It’s as if Gore Vidal coined the phrase “United States of Amnesia” for the moment of Ronald Reagan’s death. Journalists, commentators and politicians gushed about this “optimistic” man of “vitality” who demonstrated a profound “love of his country” and single-handedly revived “patriotism.” Most of the media coverage was a romanticized hail-to-the-chief celebration of a majestic figure rather than a realistic examination of what this man did for, or to, the country and the world.
The end of Reagan’s life was sad. His family, like many others, went through a decadelong trauma as it watched Alzheimer’s claim their loved one. (We applaud Nancy Reagan’s effort to persuade George W. Bush to lift the restrictions he imposed on stem-cell research to placate the religious right.) But death, however it comes, does not warrant the rewriting of a life. And until the current occupant side-stepped into the White House, Reagan was the worst American leader since Herbert Hoover.
It would be impossible in this space to catalogue all the damage Reagan wrought in eight years. The standard line is that he won the cold war, but elsewhere in this issue Jonathan Schell corrects that notion. It is also worth noting that this man who yearned so much for freedom and democracy in Soviet-bloc nations showed limited concern for democracy and human rights in other parts of the globe. After Democrats and Republicans in Congress passed sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa, Reagan vetoed the measure. His Administration cuddled up with the fascistic and anti-Semitic junta of Argentina and backed militaries in El Salvador and Guatemala that massacred civilians. It moved to normalize relations with Augusto Pinochet, the tyrant of Chile. Reagan sent George Bush the First to the Philippines, where the Vice President toasted dictator Ferdinand Marcos for fostering “democracy.” Pursuing a quasi-secret war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Reagan Administration violated international law and circumvented Congress to support contra rebels engaged in human rights abuses and, according to the CIA’s own Inspector General, worked with suspected drug traffickers. Reagan covertly sent arms to the mullahs of Iran and courted Saddam Hussein, even after his use of chemical weapons. He appointed officials who claimed nuclear war was winnable, thus raising the chances that miscalculations by the Soviet Union or the United States would plunge the world into chaos.
On the home front Reagan was almost as divisive and disingenuous as the second Bush, as William Greider recounts on page 5. His deficit-causing supply-side tax cuts (derided by the elder Bush as “voodoo economics”) were sold with phony numbers and sleight-of-hand accounting. These “trickle-down” tax cuts–coupled with a tremendous boost in military spending–were designed to bankrupt the government, pressuring it to reduce government spending and thereby justifying draconian cuts in social programs. (Remember ketchup as a vegetable?)
Reagan showed little concern for the deindustrialized workers who suffered during the 1980s, and he was actively hostile to unions, firing PATCO air-traffic controllers en masse after they struck for better pay and working conditions. His Attorney General, Edwin Meese, displayed little regard for civil liberties, noting, “You don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime.” His Interior Secretary, James Watt, fancied dead trees over live ones. And no one in the Reagan White House appeared to care about a new pandemic that mainly killed homosexuals. Reagan’s inaction and bigotry against gays and drug-users led to tens of thousands of deaths that might have been avoided if he had moved earlier.
Reagan effectively installed a revolving door at the White House through which key advisers passed on their way to lucrative jobs as lobbyists–and subsequent indictments for influence peddling. Despite his Administration’s “law and order” language, by the 1990s nearly 200 Reagan-era officials had faced investigation and prosecution. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s conclusion that Reagan had “created the conditions which made possible the crimes committed by others” in the Iran/contra scandal holds true for the more widespread lack of ethical standards. His Administration weakened workplace safety standards. He presided over an S&L scandal that stuck taxpayers with a bill approaching a trillion dollars. He appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court. He tried to gut the Civil Rights Commission, and his Administration waged a relentless series of attacks on affirmative action while trying to grant tax-exempt status to private schools that engaged in racial discrimination.
Reagan, to a limited degree, had the ability to transcend ideology when reality intruded. When conservatives warned that Mikhail Gorbachev was a fraud with a stealth plan to destroy the United States, Reagan overcame his own history of right-wing dogmatism and negotiated with the Soviet leader. And after his tax cuts yielded enormous deficits, he went along with tax hikes to stop the fiscal bleeding (he apparently persuaded himself that he and Congress were merely closing loopholes). But such moments were far outnumbered by others suggesting at best a shaky grip on reality; he often seemed to live in a world of his own–with Reader’s Digest his only news source.
But he won two presidential elections commandingly, and over the course of several decades inspired a devoted following that now wants to etch his name and image on currency, public buildings and monuments across the land. He won by displaying an optimism about his ideology that most right-leaning politicians before him had lacked; voters, even when they didn’t particularly like his ideas, liked Reagan himself, because he convinced them he believed in these ideas and in a noble vision of America.
Reagan once malapropped, “Facts are stupid things.” He meant “stubborn,” and we hope that they are, and that the facts of Reagan’s presidency survive the hagiography now being written. His life, as the cliché-soaked commentators note incessantly, may have been an “American life.” But his presidency was no morning in America; it empowered and enabled some of the worst elements of public life in our country: greed, arrogance, neglect and hypocrisy. This Reagan legacy, unfortunately, survives its namesake, and, worse, it has been enhanced by the son of his Vice President.