There is no faction of the conservative base more persistently irritating than the millions of Americans who adore Ronald Reagan.
Their insistence on lionizing the man is particularly galling. They want to slap him on the dime, currently the domain of a genuinely great president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and carve his face into the hallowed rock of Mount Rushmore right alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
This election cycle has taken Reagan idolatry to a level not seen since his passing a few years back. Even John McCain, who staked his career on being a maverick, has shamelessly pandered to the Reaganites, running a series of ads lauding his work as “a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution.”
Although most presidents are evaluated on their concrete record, the case for Reagan is built on a selectively and sloppily assembled collection of ambiguous “achievements.” “Reagan won the Cold War almost without firing a shot,” writes William Kristol in the Weekly Standard. “He laid the groundwork for the GOP to escape half a century of minority status; and he decisively vindicated the claims of conservatism.”
That’s easy enough to say, but tough to prove – and, by extension, even tougher to disprove. Attempt to follow, let alone refute this fuzzy hyperbole, and you quickly disappear down the rabbit hole.
What we do know, however, is that the Reagan years not only failed to vindicate the core conservative claims about taxation and the economy – they actually disproved it. Economist William Niskanan – a former Reagan official, no less – and chairman of the Cato Institute, found that reductions in taxes during the Reagan years actually led to more, not less, government spending. The way to constrain the size of government, Niskanan concludes, is not to give voters a discount on the costs of government as Reagan did, but to increase taxes – force the voters to pay for the whole cost of the services they enjoy.
The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, a professor of economics at Princeton, came to a similar conclusion about Reagan’s “trickle down” policies, finding their promised effects to be “nearly invisible” in the relevant economic data. They did, however, help widen the gap between rich and poor and create the massive federal deficits that plague us today.
We also know that Reaganites like Kristol overplay their hand when they suggest that Reagan “won” the Cold War. A host of factors – Gorbechev’s rise, the stagnation of the Soviet economy, the subversive influence of Western rock music and others – led to the fall of Communist Russia.
Reagan’s defense spending and aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy helped kick over the stump that had long since gone to rot: “Reagan gave a push to the tottering statues of Marx and Lenin,” writes George Washington University professor James Hershberg, “but his role was, in all likelihood, peripheral rather than central.”
As with Nixon opening up China, Reagan deserves credit for being at the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. But also like Nixon, Reagan’s legacy is sunk by his established, if less notorious, record of brutality and criminality.
Acting in plain violation of federal law – not to mention international law – Reagan and his aides secretly funded and supported a war of terror in Central America, gave arms to an enemy of the state (Iran) and, in a final act of illegality, acted in concert to conceal their actions from Congress and from the public.
I do not use the phrase “war of terror” lightly. A 1985 report written by Reed Brody, a former New York State Assistant Attorney General, chronicles the acts of torture, rape and wanton brutality that characterized Reagan’s “freedom fighters:” the Contras in Nicaragua.
“Five of them raped me at about 5 in the evening,” recalled one victim. “They had gang-raped me every day.”
Nixon resigned after burglarizing the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate office complex. Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about a sexual affair. Ronald Reagan secretly and illegally orchestrated a war from the Oval Office that empowered Iran, destabilized Central America, and directly led to the torture, rape and death of tens of thousands of innocents. Documents and transcripts of conversations released after the fact demonstrate that he was informed by top members of his cabinet that the arrangement was unlawful and amounted to an impeachable offense. Reagan knew it too: At the end of one of the secret meetings, Reagan told his aides, “If such a story gets out, we’ll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House.”
Sadly, Reagan escaped this fitting fate, along with the disgrace of the impeachment and criminal prosecution he and his staff so richly deserved. History, however, should not be so kind. His place among the presidents is not among the greats, or even the average, but among the criminals, the idiots and the scoundrels. And he certainly deserves neither adulation nor emulation.
Dan Adams is a columnist for the Emory Wheel at Emory University.