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Undernews: Ronald Reagan’s Last Con

Undernews: Ronald Reagan’s Last Con

Compiled by Sam Smith
Editor & Undernews


SAM SMITH - Ronald Regan has carried out his last con. The first occupant of the White House to make politics just another form of show business is being buried as a hero despite having been one of the worst presidents America ever had.

True, he was not as corrupt as Nixon or Clinton, nor as gleefully imperial as George Bush the Lesser, and the damage he did was largely unintentional, the fatal mischief of a small minded man granted too much power.

But the result was to begin the decline and fall of the first American republic by convincing its leaders, media, and citizens that the main thing they needed for happiness was a free, unfettered market accompanied by sufficient faux cowboy rhetoric. That there was never any empirical evidence for the absurd economic assumptions didn’t matter; his charm sufficed where logic failed.

A quarter century later we are left with a middle class with substantially greater problems, a lower class far more ignored, an ecology far more damaged, a much larger gap between rich and poor and between CEO and employee, Medicare and Social Security in danger, and a culture of greed and narcissism that has buried ideals of democracy, community, and cooperation.

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The nausea-inducing elevation of Reagan into someone he never was is another triumph of rightwing spin being swallowed whole by a media that not only doesn’t know the facts, it doesn’t even think it has to, for it, too, has become just another part of show business.

PHIL GASPER, COUNTERPUNCH - Reagan refused to mention AIDS publicly for six years, under-funded federal programs dealing with the disease and, according to his authorized biography, said, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague," because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

C. Everett Koop, Reagan's surgeon general, later revealed, "because transmission of AIDS was understood primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the president took the stand, they are only getting what they justly deserve.". . .

Reagan's economic policies were a disaster for working-class Americans. Reagan presided over the worst recession since the 1930s, and economic growth in the 1980s was lower than in the 1970s, despite the stimulus of military Keynesian policies, which created massive federal budget deficits and tripled the federal debt. By the end of the decade, real wages were down and the poverty rate had increased by 20 percent. . .

Reagan was also a liar. In November 1986, he publicly denied that his administration had been illegally selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the contras. One week later he was forced to retract this statement, but denied that the sale was part of a deal to free U.S. hostages. The following year, Reagan admitted that there had been an arms-for-hostages deal, but denied he knew anything about it.

[From a list of "66 Things to Think about When Flying in to Reagan National Airport" by David Corn in the Nation, 1998]

DAVID CORN, NATION - The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, public housing cutbacks, getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated schools, disinformation campaigns, "homeless by choice," Manuel Noriega, falling wages, "constructive engagement" with apartheid South Africa, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, drug tests, the S&L scandal, silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Ed Meese ("You don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime"), massacres in El Salvador, $640 Pentagon toilet seats, William Casey, Iran/contra, Robert Bork, naps, Teflon.

JUAN COLE - I remember seeing a tape of Reagan speaking in California from that era. He said that he had heard that some asserted there was hunger in America. He said it sarcastically. He said, "Sure there is; they're dieting!" or words to that effect

Then when he was president, at one point Reagan tried to cut federal funding for school lunches for the poor. He tried to have ketchup reclassified as a vegetable to save money. . .

Reagan's mania to abolish social security was of a piece with this kind of sentiment. In the early 20th century, the old were the poorest sector of the American population. The horrors of old age -- increasing sickness, loss of faculties, marginalization and ultimately death -- were in that era accompanied by fear of severe poverty. Social security turned that around. The elderly are no longer generally poverty-stricken. . . Reagan, philosophically speaking, hated the idea of state-directed redistribution of societal wealth. . . So he wanted to abolish social security and throw us all back into poverty in old age.

He was a hired gun for big corporations in the late 1950s, when he went around arguing against unionization. Among his achievements in office was to break the air traffic controllers' union. . . Reagan hated environmentalism. . .

