Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Reagan Legacy and the Light of Day

A hundred year birthday celebration for a man who died in 2004?  Or, possibly worse, an "honorarium" for  deeds not done, accomplishments not made and a "record" existing only the imaginings of dreamers?

MeanMesa watched as the wing nuts trotted out the long dead remains of President Ronnie, surgically removing every "less than tasty" reality of the man's record.  "Just Say No" Nancy, also no doubt resurrected by a team of crack Beverly Hills doctors, appeared long enough to mouth one last, incomprehensible "truism."  There were Marines and wreaths, fanfare and maudlin regret, all splayed before ravenous cameras and annotated by ambitious pundits.

40th President Ronald Wilson Reagan (image source)

These days Ronnie serves not as an actual man, but as a "reconfigured" John Galt who, it seems, never actually breathed the air of the multiple constraint environment we find our own lowly selves navigating, the multiple constraint environment we find our good President facing for us.  The neo-cons are just as  eager to compare Obama with the carefully crafted hero of their dreams as they are unwilling to introduce any troubling facts which might cloud their appetite for perfectly bifurcated false dichotomies.

After all, what possible use might exist for a demi-god with feet of clay, not to mention, apparently a mind of dust?  
Oh wait, you say.  How could MeanMesa be so crass as to utter such a derogatory snippet?

Well, geriatric MeanMesa can see the dementia, no more than a theoretical, medical abstraction to our younger visitors, arising in this stage of life as  a far more material reality, that is, as an "existential caller."  Thoughts such as this arrive uninvited when MeanMesa hears the oligarchs in charge of the House suggest that Americans should continue to work to the age of 68 to allow all those Social Security checks to migrate, unencumbered, into the pockets of those who should own all that money anyway.

Setting all these overly dramatic lamentations aside, let's take a look at the actual Ronnie Reagan.  The unsettling reality of the right wing's transformation of the man's actual life into something imaginary and suspiciously useful should not obscure what can be easily learned from our history books.  Here are a few convenient "talking points" for those inevitable water cooler discussions.

Reagan raised taxes on the middle class 11 times during his Presidency.  This year, 30 years after he first took office, and last year, and the year before that, and the year before that (you get the idea...) the United States will pay roughly $60 Bn in interest on the money he borrowed to make the economy run.  The darker sides of his "foreign policy," previously considered only as "urban myths" encouraged by his detractors, are emerging as more and more hidden information is revealed, as actual facts.  

This soiled tale began with the manipulation of the then new Islamic Republic of Iran and the carefully orchestrated timing for the release of the embassy hostages, delayed until his Inauguration in true Hollywood style.  Reagan's affinity for the Iranians emerged again, years later, amid a torrent of lies as he circumvented his party's own Congress with the Iran Contra affair, the lies of Colonel North and the destruction of the inconvenient government of Nicaragua with the illicitly "cleaned" cash balance.   Ronnie had no problem "negotiating with terrorists" when it was convenient.

Rather than track through all this "mud," on our own, we can rely on Salon for a high quality recap of a few other items from 2004.  (See the article here. )

If these aren't enough, pull up your easy chair, make a cup of tea and Google it.  By the way, plan on a long night.

Reagan without sentimentality

He told us government was the problem -- and his corruption-plagued administration made sure of it.

Jun 8, 2004 | In death as in life, Ronald Reagan maintains an extraordinary, almost elemental capacity to attract the positive and repel the negative. His energy, his grit, his poise and his powers of public persuasion were the pride of his supporters and the envy of his opponents. We will hear much more about all those qualities during the coming week, as the nation prepares for his funeral. During the period of mourning, most criticism of the deceased leader will be tempered by respect for his family and friends.

Yet it should be possible to eulogize rather than mythologize the 40th president and his times -- to acknowledge the skill, charm and commitment, without indulging in a sentimental revisionism that erases the historical reality of the 1980s. On the passing of a former president, celebration and commemoration overwhelm clarity and accuracy; and that is especially true in this instance. The American press was rarely critical of Reagan, and the partisan mythmaking process began more than a decade ago.

