The Enduring Lies of Ronald Reagan

Though the GOP continues to canonize the fortieth president, we can’t forget his legacy as a liar and a foreign policy flop

Susan J. Douglas June 19, 2007

Ronald Rea­gan was a saint, a com­mand­ing leader, the gold stan­dard of prin­ci­pled con­ser­vatism against whom all cur­rent and future Repub­li­cans should be mea­sured. This is the new mantra com­ing out of the Repub­li­can race for the pres­i­den­cy as the cur­rent crop of can­di­dates scram­ble, quite under­stand­ably, to dis­tance them­selves from the walk­ing dis­as­ter that is George W. Bush.

The canonization of Ronald Reagan rests crucially on one thing Reagan himself did well: forgetting the facts. It seems timely to exhume a few.

In the Fox News-host­ed debate” among the Repub­li­can hope­fuls, Ron Paul, Rudi Giu­liani and oth­ers were quick to wrap them­selves in the Rea­gan man­tle. When Fred Thomp­son – actor turned politi­cian – entered the race, he evoked huge sighs of relief among Repub­li­cans, who see him as the one best able to recap­ture the Gipper’s mag­ic. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Reagan’s diaries, edit­ed by Dou­glas Brink­ley, have just been pub­lished and also seek to cast him as a true Amer­i­can leader”.

While much of the neo­con agen­da is in tat­ters right now, cer­tain­ly one of its most suc­cess­ful achieve­ments has been the can­on­iza­tion of Ronald Rea­gan, which rests cru­cial­ly on one thing Rea­gan him­self did so well: for­get­ting the facts. So it’s time to exhume a few.

First to go is the myth that Rea­gan was the most pop­u­lar pres­i­dent since FDR. Fair­ness & Accu­ra­cy in Report­ing reminds us, Dur­ing the first two years of Reagan’s pres­i­den­cy, the pub­lic was giv­ing Pres­i­dent Rea­gan the low­est lev­el of approval of all mod­ern elect­ed pres­i­dents. Reagan’s aver­age first-year approval rat­ing was 58 per­cent – low­er than Dwight Eisenhower’s 69 per­cent, Jack Kennedy’s 75 per­cent, Richard Nixon’s 61 per­cent and Jim­my Carter’s 62 per­cent.” At the end of his sec­ond year, (remem­ber the Rea­gan reces­sion?) Reagan’s approval rat­ing was 41 per­cent; after the Iran-Con­tra scan­dal was revealed, Reagan’s approval rat­ing stood at 46 per­cent. His approval rat­ing for his entire pres­i­den­cy was low­er than Kennedy’s, Eisenhower’s and even Johnson’s, and at times he was one of the most unpop­u­lar pres­i­dents in recent history.

Also for­got­ten is Reagan’s own embar­rass­ing propen­si­ty to just make things up. Rea­gan was a dunce and a fab­ri­ca­tor. One of his most famous asser­tions was, Trees cause more pol­lu­tion than auto­mo­biles do,” and he main­tained, wrong­ly, that sul­fur diox­ide emit­ted from Mount St. Helens was greater than that emit­ted by cars over a 10-year peri­od. (In one day, cars emit 40 times what Mount St. Helens released in a day even at its peak activ­i­ty.) In 1985, Rea­gan praised the P.W. Botha’s apartheid régime of South Africa for elim­i­nat­ing seg­re­ga­tion, a blun­der then-Press Sec­re­tary Lar­ry Speakes had to cor­rect a few days later. 

Oth­er exam­ples abound: Dur­ing a 1983 Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Hon­or cer­e­mo­ny Rea­gan told a sto­ry about mil­i­tary hero­ism that New York Dai­ly News colum­nist Lars-Erik Nel­son wrote nev­er hap­pened. Nel­son had checked the cita­tions on all 434 Con­gres­sion­al Medals of Hon­or award­ed dur­ing WWII. The scene Rea­gan described did appear, how­ev­er, in the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer. Lar­ry Speakes’ response? If you tell the same sto­ry five times, it’s true.” 

And let’s not for­get the wages of trick­le down” eco­nom­ics and Reaganomics,” from which we have still not recov­ered. In 1982, the Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office found that tax­pay­ers earn­ing under $10,000 lost an aver­age of $240 from Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, while those earn­ing more than $80,000 gained an aver­age of $15,130. By that fall, the job­less rate hit 10.1 per­cent – the worst in 42 years, and a year lat­er 11.9 mil­lion were out of work. In 1983, the country’s pover­ty rate rose to 15 per­cent, the high­est lev­el since the mid-’60s. In 1984, a con­gres­sion­al study report­ed that cuts in wel­fare had pushed more than 500,000 peo­ple – the major­i­ty of them chil­dren – into pover­ty. Then-Attor­ney Gen­er­al Ed Meese’s response? I don’t know of any author­i­ta­tive fig­ures that there are hun­gry chil­dren … peo­ple go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that’s eas­i­er than pay­ing for it.”

The neo­cons would have us believe that Rea­gan was also a for­eign pol­i­cy genius. Space pre­vents me from detail­ing his administration’s adven­tures and blun­ders in Grena­da, in Beirut and the vis­it to the Nazi ceme­tery in Bit­burg. So let’s just remem­ber aid to the Nicaraguan Con­tras, whom Rea­gan likened to the Found­ing Fathers, and the rev­e­la­tion that the CIA had pro­duced a man­u­al that taught them, in part, how to kid­nap and neu­tral­ize” gov­ern­ment offi­cials. Iran-Con­tra – the secret and ille­gal sell­ing of weapons to our sworn ene­my, Iran, to then fund the Con­tras – was both a con­sti­tu­tion­al dis­as­ter and a for­eign pol­i­cy blun­der about which we were asked to believe Rea­gan knew noth­ing. His admin­is­tra­tion was also thor­ough­ly cor­rupt: Eight senior offi­cials in his admin­is­tra­tion were indicted.

Fab­ri­ca­tion, lying, cru­el and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive poli­cies at home and abroad, bloat­ing of the deficit, widen­ing the gap between rich and poor: These are the Rea­gan lega­cy. As Repub­li­can can­di­dates seek to wear his man­tle, their Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nents need to remind Amer­i­cans exact­ly what they are putting on.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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