Tuesday, February 02, 2010

One for the Gipper

Ronald Reagan's 99th Birthday is coming up, so I thought this was as good a chance as any to reprint my "tribute" to him from 2004.

I was going to try to lay off this one, but I can resist no longer. I had largely resisted reading about Reagan for the last week, primarily because I was there in the eighties, I have my memories about what his presidency meant to me, and I had no desire to revisit that time. Then I read this week's Newsweek, and found myself struck by the disconnect between the sum of what the man did as President and the impression people have of him as a President. The sub heading in the feature story says he became one of our "greatest Presidents," but nothing in the article, or in the other articles accompanying it, and certainly not in my memory, supports that. In fact, reading the article, I find myself amazed that the nation survived being lead by a man with such an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
"He invented stories and then believed them. He thought trees produced pollution, confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide. Welfare was bad because of a mysterious Chicago 'welfare queen' who drove a Cadillac while on relief. And on and on. His fictions were real to him, which was both touching and somewhat terrifying. According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, Colin Powell, then the national-security adviser, used to cringe when Reagan would trot out his "little green men" theory, the idea being that extraterrestrial life might one day attack us and force the nations of the globe to get along. A fine sentiment, if more than a little disconcerting coming from a president with control of the nuclear codes."
This review, remember, comes in an article describing him as a great president, by a writer clearly in Reagan's thrall. And there's more. Annual deficits hit previously unimagined levels while he was in office and the National debt tripled under Reagan. And he was, at best, indifferent to the poor.
"Though Reagan was a soft touch for individual stories of pain or misfortune, the poor fared badly in the 1980s, and too many Americans of color felt left out. Seemingly oblivious, the president prided himself on his belief that he was without prejudice, often telling an anecdote about how his father would refuse to stay in a hotel that refused to accept Jews or blacks. But that story did not translate into compassion for those left out of the American Dream Reagan so cherished. In truth, he was probably as conflicted as many white Americans on questions of race and generosity. Because he did not hate, he could not see how his ambivalence (about preferences, about spending on the poor, about police misconduct or homelessness) could appear to others as indifference???or, worse, outright hostility. There is no question, however, that it did appear precisely that way to millions of Americans, and Reagan of all people should have known that appearances can be much the same as reality. He should have done better by those on the fringes of his fabled 'shining city on a hill.' For them, stirring words were not enough."
And then there was his foreign policy. People can and will debate forever just how instrumental Reagan was in contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don't doubt he deserves some credit, but I am unable to give him more credit, as his accolytes are wont to do, than Gorbachev. Even if Reagan deserves all the credit, though, the collapse of the Soviet Union would still rank as his only significant foreign policy success. Let's look at what else happened on his watch.
The bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. If, as many have proclaimed, America had become ripe for a 9/11 type attack because of the impression that we would not fight, our misadventure in Lebanon contributed to this as much as anything other than Vietnam. When our young men died, we cut and ran. Ironically, that probably was the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do was to have been there in the first place, with no clear mission. Hmmm. Got a sense of deja vu there.
Iraq. By now the photos of a younger but no less vile Donald Rumsfeld shaking hand with Saddam (if you know what I mean) have become almost iconic. The stories that George Bush repeatedly has told about Saddam being a mass murderer who has slaughtered thousands of his own people and used chemical weapons on his own people and in combat are true. And much of this happened while Ronald Reagan was president, while George H.W. Bush was Vice-President (most of the rest of such incidents happened when Bush 41 was President), and while Reagan's administration was cozying up to Saddam, with full knowledge of his brutal crimes, because of our animosity toward Iran.
Ah, Iran. Perhaps the single most memorable accomplishment of Reagan's presidency was the "neat" scam whereby we sold arms to Iran to finance the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. I cannot adequately describe the visceral reaction I had when I first heard this. Our relationship with Iran was dicey, to say the least. They were, if not our enemies, as close as you can get to that status. Along with many other Americans I was still sickened by the memories of the hostages held by the Iranians until the eve of Reagan's inauguration. And these were the people we chose to sell arms to in order to finance another illegal venture in Central America.
Central America. In El Salvador and Guatemala we found ourselves backing repressive right wing regimes that were friendly to our business interests and hostile to "leftist" insurgents. This has been our pattern in Latin America for over a century. It's just that while Reagan was President we were particularly busy in a relatively small area. And those we supported ended up, as is so often the case, on the wrong side of history. The governments of those countries, and the militias supporting them relocated, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of people. Four American nuns and Archbishop Romero have come to symbolize the murders in El Salvador, because a government that could slay such people was seen as particularly vile, as the government was. And the Reagan administration unapologetically supported it. There were no such iconic murders in Honduras, but the US supported regime there was no less brutal.
And finally, Nicaragua, the other end of the Iran-Contra scandal. The Soviet backed Sandinistas took power in 1979 and they became one of Reagan's favorite bogeymen. in language that foreshadowed the supposed ability of Saddam to launch a rocket attack against the US, Reagan actually expressed concern that the Sandinistas were less than a day away from the beaches of Texas. Congress, considerably less overwrought than the President about this putative threat, forbade the use of US funds to support the Contra rebels, who were primarily reconstituted Somoza supporters. That's when the scheme to support the Contras though the proceeds of arms sales was hatched. At best, this scheme was designed to skirt the law. At worst, it violated the law and I don't think any honest man doubts that Reagan knew about and authorized it. It was, and should have been pursued as, an impeachable offence.
You get the drift. I am not only unconvinced that he was among our greatest presidents, I am mystified as to why anybody would believe that of him. And I haven't even mentioned AIDS.
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