It’s not a hard task, indeed it’s an agreeable one, to dishonor Ronald Reagan by listing his infamies on the centenary of his birth. But such simple iteration misses the weirdness of his malign vacuity, so inbuilt that today his sons cannot agree on whether he had Alzheimer’s in his second term. How could they tell?
Start with the 1981 onslaught on organized labor by his firing of the striking air-traffic controllers, whose union had endorsed him; continue with the onslaughts on welfare and the insistence that government was at all times a malign force. The attack on government took many concrete forms—including deregulation of the savings and loan industry, with subsequent meltdown of same in an orgy of pillage.
Reagan’s initial executives, James Watt at Interior and Anne Gorsuch at the EPA, assigned to ravish America’s landscapes and distribute public lands to mining conglomerates, timber companies and corporate concessionaires in the national parks, overplayed their hands, proposing giveaways so outrageous that environmentalists, led by the arch druid, David Brower, were able to beat them back. But long term, Reagan’s environmental appointees were able to set an agenda of destruction smoothly consummated by later presidents.
There wasn’t a torturer in Latin America who didn’t raise a cheer when Reagan was elected, even though Carter hadn’t particularly cramped their style. They were right to exult. In Guatemala, Ríos Montt plunged into the darkest butcheries, with Reagan’s green light for the frightful bloodletting in which perhaps 200,000 Guatemalans died, most particularly Mayan campesinos. RENAMO perpetrated ghastly massacres in Mozambique, spurred on and backed by Reagan’s men, working in league with South Africa’s apartheid regime, much admired by Reagan. Fresh from honoring the SS men buried in Bitburg, Germany, he went two days later to Spain, where he declared that the Lincoln Brigade and the defenders of the Republic had fought on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.
Reagan presided over a carnival of corruption and greed at the Pentagon, especially the billion-dollar feeding trough of SDI. Today, hundreds of billions of dollars in R&D and procurement later, the scheme remains as absurd as ever. There was no border in Reagan’s mind between fantasy and fact. He told Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister of Israel, that he had helped to liberate Auschwitz and returned to Hollywood with film footage of the awful scenes he had witnessed. It was all a lie.
The elite press institutions diligently fostered the cold war fantasies that powered Reagan’s 1980 campaign, such as Clare Sterling, Shirley Christian and Robert Moss’s imaginary Soviet “terror networks.” They lauded his leaden and childish oratory. Though the Tower Commission showed that Reagan was thoroughly apprised of the illegal activities in the “Contragate” conspiracy and had authorized them, commentators like Mark Shields made haste to affirm that the president had been the “victim of a bloodless coup in the White House,” which “he didn’t know about.”