A central founding myth of the Tea Party is the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It is one of the reasons cited for supporting Trump as they see him as another Reagan (although its worth noting that not even Reagan’s own son agrees with this one). Around Reagan, or Thatcher in the UK, cults of personality have grown that border on those of many a despot. Hence why I think it would be prudent and timely to de-construct this myth and expose the realities of the Reagan Presidency.
Figure 1: Reagan has developed something of a cult of personality that ignores the realities of his reign
Myth #1 – Reagan brought down the Soviet Union
Reality: Reagan wasn’t even in office when the Soviet Union collapsed and there is very little evidence that his policies helped push it over the edge. Economic miss-management and internal opposition offer more plausible explanations for the USSR’s collapse
Reaganite’s have a habit of claiming credit for things that happened when he wasn’t even in office, yet they are often slow to accept blame for events that occurred shortly after he left office, or even when he was in office (as we will see when discussing the economy). But it has to be acknowledged that the Soviet union collapsed after he’d left office.
The massive military spending the US engaged in is often cited as the reason why the USSR collapsed, as it couldn’t compete with the US. However in truth Soviet military spending was fairly static over the course of Reagan’s presidency, with no significant increases. This is why Republicans often cite Reagan’s star wars program for being the final nail in the coffin.
Figure 2: Soviet military spending and US spending, keep in mind Reagan was in power between 1981 and 1989, ironically there is a steep increase in spending under Jimmy Carter & Richard Nixon!
While it is true that the soviets did initiate a counter program to star wars, but Reagan’s supporters often exaggerate the scale of this program. One of the most expensive elements of this program was the Energia rocket booster which may well have consumed as much as 1% of the total soviet budget for a brief period. However it seems unlikely building one rocket would bring down the soviet empire. And besides Energia was a multi-use program that also launched the Soviet space shuttle and was envisaged as supporting future space station construction or space colonies. And the Russian federation continued to fund this program right up until 1993, two years after the collapse. It would seem strange, if we buy into the propaganda, that if the costs of this program were so crippling to the Russian economy they’d keep spending billions of rubbles on it for a further two years afterwards.
Figure 3: The Soviet Energia rocket with the Polyus Orbital Weapons Platform test vehicle, on its way to the launchpad
Indeed the Russians continued to fund (and ultimately deployed) a number of other ABM counter measures even after the USSR collapsed. So the neo-con narrative simply does not correspond to the facts.
Aside – So why did the Soviet Union collapse?
Well the answer is a bit more complicated that the GOP preferred answer so it would be wrong for us to point to any one single cause. Books have been written about this topic. Certainly continued competition with the West did not help, but all the indicators were that the Soviet’s were spending money that they had. Military spending by the soviets was at around 7% of GDP and it was what was going on with the other 93% that was the problem. Western counter-espionage definitely helped, but it was the Europeans, most notably the French, who led the way here. But in simple terms, the Soviet union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards.
Ultimately the soviet system just wasn’t very good at organising at running a country. The talking heads in Moscow gave out orders and dictates, setting unrealistic targets divorced from reality and expected everyone to magically achieve them. Inevitably this created all sorts of problems. For example, they drained the Aral sea away in pursuit of cotton quotas. The Reactor at Chernobyl was built without adequate shielding and without sufficient numbers of trained staff to operate it (only one member of staff in the control room that night was a qualified nuclear engineer and he was fresh out of college!). The soviets also badly mismanaged their oil supplies, mining and other core industries. One need only look at a Lada of the era as proof of everything that was wrong with the soviet system.
Ultimately three events were largely to blame. Firstly the mismanagement of their agricultural system meant the soviets went from a net food exporter to an importer in the space of a few decades. Now initially this wasn’t a big deal, because they were also one of the world’s largest oil producers and thus they were able to use their petro-dollars to buy American grain to feed the soviet populace. This incidentally counters a key neo-con myth that the soviets wanted to destroy America. Had the Kremlin ever done so, they would have destroyed their main source of food and much of the surviving Soviet population would have starved to death over the proceeding winter.
