There’s been a lot of Ronald Reagan worshipping going on in Washington this week–among Democrats. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed a bill that will create a commission to plan events to celebrate what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011. Launching the commission, Obama said,
President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country — a spirit that transcended politics, that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day. It was this optimism that the American people sorely needed during a difficult period — a period of economic and global challenges that tested us in unprecedented ways.
On Wednesday morning, when a statue of Reagan was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared,
That optimism, charm and good humor is such a central part of what President Reagan brought to our country. But behind that grin lay a resolve that kept Americans safe and kept America strong….[A]t the height of the Cold War, President Reagan’s characteristic confidence warmed and reassured America.
At that ceremony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lavished more praise on Nancy Reagan than on her husband. But she did hail Ronald Reagan’s “civility” and his “commitment to national security and his success” in that field.
Okay, it’s one thing to make nice with a dead president whose wife has been a valuable political ally in the stem cell fight. But do Democratic leaders have to contribute to the myth that Reagan helped save America in the gloomy days of the 1980s? Reagan preached a hardline approach to the world that coddled anti-communist dictators and left nuns and dissenters dead in such countries as El Salvador, Argentina, and Guatemala. He presided over the de-industrialization of America. (Steel industry? Who needs a steel industry?) His administration purposefully aimed to bankrupt the federal government specifically to create pressure for cutting social programs. He wasted billions on missile defense. He busted a union. He did nothing when the AIDS epidemic struck. His administration was marked by numerous scandals and ethics controversies. More than 200 US Marines were killed in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing after his ill-advised deployment of troops to Lebanon, and the Reagan administration never caught the evildoers.
There was not much that was warming, reassuring, or optimistic about the defining policies of the Reagan years. My old college pal Will Bunch recently made the case against Reagan in his book Tear Down This Myth. But years earlier, I did the same in an abbreviated form and composed a list of “66 things to think about when flying into Reagan National Airport”. Not everyone under a certain age will get all the references, but the gist is clear:
The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, colluding with Guatemalan thugs, pardons for F.B.I. lawbreakers, voodoo economics, budget deficits, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos, public housing cutbacks, redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt.
Getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated schools, disinformation campaigns, “homeless by choice,” Manuel Noriega, falling wages, the HUD scandal, air raids on Libya, “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa, United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy’s astrologer.
Drug tests, lie detector tests, Fawn Hall, female appointees (8 percent), mining harbors, the S&L scandal, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, Al Haig “in control,” silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Debategate, White House shredding, Jonas Savimbi, tax cuts for the rich, “mistakes were made.”
Michael Deaver’s conviction for influence peddling, Lyn Nofziger’s conviction for influence peddling, Caspar Weinberger’s five-count indictment, Ed Meese (“You don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime”), Donald Regan (women don’t “understand throw-weights”), education cuts, massacres in El Salvador.
“The bombing begins in five minutes,” $640 Pentagon toilet seats, African- American judicial appointees (1.9 percent), Reader’s Digest, C.I.A.-sponsored car-bombing in Lebanon (more than eighty civilians killed), 200 officials accused of wrongdoing, William Casey, Iran/contra.
“Facts are stupid things,” three-by-five cards, the MX missile, Bitburg, S.D.I., Robert Bork, naps, Teflon.
Obama and Reid surely know all this. But singing the praises of past presidents deemed popular is a political obligation. Still, Dems do go overboard on Reagan. (You don’t see Republicans hailing the prescience of Jimmy Carter, who called for taking tough steps to reduce the country’s dependence on oil.) Reagan did possess a sunny disposition. But many of his policies and actions were dark and destructive. Politics is politics; so give him a statue and a commemoration. But don’t give him history.
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