ED WEATHERS | 6/6/2004
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RIDING REAGAN'S COFFIN
Forgive me, but I am about to speak ill of the dead.
In the coming months, the Republican propaganda machine will shift into high gear. Their goal: to turn Ronald Reagan into a saint. Just watch. First will come the coffin in the Capitol rotunda. Then there will be a proposal to put Reagan’s face on the dollar coin. Next will come a demand that his statue appear on the Washington Mall. And at the Republican Convention in September -- oh, just wait. The highlight of that week will be a long, elegiac video of Saint Ronald, with moving music, snippets of favorite speeches, and the voiceover of, say, Charlton Heston. When the video ends, there will be heard the rapturous cheers of the faithful.
Then George W. Bush will try to ride Ronald Reagan’s coffin back into the White House.
For that reason, it is necessary now to speak ill of the dead.
As president, Ronald Reagan was a mediocrity. He has left no legacy. He did not change the world in any significantly good way. His greatest achievement was to win a war with Grenada. He ran for president blaming Jimmy Carter for high gas prices and for letting Americans be taken hostage in Iran -- both situations that no American president could have prevented. (If you believe otherwise, then you must blame George W. Bush for today’s high gas prices and for the 2,700 Americans killed on 9/11.) Reagan came into office spouting stories of welfare mothers driving Cadillacs–stories that, it turned out, were simply figments of his speechwriters’ ever-fertile imaginations.
On Reagan’s watch 241 marines were killed by terrorists in Lebanon. On his watch, Antonin Scalia, the most reactionary Supreme Court justice in generations, was placed on the bench (thereby negating Reagan’s admirable appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor). On Reagan’s watch, the U.S. supported and armed Saddam Hussein in Iraq. On Reagan’s watch the proposed Star Wars anti-missile system made us the laughing stock of the world military and scientific community, and America’s poorest schoolchildren were told that ketchup was a vegetable.
And on Reagan’s watch, the most insidious threat to the Constitution since Watergate took place: Iran-Contra. If Reagan knew that Oliver North, John Poindexter and their cronies were breaking the law in the Iran-Contra deal, then Reagan was a criminal. If he didn’t know, then he was merely a figurehead.
All the evidence points to the latter: that Ronald Reagan, as president, was in fact simply a figurehead–a voice, a grin and a head of good hair. An official inquiry by a nonpartisan commission later declared that Reagan just “didn’t understand” the Iran-Contra scandal and that while it was going on, the White House was “in chaos.” Just as his opponents had claimed before his election, Reagan wasn’t so much president as an actor performing the role of president. He didn’t need to understand the scripts. He simply had to read them aloud.
In this, George W. Bush is in fact the natural political heir of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, famously, refused to consider any national policy that could not be written down on a 3 X 5 notecard; Bush, it appears, refuses to read even that much. Reagan reduced national policy to two simple concepts: 1) taxes are evil and 2) the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire. Change “Soviet Union” to “Iraq/Iran/North Korea,” and “Evil Empire” to “Axis of Evil,” and you’ve got George W. Bush’s entire national policy. Just like Reagan, Bush sees the world as the Black Hats vs. the White Hats, and, beyond that, has almost no ideas of his own. Like Reagan, Bush simply reads aloud what his speechwriters put in front of him. George W. Bush is Ronald Reagan in miniature. Reagan was a better actor.
The Republican propaganda machine would have us believe that Ronald Reagan singlehandedly brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Soviet Union. This, of course, is nonsense. The Soviet Union fell apart because, as any political scientist, liberal or conservative, will tell you, it was the product of a flawed economic and political system and because discontented empires ultimately bankrupt their rulers. To the extent that any American president could claim some credit for the end of the Soviet Union, Reagan could claim only to be the last of eight Cold War presidents who had contributed to that end, beginning with Harry Truman.
No, Reagan left no meaningful legacy--nothing as significant as Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation or Richard Nixon’s overtures to China or Jimmy Carter’s lasting peace between Israel and Egypt.
Speaking of Carter, let me end with a true story. In 1989 (I believe it was), shortly after he left office, Ronald Reagan came to Memphis to deliver a speech to a group of businessmen. He read the speech, collected a reported $100,000 speaking fee, and immediately left town. That same week, Jimmy Carter came to Memphis. During his stay, Carter picked up a hammer and helped build houses for the poor as part of Habitat for Humanity. Carter received no money. That’s the difference, to my mind, between a pitchman and a statesman.
May Ronald Reagan rest in peace. He was, to all appearances, a genial man. But in the months to come, let us not be led astray. As president, Ronald Reagan was no saint.