Figure 5: Missmangement of agriculture and a dire environmental policy played a major role in the collapse of the soviet system
Soviet oil production ensured they could easily spend their way out of trouble, until in 1988 when soviet oil production peaked. Given that ex-soviet oil production rebounded in the years after the soviet union, it is generally believed that this “peak” was an artificial peak caused by soviet mismanagement, rather than a geological peak caused by a lack of oil. Either way, shortly there after this the soviets started to have financial problems.
Figure 6: Soviet Oil production, note how it rises again after the collapse of the USSR, suggesting that miss-management by the soviets might be to blame
And as if to make matters worse, the world was struck at the same time by a massive oil glut with oil prices tumbling. This was triggered by the fact that a number of OPEC nations began cheating on their quotas leading the Saudi’s to decide to “punish” them by opening the taps. However they did so right at the same time the global economy was entering into another recession, sending oil prices off a cliff. This pretty much bankrupted the USSR.
Figure 7: Oil prices around the time of the Soviet collapse
Some Reagan supporters, aware of all of this, have tried to make out that this was all part of Reagan’s master plan. Pro-saudi bloggers claim instead it was the Saudi king’s idea. In reality, the collapse in oil price badly effected the Saudi economy. One of the reasons why many young saudi’s took to Afghanistan (forming what would become Al-Qaeda) at this time was because they had nothing better to do back home. And recall that the trigger for the price collapse was a sluggish economy. So we would have to believe that Reagan & H. W. Bush, along with the Saudi king, deliberately sabotaged their own economies to score a few political points against the soviets.
Figure 8: The Soviet’s didn’t take down this wall because Reagan told them, the east Germans did it because the communist system had collapsed due to internal hubris
Finally, there were many long standing opposition movements to soviet rule, the Polish Solidarity movement for example, which started long before Reagan ever got into office. Naturally when soviet bloc citizens lost their jobs and got sick of queuing for bread, they began to listen to these people and the rest is, as they say, history.
Myth #2 – Reagan cut back public spending and pushed for a smaller government
Reality – The Reagan administration was one of the most prolific deficit spenders in US history, government spending massively expanded under his reign and much of it was squandered on pointless projects. And far from shrinking the US government, Reagan hired nearly half a million extra civil servants
It is, to say the least strange that committed anti-communists in the GOP will come up with such elaborate explanations as to why the soviet union collapsed when the more obvious reason (it was basically a crap system) is a lot more satisfying. Well that might have something to do with the awkward conclusion that if the USSR didn’t collapse because of star wars, it means Reagan took $209 billion of taxpayers money and urinated it up against a wall.
Figure 9: Federal spending under Reagan was exceptional high, even higher than Obama or G. W. Bush.
Star wars basically didn’t work and was little more than a massive fraud. Thirty years later and none of the hardware they set out to develop has been deployed. It was the biggest waste of public money in the history of western democracy.
Yet star wars was merely one of a whole host of foolish military projects either started under Reagan, or ones from previous administrations which were a waste of money and should haven been cancelled, but which he continued. The B-1 program for example had been cancelled under Carter, but was revived by Reagan. In another example, he wanted a 600 ship navy (don’t ask me why) so they brought back into service a bunch of old WW-2 era battleships that had been essentially obsolete since the 1940’s.
And, ironically given how many Tea Partiers tend to be conspiracy nuts, the US “black budget” expanded significantly over the Reagan era, as did the secrecy around it. And there is good evidence to suggest it wasn’t being spent wisely. The two programs we know about, the B-2 and F-111 were both budgeted on the assumption of orders in the hundreds, but Congress rightly pointed out that this would be insane given how expensive these aircraft were. Its likely had both aircraft been subject to greater public scrutiny prior to this, they would have been cancelled or re-designed. The similar A-12 program, was able to resist cancellation under Reagan, only to be cut as soon as he was out of office.
