The Common Good
September-October 2001

The United States of Ronald Reagan

by Ed Spivey Jr. | September-October 2001

Don't know much about history. Obviously.

Other than the fact that he was one of the worst presidents of the 20th century, I really have nothing bad to say about Ronald Reagan. He was pleasant enough, had a nice smile, and always looked sharp in a suit. It's the other stuff that bothers me, such as his insensitivity to the poor, women, people of color, the working class, and the unemployed, not to mention the damage he did to the environment, collective bargaining, and the nation's fiscal health. Am I leaving anything out? Probably, but there's enough here to question the obsession of a few members of Congress and conservative activists who are determined to place the former president's name on anything that slows down long enough to hang a plaque on.

Bad enough that Rep. Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, is pushing a law that would require the Washington, D.C. subway system to tear down all the signs for National Airport and replace them with ones that say Ronald Reagan National Airport (expensive, at a cost of half a million dollars which the local governments have to pay, and ironic, considering that Reagan's first major action was to bust the air traffic controllers union).

Reagan fans are not satisfied with a new aircraft carrier and the second largest building in D.C. that already bear his name. Now Grover Norquist and his Ronald Reagan Legacy Project want every U.S. county to pay tribute to the original napster. (Secret Service agent: "It's almost lunch time, should we wake the president?")

These obsessed Reagan supporters, in a classic case of historical revisionism, see the Gipper's two terms as Camelot in America. While missing the good old days of Reaganism, they refuse to acknowledge the dark side of his legacy. They adore him for his enormous military build-up and give him full credit for the fall of communism (some say that Mikhail Gorbachev might have had something to do with it...but never mind). Reagan's military spending and income tax cuts for the rich increased the deficit by $2 trillion, and the subsequent increase in Social Security tax had a ruinous effect on the nation's poor and working class. His dirty little wars in Central America devastated the lives of millions. And in this country, real income actually went down for the middle class for the first time since World War II.

As for the environment, his own words should suffice: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." (In case that's not enough, I offer two more words: James Watt.)

In his defense, Ronald Reagan did make us feel good about ourselves and our nation. That's because Americans have always wanted to be in a movie with a happy ending. Reagan's daily fictionalized account of reality kept us in a state of euphoria we had needed ever since Vietnam took away our innocence and self respect (and Jimmy Carter made us feel guilty about our thermostat settings).

AND NOW THE REAGAN name is going to be in every county (if Norquist and Co. have their way)- on libraries, road signs, subway stops, and probably a lake or two. If only these tributes acknowledged the realities and not the myths of his legacy then, for example, a Florida county could have the Reagan Museum of Contra Training. New Jersey could have several Ronald Reagan Toxic Waste Dumps. Texas could have the Reagan Center for Make Believe, where components of the missile defense system he conceived would be on display. (Slogan: "More than $39 billion spent and it STILL doesn't work!") And Illinois could have the Reagan Institute Against Legal Representation for the Poor (I know it's a little wordy, but we don't want to leave out any of his brilliant ideas). The list could go on. And on and on, if the Reaganistas have their way.

Once again a person of dubious distinction is being sanitized and memorialized while others of substantial merit are ignored. Maybe it's too much to expect our streets and municipal buildings to pay tribute to truly honorable and moral folk (after all, the FBI building in D.C. still wears the name of the despicably corrupt J. Edgar Hoover). But unless reasonable questions are asked of this latest movement of revisionism, the harsher truths of Ronald Reagan will be further submerged and forgotten. And those lessons will just have to be learned again.

Take missile defense, for example. Please.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of

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