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In the aftermath of Ronald Reagan's death on June 5, many politicians, journalists, and academics rushed to praise the 40th president and his legacy. For more than a week, the corporate media provided extensive coverage of the memorial services, funeral, and related rituals. Hundreds of thousands of people came to pay their respects in Simi Valley, California, and Washington, D.C. But as more than a few critics have pointed out, the wave of sympathy and nostalgia promoted by establishment analysts has been accompanied by what Paul Douglas Newman of Common Dreams News Center called "collective amnesia."
Now that Reagan has been laid to rest, perhaps it is time for some straight talk about his life, his presidency and his legacy. If we critically examine the historical facts, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Reagan was one of the most reactionary, right-wing politicians to ever lead this country. As Frances Fox Piven observed in a June 11, 2004 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Reagan was "one of the most damaging presidents in American history." As Vijay Prashad wrote ("The Last Act," Frontline, June 19-July 2, 2004), "The Reagan Revolution bequeathed us with a world that is infinitely more dangerous and divided than ever before."
Reagan's early career in Hollywood and in California politics included some frightening portents of his performance as President. Although Reagan was a liberal and a supporter of the New Deal in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he moved dramatically to the Right in the late 1940s. Reagan's shift to extremely conservative politics derived from more than simple frustration over his inability to become a major star in the film industry. He stridently opposed Leftists in the labor unions as a wholeand the social reforms promoted by Leftists and liberals alike.
In April 1947, Reagan provided the names of suspected Communist sympathizers in the Screen Actors Guild to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He later appeared as a "friendly" witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan's actions helped the federal government unleash a witch hunt that destroyed the careers of hundreds of Hollywood's most talented people. As Ellen Schrecker emphasized in her book "The Age of McCarthyism," the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s undermined reform movements, discouraged opposition to Cold War foreign policy, and damaged cultural and intellectual life.
By the early 1960s, Reagan had become famous as a spokesperson for General Electric. This giant corporation and well-connected defense contractor helped his political career. In Tom Turnipseed's February 2002 article for Common Dreams, "Bush Mimics Reagan and the Corporate Stranglehold on U.S. Media Tightens," he noted,
"Reagan was the ideal political huckster for corporate America's profits-over-people philosophy of unbridled greed. He could put a nice face on the mean-spirited politics of fear and greed." Reagan became increasingly involved in California's Republican Party and gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Wealthy conservatives took note of Reagan's potential as a politician.
Two years later, Reagan was elected governor of California. The mid-1960s were a time of widespread protests, long overdue reforms, emerging counter-cultures, and calls for more radical change. But during the gubernatorial campaign, Reagan announced that he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He made clear he would do his utmost to defend the status quo, contain pressures for additional reforms, and even roll back the clock where possible. However, as governor, Reagan had to contend with a state legislature controlled by the Democrats, and he was unable to bring about the conservative "revolution" he promised.
Nonetheless, the damage he did was substantial. Reagan's disdain for student protests led him to cut the University of California's budget by 10 percent after taking office. He oversaw the establishment of university tuition fees for the first time in California history. He also pressured the U.C. Board of Regents to fire Chancellor Clark Kerr, who had refused to suppress protests at Berkeley. In May 1970, Reagan dispatched the National Guard to that campus, and troops used tear gas and buckshot against demonstrators. Reagan announced that the colleges would be pacified even if it took a "bloodbath" (San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 2004).
Reagan sought and obtained important restrictions on social welfare assistance to the poorest people in California. He later identified this as his greatest achievement as Governor. Reagan vetoed legislation which would have provided unemployment benefits and collective bargaining rights for farm workers. As Amy Goodman reminded us,
"Reagan appeared on television eating grapes in defiance of a union-sponsored boycott against miserable working conditions in California's vineyards." (Democracy Now June 11, 2004) He also vetoed bilingual education legislation, opposed federal air pollution control regulations, and resisted land planning efforts.
In 1968, Reagan unsuccessfully challenged Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination. In 1976, two years after leaving the governor's mansion, Reagan unsuccessfully challenged President Gerald Ford in the Republican primary elections. Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, Reagan's brand of conservatism was widely viewed as too extreme. But by 1980, the era of protests and reform movements was over, and the backlash against them was mounting. Reagan gave voice to this wave of reaction and won the Republican presidential nomination. President Jimmy Carter had presided over a moribund economy and lamented the growing "national malaise." After Carter was unable to win the freedom of U.S. hostages seized in Iran, Reagan defeated him by promising "a new morning in America."
Instead, during the next eight years, Reagan proved to be the most reactionary president since Herbert Hoover. The centerpiece of the new Administration's domestic policy came to be known as "Reaganomics." Reagan's economic policy called for cutting taxes, increasing military spending, and balancing the budget. The "supply-side" theory underlying the policy suggested that less onerous taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations would lead to greater investment, economic growth, and progress for everyone. But as Ronnie Polaneczky emphasized in his article "Reagan Wasn't On the Money; Keep Him Off It," "Trickle-down economics didn't trickle down to anyone who needed it" (Philadelphia Daily News, June 11, 2004). Even George H.W. Bush, Reagan's chief rival for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, called this "voodoo economics" (The Nation, June 28, 2004). Certainly, "Reaganomics" proved to be a curse for the vast majority of people.