And like I said, this is they stuff we know about. In 1987, an oversight saw the US budget include a line item for a half a billion to be spent on a black project called “Aurora”. Conspiracy theorist have claimed that this might be some sort of alien spacecraft. I propose a more obvious explanation, the damn thing didn’t work and was such an embarrassing screw up (who knows maybe it crashed on take off) that the powers that be decided to use the cloak of national security to push some soil over the corpse and tip-tow away.
Figure 10: The US federal deficit soared under Reagan
And it wasn’t just in defence spending that Reagan miss-spent. He’s often remembered for firing air-traffic controllers or cutting spending on welfare programmes such as mental health services. But he also expanded Medicare, the FBI, CIA and other intelligence services. He increased total federal-government employment (excluding the military) by 400,000. And he was doing all this using the country’s credit card. Reagan had been elected because Carter had run up a deficit of $79 billion. By the time he left office Reagan blew through $155 billion. Worse, Carter’s deficit was run up during a recession, while Reagan was running deficits at a time of economic growth.
Myth #3 – Reagan was a tax cutter and this stimulated the US economy
Reality – Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy but overall he put up taxes. There were three recessions during his reign and any growth during his reign wasn’t as spectacular as it is sometimes portrayed
The wealthy saw taxes fall from a top rate of 70% to 28%. However, the Reagan Adm. also slipped through a range of tax increases. In fact federal taxes increased every year of his presidency except for the first and the last.
This brings us to the question of why the US economy grew under Reagan, because the implication is the opposite of what is claimed by neo-liberals (i.e. Reagan put up taxes which caused economic growth !?! ). In truth there were a host of things going on, that we need to account for. The recessions of the 70’s had been quite severe and thus the rebound effect was equally large. This may have created the illusion of growth that was stronger than it was in reality.
Figure 11: US GDP adjusted for inflation, note the recessions include two within his term and one during the following Bush(snr) presidency
Also, there was (as noted) an oil boom going on in the middle of his presidency, which naturally pushed up growth. Indeed, for Thatcher, once you account for the 10% added to government coffers each year because of the North Sea boom, the Thatcher era “boom” doesn’t look that spectacular. Back in the US, the early 80’s was also marked by a tech revolution in the form of video games and home PC’s beginning to reaching a mass market.
Furthermore we have to ask whether any growth under Reagan (or Thatcher) due to their market liberalisation was sustainable growth, or just a boom and bust bubble. I’d argue that recent events suggest it wasn’t sutainable growth. But even over the course of the Reagan Adm. there were several economic downturns. The first, was clearly the hangover from the Carter Adm. But the second occurred 2 years through his first term. Sluggish growth inter-spaced with various downturns and recoveries followed, with a further major recession under G. H. Bush (which, if we’re going to blame Carter for Reagan’s 1st recession, its only fair we blame Reagan for this 2nd Reagan recession).
So the growth under Reagan was at best sluggish and uneven and there is little evidence that they can be related to his policies. Noting that those policies including tax increases not cuts.
Myth #4 – Americans were better off under Reagan
Reality – Under Reagan, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer
A rising tide lifts all boats. Well not under Reagan. US unemployment increased under his term in office, largely because while the yuppies in Wall Street did rather well out of it all, many of America’s primary industries were being shut down. The Reagan era is the period when large parts of the US industrial heartland became a rust belt. And in the UK Thatcher too presided over a period when many UK manufacturing towns went from full employment to virtual welfare colonies.
Figure 12: Wages and purchasing power under different US presidents
And should anyone blame the unions for all of these, its worth noting that many of these job’s didn’t go to Asia, but they simply moved to other Western countries. At the same time for example, that ship building was in decline in the UK, new ship yards were opened in Finland and Germany, which got (and still get) many of the very same liner contracts that used to go to Newcastle and Glasgow dockyards. And in Germany and Finland union membership is actually compulsory for workers in certain heavy industries. Similarly car makers in the UK and US started to slide at the same time that German and Japanese car production rose.
