Reagan Without Tears 

Let’s not forget what the Gipper did to America

Thursday, Jun 3 2004

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

—Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994

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Few can work up Dr. Gonzo’s level of anti-Nixon vitriol in dispatching Ronald Reagan to the next realm. Nixon is remembered by the American people as Tricky Dick. Reagan has been enshrined as lovable Uncle Ronnie.

Indeed, none of us know for sure when Reagan came down with Alzheimer’s, but we have certainly experienced the collective amnesia of the American media in these last few days. A mawkish Tom Brokaw, an artificially somber Paula Zahn, a nattering Judy Woodruff gushing over the love affair Ronnie had with Nancy (a tinkling piano punctuating the CNN soundtrack), a babbling Wolf Blitzer (who made the idiotic remark that Reagan employed "perfect timing" in dying on D-Day) and a fatuous Jeff Greenfield stumbled over one another vying to slobber their accolades over the corpse of the fallen leader: Reagan was humble, he was funny, he had a twinkle in his eyes, he charmed his most fervent opponents, he leaped from tall buildings, and . . . yes . . . he single-handedly ended a 4-decade-old Cold War. Reagan court biographer Lou Cannon, however, came up with the single most astounding statement in the Washington Post’s instant obit: "Mr. Reagan’s commitment to freedom was matched by an abhorrence of nuclear weapons."

Some of us remember Reagan in very different terms. The single moment that most stands out in my mind was the early evening of March 23, 1983. Not a significant date for most. But that afternoon I was driving a dangerous highway back to the capital of San Salvador from the war-embattled eastern province of Morazan. I switched on the AM radio in my rented van and found the scratchy, static-laden frequency of the Voice of America. It was carrying a live broadcast of a much-heralded Reagan speech on national security — a speech in which he not only painted Central America as a dire, imminent threat to America and its people but also unveiled his sweeping Strategic Defensive Initiative, known popularly as Star Wars.

I had just come a few days earlier from a week in Guatemala, where a U.S.-supported and visibly deranged army general by the name of Efrain Rios Montt — who shared Reagan’s view that the locals were a threat to world peace — was carrying out a scorched-earth campaign against hundreds of rural Mayan communities, killing thousands of indigenous and scattering even more to the winds. The devastation I saw was heartbreaking, almost biblical in the scope of destruction.

I had also recently been in what Reagan called in that speech "Marxist" Nicaragua — the second poorest country in the hemisphere. Most of its 3 million people couldn’t scare up three squares, it had few roads, little infrastructure, and what was there rarely worked. Up along the Honduran border I saw subsistence Nicaraguan farming communities bury their young in rolling, rocky pastures as Reagan’s "contras" — the right-wing army led by officers of the former Somoza dictatorship that Reagan funded and compared to "our Founding Fathers" — took their toll. The ruling Sandinistas, given to revolutionary bravado, left much to be desired by democratic standards. But to posit, as Reagan did, that they threatened the security of the United States makes George W. Bush’s similar arguments about Saddam look, in comparison, downright compelling.

These scenes were rolling through my head as Reagan spoke that night. But I was mostly obsessed with what I saw right before me as I headed west on the Pan-American Highway: El Salvador. Here the Reagan administration was spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year (eventually a couple of billion) to bankroll what was without any question one of the most murderous regimes in the world. In the name of crushing a small leftist insurgency, the U.S. stood by as literally tens of thousands of civilians were arrested, tortured, and often mangled and mutilated, before being dumped in one or another killing field.

What was so astounding, so galling, as I listened to that speech wasn’t that Reagan was defending our support of what essentially was the wrong side. It was rather the obviously false, I would say delusional, premise of his argument. The unrest in Central America, he argued, was nothing but a direct product of Soviet (and Cuban and Nicaraguan) regional subversion. I’m not going to rehash that argument 20 years later other than to say it was a downright and simplistic lie.

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