The Real Reagan Legacy
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
I know it’s bad form to say anything negative about the dead, but I’m going to forget that while I draw a line from Ronald Reagan to today’s Republican party. Follow me and you’ll see how Reagan’s legacy is the permission assumed by present-era Republican officials and would-be officials to mangle the truth, distort the meanings of words, take credit they don’t deserve, and dodge blame for things they should be ashamed of having done. Reagan, I submit, is the godfather of much of the meanness that characterizes so much of the GOP’s daily discourse.
Unwilling to rain on the parade of civility that may stretch to the night of the State of the Union address, but surely won’t make it out of the post-address spin room, I won’t name names or point to statements that can be traced to specific living individuals here. I trust you to connect the dots, to see how Reagan’s values – if you can call them that – poison today’s politics.
Most of the candidates vying to take over as head of the Republican National Committee early this month named Reagan as their primary hero. The movie star who played the role of President of the United States between 1981 and 1989 spit in the well of good will and intellectual integrity in a way that will take generations to get over. Think of this post as my attempt to speed up the process.
Reagan’s Core Beliefs
When the conversation ranged beyond the handful of Animal Farm-type certainties that made up what [Reagan biographer Lou] Cannon calls Reagan’s “core beliefs” (taxes bad, defense good; government bad, markets good) Reagan was lost.
This explains Republican legislation supporting an across-the-board cut of spending for programs that help people, but not for programs that enable us to wage wars and kill people. Along with bribes disguised as campaign contributions, it explains support for deregulation, opposition to consumer protection, and the silence of so-called fiscal conservatives during the eight years in which the Republican party incurred so much debt as to put us in danger of insolvency. Before Reagan, this “starve the beast” spending craze would have been attacked as anarchism.
His Compassion for the Disadvantaged
During his stump speeches while dutifully promising to roll back welfare, Reagan often told the story of a so-called “welfare queen” in Chicago who drove a Cadillac and had ripped off $150,000 from the government using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Journalists searched for this “welfare cheat” in the hopes of interviewing her and discovered that she didn’t exist.
The imagery of “welfare cheats” that persists to this day helped lay the groundwork for the 1996 welfare reform law, pushed by Republicans and signed by President Clinton.
Another of Reagan’s enduring legacies is the steep increase in the number of homeless people, which by the late 1980s had swollen to 600,000 on any given night – and 1.2 million over the course of a year. Many were Vietnam veterans, children and laid-off workers.
In early 1984 on Good Morning America, Reagan defended himself against charges of callousness toward the poor in a classic blaming-the-victim statement saying that “people who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”
“We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry every night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet.”
–Ronald Reagan, TV speech, October 27, 1964
Reagan’s attitude toward the disadvantaged permits Republican legislators to try to scuttle measures such as increasing the minimum wage, ans extending unemployment compensation payments. The idea is that the poor deserve their situation — or that they’re not really poor at all.
“He has the ability to make statements that are so far outside the parameters of logic that they leave you speechless”
Patti Davis (formerly Patricia Ann Reagan) talking about her father, The Way I See It
“This loathing for government, this eagerness to prove that any program to aid the disadvantaged is nothing but a boondoggle and a money gobbler, leads him to contrive statistics and stories with unmatched vigor.”
Mark Green, Reagan’s Reign of Error
“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.”
Ronald Reagan (Republican candidate for president), quoted in the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, February 15, 1980
Today, as just one example, Reagan’s spiritual descendants are claiming that Obama’s health care reform will do away with hundreds of thousands of jobs. This is a lie, pure and simple. An Associated Press analysis explains how House Republicans manipulated a Congressional Budget Office report to come up with that fiction. The news is full of obscene lies, including the one that Social Security is running out of money and needs to be cut — or privatized. If you have a 401(k) — the first step toward privatizing retirement savings — you know how well that’s worked. (Fact is, the previous administration raided the trust fund for the money to destroy Iraq and Republicans now refuse to consider paying it back. This chart shows how much the fund would hold if we hadn’t been robbed.)
Taking Credit Where None is Due
“I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform four years myself.”
–President Reagan, in an interview with foreign journalists, April 19, 1985.
“In costume” is more like it. Reagan spent World War II making Army training films at Hal Roach Studios in Hollywood. When you hear Republicans taking credit for the economy’s improvement, remember this one.
[Quotes are from Reagan's Reign of Error by Mark Green & Gail MacColl, and The Clothes Have No Emperor by Paul Slansky]