Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Alternative Views of Ronald Reagan

He is beloved in the gay community (via Bentkid; also see Bob Mould) for ignoring the spread of the AIDS epidemic in its early years. Supporters of democracy love him for his support of right-wing militias in Latin America, which toppled democratically elected governments. Africa loves him, because of his support for 'constructive engagement' with Apartheid South Africa. Yes, the all-white government of South Africa needed all the support it could get!

What a great president. In fact, he wasn't even all that popular (Clinton was more popular in the two years after Monicagate than Reagan was after Iran-Contra). Jobs and growth were also better under Clinton. Finally, Reagan talked a lot about tax cuts and rolling back the Welfare State, but according to Paul Krugman (as well as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation) he didn't do either.

Balanced: The Guardian. Best paragraph:

Matters went altogether too far in the Iran-Contra affair, when the White House staff (and, almost certainly, the president himself) conspired to sell arms to revolutionary Iran, in defiance of declared government policy, and use the money to support the insurrectionary forces in Nicaragua, in defiance of congressional directives. The chief villain of the piece, Colonel Oliver North, was lucky to escape prison, but Reagan himself deserved to be impeached for the business. He escaped because few could bear the thought of struggling through another Watergate, and, anyway, no one hated or feared him as they had Richard Nixon.

Satirical: Michael Bérubé. Best paragraph:

Then came Ronald Reagan. From the day he kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with a stirring defense of states' rights, I knew that it would soon be morning in America again-- especially for us white people. Reagan's sunny optimism and traditional values brought America together again in a time of national self-doubt, and his decision to open his campaign in the little town where James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered only sixteen years before, championing "states' rights" in a way that every Thurmond-loving Dixiecrat would understand, let us know that the period of Negro domination of government was finally coming to an end. It's true that Reagan himself wasn't openly opposed to any individual black people-- just things like the Voting Rights Act-- but then, he didn't need to be. We knew perfectly well what he was talking about, even if he didn't.

Enumerative: David Corn. Nice, though it would help if someone would explain all of the perfectly culled phrases:

The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, colluding with Guatemalan thugs, pardons for F.B.I. lawbreakers, voodoo economics, budget deficits, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos, public housing cutbacks, redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt.

Getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated schools, disinformation campaigns, "homeless by choice," Manuel Noriega, falling wages, the HUD scandal, air raids on Libya, "constructive engagement" with apartheid South Africa, United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy's astrologer.

Some of these references are things most people don't know or don't remember. I was too young to remember James Watt (he was forced to retire after he used the lovely phrase "a black ... a woman, two Jews and a cripple" to describe the diversity of a committe he had created). Ditto for Elliot Abrams (who lied flagrantly to Congress about Iran-Contra, including US support for groups that are known to have committed major atrocities in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua); Reagan later pardoned him.

Economic: Paul Krugman

Over the course of this week we'll be hearing a lot about Ronald Reagan, much of it false. A number of news sources have already proclaimed Mr. Reagan the most popular president of modern times. In fact, though Mr. Reagan was very popular in 1984 and 1985, he spent the latter part of his presidency under the shadow of the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton had a slightly higher average Gallup approval rating, and a much higher rating during his last two years in office. [...]

But Ronald Reagan does hold a special place in the annals of tax policy, and not just as the patron saint of tax cuts. To his credit, he was more pragmatic and responsible than that; he followed his huge 1981 tax cut with two large tax increases. In fact, no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people. This is not a criticism: the tale of those increases tells you a lot about what was right with President Reagan's leadership, and what's wrong with the leadership of George W. Bush.

Gay, HIV Positive, and Somehow Still For Reagan: Andrew Sullivan
Sullivan's pro-Reagan policy strikes me as particularly confused. Take, for instance, these sentences:

As for research, we didn't even know what HIV was until 1983. Nevertheless, the Reagan presidency spent some $5.7 billion on HIV in its two terms - not peanuts. The resources increased by 450 percent in 1983, 134 percent in 1984, 99 percent the next year and 148 percent the year after. Yes, the Congress was critical in this. But by 1986, Reagan had endorsed a large prevention and research effort and declared in his budget message that AIDS "remains the highest public health priority of the Department of Health and Human Services."

So why the gap between 1983 and 1986? Where was Reagan for those three years? And secondly, notice the squirming over the question of who supported the funding for AIDS research -- it was the Democrat-dominated Congress.

[UPDATE: More!]

Pure Spite: Christopher Hitchens in Slate

The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.

All rightie, then!

Outrage: Mark Weisbrot (via To The Teeth)

Mr. Reagan is often credited with having caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this is doubtful. He did use the Cold War as a pretext for other interventions, including funding and support for horrific violence against the civilian population of Central America. In 1999 the United Nations determined that the massacres of tens of thousands of Guatemalans, mostly indigenous people, constituted "genocide." These massacres -- often involving grotesque torture -- reached their peak under the rule of Mr. Reagan's ally, the Guatemalan General Rios Montt. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans were also murdered during Mr. Reagan's presidency by death squads affiliated with the U.S.-funded Salvadoran military.

But it was Mr. Reagan's efforts to overthrow the government -- democratically elected in 1984 -- of poor, underdeveloped Nicaragua that almost brought down his presidency. Congress cut off aid to Mr. Reagan's proxy army, the Contras, as a result of pressure from Americans -- led by religious groups -- who were disgusted by the Contras' tactics of murdering unarmed teachers and health care workers.

Strategic: John Nichols in The Nation (via To the Teeth)

Ronald Reagan was a master politician who understood how to package rightwing ideas in appealing enough forms to get himself elected and, sometimes, to implement his programs. Even when Americans did not like the ideas Reagan was peddling--as in 1984, when polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale's ideas were significantly more popular--they liked Reagan. Throughout his career, Reagan benefitted from the penchant of Americans to embrace politicians who seem to be at ease with their ideology. This sense that true believers are genuine creates confidence in citizens, lending itself to lines like, "Even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands." And such lines translate on election day into votes that frequently cross ideological and partisan lines.

I think Nichols' line -- 'what can liberals learn from Reagan?' -- is a little cynical. He is arguing that charisma and confidence are values to be emulated, because they help establish a connection with voters. Moreover, even ideals that are thought to be political impossibilities can in fact be accomplished with skillful manipulation.

But we don't need more Reagans and Nixons; we need people who can persuade, when persuasion is necessary, and who know how to take their lumps.