And not only did Reagan or Thatcher do nothing to stop this, they actually encouraged the collapse of heavy industry. Quite apart from Thatcher’s ideologically motivated attack on the coal mining unions, this was also the era of corporate raiders who would buy up a company and then tear it down, firing thousands of workers so they could build apartments on the same site as the factory. This was an era of sleazy destructive economics, with much corruption behind the scenes.
And while the richer certainly got very rich thanks to our dynamic dyo, the lot of many others declined, as large numbers of UK and US citizens suddenly found themselves mired in a poverty trap that their children and grandchildren still found themselves stuck in. Reagan’s tax hikes disproportionally effected the poor and middle classes compared to the better off. To my mind Thatcher’s real legacy is the Ned or the Chav, while Reagan’s is the inner city ghettos of cities like Detroit or LA.
Indeed we could go further, as the fact is that growth under democratic presidents has a tendency to be higher than under Republican presidents. Reagan’s presidency was something of a rare high point by Republican standards, but still lower than Clinton, Johnson or Kennedy.
Figure 13: GDP growth by US president, Reagan ranks highly by Republican standards, but average (at best) by the standards of democratic presidents.
Myth #5 – Reagan was an active president, with a vision who worked hard for America
Reality – He was an unimaginative, ill-informed and so ill-attentive he frequently fell asleep during meetings and important briefings
It is ironic that Reagan is known as a man with a vision, as this is not shared by those who knew him in office. As William Leuchtenburg (a history Professor from Carolina) describes in a recent book (based on cabinet papers from the Reagan era), Reagan frequently stunned those around him with his ignorance at current events. His mind, according to Peggy Noonan, was “barren terrain”. Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton describes how Reagan once interrupted a meeting on nuclear weapons policy to discuss the plot of the kids movie War Games. Clark Clifford regarded the president as “an amiable dunce” and as William Leuchtenburg summarises it “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed”.
This forced his staff to work hard to bring him up to speed on at least some basic level, or as David Broder (a white house aid) put it “The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears is a challenging one for his aides.”. However the fact was he wasn’t a very active president, frequently he would be given briefing papers which he won’t read, instead lazing around watching cowboy movies. On the day before a summit meeting with world leaders about the future of the economy, he was given a briefing book. The next morning, his chief of staff asked him had he read it (he hadn’t even opened it!). “Well, Jim, the Sound of Music was on last night.”
As Lou Cannon, his principle biographer put it “Reagan may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest”. And on some cases he did so by dozing off in the middle of important meetings…once while the French President was in the room!
As for his political vision, it was sadly lacking. He simply did not have any, aside from the sort of vague Republican sympathies towards “low tax” or “commies bad”. As George Shultz (his chief of staff) puts it “Trying to forge policy was like walking through a swamp.” Donald Regan recalled: “In the four years that I served as secretary of the treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy”. “You could walk through Ronald Reagan’s deepest thoughts” a California legislator said, “and not get your ankles wet.”.
As a consequence, a Republican senator went so far as to say: “With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don’t have a president.”Of course in the absence of active leadership, the bureaucrats simply ran the country without him.
If Reagan’s government was the best American government ever, then it was a government where the bureaucrats in DC ran everything, raised taxes, expanded the federal government and ruled the people like a king.
Myth #6 – Reagan was a competent leader
Reality – Even his own staff considered him mentally unstable and sufficiently unreliable that they drew up contingency plans to remove him from office under the 25th Amendment
Figure 14: It did occur to Reagan’s staff that their boss might not be the full shilling
As noted it quickly dawned on many in his cabinet that the president might be mentally unstable. At the very least he was a little slow (probably early onset of his alzheimers) and not mentally competent.