Reagan's later life was debilitated by Alzheimer's. . . Ironically, Alzheimer's could be cured potentially by stem cell research. In the United States, where superstition reigns over reason, the religious right that Reagan cultivated has put severe limits on such research. His best legacy may be Nancy Reagan's argument that those limitations should be removed in his memory. There are 4 million Alzheimers sufferers in the US, and 50% of persons living beyond the age of 85 develop it. There are going to be a lot of such persons among the Baby Boomers. By reversing Reaganism, we may be able to avoid his fate.

GLENN KESSLER WASHINGTON POST - Reagan's spending cuts barely nicked the fastest-growing parts of government, his tax cuts reduced revenue so much that later in his tenure taxes had to be raised repeatedly, his regulatory approach was criticized for leading to the savings and loan crisis and his unbalanced budgets to a near-tripling of the federal debt in eight years. Many economists give most of the credit for whipping inflation to former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker. . .

From 1980 to 1986, spending on annually funded domestic programs (besides defense), as a share of the overall economy, fell 29 percent, but in the same period defense spending rose 27 percent. Tax revenue plunged 17 percent while the interest on the national debt soared 61 percent. The net result: The budget deficit rose to 5 percent of the overall economy, an 86 percent increase.

BILLMON - The legacy of Reagan's policies in the Middle East, meanwhile, are still being paid for - in blood. The cynical promotion of Islamic fundamentalism as a weapon against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the alliance of convenience with Saddam Hussein against Iran, the forging of a new "strategic relationship" with Israel, the corrupt dealings with the House of Saud, and (perhaps most ironic, given Reagan's tough guy image) the weakness and indecision of his disastrous intervention in Beruit - all of these helped set the stage for what the neo-cons now like to call World War IV, and badly weakened the geopolitical ability of the United States to wage that war.

MICHAEL BRONSKI, Z MAGAZINE - When Rock Hudson, a friend and colleague of the Reagan’s, was diagnosed and died in 1985 (one of the 20,740 cases reported that year), Reagan still did not speak out. When family friend William F. Buckley, in a March 18, 1986 New York Times article, called for mandatory testing of HIV and said that HIV+ gay men should have this information forcibly tattooed on their buttocks (and IV drug users on their arms), Reagan said nothing. In 1986 (after five years of complete silence) when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released a report calling for AIDS education in schools, Bennett and Bauer did everything possible to undercut and prevent funding for Koop’s too-little too-late initiative. By the end of 1986, 37,061 AIDS cases had been reported; 16,301 people had died.

The most memorable Reagan AIDS moment was at the 1986 centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty. The Reagan’s were there sitting next to the French Prime Minister and his wife, Francois and Danielle Mitterrand. Bob Hope was on stage entertaining the all-star audience. In the middle of a series of one-liners, Hope quipped, “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS, but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” As the television camera panned the audience, the Mitterrands looked appalled. The Reagans were laughing. By the end of 1989, 115,786 women and men had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States—more then 70,000 of them had died.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, SLATE – Ronald Reagan claimed that the Russian language had no word for "freedom." (The word is "svoboda"; it's quite well attested in Russian literature.) Ronald Reagan said that intercontinental ballistic missiles (not that there are any non-ballistic missiles—a corruption of language that isn't his fault) could be recalled once launched. Ronald Reagan said that he sought a "Star Wars" defense only in order to share the technology with the tyrants of the U.S.S.R. . . Ronald Reagan used to alarm his Soviet counterparts by saying that surely they'd both unite against an invasion from Mars. Ronald Reagan used to alarm other constituencies by speaking freely about the "End Times" foreshadowed in the Bible. In the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, on two separate occasions, that he himself had assisted personally at the liberation of the Nazi death camps. . .

GREG PALAST - In 1987, I found myself stuck in a crappy little town in Nicaragua named Chaguitillo. The people were kind enough, though hungry, except for one surly young man. His wife had just died of tuberculosis. People don't die of TB if they get some antibiotics. But Ronald Reagan, big hearted guy that he was, had put a lock-down embargo on medicine to Nicaragua because he didn't like the government that the people there had elected.

