The passing of Ronald Reagan in June brought an outpouring of lavish praise for our 40th president. Much of it, however, wasn't motivated by Christian charity or a polite refusal to speak ill of the recently departed. The right-wing forces that launched Reagan's conservative revolution have engaged in an all-out media blitz to whitewash one of the worst presidencies in U.S. history.
In speaking honestly about the Reagan presidency, there's no need to offer personal criticisms about Ronald Reagan, the man. By all accounts he was every bit as affable as his carefully crafted image.
But presidents - 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.
In all these areas, Reagan laid the foundation for the even-more-extreme policies of the last four years. And it was all done with a quip and smile - it was, after all, "morning in America," according to the Gipper; none of that dour "malaise" of the Jimmy Carter years. The Bush team, as it slings the "pessimist" label in John Kerry's direction whenever the Democratic candidate points out the effects of Bush policies, is very much following in Ronald Reagan's footsteps. And that's something that many people of faith and good will have come to mourn.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.