This also forced him to rely ever more and more on his wife, who practically became the defacto VP. Now while president’s frequently resort to their spouse for support and advise, giving your wife top secret briefing papers is entirely another thing. And worse Nancy Reagan had a strange obsession with Astrology, something she dragged her husband into. This created something of a national security nightmare for the white house staff, quite apart from the fact that the president was now under the influence of others and not technically capable of carrying out his duties.
So serious was this situation that when Howard Baker took over as the white house chief of staff, he was advised by his predecessor to start making preparations to enact the 25th Amendment, removing the president from office on grounds incapacity. Thus it is very likely that had there been any major crisis during Reagan’s reign (such as nuclear attack), that his staff would have put this plan into action and removed him from office, either putting George Bush (snr) in charge or resorting to some sort of direct rule by the white house cabinet.
Myth #7 – Reagan was a great communicator
Reality – Reagan was gaffe prone and treated his presidency much like an acting job
As Reagan’s defence chief Colin Powell put it “the President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us…” . Or as Frank Carlucci, observed: “The Great Communicator wasn’t always the greatest communicator in the private sessions; you didn’t always get clean and crisp decisions. You assumed a lot. . . . You had to”.Many republicans seem to forget than in his early years the president was frequently prone to making all sorts of serious gaffes.
Such incidents led his staff to taking measures in hand to keep their president from the media, in case he blurted out something crazy. He performed all of 6 news conferences in his first year in office, a modern president would do that many in a month. In the end he and his staff took to treating the role of president essentially as an acting job. They would give him cue cards, they would put out a chalk spot to show him where to stand and he would do as he was told. As one staffer put it “Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks.”.
The president “cut ribbons and made speeches. He did these things beautifully” Congressman Jim Wright of Texas acknowledged. But in essence the US got itself not a president for 8 years, but instead they hired an actor to play the part of a President. Unfortunately this template of a stage managed actor as a sort of presidential spokesmodel for special interests was something we’ve seen emerge on several occasions since then, most notably with G. W. Bush (jnr).
Myth #8 – Reagan’s tough line with the Soviets, or in the middle east, helped keep Americans safe
Reality – He nearly started WW3 and provoked a series of terrorist attacks against the US, notably the Lockerbie bombing
While we can look back at Reagan’s gaffe’s now with a certain level of amusement, at the time they were a little more serious. His “evil empire” speeches were taken very seriously in Moscow who became convinced that Reagan meant to attack the Warsaw Pact. As a result they were on a heightened level of alert throughout this period. This paranoia reached a head during the 1983 Able Archer exercise, which the soviets feared might be a pretext for an actual NATO first strike. They actually went on full alert a hair’s breath away from firing throughout this exercise. Worst still was a malfunction of a key early warning system (which seemed to indicate a missile attack) just prior to the exercise, which could also have led to a soviet strike had they taken these results at face value.
Figure 15: Deployment of the Pershing missiles dramatically heightened Cold War tensions
Meanwhile, Reagan’s posturing in the middle east far from keeping America safe, had the opposite effect, leading to a wave of terrorism launched against Americans. Prior to the bombing of Colonel Gaddafi’s headquarters, the Libyans had actually been downscaling involvement in terrorism. However instead this attack lead to a pronounced escalation. It is not clear whether it was Gaddafi or some other middle east group, possibly the Iranians (in revenge for the shoot down of an Iran airliner by a US destroyer) who bombed the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie. But the very fact that there’s more than one candidates isn’t exactly an endorsement of Reagan’s foreign policy.
And of course there was his regime’s intervention in Afghanistan, which involved giving much weapons and CIA training to a group of Jihadi’s who Reagan went so far as to compare to the founding fathers…..groups we now know as “the Taliban” and “Al-Qaeda”. The actions of the CIA in Afghanistan, were naive at best and dangerously counter-productive at worst. The US was getting involved in a tribal war, which had little to do with geopolitics and they were aiding and abetting Jihadi groups who were arguably as great a danger to the US as the soviets.