As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research pointed out, Reagan's economic policies were "mostly a failure," in large part because it was "arithmetically impossible to increase military spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget" ("Ronald Reagan's Legacy," Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, June 7, 2004). Reagan did oversee the largest peacetime military expansion in U.S. history, and he did win tax relief for the wealthiest people in the country. But as Weisbrot noted, "budget deficits soared to record heights," and "the national debt doubled, as a percentage of the economy." Although the surge in Pentagon spending pulled the country out of recession, overall economic growth in the 1980s was the lowest of any decade since World War II. Mounting budget and trade deficits contributed to the historic stock market crash on October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 508 points and stocks lost more than 22 percent of their value.
By cutting taxes on upper-income families, eliminating important corporate regulations, promoting subsidies to big business, dramatically increasing military spending, and vastly expanding the national debt, Reagan proved to be a "Robin Hood in Reverse"redistributing income from the working class majority to the capitalist elite. During the Reagan years, the old Robber Baron notion that "greed is good" was revived as an integral component of the American dream. As Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman of Common Dreams wrote, an unprecedented "corporate merger frenzy" occurred during this period ("Remembering Reagan," June 11, 2004). After the deregulated savings and loan industry suffered a giant meltdown, Reagan bailed it out and left taxpayers with a bill of almost one trillion dollars. By the end of the 1980s, incomes of the owning class and the upper middle class had increased almost 30 percent. When Reagan left office, economic inequality in the U.S. had become greater than in any other advanced capitalist country.
Reagan was no friend of working men and women. In 1981, the President fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike for better working conditions. He jailed the strike leaders and crushed their union. Reagan packed the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union appointees and encouraged the use of permanent replacement workers by employers faced with labor actions. As J.C. Myers remarked on June 7, 2004 in his article "Where's the Rest of Him?", Reagan "made union-busting fashionable again." The 40th president also cheerfully promoted what Meyers has called "the transformation of a high-wage manufacturing economy into a low-wage service economy," along with the export of jobs to lower-cost labor markets in other countries.
During the 1980s, the median real wage stagnated, and real income plummeted for scores of millions of Americans. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward noted in their book "The New Class War: Reagan's Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences," Reagan's dramatic cuts in aid to the poor, job training, unemployment insurance, education, housing assistance and urban programs constituted a "new class war" against the poorest, most vulnerable people in our country. According to a Los Angeles Times, the number of families living below the official poverty line increased by 33 percent ("A Presidency Characterized by Paradox," June 6, 2004). Between two and three million Americans were homeless by the late 1980s, and homelessness became a national political issue for the first time since the Great Depression. The Reagan Administration also eliminated Social Security disability benefits for one-half million people.
Contemporary admirers of the "Great Communicator" appear to have forgotten his frequent gaffes and missteps in response to mounting criticisms of his economic policies. But we should remember that Reagan tried to redefine ketchup and relish as "vegetables" when promoting reduced subsidies for school lunches for poor children. We should remember that Reagan repeatedly claimed that there was no poverty in our country. And we should remember that Reagan insisted that people living in the streets and alleys were "homeless by choice" ("Shed No Tears for Reagan," San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center, June 15, 2004). As Geov Parrish argued, perhaps we should call Reagan the "Great Prevaricator" (Working for Change, June 8, 2004).
Reagan was no friend of racial and ethnic minorities, either. By the 1980s, it was no longer wise to openly express hostility to the major civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. But Reagan made his feelings about racial equality known in a variety of ways. In his first major presidential campaign speech in 1980, he praised "states' rights," the old code words for racial segregation. It was revealing that Reagan made this speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. In an Atlanta speech, Reagan called Confederate President Jefferson Davis "a hero of mine."
As President, Reagan used racially charged rhetoric about "welfare queens" and poor people driving Cadillacs to justify his attacks on social welfare programs. He opposed affirmative action and appointed likeminded Cabinet officials. He appointed former segregationist William Rehnquist as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and right-wing extremist Antonin Scalia as Associate Justice. Reagan opposed the Martin Luther King federal holiday for several years, vetoed an extension of the Civil Rights Act, and sought tax exemptions for Bob Jones University, a segregated southern school. As Elie Wiesel has written, Reagan's 1985 visit to a German cemetery where Waffen-SS troops were buried "wounded" Jews all over the world. ("Schism From Administration Lingered For Years," The Washington Post, June 9, 2004)
As Martha Burk, director of the National Council of Women's Organizations, recently explained, Reagan was also "the most anti-woman president of the 20th century" ("Reagan's Detractors Say They Can't Forget," Boston Globe, June 11, 2004). Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and he sought to roll back women's reproductive rights. Only eight percent of the people he appointed to federal office were women. Reagan didn't care much for gays, lesbians, or people with HIV/ AIDS, either. As president, he refused to address the disease for six years after it was first reported in 1981. More than 20,000 people died from AIDS during this period, but Reagan refused to adequately fund research that might have saved many thousands of lives.
