The Common Good

Reagan's Legacy

This Sunday would be Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, and the predictable tributes have come from across the political spectrum. President Barack Obama, for instance, wrote in USA Today, "No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan, and I certainly had my share, there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America." Mitt Romney called Reagan "a transformative president."

Most commentators praise Reagan for his "optimism" and personal affability. But, as we wrote after his passing in 2004:

[P]residents -- as all leaders -- must be judged by history not on the basis of their personal likeability, but by the real-world effects of their policies. And Reagan's policies were disastrous and destructive. While poverty worsened at home and abroad, he spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the largest peacetime military buildup in history, including $80 billion (and counting) for the fantasy of Star Wars and tens of billions for first-strike-capable nuclear weapons. Conventional wisdom, of course, holds that Reagan's militarism "brought down the wall" of communism. Historians might well debate the opposite view: That his militaristic approach helped bolster the hardliners in the Soviet Union and forestalled rather than caused the inevitable downfall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.

The Reagan administration ignored the burgeoning AIDS epidemic while tens of thousands died. Reagan's crew sold arms to Iran -- illegally -- to support the U.S.-initiated contra war in Central America, where tens of thousands of other people died. The U.S. wars in Central America -- mostly fought through death squads, paramilitaries, and U.S.-backed local armies -- resulted in the death of untold thousands throughout the region, bookended by the 1980 murders of four U.S. churchwomen and the 1989 assassination of six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador.

Closer to home, Reagan's policies were equally devastating. He opposed virtually every civil and human rights initiative, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act through and including efforts to dismantle South Africa's apartheid regime. On virtually every social issue - from race, welfare, and tax policy to school lunch programs and the environment - Reagan's policies worked against the interests of the poor and marginalized and further enriched the wealthy and powerful.

Reagan's most destructive legacy could very well be the mania for "deregulation" that he unleashed, starting with his declaration in his first Inaugural address that "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." Reagan's intensive assault on checks and balances and the removal of reasonable constraints started a wave that washed up decades later as the tsunami that swamped Wall Street.

So go ahead, praise Reagan as a likeable man. Hold him up as a model of civility in contrast to the flame-throwing rhetoric his successors wield today. Even give him credit for recognizing the horror of nuclear weapons and seeking their abolition. But don't let the revisionists whitewash one of the most damaging presidencies of the 20th century and the dangerous legacy it left us.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.

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