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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

When Character Was Not King

The Sunday centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birthday will be an occasion for MSM paeans to our 40th President. The hagiographic tributes will probably be lead by his former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who set the stage with her 2002 memoir, “When Character Was King,” the gold standard for unbridled Reagan-worship. A fact-focused distillation of the contrarian view follows:

1. Time magazine reports that documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that, as President of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan and first wife, Actress Jane Wyman, “provided federal agents with the names of actors they believed were Communist sympathizers.” Yes, “believed.”
2. A former supporter of FDR and the New Deal, Reagan began dissing “big government” after taking a lucrative job as spokesman for General Electric.
3. Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Running for Governor in 1966, he reportedly said, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” Be surprised if this is noted on Meet the Press this Sunday.
4. Reagan appointed Justice William Rhenquist to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, despite testimony that Rhenquist not only advocated segregationist views, but had personally participated in “ballot security” campaigns to prevent African Americans from voting in 1962 and 64.
5. In 1976 Reagan complained about a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy a T-bone. He had also made frequent disparaging mention of a “welfare queen” driving her cadillac.
6. In 1980 he launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town most famous for being the place where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Reagan seized the opportunity to declare “I believe in states rights” in his speech. It’s hard to see him as anything but a divisive figure in terms of race relations. And then there was that yucky Bitburg cemetery tribute to Nazi soldier “victims.”
7. Reagan became the chief mouthpiece in the effort to defeat the initiative that became Medicare, warning listeners in a recording he made for radio, that if they didn’t write to their congressional representatives to prevent it “we will awake to find that we have so­cialism. And if you don’t do this, and if I don’t do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” As President, he did a flip-flop, and protected Medicare.
8. Unemployment averaged 7.5 percent during Reagan’s presidency, according to BLS statistics.
9. Despite President Reagan’s vocal support for tax cuts, he signed bills providing tax hikes in every year from 1981-87, with most of the burden falling on the middle class, reportedly doubling the tax for those earning less than $40K per year..
10. Reagan’s two terms produced an uptick in federal income tax receipts (1980-89), from $308.7 billion to $549 billion.
11. No President ever dissed government spending more than did Reagan. Yet, federal Federal spending grew by 7.1 percent annually during the Reagan Administration, according to budget statistics. Reagan often portrayed himself as the soul of fiscal responsibility. But Under Reagan the national debt nearly tripled, from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion.
12. The Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration provided covert arms sales to Iran to fund military aid to Nicaragua’s Contras to overthrow a democratically-elected government in violation of U.S. law, resulted in 14 indictments among Reagan staff members, and 11 convictions.

The most treasured of Reagan myths is that he single-handedly ended the Cold War, staring down the evil empire like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon.’ Scant mention is made of the fact that he was given a huge, pivotal gift in the person of his adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the saner leaders of the 20th century. Most presidents would have done what Reagan did, which was keep military spending high until the Soviets caved. Crediting Reagan with ‘courageous’ leadership here is a bit of a stretch.
I’m sure President Reagan had his good points, and we can be assured that they will be repeated ad nauseum on Sunday. He was certainly an excellent orator and highly effective in implementing the conservative agenda in many respects. And he did achieve major progress in nuclear arms control. But it will be surprising if hard-headed critiques of his presidency will get a fair hearing, which is important given the centrality of the Reagan myth in Republican propaganda.
In his WaPo wrap-up review of three documentaries about the Reagan years, Hank Stuever acknowledges that the ’80s did produce a lot of grand rock and pop music. However, his selection of the emblematic song for the Reagan era, “Seasons in the Sun,” which was popular during Reagan’s tenure as California Governor and concludes one of the documentaries, brings a queasy chill. I envision a bunch of Bohemian Grovesters in drag or lederhosen or whatever they don at those gatherings, remembering the Reagan era, swaying tankards and warbling “We had joy, we had fun. We had seasons in the sun.” And I’m awfully glad it’s no longer morning in America.

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