By Manifesto Joe
"A White House official who has had to bring large doses of bad news to the president about coming budget deficits recently observed: 'Reagan doesn't understand numbers. Every time the figures point to trouble, Reagan rebuts them with a personal anecdote'" -- Joseph Kraft, The Washington Post, Dec. 29, 1983
This month marked the fourth anniversary of The Great Prevaricator's death -- this morning in right-wing America, this is early in The Year 5 A.R. (After Reagan). In a presidential election year, his memory still surfaces now and then as some kind of standard by which all presidential aspirants are measured.
In a comments thread on a different blog, one commentator referred to Ronald Reagan as, though far from perfect, the last "presentable" president the U.S. has had. I agree to the extent that he was presentable as a sort of mannequin, which is common among Republican politicians. Reagan was the prototype GOP politician, America's First Mannequin. And he governed that way most of the time.
Assessing Reagan as a president, I would give him credit on a few points. Reagan was a turkey-necked chairman of the board who often slept through parts of Cabinet meetings, so he could never be as destructively proactive as George W. Bush. The latter governs like a reverse King Midas (everything he touches turns to feces) who is firmly convinced he can do no wrong. Reagan was afflicted with that same delusional self-assurance, but fortunately, he was so doddering and detached that he didn't do as much damage.
Reagan governed just a shade more from the "center" than Bush, and he didn't get us directly mixed up in foreign adventures for very long. There were Nicaraguas, Grenadas and Lebanons, but thankfully no Iraqs or Vietnams.
And -- he was actually willing to talk with our enemies, eventually to good effect. His friendly relations with Mikhail Gorbachev made his second term, arguably a disaster at home, look much better than it really was. People seemed to forget all about Iran-Contra, the S&L debacle, exploding deficits, burgeoning homelessness and the like.
But, enough of giving Reagan his due. Let's travel back in time, to that ugly era of mullets and old-time collars on hipster men, those "serious hair" sheepdog permanents and floppy ties on yuppie women, and remember Ronnie Reagan as he was: a meaner-spirited version of Elwood P. Dowd.
This man lived in a world of celluloid fantasies -- where facts didn't matter, and where a dude who took the "gut course" in economics at a fourth-rate Illinois college conjured up economic policy that is still ruinously with us now.
Distortions of Jimmy Carter's Record
This material is from Reagan's Reign of Error, by Mark Green and Gail MacColl (1983, rev. 1987), p.43:
"We then went back into negotiations on their [the Soviets'] terms, because Mr. Carter had cancelled the B-1 bomber, delayed the MX, delayed the Trident submarine, delayed the Cruise missile, shut down the ... Minute Man missile production line ..." (Presidential debate, 10/28/80)
The B-1 bomber had been delayed. As for the rest: the Cruise missile and MX were under full-scale development; the Minute Man missile's production line had been shut down because the production schedule had been met; and the first Trident submarine, the USS Ohio, had been launched on April 7, 1979.
(What was that quotation about how a lie can travel so much faster than the truth?)
Green and MacColl, p.65:
"Mr. Carter is acting as if he hasn't been in charge for the past three and a half years; as if someone else was responsible for the largest deficit in American history" (Nationally televised campaign speech, 10/24/80)
Federal deficits totaled $195 billion under Mr. Carter. The latest budget projections [this was 1987] suggest that during Mr. Reagan's six years the deficit will total nearly $1 trillion.
(After the fact, we now know that Reaganomics roughly tripled the total national debt, from about $1 trillion to around $3 trillion.)
Reagan on Nuclear War
Green and MacColl, p.46:
"Those [nuclear weapons] that are carried in ships of one kind or another, or submersibles, you are dealing there with a conventional type of weapon or instrument, and those instruments can be intercepted. They can be recalled." (5/13/82)
Submarine-launched missiles cannot be recalled. If the president thinks differently he may be surprised in a nuclear exchange.
Reagan Quotes Churchill
Green and MacColl, p.60:
"I would like to quote a few words by a very famous and celebrated orator, journalist, soldier, historian, and statesman. People have said he might have made a great actor if he tried that. Winston Churchill. He said, 'The idea that a nation can tax itself into prosperity is one of the crudest delusions which has ever befuddled the human mind.' Now I don't know how that quote happened to catch my eye." (3/9/82)
Neither does anyone else. Reagan's speechwriters "don't know where he got that one from." Nor does the British historian at the Library of Congress; there was no such passage in the Library's extensive collection of Churchill quotations. Ten other books of quotations also failed to provide a clue.
Reagan on Poverty
Green and MacColl, pp.88-89:
"In 20 years, the federal budget increased five-fold and the cost of welfare grew ten-fold. But that didn't help many local governments which lost effective control of their communities. It didn't help small businesses hit by the highest interest rates in a hundred years. It didn't help the working poor and pensioners flattened by double-digit inflation and taxation." (1/14/82)
It probably did. The standard of living has doubled since 1960. Accounting for inflation, per capita disposable income, the average income after taxes, rose, in 1972 dollars, from $2,709 in 1960 to $4,472 in 1980. In 1959, 22.4% of Americans lived below the poverty line. By 1981, that figure had been cut nearly in half.
Green and MacColl, p.92
"The decrease in poverty I referred to earlier started in the 1950s. By the time the full weight of the Great Society programs was felt, economic progress for America's poor had come to a tragic halt."
In 1967, the Field Foundation testified before Congress on hunger in America: "Wherever we went and wherever we looked, we saw children in significant numbers who were hungry and sick." A decade later, the Field team retraced its 1967 steps and found "far fewer grossly malnourished people in this country. ..." They concluded that food stamps and other federal nutrition programs, implemented or inspired by Great Society legislation, had made the difference.
That's all we have time for today. My gratitude to Green and MacColl -- I highly recommend "The Instant Nostalgia Edition" of that book, if it's available. See you next time for more summer Reagan-bashing.
Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.