I liked Ronald Reagan, despite the huge divide between us politically. Reagan was a charming old pro who gave me hours of his time in a series of interviews beginning in 1966 when he was running for governor, simply because he enjoyed the give and take. In fact, I often found myself defending the Gipper whenever I was confronted with an East Coast pundit determined to denigrate anyone, particularly actors, from my adopted state. Yet, looking back at his record, I am appalled that I warmed to the man as much as I did.
The fact is that Reagan abandoned the Roosevelt New Deal–which he admitted had saved his family during the Great Depression–in favor of a belief in the efficacy of massive corporate welfare inculcated in him by his paymasters at Warner Bros., General Electric and the conservative lecture circuit. Though Reagan the man was hardly mean-spirited, Reagan the politician betrayed the social programs and trade unionism he once believed in so fiercely.
Let’s start with his leadership of California, where he launched attacks on the state’s once-incomparable public universities and devastated its mental health system. Foreshadowing future trumped-up invasions of tiny Grenada and Nicaragua, he sent thousands of National Guardsmen to tear-gas Berkeley.
It also became increasingly clear that although the man wasn’t unintelligent, his ability to mingle truth with fantasy was frightening. At different times, Reagan–who infamously said that “facts are stupid things”–falsely claimed to have ended poverty in Los Angeles; implied he was personally involved in the liberation of Europe’s concentration camps; argued that trees cause most pollution; said that the Hollywood blacklist, to which he contributed names, never existed; described as “freedom fighters” the contra thugs and the religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan who would later become Al Qaeda; and claimed that fighting a “limited” nuclear war was not an insane idea.
But to see him as only a bumpkin–as some did–was to very much underestimate him. Like Nixon, the Teflon President was a survivor who’d come up the hard way, and many journalists and politicians who didn’t understand that invariably were surprised by his resiliency and savvy. Although he generally was compliant with his handlers, whenever the campaign pros or rigid ideologues got in the way of his or Nancy’s instincts, they were summarily discarded.
Even when his ideas were silly, his intentions often seemed good. For example, one of his dumbest and costliest pet projects, the “Star Wars” missile defense program, which he first announced when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times in 1980, was touted by Reagan as a peace offering to the Soviets.
And his legendary ability to effectively project an upbeat, confident worldview managed to obscure many of the negative consequences of his policies. For example, he made the terrible mistake of willfully ignoring the burgeoning AIDS epidemic at a time when action could have saved millions. Unlike many conservatives, however, he was not driven by homophobia. Instead, Reagan allowed AIDS to spread for the same reason he pointedly savaged programs to help the poor: He was genuinely convinced that government programs exacerbated problems–unless they catered to the needs of the businessmen he had come to revere.
In the White House, he ran up more debt than any earlier President–primarily to serve the requests of what Republican President Eisenhower had, with alarm, termed the “military-industrial complex.” (George W. Bush has broken that record.)
Apologists for this waste argue that throwing money at the defense industry broke the back of the Soviet Union and ended the cold war. But the Soviet Union was already broken, as Mikhail S. Gorbachev acknowledged quite freely when he came to power in the 1980s. Rather, what Reagan does deserve considerable credit for is ignoring the dire warnings of the hawks and responding enthusiastically to Gorbachev in their historic Reykjavík summit, where the two leaders called for a nuclear-free world.
Let it be remembered, then, that in the closing scene of his presidency Reagan embraced the peacemakers, rejecting the cheerleaders of Armageddon, and was then loudly castigated by the very neoconservatives–most vociferously Richard Perle–who have claimed the Reagan mantle for the post-cold war militarism of the current Administration.