President not only did not know his own Secretary of Housing and Urban Development--no big whoop, as the guy was, after all, black--but that Mr. Family Values also failed to recognize his own son (his own son!) while attending his graduation. If any of us had a parent given to such behavior, we might feel compelled to look into some sort of institutionalized care, if only for his own protection.
But another, more significant, little-mentioned tendency of the ex-President was his fondness for genocidal murderers. I do not use the term "genocide" lightly.
Take Guatemala. That nation's official Historical Clarification Commission charged its own government with a campaign of "genocide" in murdering roughly 200,000 people, mainly Mayan Indians, during its dictatorial reign of terror. The commission's nine-volume 1999 report singled out the US role in aiding this "criminal counterinsurgency." The violence in Guatemala reached a gruesome climax in the early eighties under the dictatorship of the born-again evangelical, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. Nine hundred thousand people were forcibly relocated and entire villages leveled. As army helicopters strafed a caravan of 40,000 unarmed refugees seeking to escape to Mexico, Reagan chose that moment to congratulate Ríos Montt for his dedication to democracy, adding that he had been getting "a bum rap" from liberals in Congress and the media. His Administration soon provided as much aid to the killers as Congress would allow.
Reagan showed a similar indulgence toward the terrorists in El Salvador. The President and his equally immoral advisers consistently behaved as if they were hired public relations agents for the murderers of children, nuns, priests and peasants. Not long after these killings reached the amazing level of more than 200 per week--in a country with just 5.5 million people--Reagan mused aloud that they were not the work of "so-called murder squads" on the right, but of "guerrilla forces" who think they "can get away with these violent acts, helping to try and bring down the government, and the right wing will be blamed for it." In fact, only days later, Vice President Bush flew to San Salvador to insist that "every murderous act" committed by "right-wing fanatics...poisons the well of friendship between our two countries," and that "death squad murders" could cost the killers "the support of the American people." Didn't Reagan know what Bush knew? Does anyone care? After the war, the Catholic archdiocese in San Salvador documented the number of killings on each side. The tally: military and government-assisted death squads, 41,048; left-wing guerrillas, 776. Reagan was off by almost 5,500 percent. Liar or moron? You tell me.
Historians are starting to provide a useful corrective, perhaps in anticipation of an orgy of dishonest eulogies like those for Richard Nixon in 1994, while pundits casually credit Reagan with inspiring Moscow's capitulation in the cold war, via his obsession with Star Wars. But as Frances FitzGerald demonstrates in her new book, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan and Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, the historical record does not even remotely support this wishfully ignorant thesis. Similarly, in Matthew Evangelista's new work, Unarmed Forces, we discover the key role played by transnational forces in convincing Gorbachev & Co. to shut down the arms race in spite--not because--of the belligerence emanating from Reagan and his men.
Public Affairs is about to reissue an updated edition of Reagan expert Lou Cannon's comprehensive biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Cannon ignores Guatemala and bends over backward to be generous to his subject's odd belief structure. But as Herbert Mitgang observed of the 1990 edition, simply "by being eminently fair," the book proved "a devastating account of Ronald Reagan's presidency."
Despite Cannon's solid historical reconstruction and Edmund Morris's nutty nonfiction novel, the key question about Reagan remains not only unanswered but unasked. It is just this: How did this childlike fantasist and friend of genocide convince a nation of reasonably intelligent, God-fearing and generally decent citizens to avert its eyes from the heart of darkness that beat beneath Ronald Reagan's congenial smile?