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?)