Figure 16: The Taliban who came to Tea, Reagan’s support for Islamists in the 80’s led eventually to 9/11
And then there’s his support for Saddam Hussein, even after he started gassing the kurds and was supplied with a large amount of weapons in the Iran/Iraq war (America also supplied weapons to the Iranians, indeed America’s policy here seemed to be to keep the war going for as long as possible). And of course there was the disastrous intervention in Grenada and Beirut to consider (again this too probably provoked a number of terrorist attacks against the US).
Figure 17: Under Reagan the US was an ally of Saddam, supplying him with much hardware
That said, we need to consider that Reagan was surrounded by Neo-con hawks at this time, many of whom were urging a much more aggressive US stance on a foreign policy. There are some who argue we should credit the president with reigning in the neo-cons, as they would have almost certainly started WW3 if he had not restrained them.
Myth #9 – Reagan was a climate change denier and anti-science, just like any good GOP president should be
Reality – Scientific research undertaken during his term of office proved the link between recent warming and CO2 emissions, under Reagan’s term the IPCC was founded based in no small part to research conducted by US scientists
It is practically a rite of passage for any Republican candidate these days to take an anti-science position and decry “evolution”, stem cell research conducted by scientists “with an agenda”. And of course, any presidential candidate must be a climate change denier.
However George Shultz has pointed out that the Reagan white house, for all its faults, took a very different approach. While they cut research funding to a number of environmental causes, climate science funding continued. This led to the founding of the IPCC, with the US agreeing to provide a significant portion of its funding. Now some claim that this might have been a miscalculation by the Reagan white house, attempting to bury the problem in a sea of analysis. But the fact still remains that while modern republicans deny climate change (despite having access to far stronger evidence), the Reagan government was at least open to the idea of doing something.
Also around this time the issue of the ozone layer emerged. And again, while skeptical of the issue, the Reagan Adm. did at least try to tackle the problem, again with further investigation of the science and possible solutions. This eventually led to the Montreal Protocol signed under his predecessor. Again, the contrast between Reagan’s approach to environmental issues, and modern Republicans is pretty stark. Noting that he was not a person known for his pro-environmental views (Carter had solar panels put up on the white house, which Reagan then had taken down).
Of course, given the ineptitude discussed earlier, we do have to wonder how much of this was Reagan’s policy and how much of it was well informed advisers pushing pieces of paper under his nose for signature knowing he won’t bother to read it. But certainly his administration did not take the sort of actively anti-science approach that is now a virtual entry requirement for the GOP. Yes, Reagan was to the left of many modern republicans on the environment!
Myth #10 – Reagan was a racist and pro-gun and would be the ideal Tea Party president
Reality – There is little evidence to support this, his policies are largely neutral on these issues, I suspect Reagan would have been appalled at the Tea Party
To the Tea Party Reagan has become a blank canvas that you can paint anything on to. This is a common thread for the many who see Trump as a new Ronald Reagan. And equally those on the left have tended to view him as a near cartoon like bogeyman. Hence some have been going back through his speeches with a racist code book in hand and picking out various phrases and terms and interpreting them as sign’s of Reagan inherent racism.
As I pointed out earlier, anything we hear from a Reagan speech was generally scripted and not really his words. Indeed, one of his most prominent speech writers is now known to be a racist. So I would take anything said by Reagan while in office with a certain pinch of salt. Furthermore, I would argue that Reagan simply wasn’t the sort of person to form strong opinions. As a privileged white guy from California, who worked most of his life in a film industry that was more white than this year’s Oscar nominations, he probably never had sufficient contact with any minorities to form strong opinions.
But as regards “building a wall” and shipping the Mexicans out, Reagan actually enacted an amnesty that helped 3 million undocumented migrants gain residency in the US.
