A weeklong infomercial followed his death on June 5, 2004, mythology airbrushing truth, including Marilyn Berger in the New York Times, saying:
"To a nation hungry for a hero, a nation battered by Vietnam, damaged by Watergate and humiliated by the taking of hostages in Iran, Ronald Reagan held out the promise of a return to greatness, the promise that American would 'stand tall' again."
Quoting admirers and critics, she called him a "great communicator," a "made-for-television president (who) never lost his boyish charm or his ability to look Americans in the eye and make many feel good about themselves. (He) was a combination of ideologue and pragmatist who could compromise and still appear to be a man of unbending principle."
One of America's best or worst? For supporters, the former. Critics disagree. Judge him by his record, not the hoopla. Typical praise came from made-for-media historians like Michael Beschloss practically elevating him to sainthood, equating him to FDR, saying it's "not too much to suggest that Americans would give similar thanks that they twice elected Ronald Reagan, a President who saw the chance to end the Cold War in his own time" – an event, of course, he had nothing to do with besides being president on the cusp of when it happened.
Calling him "an exceptional leader," Beschloss praised his "inner strengths (and) political skills….who left an indelible stamp on history, (and was noted for his) powerful speeches…." In fact, according to one critic, they mixed:
"hokum, bunkum, flapdoodle and balderdash of the type dished out daily by motivational speakers, along with mashed potatoes and turgid chicken breasts," the type language that turned Warren Harding into a laughing stock, "the 29th President who most resemble(d) Reagan (in) physical appearance and intellectual capacity" – big in size, small in wisdom and good judgment – a lightweight at best.
As a former actor he could read his lines, but with no prepared text, he was inept, a simpleton, passive, and detached, the term "damage control" practically invented to mean correcting his frequent gaffes and ignorance of facts any head of state should know. Not Reagan, yet the press barely noticed or cared, nor about the worst of his presidency.
In his 1988 book, "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," Mark Hertsgaard explained how Reagan became the "Teflon president." The scandals during his tenure never stuck because the media gave him a pass, going along with the "Mr. nice guy image," his first term deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, saying:
"Ronald Reagan enjoyed the most generous treatment by the press of any President in the postwar era. He knew it, and liked the distinction," though his record deserved condemnation, given no Republican leader since Nixon.
When he died, in fact, truth never exposed popular fantasies. Admirers gushed about his persona, popularity, and how he made Americans feel good about themselves again. They also praised his being right on big issues, and said the world is better off because of his presidency and leadership. CBS anchor Dan Rather called him a master at communicating greatness. Tim Russert on Meet the Press admired his tortured evasion of Iran/Contra culpability as "very believable," and on June 14, 2004, Time magazine wrote:
"the Reagan years were another of those hinges upon which history sometimes turns. On one side, a wounded but still vigorous liberalism with its faith in government as the answer to almost every question. On the other, a free market so triumphant – even after the tech bubble burst – that we look first to 'growth,' not government, to solve most problems."
Time, of course, ignored decades of massive government subsidies responsible for much of that "growth," what looks puny now compared to the trillions given Wall Street alone since 2008 with no end to them in sight. Big government is only bad for popular needs, not corporate ones, on the dole for them a way of life.
Ready or Not, Reagan Revisionism Is Coming
On March 17, 2010, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and GE announced their partnership in supporting a two-year centennial commemoration of his birth on February 6, 1911. On television, from 1954 – 1962, Reagan hosted the Sunday evening GE Theater and traveled the country as it's roving ambassador, a prelude to entering politics.
From 1947 – 1952 and in 1959, he also served as Screen Actors Guild (SAG) president, during which time he named members he suspected of "communist" sympathies, telling the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) they threatened the film industry. As a result, hundreds of actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, musicians, songwriters and other artists were blacklisted for their progressive beliefs.
