The weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, and a lot of people used the occasion to wrap themselves in the flag called Ronald Reagan. Our current President Barack Obama reminded the country how much he admired Reagan. Sarah Palin did her best prophet-of-doom imitation with her warning that we as a nation are straying from the true path of Reaganism. Articles on Reagan abounded in the news media, virtually all of them in admiration.
There is no doubt that Reagan is an important figure in U.S. history, both as a symbol and an instigator of the great turn that our nation made in and around 1980. But as usual with American icons, much of the coverage this weekend assumed Reagan’s importance rather than explaining it, or if explaining it, did so in the broadest and most inclusive of terms.
Here then is my take on why we should and will remember Ronald Reagan:
- Reagan led the first and biggest wave in the 30-year (and counting) movement towards a less equitable society by instituting or being the front man for the destruction of the air traffic controller unions, the restructuring of the tax code to reduce the tax burden of the wealthy, the first attacks on Social Security (including the decision to lump Social Security trust fund into the rest of the federal budget for bookkeeping purpose) and the first successful attacks on social programs for our poor, disadvantaged and elderly. All of these moves shifted wealth up the socio-economic ladder from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.
- Reagan symbolized the step back from the beginnings of environmental consciousness that our nation had developed in the 70’s. Reagan led the charge against government regulation and environmental standards and articulated passionately and convincingly the “head-in-the-sand” mentality of many right-wingers regarding clean energy, pollution and the impact of man-made environmental changes.
- Reagan and/or his administration broke the law repeatedly, sometimes in ways that should have been labeled traitorous. The best example of the rampant law-breaking of Reagan’s team came before he even became President, when his people entered into separate negotiations with the Iranians and promised them secret help if they held the American embassy hostages until after the election. This traitorous (but as yet unpunished) act turned the 1980 election in Reagan’s favor, just as much as the illegal peccadilloes of Florida Republicans turned the 2000 election from the man who had won the popular vote nationwide to the man who would bring us two senseless wars and a torture gulag. Other Reagan lawbreaking involved the Iran-Contra drugs-for-arms scheme and its cover-up and the savings-and-loan scandal. In total, Haynes Johnson’s Sleeping through History finds 138 Reagan administration officials who were convicted of some crime.
As a society we currently remember Ronald Reagan as we remember Robert E. Lee, who was a virulent racist, an active supporter of slavery and a bull-headed general who sent his men out to slaughter, yet is today considered a Southern gentleman and a great soldier. In both cases, our views are inaccurate, smoothing over some truly disreputable actions and forgetting about the base nature of his real views. One day I hope we look at both men more realistically, perhaps in the same way we now consider Benedict Arnold or Richard M. Nixon.