Figure 18: Reagan, while supportive of the 2nd amendment, was not in favour of an unregulated free-for all
Similarly, I would argue the Tea Party view that Reagan was pro-gun isn’t entirely supported by the facts. Recall that he was nearly killed by an assassin in his first year of office. An attack that would ultimately lead many years later to the so-called “Brady law”. Over the course of his presidency he passed one measure that relaxed certain regulations on guns, but signed into law another (criminalising attempts to make concealable firearms, indeed the very law those trying to use 3D printers to make guns are likely falling foul of).
Several items of gun control legislation were drafted under his presidency, although ultimately signed into law by other presidents. The Gun-free schools act was signed by Bush (snr). While the Brady law was signed by Bill Clinton (in no small part due to Reagan stating he was in favour of it) as was the assault weapons ban (which Reagan also supported).
On the whole I’d argue Reagan was largely neutral on guns. Like many Republicans he was, at least in principle, in favour of legalised gun ownership. But he certainly wasn’t in favour of the unregulated free for all that we now see many Tea baggers argue for. And keep in mind Reagan wasn’t facing the scenario Obama now faces where spree shootings have become a daily occurrence. I suspect had Reagan faced this sort of problem neither he nor his administration would have hesitated to bring in appropriate measures.
Indeed, prior to the recent measures taken by Obama, the Brady foundation gave him an F for prevention of gun violence, suggesting he was weaker on gun control than Reagan. Yes, if we were to argue that Obama is “anti-gun” we would have to move the goal posts of what counts as anti-gun (i.e. regulation v’s banning them) so far to the right than even Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and many other republicans would have to also count as being “anti-gun”.
And as regards the tea party (aka the American Taliban), while Reagan was something of an outsider within the GOP, he was certainly not a radical, he did not favour burning the house down just for the hell of it. We’ve seen all sorts of self-destructive policies coming out of the Tea party the last few years, no-gun regulations even in the face of mass shootings, no debt ceiling increase, even if it means the US government going bankrupt (recall no President has ran up a higher deficit than Reagan), shut down Congress until Obama scraps Obamacare, or more recently threatening to shutdown the Supreme court for nearly year in the hope they can get a more conservative justice in the job. It is difficult to believe Reagan would have gone along with this sort of behaviour. I suspect he would have considered it as un-American and entirely counter productive.
Myth #11 – Reagan did not abuse his office like more recent presidents
Reality – Reagan should have been impeached for his involvement in Iran-Contra
Certainly it is true that many US president’s have done things in office that could be seen as an abuse of power. Obama has some tough questions to answer over the PRISM spy network, which was never subject to proper judicial, legislative nor public scrutiny. Clinton’s private affairs, while I would argue they were not grounds for impeachment, they still weren’t the sort of behaviour we’d expect from a US president. And let’s not even begin to discuss G. W. Bush lying to congress and the public about WMD’s and starting an illegal war, not to mention approving torture, detention without trial and co-operating with states known to be hostile to the US (such as Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria).
However, its difficult, even for G. W. Bush, to top the high crimes committed by the Reagan Adm. In two works – Iran/Contra.
For those unfamiliar with the crisis I’ll attempt a brief summary, although American Dad provides a more humorous one here. But in short, as part of his efforts to fight what Reagan considered to be communist aggression, he funded various CIA operations against socialist groups in south and central America. One group to attract US attention was the Sandinista’s. Exactly how communist the Sandinista’s were is a matter of dispute. Keep in mind they are currently in government in Nicaragua and while they are fairly left-wing, they are certainly not communist. And even if they were, they were clearly not taking their orders from Moscow.
Unfortunately for the US the main opposition to the Sandinista’s were a group called the Contras, a rebel group known to use terrorist tactics as well as trading in drugs…much of which ultimately ended up on the streets of the US. Naturally congress would not allow funding of the Contra’s, pointing out the hypocrisy of them spending billions a year on a war on drugs, but then help a bunch of drug dealers to found a narco-state.
