Have an Opinion: The Reagan Legacy
Having been to the Conservative Political Action Conference before, I can testify firsthand that even at the best of times, it’s a non-stop Ronald Reagan strokefest. But this year, being what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday had Alzheimer’s disease not finished the job that stupidity started, it’s a downright RWR bukkake reel. According to the reliable Roy Edroso, the moderator of the first day of America-ruining festivities has urged us to spread the word about our 40th president, lest the young folk stumble face-first into the future unaware of his glorious legacy.
Okay, then. Gather ’round, kids, and let grandpa tell you about Ronald Reagan.
Let me tell you about Ronald Reagan, who, even before he took office, was taking part in a grotesque deception that would later explode into a scandal; a man who, in order to ensure his election, cut a crooked deal with the Iranian radicals who had kidnapped hundreds of Americans, and, slandering his opponent Jimmy Carter as being too ineffectual to free our citizens, secretly plotted to have them released immediately after Election Day. Let me tell you about the man who ‘prepared’ for his debates with Carter by assigning his pompous Grima Wormtongue-esque toady George Will to steal the Democratic campaign’s briefing papers. Let me tell you about the “Great Communicator” who presided over the wholesale castration of the American press corps, hand-selecting only reporters he knew wouldn’t ask difficult questions about his administration, and denying access to others — and still blamed the worst excesses of that administration on the misdeeds of the media. Let me tell you about the man who transformed the role of the presidency from ‘leader of the free world’ to ‘America’s morning talk show host’, choosing to blather vague inspirational slogans to a trusting public instead of making the hard decisions a leader has to make.
Reagan was an inveterate liar, perhaps the most dishonest man to ever occupy the White House — and that’s including Richard Nixon. He lied so often, about so many different subjects, that his telling the truth about something was considered a special accomplishment worthy of being singled out. He lied so much that it became a national joke, inspiring sniggering asides even with the hand-picked press corps he allowed into the White House, and he surrounded himself with spin doctors, spokesmen and press handlers who managed to convince America that his chronic inability to tell the truth was somehow charming. He lied about domestic politics and injured the poor (as with his egregious lies about welfare queens buying vodka with their food stamp money); he lied about foreign policy and devastated our international reputation (as with his ludicrous comparisons of the murderous Contras to America’s founding fathers); and he lied about government programs and lined the pockets of his corporate cronies (as with his constant prevarications about the Strategic Defense Initiative). And the worst of it all is that Reagan didn’t seem to know, or care, if he was lying, or what he was lying about; he was just carrying on his old actorly habit of reading whatever lines were put in front of him.
When Reagan wasn’t lying, he was just flat-out wrong. Even before he gained the nation’s sympathy by being stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, he was far and away the least intelligent president of the 20th century. He constantly forgot his facts, misstated his statistics, and misremembered his history in ways both small (his State of the Union addresses were crammed with statistical mistakes, as when he once claimed that the U.S. was providing 93 million meals a day to impoverished Americans) and large (as when, during his highly controversial visit to a German cemetery, he falsely claimed that U.S. troops were buried there alongside Nazi soldiers). He was so wrong so frequently about so many things that it was difficult to sort out when he was lying and when he was just mistaken. Tip O’Neill called him “the least knowledgeable of any President I’ve ever met, on any subject”; historian Howard Fast called his founding fathers speech “an explosion of such incredible ignorance that he is not fit for public office of any kind”. His inability to grasp even the simplest facts of international policy was such that most world leaders found it profoundly embarrassing that he was president; that his legacy is not that of the stupidest of modern presidents owes nothing to him and everything to George W. Bush.
Reagan’s lifelong love of cronyism led him to staff his administration with one of the biggest collections of crooks, frauds, liars, leeches, and icons of corruption in American history, perhaps rivaled only by the swindlers of Harding’s Ohio Gang. Among the people who governed the country while he napped and took vacations were the crooked and incompetent Edwin Meese, the power-crazed Al Haig, the swindler Raymond Donovan, the ludicrous and self-defeating James Watt, the craven flunky Cap Weinberger, the invincibly ignorant William French Smith, the pompous and hypocritical Bill Bennett, the stubborn ideologue Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the nefarious William Casey, and, of course, the wispy nonentity George H.W. Bush. By the time he left the White House, 138 members of his administration had been investigated, indicted, or convicted; 61 faced federal indictments and 21 of those were convicted, by far the most of any presidency in American history. These included such high-ranking members as Watt, press secretary Lyn Nofziger, chief of staff Mike Deaver, and NSA advisor John Poindexter, who took the fall for the Iran-Contra affair.
On top of everything else, as a president, he was a disaster. His greatest accomplishments are usually said to be ending the Cold War, turning around the economy, and restoring America’s sense of honor; but none of these withstand much scrutiny. His administration was constantly caught off guard by major developments in the Kremlin; his anticommunist proxies in the developing world were some of the most brutal and bloodthirsty in history; and his tactic of ruining the Soviet Union by outspending them may have saved lives, but it poisoned the economy. His economic reforms were a long-term disaster, beginning the roll-back of a century of progress and instituting the disastrous laissez-faire policies that continue today; most of the economic turnaround that took place in his administration was attributable to his running up massive deficits (an aspect of his legacy few of his supporters are willing to discuss); and nothing he did was worse than his destruction of the unions, which was the first step in the total elimination of the middle class that his followers have made their lasting accomplishment. And his “morning in America” was just that, a bunch of sunny, coffee-fueled rhetoric that made people feel good while he and his ideological allies ran the country into the ground. Burping forth shiny platitudes while ignoring massive unemployment (when it hit double digits for the first time in decades, he asked “Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off?”) and the growing AIDS crisis is nothing to be proud of.
Ronald Reagan was a liar, a fool, a dolt, and a phony who made people feel good about doing bad things. He presided over an unprecedented collection of massively corrupt crooks, thieves and hustlers who saw government as their personal kickback valve. His politics had a bright and smiling face, but an ugly, brutal soul; he blamed the poor for their lot and cut aid to the needy to the bone while opening the federal pipeline to enormously wealthy corporations to feed off of like a pig trough. His ethics ranged from half-formed to non-existent. He was a hypocrite who attacked his enemies for things he had done himself, and he helped to transform the conservative movement into the stunning disgrace that it is today, while lulling the electorate into a pleasant stupidity. He wrecked the unions, allied himself with murderous dictators, helped crush the middle class, widened the gap between rich and poor, and gutted the press. His approach to public policy was that of a propagandist. He spent eight years convincing America that there was something shameful about the government helping its own neediest citizens, while simultaneously inviting rich individuals and corporations to feed off the public tit. That’s who Ronald Reagan was, boys and girls. Let’s not forget.