In his ghostwritten memoirs, Reagan (1911 – 2004) said "Looking back now, I realize it wasn't a bad apprenticeship for someone who'd someday enter public life….the GE tours (and SAG) became almost a graduate course in political science." It was a prelude to becoming California governor (1967 – 1975), then president (1981 – 1989), an actor's role of a lifetime, impersonating a president.
In his book, "Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed," David Stockman, Reagan's Director of the Office of Management and Budget (1981 – 1985), called him shallow and extreme, a man who "ignore(d) all the relevant facts and wander(ed) in circles." His administration was a "frontal attack on the welfare state."
His close advisors weren't "the best and brightest" and some were "intellectually disreputable." He considered Reagan "a cranky obscurantist whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the vasty deep of American politics."
In 2011, however, he'll be reinvented, Los Angeles Times writer Richard Simon saying events across the country are planned. "A Reagan-themed float (graced) Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena during" the New Year's day Rose parade. CNN called it "the first time (it) ever included a presidential-themed float."
Reagan's Dixon, IL boyhood home commissioned a musical piece to honor him, the "Reagan Suite." Eureka College, his alma mater, will commemorate his roots. Warner Bros., where he made films, may produce one about his Hollywood years. Supporters hope to name a mountain in Nevada after him, and a Reagan statue in London will be unveiled.
His 100th birthday is on Super Bowl Sunday, so expect synergies to his "Gipper" role (George Gipp, Notre Dame football star) in "Knute Rockne All American" (1940). As president, he used the phrase "Win one for the Gipper" as a political slogan.
Reagan's Presidential Library will also host events that weekend, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony and military flyover to celebrate its museum's multimillion makeover, followed the next day by a Los Angeles concert.
Imagine – all that and more is just the beginning, making him bigger than life, reinventing him better than Hollywood by transforming a ham actor into a superstar, a third-rate president into a demigod, a rogue perhaps heading for Mount Rushmore instead of a long overdue defrocking.
A web site, reaganrushmore.com, in fact, promotes a fake "photographic art image" of him already there, perhaps angering Abe Lincoln to his immediate right looking very distraught.
Reagan's Legacy – More Myth than Man
For two years, expect all myth, no man, besides some information on the latter. The real Reagan and his "Revolution" is no "shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere." Nor is it "morning in America….Prouder, Stronger, Better," the stuff Madison Avenue or Hollywood moguls dream up, making molehills into mountains. Reagan revisionism will make him Everest over a stomach-churning two years. You've been warned.
He was ideologically hard right, his legacy including:
— disdain for working Americans;
— contempt for the rule of law, civil liberties, human rights, and democratic freedoms; and
— support for concentrated wealth, power and budget-busting militarism.
— sweeping deregulation;
— destructive "free trade;"
— offshoring high-paying manufacturing jobs;
— the war on drugs – in fact, a war on poor minorities, escalating America's prison population to the highest by far in the world, two-thirds in it Blacks and Latinos, most for nonviolent offenses;
— tax cuts for the rich;
— draconian social program cuts;
— support for global despots, apartheid South Africa, star wars, death squads, proxy wars in Central America, Africa, Afghanistan, and Middle East by helping Iran and Iraq wage war;
— contempt for gays, lesbians, people of color, the poor and disadvantaged, and more.
On August 3, 1980, in fact, he delivered his first presidential campaign speech in Philadelphia, MS where KKK thugs murdered James Cheney, Michael Schwemer, and Andrew Goodman. His topic: states rights, a Southern euphemism for race discrimination, white supremacy, and Jim Crow, unmentioned in his comments, uncared about throughout his presidency in ideology and agenda.
In his first inaugural address, he declared "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," meaning, of course of, by or for the people, not the big monied interests he supported.
On June 11, 2004, Alexander Cockburn, in an article titled "Ronald Reagan in Truth and Fiction," said he saw the world as a "Cinemascope epic, a vast battlefield, through those famous spectacles….he could (thus) assess the global balance of forces." In fact, he "stayed awake only for the cartoons," viewing things "in simple terms, in the tiffs between Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, or Tom and Jerry."
