“Facts are stupid things” — Ronald Reagan
Sunday is a very special day, eh what? Americans everywhere are waxing misty-eyed because it marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the beloved Gipper. Politicians, pundits and preachers are praising in chorus the virtues of the late great Ronald Reagan. Through a great deal of arm-twisting, even Sarah Palin has been coaxed out of seclusion and persuaded to defy her shyness and make a rare public appearance to speak in his honor. The Young America’s Foundation has even pledged to celebrate his birthday not just for one day, but an entire year. All of which prompts just one little question…
So extreme is the exaltation of St. Ronald that anyone who dares question his supreme greatness is subject to being branded a communist, a traitor, a terrorist coddler, a librul, a hippie and a bona fide baby-sacrificing devil worshiper. Well, we’ve never been prone to shy away from risk. So this is not only going to be a questioning of the Reagan myth but a shattering of it. Actually, it’s not just one myth but many. So let’s take a look at some of them, shall we?
Myth # 1: He was an enormously popular leader who unified the nation and revived national pride.
In almost any discussion about “Dutch” of more than 3 or 4 paragraphs, it’s just about inevitable that the word “popular” will crop up; and if it’s a discussion of more than a page or so, you’re just about guaranteed to hear the claim that in addition to being one of the greatest presidents ever, he was one of the most popular ever. But the numbers show that he was actually one of the least popular. In fact, since presidential approval began to be assessed during the FDR administration, only one president (Nixon) achieved a lower peak rating than Reagan. That’s right: even such alleged “failures” as Ford and Carter scored higher. Furthermore, he achieved the fifth-highest disapproval rating. Toward the end of his term, he was less admired by Americans than was Mikhail Gorbachev, for crying out loud. Far from unifying the country, he was one of the most polarizing figures in the nation’s history. Many of the actions his administration undertook (e.g., gutting environmental protections and REPEATEDLY supporting terrorists and brutal dictatorships) were fiercely and genuinely divisive (as opposed to the “divisiveness” manufactured by opponents of the Obama administration by deliberately distorting his record). For every American who was “proud” because of him, there was at least one who was embarrassed as hell.
Myth # 2. He won the Cold War and brought down the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev, when asked about this, replied, “That’s not serious.” But to many Americans, it’s dead serious. The official spin, which is already being injected into textbooks, is that by challenging the Evil Empire to a spending duel, he brought them to bankruptcy. Well, it certainly worked in reverse, bringing the U.S. to bankruptcy, but as for its effect on the USSR, there are at least a couple of problems with this assertion: (1) The Soviet Union began collapsing almost from day one; and according to CIA intel, it was already on the brink a decade or so before Reagan took office; and (2) The Soviets didn’t take the bait – they were vastly outgunned and they knew it. So think about it: if you were challenged to compare military toys by a giant, would you (A) rush headlong into a confrontation you know you can’t win, or (B) give some semblance of being competitive while allowing the giant to exhaust itself? Far from ending the Cold War, Reagan’s cowboy bluster may have dragged it out unnecessarily. Worse, it sowed the seeds of a future conflict that would prove to be far deadlier. For in arming and training insurgents to rise up against the Russians in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration first enabled, then disillusioned a young hothead named Osama bin Laden.
Myth # 3. He was a man of impeccable character.
Only if “character” means lying through your teeth. A few years ago, a bipartisan panel of journalists rated the last few presidents on their mendacity, judging not only the number of lies told but also their severity. Reagan rated as the second biggest liar, being bested only by Bush the Younger (probably the all-time champion). Such evaluations always entail a certain amount of subjectivity, but in this case half the panel were right-wingers, who almost always defend their own at all costs. And there’s another factor to consider: unlike Dubya and his crew, whose facial expressions often gave them away, Reagan was a highly skilled liar. He delivered even the wildest fibs with such sincerity that you’d think he believed them himself (and maybe sometimes he did, but that’s another story.) Among other things, he lied to pad his own resume; he claimed, for instance, to have filmed the liberation of POW’s from a Nazi concentration camp, when in the real world he spent the entire war in California. He also liked to relate the anecdote of how during his early days as a sports broadcaster he once improvised for six minutes when the ticker tape went dead during the broadcast of a baseball game. The incident really did happen, but the announcer involved was Walter Cronkite, who related it to Reagan, who then adopted it as his own. Not only was he willing to lie, he was perfectly willing to take credit for other people’s actions. Often, in order to avoid giving fraudulent information, he would just say “I don’t recall” – a phrase he and his underlings used so frequently he could have trademarked it. During the hearings over Iran-Contra (and how was THAT for a character caper), his National Security Adviser, one Colin Powell, used the phrase 56 times. Another trick he used for evading questions was simply to pretend he couldn’t hear reporters because of whatever noise conveniently happened to be nearby.
