Word has reached me that right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham has been attacking me on the airwaves. I haven’t heard the show, but I can imagine the cause of her distress. During the media’s beatification of St. Ronald, she and I discussed Reagan’s legacy on CNN, with Wolf Blitzer performing hosting duties. Reagan was only dead for a few days, so I did intend to be respectful.
Not surprisingly, Ingraham, who worked in the Reagan administration, praised him as a titan of conservative ideas. As an example, she cited “his idea of not following a policy of appeasement.” Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that in her grief she forgot that President Jimmy Carter was no appeaser. He began the military buildup that Reagan happily expanded, and Carter also initiated the covert program that supplied assistance to the mujahedin fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
After Blitzer observed, “Even a critic like you, David, believes [Reagan] deserves all these honors that already have unfolded and will unfold,” he asked, “what goes through your mind, historically speaking, about Ronald Reagan?” Trying to remain gentle, I replied, “I remember a fellow who wasn’t well known just for being optimistic and for having a good manner about him, but for being a very divisive figure…in terms of arms control, the movement for freedom in South Africa. There were nasty fights over Central America and the Contra war…fierce battles very reminiscent of today. And he was a fellow who mobilized millions of Americans on a very, very wonky issue, nuclear arms control, to hit the streets and protest his policies. He had church movements across the country protesting his policies in Central America.”
Rather than talk about such matters, Ingraham opted for soundbites: “I think Ronald Reagan, looking down from heaven, would say, David, there you go again right now.” Nothing, though, was untrue or inaccurate about my comments. And I was minding my manners by not referring to the thousands of Central American peasants killed in the 1980s by armies actively supported and trained by the Reagan administration. (I referred to that later.) But what really ticked off Ingraham was my response to Blitzer’s remark that Reagan was “a conservative Republican who really altered the political landscape in this country to this very day.” Indeed he did, I said, adding, “In fact, the gap between the wealthy and the poor increased during his eight years, and has continued on that trend. He had draconian cuts in food stamps and school lunch programs. Remember, catsup as a vegetable and Medicaid [cuts]?”
“That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” Ingraham exclaimed. And during the commercial break she excoriated me for daring to utter the phrase “catsup as a vegetable.” Imagine, she nearly shouted, if after Bill Clinton died, she would criticize him for having received a $500 haircut. Actually, that would hardly be an equivalent comment. Reagan’s budget cuts–and “catsup as a vegetable” became a shorthand term for his assault on social programs–affected far more people than any haircut received by Clinton.
On the air, Ingraham commented, “Well, it’s like the last 20 years never happened to David, I think. I mean, the facts of Reagan’s success are undeniable. The largest peacetime economic expansion our country had ever seen from 1983 to 1990.” Facts matter. And the expansion that occurred during the Reagan years was the third largest–behind the one that happened when Clinton was president and the expansion that transpired in the Kennedy and Johnson years. But as the number of jobs increased–after a rather deep recession–real income for Americans went down in the 1980s and the numbers of American families living in poverty rose by a third. It was not morning in America for everyone.
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With Ingraham and other conservatives, it’s as if much of what happened in the 1980s did not happen. The Berlin Wall did fall and the Soviet Union did collapse. As I noted, Reagan deserves at least partial credit for that, for it transpired on his watch. It remains an open historical question how much his policies moved these events along. But it is not open to debate that during his tenure in office, Reagan supported murderous brutes and tyrants from Iraq to South Africa to Argentina to Chile to El Salvador to Guatemala to the Philippines. Why is it that conservatives cannot address such matters?
In the wake of Reagan’s death, many liberals and Democrats showed a remarkable open-mindedness. They noted that the overtures Reagan made in his second term to Mikhail Gorbachev–against the advice of hawkish conservatives and neocons who warned him not to deal with Gorby–apparently did contribute to the collapse of the Soviet empire. After all, liberals used to vilify Reagan as no more than a shoot-first dunce of a cowboy. Now, they were willing to reconsider that assumption and focus on Reagan’s desire to do away with nuclear weapons and work with Gorbachev. Yet conservatives like Ingraham still cannot see past their narrow ideological blinders and even discuss the darker side of Reaganism.
So Ingraham has conniptions over catsup as a vegetable? I could have said that Reagan had the blood of Central Americans, Chileans, Argentineans, Iraqis, and South Africans on his hands. I was trying to be considerate of the dead.
On the subject of conservative talk-show hosts who go ballistic, I see that Bill O’Reilly has apologized to my pal Molly Ivins for having called her a socialist. That dustup appears to have led my Nation colleague Eric Alterman to hire a lawyer and demand that O’Reilly retract his claim that Alterman was “another Fidel Castro confidant.” Alterman notes that last month he signed a public rebuke of Castro and the “brute repression” of his dictatorship.
Looks like a trend is developing. Should I catch the wave, too? (It probably would help sell more copies of my book.) When I appeared on O’Reilly’s show in January 2003, he called me a “a left-wing, liberal, pinko communist.” Any good red-baiter knows that there is no such thing as a liberal communist. So I’ll give O’Reilly a pass on this one. But if he ever links me to President Hu Jintao of China, I’m calling my lawyer.
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