Ronnie grinned and cracked jokes while the young woman's lungs filled up and she stopped breathing. Reagan flashed that B-movie grin while they buried the mother of three. . .

In Chaguitillo, all night long, the farmers stayed awake to guard their kids from attack from Reagan's Contra terrorists. The farmers weren't even Sandinistas, those 'Commies' that our cracked-brained President told us were 'only a 48-hour drive from Texas.' What the hell would they want with Texas, anyway?

Nevertheless, the farmers, and their families, were Ronnie's targets. In the deserted darkness of Chaguitillo, a TV blared. Weirdly, it was that third-rate gangster movie, "Brother Rat." Starring Ronald Reagan. Well, my friends, you can rest easier tonight: the Rat is dead.


the biggest reagan lie is that he won the Cold War by terrifying the Soviets with Star Wars, upping defense expenditures, and generally being such a tough guy. THE MYTH, THOUGH BASICALLY JUST GOP CAMPAIGN SPIN, HAS BEEN WIDELY PROMULGATED IN CURRENT NEWS COVERAGE. THE FACTS OF THE MATTER ARE QUITE DIFFERENT.

FOR EXAMPLE, two years before the breakup, the Progressive Review ran an article by Thomas S. Martin - Devolution, Soviet Style, that reported that “Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, or restructuring, has opened a Pandora’s box of separatist and devolutionary movements in the Soviety Union. The article went through the union, state by state, and spoke of the “the last desperate cry of Soviet statism.” Thanks to the American right’s distortion of the issue, Americans to this day have little idea of what really was happening in the Soviet Union. Besides, it’s part of the delusional American creed that good things in the world only happen because we will them.

BILL BLUM, KILLING HOPE - It has become conventional wisdom that it was the relentlessly tough anti-communist policies of the Reagan Administration, with its heated-up arms race, that led to the collapse and reformation of the Soviet Union and its satellites. American history books may have already begun to chisel this thesis into marble. The Tories in Great Britain say that Margaret Thatcher and her unflinching policies contributed to the miracle as well. The East Germans were believers too. When Ronald Reagan visited East Berlin, the people there cheered him and thanked him "for his role in liberating the East". Even many leftist analysts, particularly those of a conspiracy bent, are believers. But this view is not universally held; nor should it be. Long the leading Soviet expert on the United States, Georgi Arbatov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, wrote his memoirs in 1992. A Los Angeles Times book review by Robert Scheer summed up a portion of it:

“Arbatov understood all too well the failings of Soviet totalitarianism in comparison to the economy and politics of the West. . . Arbatov not only provides considerable evidence for the controversial notion that this change would have come about without foreign pressure, he insists that the U.S. military buildup during the Reagan years actually impeded this development.”

George F. Kennan agrees. The former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, and father of the theory of "containment" of the same country, asserts that "the suggestion that any United States administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish." He contends that the extreme militarization of American policy strengthened hard-liners in the Soviet Union. "Thus the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union."

Though the arms-race spending undoubtedly damaged the fabric of the Soviet civilian economy and society even more than it did in the United States, this had been going on for 40 years by the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power without the slightest hint of impending doom. Gorbachev's close adviser, Aleksandr Yakovlev, when asked whether the Reagan administration's higher military spending, combined with its "Evil Empire" rhetoric, forced the Soviet Union into a more conciliatory position, responded:

“It played no role. None. I can tell you that with the fullest responsibility. Gorbachev and I were ready for changes in our policy regardless of whether the American president was Reagan, or Kennedy, or someone even more liberal. It was clear that our military spending was enormous and we had to reduce it.”. . .