Myth # 4: He was The Great Communicator.
If so, someone forgot to inform his own aides, who often found themselves scrambling after reporters at the conclusion of a media conference to explain what the prez really meant by that bizarre statement he just made. The truth is that many Americans were so infatuated with his avuncular persona, his glib delivery, his handy store of cocky one-liners, that they didn’t really pay much attention to the substance of his remarks. If they had, they would have noticed gaffe after gaffe after gaffe. And they also would have noticed something else: his thespian skills were most often used to avoid communicating. A prime example is when a journalist asked him, after he’d been shifting the blame for the economic mess to Democrats, whether he in fact accepted any share of the responsibility himself. To which he answered, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.” The response became an instant classic in the Reagan hit parade. The question was quickly forgotten.
Myth # 5: He reduced the tax burden.
He certainly did. For the richest Americans. But most of us – most meaning about 80% – actually ended up paying more when he was done. Cut taxes? Yes, he did. Before he raised them. And raised them. And raised them. And so on, for the remaining 7 years of his administration. Funny how his admirers only remember the tax cut of the first year, even though it’s farther in the past.
Myth # 6: Smaller government.
Reagan increased the number of federal workers by 61,000. In contrast, Bill Clinton, supposedly a champion of “big government”, reduced the federal workforce by 373,000.
Myth # 7: He was one of the greatest presidents of the Century, or even of all time.
To put it charitably, there is a great deal of question about where he rates on the scale. Not the scale of greatness, but the scale of competence. Of his greatness there is no doubt, if greatness is defined as having an impact on history. By that standard, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler were all great leaders. But Reagan’s greatness was a product of neither malevolence (at least not his own) nor noble deeds, but rather of sheer disengagement. His hands-off style of “leadership” consisted largely in making stirring speeches and leaving the details to others – including his wife’s astrologer. While he smirked for the cameras and napped through meetings, an astounding total of 138 of his officials were convicted, indicted and/or investigated for unethical or illegal activity. He ignored the AIDS crisis until it started claiming celebrities that he personally was acquainted with. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to a conference eager to discuss arms reductions, Reagan entered and launched into a series of offensive jokes about Russians. When a Lebanese ambassador came to discuss a national crisis in his home country, he appeared to listen politely and then asked, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Danny Thomas?” When he signed the S&L deregulation bill in the presence of executives from the industry, he commented, “All in all, I think we’ve hit the jackpot.” The “we” he referred to did not include Joe Six-Pack – the rest of us paid the bill for that jackpot, to the tune of 150 billion. While preaching fiscal restraint, he amassed a national debt more than that of all the previous presidents combined (even though Congress, controlled by “tax and spend” Democrats, consistently allotted less money than he sought for his schemes). He first vehemently denied responsibility for the Iran-Contra affair, while telling lie upon lie, then later admitted, sort of, that he wasn’t exactly sure whether he authorized it or not. He set a record for most time spent on vacation by an occupant of the Oval Office – a record that would be shattered by George W. Bush, but Reagan was a pioneer in his time. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted of him, “It’s very unusual to have a president who’s not interested in policy at all. He would try to avoid policy discussions. When he couldn’t, he’d resort to his cue cards… He was an actor, the quintessential actor.” That may be the description of a “great man”, but it’s certainly not the description of a competent leader.
So given his ineptitude, his failures, the unprecedented corruption that surrounded him, his disastrous impact on the economy and foreign relations, and his rather unpopular standing with the public, why is he being revered as a messiah? Glad you asked.
(Next: The Cult of Ron Worship)