He was bored stiff and dozed off during Joint Chiefs briefings. To keep him focused, they had to cartoonize them for him. He couldn't distinguish between fact and fantasy, playing president was like a Hollywood sound stage, script and all. Truth was whatever he said at the time. In fact, "He (did) George Washington (one better) in that he couldn't tell a lie and he couldn't tell the truth, (because) he couldn't tell the difference between the two."
Like GW Bush, he was a caricature of a leader, all pretense, no substance, vacuous, vapid, both "vicious" men, "with (a) breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of (their) decisions." He praised the Afghan Mujahideen resistance (today's Al Qaeda and Taliban) and Contra butchers as "the moral equivalent of the founding fathers."
He was the progenitor of today's neocons and backed Christian Right extremists like Pat Robertson, John Hagee, and James Dobson whose ideology supports racial hatred; white Christian supremacy; male gender dominance; gay, lesbian and Muslim hatred; and belief that they have a divine right to rule and must be obeyed.
As mentioned above, he was also contemptuous of working Americans, hypocritically saying "I support unions and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively." In August 1981, months into his first term, he showed it by firing 11,000 PATCO air traffic controllers, jailing its leaders, fining the union millions of dollars, and effectively busting it in service to his monied backers. It was a shot across organized labor's bow, and clear message to his business and Wall Street friends.
Union membership had been in steady decline from a 1950s 34.4% post-war high. It held constant through most of the 1970s at around 24%. At the end of Reagan's tenure, it was 16.8% and today much lower at 12.3% in 2009, mostly government workers with private sector unionization at 7.2%, the lowest percentage since 1900 – because both parties disdain organized labor, a trend Reagan accelerated.
He did more as well, institutionalizing a decline of worker rights and vital social programs. He let them erode through higher payroll taxes, raising the retirement age, increasing Medicare premiums, and cutting Medicaid benefits for the poor. He slashed social services across the board, cutting them by one-third from 1981 – 1988.
Programs for low income earners dropped 54%. Subsidized housing declined 80%, housing assistance for the elderly 47%, and training and employment services over 68%. He also cut food stamps, school lunches, and student loans. In addition, he reduced health and safety protections, and weakened federal statutes guaranteeing workers the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Beneath his avuncular persona, he was callous, vicious, and indifferent to equal justice, civil liberties, and human rights and needs. He also backed the Christian Right's hate campaign against gays and lesbians, refused to address the HIV/AID problem and let it mushroom into a global epidemic.
In 1981, it first surfaced among New York and California gay men. Disdainfully, he and others called it a "gay disease," God's revenge for being sinners according to Christian Right extremists. Reagan ignored it during his first seven years, causing enormous setbacks in research, and appalling discrimination against those infected. They were unmentioned in the eulogies after his death, and for sure won't be next year nor other parts of his dark side.
"Reaganomics" was welfare for the wealthy, supply side "trickle down" voodoo, the faux theory that tax cuts for rich grow the economy, benefitting everyone. Rubbish. David Stockman them a "Trojan Horse," Congress conned into accepting "Republican orthodoxy (accelerating) the greed level, the level of opportunism (that got) out of control" and led to massive fraud and history's greatest ever wealth transfer.
Before becoming Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan played a leading role as head of the National Commission on Social Security Reform – the 1981 Greenspan Commission to study and recommend ways to fix the "short-term financing crisis that Social Security faced," saying otherwise the "Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund would run out of money….as early as August 1983."
Like today, it was a lie, a hoax, but dominant media complicity helped transfer trillions of public dollars to the rich, one of history's greatest ever heists in plain sight, ongoing, and likely getting worse as new Social Security "fixes" are proposed.