Ideas matter, as the conservatives like to say, and so do the stubborn facts. As Republicans seize this singular opportunity to advance their agenda behind the Reagan cortege, it's imperative to recall what actually happened during his eight years in the White House -- and to underline the consequences of the ideas that he promoted.

At his 1981 inauguration, the new president voiced his simple revolutionary credo: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

That remark was prescient, although not in the sense that Reagan intended. His naive faith in the private sector's capacity to regulate itself, along with his disdain for many of the necessary functions of the modern state, allowed cronies and crooks to flourish. Inept government, corrupt government and cynical government became severe problems during his tenure, leaving fiscal wreckage that remained for many years after he returned to private life.

The millions of words of hagiographic copy uttered and written this week will make scant mention of the scandal epidemic that marred Reagan's presidency (aside from the Iran-contra affair, which few commentators understand well enough to explain accurately). Disabled by historical amnesia, most Americans won't recall -- or be reminded of -- the scores of administration officials indicted, convicted or expelled on ethics charges between 1981 and 1989.

However historians will assess Reagan's responsibility, the record is what it is. Gathering dust in the news archives are thousands of clippings about the gross influence peddling, bribery, fraud, illegal lobbying and sundry abuses that engulfed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon, to name a few of the most notorious cases.

In his 1991 book "Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years," journalist Haynes Johnson came up with an unflattering statistic: "By the end of his term, 138 Reagan administration officials had been convicted, had been indicted, or had been the subject of official investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violations."

These cases affected the nation's health, security and financial soundness. Consider the example of the EPA, where Reagan's contempt for environmental regulation led to the appointment of dishonest, incompetent people who coddled polluters instead of curbing them. Dozens of them were forced to resign in disgrace, after criminal and congressional investigations, and several went to prison. Or consider the HUD scandal, in which politically connected Republicans criminally exploited the same housing assistance programs they routinely denounced as "wasteful." Billions in EPA Superfund and HUD dollars were indeed wasted because of their corruption.

Reagan's HUD Secretary Sam Pierce took the Fifth Amendment when called to testify about the looting of his agency -- the first Cabinet official to seek that constitutional protection since the Teapot Dome scandal. But he wasn't the only Cabinet official to fall in scandal. So did Attorney General Edwin Meese, in the Wedtech contracting scandal, and so did Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the Iran-contra affair (although he was pardoned at the 11th hour by President George H.W. Bush).

The Pentagon procurement scandals, which involved literally dozens of rather unpatriotic schemes to rip off the military, revealed the system of bid-rigging and gift-greasing that accompanied Reagan's defense buildup. Worse, the president had been warned, two years before the scandal broke, about the growing allegations of fraud within the Defense Department by a blue-ribbon commission he had appointed. When the scandal broke with a series of FBI raids in 1988, he was about to leave the White House.

Most emblematic of the Reaganite attitude toward government was the savings-and-loan scandal. The president's advisors had convinced him that if he would only deregulate the thrift industry, a gigantic bonanza of growth and investment was sure to follow. His sunny quip when he signed the deregulation bill in 1982 was typical Reagan: "All in all, I think we've hit the jackpot." There's no reason to doubt he sincerely believed that with government shoved aside, everyone would prosper. The best reckoning of the costs of his benign intentions is a trillion dollars.

Even Reagan's harshest critics didn't claim that he condoned the abuses that were tolerated -- and in some cases perpetrated -- by his appointees. Nor did he profit personally from those abuses. He was a "big picture" president who was detached from the details of government, delegating authority to aides he trusted too much. Historians will determine Reagan's personal responsibility for the disasters as well as the triumphs on his watch.

So let the former president be remembered for his optimism, his achievements, and his love of country. But let his mistakes be remembered as well. Reagan deserves no less. The sentimental version doesn't do justice to him and his legacy, for better and worse.

So, any MeanMesa visitor who finds it cruelly necessary to simply "sit through" one of these posthumous,  gaseous elevation episodes from lack of adequate countering information has only himself to blame.   

Those cowboys are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

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