Remembering Reagan; the unabridged version

We don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade of sorrow, but we can’t help but feel the need to say something as we watch the nation wallow in a sentimental mix of sadness and adulation with the passing of Ronald Reagan. Let’s be careful not to practice selective recall here, folks.

After all, we’re talking about a president who crippled the country’s unions, helped the rich grow richer while the poor grew poorer (remember the S&L scandals?) and had as his secretary of the interior James G. Watt, a man who was hostile to environmental causes and believed federal lands should be open to commercial exploitation before he was forced to resign after telling an ethnic joke at a Chamber of Commerce convention.

There’s no doubt Reagan was popular because of his jocular personality and his arsenal of corny jokes, and unlike today’s president, the man could deliver a speech like, well, like an actor reading from a script. And yes, he was in office during the fall of the Soviet Union, his unprecedented spending on a military buildup in this country perhaps hastening the fall of the Iron Curtain. Americans won the Cold War—Russians saw rule by communism give way to rule by organized crime.

Reagan also helped save the Social Security system in 1983—something conservatives would rather not acknowledge—by agreeing to a $165 billion bailout that increased payroll taxes on employees and employers and added federal workers to the system. The bailout also taxed benefits for the first time, at least those of upper-income recipients—hardly the type of accomplishment associated with Reagan, the icon of modern-American conservatism. (In fact the Reagan administration hired more federal employees in eight years than did the Clinton White House.)

But let’s also not forget matters like the October Surprise, the suspiciously timed liberation of American hostages held in Iran for more than a year and released less than an hour after Reagan was sworn into office; or the Iran-Contra scandal when weapons were sold to the same country that had a few years earlier held those Americans hostages. The profits from those nefarious transactions were then funneled, illegally, to the rightwing Contra guerillas fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan called himself a Contra and referred to that Central American nation as being in “our back yard.” In the end, he conveniently sidestepped any responsibility for the sordid affair by repeatedly claiming ignorance and/or a faulty memory.

Remember Grenada, where U.S. Marines overran a bunch of Russian construction workers? Nancy Reagan’s White House astrologer? The First Lady’s China-buying binge? “Just say no!"? Mined harbors in Nicaragua? Support for repressive right-wing regimes in El Salvador and the rest of Central and South America? “The bombing begins in five minutes."? William Casey, the CIA director and mastermind of Iran-Contra who would later try to overdose on Valium? Reagan pretending not to hear reporters’ questions shouted above the din of helicopter blades as he walked to the White House? The dwindling number of press conferences during his second term? Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s secretary who made paper-shredding machines a household item?

Go ahead and keep your warm fuzzy memories of Ronald Reagan if they make you feel better and help reinforce the image of an America that never was. We’d rather acknowledge the grim reality of those years and bid them good riddance.