The Commission's 1983 recommendations were supposed to make SS fiscally sound for the next 75 years, a package along with tax cuts from 1981 – 1986. The rich benefitted most with top rates cut from 70% to 50% over three years, then 28% in 1986, while the bottom rate actually rose from 11% – 15%.
It was the time time ever combination top cut/bottom increase, but even worse than that. The rich got their largest ever break, while others earning $30,000 or less were assessed the greatest ever increase. It was grand theft in plain sight, a precursor to Wall Street looting the Treasury.
Greenspan engineered it by doubling the payroll tax to defray the revenue shortfall. He also recommended raiding the Social Security Trust Fund to offset the deficit. He made the tax code hugely regressive, kick-started the great upward wealth transference, and transformed a pay-as-you-go retirement/disability benefits program into a wage earner subsidized handout to the rich. It was the essence of "Reagonomics," besides cutting the capital gains tax from 28% – 20%, lowering corporate taxes, and slashing welfare and other social benefits.
His foreign policy was just as blighted. The Reagan Doctrine was its centerpiece, providing overt and covert aid to thugs like the Contras and other Central American death squads to make countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras safe for US capital.
Honduras and Guatemala still train their militaries at the infamous School of the Americas (SOA), renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), where they're taught the latest ways to kill, main, torture, oppress, exterminate poor and indigenous people, overthrow democratically elected governments, assassinate targeted leaders, suppress popular resistance, and surrender their sovereignty to Washington to solidify fascist rule.
In the 1980s, it caused over 160,000 Central American deaths, including over 100,000 in Guatemala, more than 50,000 in El Salvador, and 11,000 in Nicaragua because its army fought back while elsewhere the military was the enemy. State terror also included extensive torture, rape, mutilation, disappearances, and political assassinations against figures like El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero 30 years ago on March 24, gunned down while celebrating mass inside San Salvador's Hospital de la Divina Frobidencia.
Called a "voice for the voiceless," he spoke for the poor and oppressed, opposed death squad killings, and elitists exploiting deeply impoverished people. Two months before his death, he vainly wrote Jimmy Carter to stop arming and training El Salvador's army under a government led by Roberto D'Aubuisson, the fascist death squad terror commander/SOA graduate/ARENA Party head.
Celebrating mass the day before his death, Romero appealed to the army and police as brothers, implored them to stop the killing, obey God's law, and regain their consciences. Passionately he said "In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"
ARENA thugs murdered him the next day, perpetuating state terror throughout the 1980s. Their Guatamalan and Nicaraguan counterparts did their own share with Reagan's blessing and support. He supplied millions of dollars in weapons and training, besides more for Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and other proxy wars.
In Central America alone, Noam Chomsky said he "construct(ed) an international terrorist network of impressive sophistication, without parallel in history (and) used it overtly and clandestinely against leftist" resistance movements, on the pretext of fighting communism. It was the equivalent of today's "war on terror," Muslims now the main "threat."
With help from Congress and the dominant media, the Iran-Contra scandal over illegally selling arms to Iran to fund the Contras left him unscathed. Like the farcical Watergate investigations, high crimes were swept under the rug. No one in his administration was punished for even lessor ones.
What should have toppled him faded. Now called a great leader, he's reinvented, from war criminal to hero, perhaps headed for Rushmore. And beginning in February, expect non-stop revisionism, most people none the wiser. They're merely out-of-the loop, uninformed spectators believing the state-sponsored rot they're fed.
The combination of ignorance and indifference lets government benefit wealth and privilege at the expense of working Americans Reagan spurned. Most affected are people of color, the poor, disadvantaged, and millions like them throughout the world in countries he ravaged by death squad terror, as well as others he neither knew about or cared.
He was all pretense, no substance, the myth, not the man blown bigger than life. Watch for typical Hollywood-style revisionism, making mountains out of molehills, saints out of sinners, and in Reagan's case, a scandal-plagued war criminal deserving condemnation, not eulogies.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at [email protected]. Also visit his blog site atsjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.