bipartisan celebration of the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth on February 6, 2011. In anticipation of the sanitized and romanticized Centennial celebration, I thought I would provide a primer on some of the darker aspects of Reagan's Presidency.
1. Hostility to civil rights. As Bob Herbert stated, "Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people." Reagan launched his first presidential campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a place notorious for the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers, and gave a speech about states' rights. Herbert explained that Reagan was "tapping the code;" that talking about states' rights in that particular venue was a clear signal that he was not going to favor African Americans over whites. And this proved true throughout his presidency. He was also speaking in code when, as Paul Krugman related, he "repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud." Herbert summarized: "As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation."
2. Trickle Down Economics. As the theory goes, cut tax rates for the wealthy, and their increased spending will trickle down to the rest of us. In a classic parody in 2007, The Onion nails the absurdity: "26 years after Ronald Reagan first set his controversial fiscal policies into motion, the deceased president's massive tax cuts for the ultrarich at last trickled all the way down to deliver their bounty, in the form of a $10 bonus, to Hazelwood, MO car-wash attendant Frank Kellener." As Krugman points out: "While the rich got much richer, there was little sustained economic improvement for most Americans. By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before — and the poverty rate had actually risen" Here is a clip from Rachel Maddow which completely dismantles the theory that cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, cutting social spending, and cutting regulation was sound or fair economic policy.
3. Ketchup is a vegetable. Emblematic of Reagan's efforts to drastically cut social spending was the attempt by his administration to reclassify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables, which would have saved money by allowing public schools to eliminate vegetables from the hot lunches. Reagan severely cut spending on social programs, including substantial reductions in federal subsidies for low-income housing, and spending on Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and federal aid to education.
4. From Bag Ladies to the The Homeless. Reagan drastically cut subsidies for low income housing, and together with cuts in welfare and other social programs, this led to a steep increase in the homeless. Under Reagan, the number of people living beneath the federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million in 1978 to 32.5 million in 1988. By the late 1980s, the number of homeless had increased to 1.2 million a year. Reagan, in a revealing moment, claimed on Good Morning America that people sleeping on the streets "are homeless, you might say, by choice."
5. Justice Scalia. Ronald Reagan appointed three justices to the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the Court, Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia. (Reagan was unsuccessful in his efforts to appoint Robert Bork, whose nomination failed when his extremely unorthodox right wing views were aired in his confirmation hearing.) Justice Scalia has proven to be one of the most reactionary justices in modern times. Most recently, he stated that he did not believe the Constitution protected women from discrimination. All three of these Reagan justices were in the majority in Bush v. Gore, one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Supreme Court.
6. Reshaping the Federal Bench. Ed Meese was a highly influential adviser to Reagan, with their relationship dating back to when Reagan was Governor of California. In the Reagan Administration, Meese was first given the title of Counselor with a cabinet rank and later was Attorney General, before resigning due to a corruption scandal. Of his many dubious contributions to the Reagan Presidency, one of the most significant was in helping to aggressively re-shape the federal judiciary by appointing extremely conservative judges. Potential nominees underwent intense screening and scrutiny to ensure their conservative credentials. By the time Reagan left office, he had appointed more than half of the judges on the federal bench and he left a blueprint for appointing judges that was followed by his Republican successors.
7. Freedom Fighters. The Reagan Doctrine's stated policy was to support so-called anti-communist rebel movements that were seeking to overthrow Soviet-supported governments in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and other countries. This resulted in the U.S. providing substantial backing to groups that did not necessarily have support of their own people and who were linked to human rights abuses and, in some cases, drug trafficking. Perhaps most cynically, Reagan referred to the CIA-trained and financed Nicaraguan Contras as "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." At the same time Reagan backed right wing dictatorships with egregious human rights records because they supported U.S. interests and thwarted left wing insurgencies, including in El Salvador, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, and the Philippines.
8. Iran-Contra. The Reagan Administration sold weapons to Iran, ostensibly to secure the release of hostages, and then used the money from the arm sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. However, there was an embargo on arms sales to Iran and legal prohibition against funding the Contras. The ensuing scandal revealed evidence of money-laundering, arms smuggling and drug trafficking, and resulted in the the indictment of 14 participants, 11 of whom were convicted. Some of the convictions were overturned and President George H.W. Bush, who was implicated in the scandal, pardoned six of those convicted. The failure of any real accounting for the abuses of power stemming from the Iran-Contra Scandal lead directly to the excesses of the George W. Bush Administration, which operated under the belief that the executive branch could run foreign policy as it saw fit regardless of laws, treaties and the Constitution.
9. James G. Watt. Reagan continually tried to undermine the mandate of government agencies by appointing people to head them who were opposed to the agencies' missions. The Labor Department became anti-labor. The EPA became anti-environment. Reagan actually tried to abolish the Department of Education. The classic example was the appointment of James Watt to be Secretary of the Interior. Watt was hostile to regulations protecting the environment and supported the unfettered development and use of federal lands by foresting, ranching and other commercial interests. Another incongruous appointment was tapping Clarence Thomas to head the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
10. AIDS. We can't forget Reagan's "shameful abdication of leadership in the fight against AIDS." The first AIDS cases surfaced in 1981. With the growing national health crisis and the dire need for federal funding and research, as well as leadership to quell the homophobic reaction to the disease, Reagan did nothing and said nothing. On the contrary, his communications director, Pat Buchanan, said, that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men." By Feb. 1, 1983, over 1000 AIDS cases were reported, and at least 394 had died in the U.S. Reagan remained silent. Over two years later, in 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman said in the Washington Post: "It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic's existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals." Still nothing. Reagan would ultimately address the issue of AIDS in 1987, towards the end of his presidency, but by then over 36,000 had been diagnosed with AIDS and almost 21,000 had died.