ARCHIE BROWN, BBC, 2001 – The Soviet Union on the eve of Gorbachev's perestroika (reconstruction) had serious political and economic problems. Technologically, it was falling behind not only Western countries but also the newly industrialized countries of Asia. Its foreign policy evinced a declining capacity to win friends and influence people. Yet there was no political instability within the country, no unrest, and no crisis. This was not a case of economic and political crisis producing liberalization and democratization. Rather, it was liberalization and democratization that brought the regime to crisis point. . .

The Soviet economy was in limbo in the last two years of the Soviet Union's existence - no longer a command economy but not yet a market system. Significant reforms, such as permitting individual enterprise (1986), devolving more powers to factories (1987), and legalising co-operatives (1988), which were to become thinly disguised private enterprises, had undermined the old institutional structures and produced unintended consequences, but no viable alternative economic system had been put in their place. . .

Changes in foreign and domestic policy were closely interlinked in the second half of the 1980s. Gorbachev pursued a concessionary foreign policy on the basis of what was called the 'new political thinking'. The ideas were certainly new in the Soviet context and included the belief that the world had become interdependent, that there were universal interests and values that should prevail over class interests and the old East-West divide, and that all countries had the right to decide for themselves the nature of their political and economic systems. . .

When Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and others successfully claimed independent statehood, this had a destabilizing effect within the Soviet Union itself. The expectations of, again most notably, Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians were enormously enhanced by what they saw happening in the 'outer empire' and they began to believe that they could remove themselves from the 'inner empire'. In truth, a democratized Soviet Union was incompatible with denial of the Baltic states' independence for, to the extent that those Soviet republics became democratic, their opposition to remaining in a political entity whose centre was Moscow would become increasingly evident. . .

Neither the system nor the Union had to disappear in this particular way. Before liberalization and democratization from above, only a handful of dissidents dared voice their grievances and demands in public. A different leader from Gorbachev might have resorted to old-style coercion the moment he saw that reform was leading to loss of control. A different leader from Yeltsin might have strived to preserve the boundaries of a 'greater Russia' rather than accept borders that had never, historically, been those of his country and which, moreover, meant that 25 million Russians found themselves all of a sudden living 'abroad'. . .

'Fifteen new states stood where one mighty superpower had recently held sway.' But the sequence was that the Soviet Union was first reformed, then transformed, and then disintegrated all within the space of six-and-a-half years. It had ceased to be a communist system in any meaningful sense from the time of the state-wide contested elections of the spring of 1989. . . Seldom, if ever, has a highly authoritarian political system, deploying military means sufficient to destroy life on earth, been dismantled so peacefully. Never has an empire disintegrated with so little bloodshed.

SOUTH ASIA ANALYST GROUP - The Congressional Quarterly Researcher wrote on December 11,1992: "After the Soviet break-up, economists were amazed at the extent to which the CIA had overestimated the performance of the Soviet economy, leading many to speculate that the numbers were hyped to fuel the arms race." Mr. Allan Goodman, Dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, described the CIA's economic intelligence performance as "between abysmal and mediocre." Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after the Soviet break-up: " For a quarter century, they (the CIA) told the President everything there was to know about the Soviet Union, excepting the fact that it was collapsing (due to a bad economy). They missed that detail."

KEVIN BRENNAN - Sovietology failed because it operated in an environment that encouraged failure. Sovietologists of all political stripes were given strong incentives to ignore certain facts and focus their interest in other areas. I don't mean to suggest that there was a giant conspiracy at work; there wasn't. It was just that there were no careers to be had in questioning the conventional wisdom.

A good example of this was the nationalism that helped to bring about the downfall of the USSR -- something that was overlooked by Westerners. You see, the USSR used to claim that socialist amity had made nationalism irrelevant. Nobody quite bought that, but Sovietologists did think that the Soviets had managed to mostly eliminate nationalism, because after all they never saw any evidence of it. How could they? Anyone who wanted to pursue a career in Soviet Studies had to be able to get into the Soviet Union to do their research, after all. Without doing research, you didn't get tenure, and the Soviets made sure you didn't get to do research on that topic by simply denying you access to the country. Even if you thought it might be a bigger problem then the Soviets let on, you'd never be able to prove it. So you found other things to work on, and eventually you got onto other topics that kept you busy.