While campaigning for the White House, Reagan asserted that 80 percent of air pollution came from plants and trees. As president, he promoted policies that were disastrous for the natural environment. Reagan enthusiastically embraced Secretary of the Interior James Watts' view that U.S. companies should "mine more, drill more, and cut more timber." As Chris Elliott noted in his article "Reagan Was No Friend to the Environment," "Strip mining and clear-cutting flourished under Reagan and WattŠ [who] carved up thousands of acres of previously protected land and hawked it cheap to large corporations" (Seacoast Online, November 13, 2002). Reagan refused to enforce laws regulating toxic waste, and he ignored the Endangered Species Act. He vetoed the Clean Water Act of 1987 and opposed legislation requiring oil and chemical companies to provide information on their poisonous emissions to local communities.
Far from being a champion of freedom and democracy, Reagan supported tyranny and barbarism across much of the planet. He backed the racist apartheid regime in South Africa and vetoed congressional sanctions against that regime. As Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, pointed out in 1984, Reagan's support for apartheid was "immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian." Reagan also sent U.S. troops to Grenada, where they overthrew a popular revolutionary government. In Mozambique and Angola, right-wing guerrillas funded and advised by the Reagan administration killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1980s.
As Roberto Rodriguez and Patrisia Gonzales pointed out, "Reagan's name will forever be tarnished" because of his illegal war against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua and his support for brutal dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras ("Morning and Mourning in America," Hispanic Vista, June 11, 2004). Former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto, speaking to Democracy Now on June 9, 2004, called Reagan "the butcher of my people," and that is not just rhetoric. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Latin America in the 1980s because of Reagan's foreign policy. His enthusiastic embrace of dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Turkey, Korea, and the Philippines made clear that he considered democracy expendable if it came into conflict with capitalism.
Reagan supported Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to finance the U.S. war against Nicaragua, and helped finance and train Osama Bin Laden's guerrillas in Afghanistan. Reagan backed Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and his bombing of Libya killed hundreds of innocent people, including Muammar Gaddafi's youngest daughter. Reagan's massive military buildup, public endorsement of "limited nuclear war," promotion of the "Star Wars" missile defense system, and deployment of offensive nuclear missiles to Western Europe brought us perilously close to a catastrophic Third World War. In 1984, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight.
Although Reagan's admirers give him credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe, former political leaders and former dissidents in that region have very different views. Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev has stressed that his historic reforms were rooted in a growing awareness of the old regime's insurmountable economic and political problems. Dissident Czech playwright and later president Vaclav Havel has said that he was more inspired by John Lennon and Frank Zappa than by Reagan or former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As Reagan's foreign policy in other parts of the world confirmed, the 40th president was hardly opposed to authoritarianism and repressionas long as they were in the service of capitalism.
Other important historical facts appear to have been forgotten in the wave of sympathy and nostalgia following Reagan's death. Special prosecutor for the Iran-Contra affair Lawrence Walsh concluded that the 40th president "set the stage for the illegal activities of others" with the Iran-Contra scandal. Eleven members of the Reagan administration were convicted of felonies in connection with this debacle. Dozens of other Reagan appointees eventually faced investigation and prosecution for influence peddling and other crimes. In November 1986, after the White House finally admitted that the Iran-Contra scandal had occurred, Reagan's public approval ratings fell from 67 percent to 46 percent in less than a week. His ratings fell to 40 percent by March 1987. Upon leaving the White House, Reagan's favorable poll numbers were lower than those of outgoing President Bill Clinton 12 years later.
Of course, not everyone is suffering from "collective amnesia" about Reagan these days. Mary McCarty recently reported, "Many Americans feel a profound ambivalence, even bitterness, about his legacy" (Dayton Daily News, June 9, 2004). Ironically, in a recent interview with Larry King on CNN, Reagan's son offered an important insight concerning the public reaction to his father's death. Ron Reagan suggested that much of the sympathy and nostalgia may derive from a deep disgust with the present administration and a desire to "feel good" about another American political leader. This may well be the case. But as Matthew Rothschild pointed out,
"In a way, Reagan was W's father. The macho swagger, the studied anti-intellectualism, the infatuation with military spending, and the overriding concern for corporations and the richall these Bush has inherited from Reagan." ("No Praise for Reagan," The Progressive, June 1,2004) This coming November, Americans will have the opportunity not only to oust Bush but also to reject the legacy of Reaganism at the polls.
Dr. David Michael Smith is a professor of government at the College of the Mainland in Texas City, Texas. He can reached at DSmith@com.edu
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