And so it begins. With Ronald Reagan's body barely cold, the quest for beatification has begun, propelled not just by the usual right-wing cadre, but by a media so unwilling to speak ill of the dead that it brushes aside the fiascos and controversies of the Reagan era to paint a deceptively sunny picture of the "Great Communicator's" administration.
By Monday morning the Orlando Sentinel had printed no less than 47 stories lauding the Gipper, according to my search of its archives, with almost none giving any indication of critical thought. We got headlines like "Influence of 'Reaganomics' philosophy still felt," "Reagan gave USSR fateful push," "A cold war hawk who set the stage for peace" and "Reagan turned Florida into Republican state."
The ubiquitous themes from the torrent of media coverage are worth noting: Reagan ended the Cold War; Reagan cut taxes; Reagan was a nice guy with a sense of humor.
But before we get wrapped up in St. Ron's heavenly glow, a dose of reality is in order. He wasn't always so gushed upon, and his administration wasn't the shiny-happy utopia the neocons would have you believe. And keep in mind that this is an election year, and George W. Bush is running as Reagan's heir, so all this postmortem blabbering is also aimed at shoring up W's sliding poll numbers.
Reagan was not the greatest president ever. He wasn't the greatest president of my lifetime. He's not in the same ballpark with Thomas Jefferson or Abe Lincoln. He was mediocre to decent. Judged on his policies rather than his charm, he was abysmal.
The Soviet Union was bound for collapse regardless of Reagan's efforts. Its economic and political structure was in shambles; and while you can credit Reagan's alternating a tough-talk, budget-busting arms buildup with a willingness to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev for hastening its demise, putting the whole thing on his shoulders is naïve.
Beyond that, what exactly did Reagan accomplish in foreign affairs? Not much. He invaded the tiny island of Grenada to save it from a pro-Cuban dictator. He looked the other way while Iraq gassed the Kurds and used chemical weapons in its war with Iran. He embroiled U.S. Marines in the Israeli-Lebanese war, only to pull out after a suicide bomb killed 240 of them.
And of course, there was Iran-Contra. Reagan's aides set up a shadow government to illegally sell arms to the Iranian government which, then and now, the United States considered a terrorist regime then took the profits and gave them to the right-wing Nicaraguan rebels trying to overthrow the Communist Sandinistas, even though Congress had specifically prohibited giving arms to the cocaine-trafficking Contra terrorists.
Had Reagan condoned the arms sales, it would have been grounds for impeachment. He didn't get blown by an intern, but this is pretty weighty stuff. And if he didn't know what was going on, as he professed, then doesn't that give credence to the idea that Reagan was an aloof figurehead, playing a role while his underlings really ran the show?
You can't have it both ways.
On the domestic front, Reagan didn't fare much better. The faithful will give his tax cuts the largest in American history credit for economic recovery, but despite his willingness to demonize the poor and spread racist stories of welfare queens picking up their checks in Cadillacs, despite his slashing of programs to help the poor, he never fulfilled his promise to balance the budget. In fact, he ran up then-record deficits (only recently eclipsed by George W.) and diddled away countless millions on superfluous Pentagon spending (remember the $640 toilet seats?). Fittingly, the biggest government building in Washington, D.C., bears his name.
(In fairness, Reagan followed that tax cut with two tax increases, after his advisers realized they'd overshot. As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes, that's more than we'll get out of the current president: "The contrast with President Bush is obvious. President Reagan, confronted with evidence that his tax cuts were fiscally irresponsible, changed course. President Bush, confronted with similar evidence, has pushed for even more tax cuts.")
Reagan ignored AIDS until it became epidemic. He slashed public-housing spending and food stamps. His tax cuts, couched in "trickle-down" terminology, opened up the gap between rich and poor. He inspired the GOP minions, who in 1994 sought to disable the Department of Education and virtually every other government service as part of the "Republican Revolution." He catered to and reinvigorated the religious right. He opened the White House doors to evangelicals who believed the end was nigh. He appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court.
The next few weeks will be trying for those of us who like a little history with our flag-waving. Expect a new round of "name everything after Reagan," followed by speeches from campaigning Republicans invoking his name.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of Reagan's legacy is the breed of latter-day Republicans who now flock to his banner. He's their JFK, the standard by which they judge everything. And look at what they've given us: an Iraq war based on bogus intelligence, skyrocketing deficits (again), an eroding barrier between church and state, the degradation of civil liberties via the USA PATRIOT Act, the black-and-white, you're-for-us-or-against-us worldview that has alienated our allies and made America look like a schoolyard bully with more brawn than brains.
That legacy is a disaster. But Shrub doesn't have the personal charm to sell it like Reagan did, which may just help him get that one-way ticket back to Crawford this November.
So mourn Reagan if you want. But think back to the reality of 20 years ago before you buy into the right wing's propaganda machine.