There were other kinds of institutional biases as well, such as those that led to the now-infamous "Team B" Report:

“During the early 1970s, hard-line conservatives pilloried the CIA for being soft on the Soviets. As a result, CIA Director George Bush agreed to allow a team of outside experts to look at the intelligence and come to their own conclusions. Team B--which included Paul Wolfowitz--produced a scathing report, claiming that the Soviet threat had been badly underestimated.

“In retrospect, Team B's conclusions were wildly off the mark. Describing the Soviet Union, in 1976, as having “a large and expanding Gross National Product,” it predicted that it would modernize and expand its military at an awesome pace. For example, it predicted that the Backfire bomber "probably will be produced in substantial numbers, with perhaps 500 aircraft off the line by early 1984." In fact, the Soviets had 235 in 1984.

“The reality was that even the CIA’s own estimates--savaged as too low by Team B--were, in retrospect, gross exaggerations. In 1989, the CIA published an internal review of its threat assessments from 1974 to 1986 and came to the conclusion that every year it had "substantially overestimated" the Soviet threat along all dimensions. For example, in 1975 the CIA forecast that within 10 years the Soviet Union would replace 90 percent of its long-range bombers and missiles. In fact, by 1985, the Soviet Union had been able to replace less than 60 percent of them.” - Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek

In short, Team B . . . brought a substantial set of preconceived notions about the nature and functioning of Soviet Russia to the task of evaluating the CIA assessments and any data that contradicted those conceptions was summarily discarded. No doubt it was easy enough to justify--after all, the data was flawed, just not flawed in the way that Team B assumed. So they went looking for things that would let them discount the data, and found them in the rhetoric of their opponents. It's an error in judgment that Wolfowitz seemed destined to repeat.


HOWARD KURTZ, WASHINGTON, DC - Most reporters liked the Gipper personally -- it was hard not to -- but often depicted him as detached, out of touch, a stubborn ideologue. Sam Donaldson, Helen Thomas and company would do battle in those prime-time East Room news conferences that Reagan relished, and he would deflect their toughest questions with an aw-shucks grin and a shake of the head. Major newspapers would run stories on all the facts he had mangled, a practice that faded as it became clear that most Americans weren't terribly concerned.

The media dubbed him the Teflon president, and it was not meant as a compliment.

Reagan was, quite simply, a far more controversial figure in his time than the largely gushing obits on television would suggest.

He took a pounding in the press after his first tax cut when a deep recession pushed unemployment to 10 percent and drowned the budget in red ink.

He was widely portrayed as uninformed and uninterested in details, the man who said trees cause pollution and once failed to recognize his own housing secretary.

He was often described as lazy, "just an actor," a man who'd rather be clearing brush at his California ranch and loved a good midday nap.

His 1983 invasion of Grenada was not universally applauded -- especially after his spokesman told the press the day before that the idea was "preposterous" -- and his withdrawal of the Marines from Lebanon after 241 were killed in a bombing brought blistering editorials. He was often depicted as a rich man's president with little feeling for the poor, as symbolized by the administration's "ketchup is a vegetable" school lunch debacle. Detractors said he was presiding over the "greed decade."

During the 1984 campaign, Reagan stood in front of a senior citizens' project built under a program he tried to kill -- but his aides didn't care, concluding that the pictures were more important than the reporters' contrary words.

Journalists had a field day digging into administration corruption. Senior officials in the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development Department, along with ex-White House aide Michael Deaver and national security adviser Robert McFarlane, were convicted of various offenses. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted but later pardoned by the first President Bush.

Reagan's siding with the Nicaraguan rebels was enormously divisive, and negative coverage of the Iran-contra scandal devoured much of his second term.


MAR 1, 2004

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