Ronald Reagan would have been 100 this past week. The media folks have made a big deal of the anniversary of his birth, with a major special on HBO and even a PBS close-up of his second wife, Nancy, who still survives, seven years after her husband’s death. Conservatives treated the event with all the reverence of a high holy day. To them, Reagan was as close to a deity as living humans are likely to see.
But I come not to praise the man but to bury his myth.
Reagan’s biography is well known to most, but just to summarize it briefly, he was born and raised in rural Illinois and attended a small college there. Upon graduating, he moved to nearby Iowa where he tried to break into radio as an announcer. But he had bigger dreams, and in 1937 he moved to Los Angeles, there to be discovered by the major studios, which used him frequently as the lead in “B” movies, thereby making him a star of sorts. He was never confused with Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, but he was ambitious, and he used the talent he had to gain a few nice roles among the 50 or so he racked up in a career that spanned almost 30 years.
Along the way, he gained popularity with his peers, serving as president of the union that represents movie actors, the Screen Actors Guild. He was, at the time, a Democrat, in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But by 1962, he had “seen the light,” as it were; he switched parties that year and in 1964 delivered what was probably the best speech in that year’s presidential campaign in favor of the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.
Two years later, Reagan was elected governor of California. He served two terms, mouthing conservative philosophies while proving very pragmatic in adopting non-conservative policies when his state needed him to.
He engaged in a short-lived run for his party’s presidential nomination in 1968, made a much more serious run at it in 1976, and finally secured the nod in 1980. He beat the incumbent president, a hostage-hampered Jimmy Carter, and then won a landslide victory for re-election in ’84.
Reagan may have never achieved the near sainthood status he now holds (among the conservatives and ultra-conservatives who so worship him) had he not survived an assassination attempt early in his first term. That he did was in many ways the making of his presidency, for he seemed to emerge from that episode with an enhanced commitment to implement the philosophy he so ardently believed in.
It was the same philosophy that Americans had roundly rejected just sixteen years earlier when Goldwater had decried “moderation in the pursuit of justice” and had exalted “extremism in the defense of liberty” on his way to a landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson.
But in the intervening years, the country had been beaten up (and had beaten itself up) in near revolutionary ways. The Viet Nam War had been a disaster; the Civil Rights movement had been a fierce, angry struggle; the Watergate scandal had been shameful; the gas shortages had been scary; and the Iranian hostage crisis had been humiliating.
By 1980, the country was desperate for happy times, and Reagan jumped all over that feeling. In doing so, he spoiled the country, which apart from everything else he did, is the ultimate blight on his presidency.
Reagan told the country that all the tough medicine that had been accepted for generations was unnecessary. Taxes were bad; regulations were bad; restrictions on business were bad; even unions were bad when they made excessive salary demands or, God forbid, went on strike. Freedom from all of those things was good. In fact, as if he had discovered some new holy grail of democracy, he declared that freedom in all things was good.
The mantra was so simple and so easy to take that Americans fell for it hook, line, and sinker, especially when, thanks to an extremely aggressive monetary policy initiated by the Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker, the economy, which had been a disaster when Reagan took office, finally started to return to something approaching bearable towards the end of his first term.
Meanwhile, Reagan also preached incessantly about the “evil empire” that was the Soviet Union. Although that irrationally-constituted country was already failing economically and would soon crumble politically, Reagan was convinced it could be brought down by the mere existence of a rejuvenated U.S. military structure. And, seemingly as a necessary complement to his anti-Soviet military build-up, he told the country and the world that America was not going to allow anyone to push it around.
All of those messages had the same effect on Americans. They made them forget the problems of the last sixteen years and start thinking about how great their country was.
Parents spoil their children when they tell them they can be great without having to work at it, and that was exactly what Reagan was selling. Taxes aren’t necessary, he said; in fact, using a crazy theory espoused by an economic extremist (Arthur Laffer), he preached that lower taxes would actually produce more revenue. (They didn’t.) He also claimed that the economy would function best if businesses were freed of regulations and were no longer bothered with excessive union demands. (It didn’t.)
And the country would be respected more and troubled less if it acted tough, tossing around its military weight (or threatening to) whenever it didn’t like the look in the other country’s eyes. (It wasn’t.)
Of course, Reagan picked his battles carefully. His only two real military incursions were a short-lived war to liberate Grenada (a farcical show of force if ever there was one) and a bombing raid on Libya (to teach its dictator, Muammar Khadafy, not to mess with the U.S.).
And then, in his second term, perhaps already suffering with early Alzheimer’s, he allowed a rogue government in his own administration to arrange an arms-for-hostages deal that nearly led to his impeachment. (In truth, it should have at least resulted in a major Congressional inquiry, but Democrat Tip O’Neill, then Speaker of the House, would have none of it, and the matter was swept under the rug.)
Everything Ronald Reagan pushed on the American people had the effect of spoiling them, and in doing so, he laid the groundwork for much of what has bedeviled the United States over the 22 years since his presidency ended. He created the aversion to taxes that has resulted in massive deficits and reduced the standard of living for most Americans. He ushered in a period of de-regulation that led to the ultimate economic meltdown the country is still trying to recover from. He made the rich and super-rich all that much richer, while making life tougher for everyone else. He gave the green light to the mega-corporations to feather their own nests without fear of oversight.
He cemented the American foreign policy that now sees the country fighting three wars, two of which have no end in sight (Afghanistan and “terrorism”) while a third (Iraq) awaits full U.S. withdrawal with bated breath. He concocted a nuclear defense plan, the infamous nuclear umbrella, aka the Strategic Defense Initiative, that has cost the country billions and still makes absolutely no scientific sense.
In short, he told Americans what they wanted to hear and did it all with an actor’s gift for selling a tale and making it believable. He spoiled his people, convincing them that they could have anything they wanted just because they lived in the greatest country in the world. He paved the path of the country’s descent to mediocrity and merits nothing but condemnation for it. He was a better actor than we realized but a far worse president than many Americans now think.
Oh, and he was also an avowed believer in astrology.