At the same time the US was approached by the Iranians with an offer to trade US hostages in Lebanon for weapons. The Reagan Adm. approved of this sale and then diverted the funds to the Contras who used the money to buy guns. However, the Contra’s actually used some of the money to ship drugs and then used the profits of this to buy yet more guns. Exactly how compliant the CIA was all of this is still disputed, some argue the CIA actively helped the shipment of drugs into the US, others argue they knew about it but simply turned a blind eye and actively suppressed attempts to expose it. But certainly the CIA and the white house would have known that the Contras were actively using funds that they had supplied to smuggle drugs into the US.
By trading weapons for hostages Reagan was contradicting a long standing US doctrine of never negotiating with terrorists….and then giving the proceeds to another bunch of terrorists! Worse, Iran was at this point considered an enemy of the US. Many other US allies in the region considered Iran to be their main military threat, notably US ally Saddam (who again was at war with them). This is why I think we can dismiss the suggestion earlier than the Saudi’s helped America bring down the USSR by increasing oil production. After this little escapade the Saudi’s won’t have pissed on Reagan to put out a fire.
By aiding and abetting known enemies of the US (and terrorists) many have argued that the Reagan Adm’s actions on Iran/Contra constituted high treason. While that might be going a bit far, certainly his actions meet the criteria of “high crimes” and “abuse of power” laid out in the US constitution as grounds for presidential impeachment. And keep in mind this would have swept up not just Reagan but also Bush (snr) who had his grubby paw prints all over this scandal (again recall he had been head of the CIA).
However Reagan was spared impeachment by a partisan political system (the GOP knew that if they pulled the trigger on this they could kiss goodbye to the presidency next election). And the fact that they had a compliant fall guy in Oliver North….guaranteeing Oliver North would never be short of a few bob, as the GOP made sure he was well cared for afterwards…after all we won’t want him spilling his guts….
But again, we have to ask, how complicit was Reagan in Iran/Contra? I suspect he may have vaguely nodded to his staff when they discussed it, but did he actually understand what it was they were up too and the geopolitical implications of it? If it had come to trial I suspect any good lawyer would have gotten him off on grounds of diminished responsibility.
The Church of the one true Ronald
The reality of Reagan, once we de-construct the propaganda and the cult of personality, is that of a slightly senile retired actor, who through a combination of luck and coincidence managed to blunder into the white house. He was very much the accidental president. However, once in power he was quickly out of his depth and forced to rely on others, be it his wife or a snake pit of neo-con hawks, neo-liberal cheerleaders or big government bureaucrats, whom he pretty left to run the country, with mixed results. In essence for 8 years the US didn’t have a president, they hired an actor who played the role of president. Although due to this pesky thing called “the constitution” they had to give him some input on the direction his character was going to take.
But many on in the GOP will steadfastly refuse to believe this. Indeed another myth we failed to tackle is the idea that he was popular during his reign. Actually his approval ratings were no better than many other presidents while in office, at times in fact they dipped as low as 30%. Reagan’s popularity only really started to rise after his diagnosis with Alzheimers. And since then the myth’s above (and many more) have grown around him.
Reagan’s cult of personality is perhaps an interesting thing to study as it does show you how major religions get started. I won’t be surprised if in a post-apocalyptic future of a ruined America, many worship icons to the one true Ronald, the last of God’s profit prophet, before the end times. And perhaps worryingly, they are already naming everything and anything after Reagan. Thousands of streets, schools, airports, bus stops and landmarks were promptly named after him (including a mountain!). If a hobo laid down on a park bench for too long he could find himself staying at the “Ronald Reagan Restorium” by the time he sobers up. They even tried to get his face carved into the side of Mt Rushmore.
This cult of personality of Reagan is not only delusional and a disservice to the man, but it is also extremely dangerous. It raises the risk of the US repeating many mistakes committed in the past. Or worse, pursuing policies that even Reagan won’t have supported. And electing a genuine nut as President (i.e. Trump or Cruz) might just destroy the country. Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.