By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
This anecdote hardly qualifies as even an asterisk in Reagan’s official biographies. Central America is long forgotten as an American political issue. And Star Wars morphed into a slightly less irrational National Missile Defense program that too many Democrats have stupidly backed. Reagan’s detractors have plenty of other waypoints to chart their memories. A half-dozen years ago, after National Airport was renamed for Reagan, writer David Corn came up with 66 points by which to remember the Great Communicator. A few of them bear repeating as the media deification of him extends through his funeral games:
"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 . . . redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt . . . "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 . . . Fawn Hall, female appointees (8 percent), mining harbors, the S&L scandal, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, Al Haig "in control," silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Debategate, White House shredding, Jonas Savimbi, tax cuts for the rich, "mistakes were made." Michael Deaver’s conviction for influence peddling, Lyn Nofziger’s conviction for influence peddling, Caspar Weinberger’s five-count indictment . . . 200 officials accused of wrongdoing, William Casey, Iran-contra. "Facts are stupid things," three-by-five cards, the MX missile, Bitburg, S.D.I., Robert Bork, naps, Teflon."
The list goes on. But make no mistake. Ronald Reagan deserves admiration for his tenacity and his political skill, if not for the outcome he produced. He took the fringe Goldwater movement and carried it into the mainstream of the GOP, thereby remaking his own party and, with it, American politics. He catapulted nutballs like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority into positions of national legitimacy and trashed his own party’s Main Street traditions of fiscal responsibility.
His two biggest political promises — to break up big government and to use military power to bring "freedom," as Lou Cannon surmises, to the rest of the world — were but empty bluster. Tripling the national debt, doubling the deficits, cutting taxes while bloating the military, he left government at the end of his tenure 30 percent bigger than he found it. And for all his saber rattling, he cut and run in Lebanon after 239 Marines were killed in a car bombing, and the only country he directly confronted with U.S. troops was the hapless Disneyland-size island of Grenada.
As Josh Green pointed out in a Washington Monthlypiece last year, "A sober review of Reagan’s presidency doesn’t yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today." He never seriously followed through on promises to outlaw abortion. He eventually raised taxes. He ignored any notion of a balanced budget. His assault on entitlements never fully materialized, and in 1983 he actually helped rescue Social Security. And on foreign affairs, he eventually ignored the radical misjudgments of many of his closest advisers, who were clueless to the meaning of Gorbachev, and found a way to accommodate the Soviet reform leader.
Reagan’s eventual compromise with Gorbachev on arms control should not be overblown. When Gorbachev arrived on the scene promoting glasnost and perestroika, there is little if any evidence that anyone in the administration, including the Gipper, could fully grasp the import of the moment. Myriad were the public White House and State Department statements brushing aside the notion of any real change in the "evil empire." It was Gorbachev who took all the risks — monumental risks that paid off richly for his people but stranded him personally in a historical Siberia. Reagan, surrounded by many of the same neocon counselors who populate Washington today, came late to his entente with the Soviet leader. By the time Reagan made his take-down-this-wall speech in Berlin, the revolution unleashed by Gorbachev was well under way and the fall of the wall was as much as inevitable. Reagan had been calling for the demolition of the wall (as many had) since the day it was built. He just happened to make that speech at a time when Eastern Europeans, inspired by what they saw in Moscow, not Washington, finally felt freedom was in their reach.
Most frightening is today’s conventional wisdom that Reagan was "correct" in forcing the Soviets to spend themselves out of existence in an escalating arms race. The Soviets were quite bankrupt all on their own without Reagan’s assistance. Soviet spending on arms was flat during the 1980s, deflating one of the most enduring myths surrounding Reagan’s "vision." Reagan’s arms spending spree should more wisely be seen as reckless economics and old-fashioned brinkmanship. History has yet to judge if we, along with the Russians, have also bankrupted ourselves by pouring billions into tanks and planes while starving schools, hospitals and domestic infrastructure. Worse, what was the corollary to the Reagan policy of spending the Soviets into oblivion? If the Soviets had not collapsed (under what was mostly internal, not outside, pressure), what course would Reagan have taken? Were we to continue our spending binge and arms escalation ad infinitum? Or would we have been tempted to stage a pre-emtpive attack to once and for all take down our rivals? Remember "with enough shovels"?