Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?

There's been talk that George W. Bush was so inept that he should
trademark the phrase "Worst President Ever," though some historians
would bestow that title on pre-Civil War President James Buchanan.
Still, a case could be made for putting Ronald Reagan in the

Granted, the very idea of rating Reagan as one of the worst presidents
ever will infuriate his many right-wing acolytes and offend Washington
insiders who have made a cottage industry out of buying some protection
from Republicans by lauding the 40th President.

But there's a growing realization that the starting point for many of
the catastrophes confronting the United States today can be traced to
Reagan's presidency. There's also a grudging reassessment that the
"failed" presidents of the 1970s - Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy
Carter - may deserve more credit for trying to grapple with the
problems that now beset the country.

Nixon, Ford and Carter won scant praise for addressing the systemic
challenges of America's oil dependence, environmental degradation, the
arms race, and nuclear proliferation - all issues that Reagan
essentially ignored and that now threaten America's future.

Nixon helped create the Environmental Protection Agency; he imposed
energy-conservation measures; he opened the diplomatic door to
communist China. Nixon's administration also detected the growing
weakness in the Soviet Union and advocated a policy of detente (a plan
for bringing the Cold War to an end or at least curbing its most
dangerous excesses).

Nixon's resignation in the Watergate scandal, Ford continued many of
Nixon's policies, particularly trying to wind down the Cold War with
Moscow. However, confronting a rebellion from Reagan's Republican Right
in 1976, Ford abandoned "detente."

Ford also let hard-line Cold Warriors (and a first wave of young
intellectuals who became known as neoconservatives) pressure the CIA's
analytical division, and he brought in a new generation of hard-liners,
including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

After defeating Ford in 1976, Carter injected more respect for human
rights into U.S. foreign policy, a move some scholars believe put an
important nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union, leaving it
hard-pressed to justify the repressive internal practices of the East
Bloc. Carter also emphasized the need to contain the spread of nuclear
weapons, especially in unstable countries like Pakistan.

Domestically, Carter pushed a comprehensive energy policy and warned
Americans that their growing dependence on foreign oil represented a
national security threat, what he famously called "the moral equivalent
of war."

However, powerful vested interests -
both domestic and foreign - managed to exploit the shortcomings of
these three presidents to sabotage any sustained progress. By 1980,
Reagan had become a pied piper luring the American people away from the
tough choices that Nixon, Ford and Carter had defined.

Cruelty with a Smile

With his superficially sunny disposition - and a ruthless political
strategy of exploiting white-male resentments - Reagan convinced
millions of Americans that the threats they faced were:
African-American welfare queens, Central American leftists, a rapidly
expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal

In his First
Inaugural Address in 1981, Reagan declared that "government is not the
solution to our problem; government is the problem."

When it came to cutting back on America's energy use, Reagan's message
could be boiled down to the old reggae lyric, "Don't worry, be happy."
Rather than pressing Detroit to build smaller, fuel-efficient cars,
Reagan made clear that the auto industry could manufacture gas-guzzlers
without much nagging from Washington.

The same with the environment. Reagan intentionally staffed the
Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department with
officials who were hostile toward regulation aimed at protecting the
environment. George W. Bush didn't invent Republican hostility toward
scientific warnings of environmental calamities; he was just picking up
where Reagan left off.

pushed for deregulation of industries, including banking; he slashed
income taxes for the wealthiest Americans in an experiment known as
"supply side" economics, which held falsely that cutting rates for the
rich would increase revenues and eliminate the federal deficit.

Over the years, "supply side" would evolve into a secular religion for
many on the Right, but Reagan's budget director David Stockman once
blurted out the truth, that it would lead to red ink "as far as the eye
could see."

While conceding
that some of Reagan's economic plans did not work out as intended, his
defenders - including many mainstream journalists - still argue that
Reagan should be hailed as a great President because he "won the Cold
War," a short-hand phrase that they like to attach to his historical

However, a strong
case can be made that the Cold War was won well before Reagan arrived
in the White House. Indeed, in the 1970s, it was a common perception in
the U.S. intelligence community that the Cold War between the United
States and the Soviet Union was winding down, in large part because the
Soviet economic model had failed in the technological race with the

That was the view of
many Kremlinologists in the CIA's analytical division. Also, I was told
by a senior CIA's operations official that some of the CIA's best spies
inside the Soviet hierarchy supported the view that the Soviet Union
was headed toward collapse, not surging toward world supremacy, as
Reagan and his foreign policy team insisted in the early 1980s.

The CIA analysis was the basis for the detente that was launched by
Nixon and Ford, essentially seeking a negotiated solution to the most
dangerous remaining aspects of the Cold War.

The Afghan Debacle

In that view, Soviet military operations, including sending troops into
Afghanistan in 1979, were mostly defensive in nature. In Afghanistan,
the Soviets hoped to prop up a pro-communist government that was
seeking to modernize the country but was beset by opposition from
Islamic fundamentalists who were getting covert support from the U.S.

Though the Afghan
covert operation originated with Cold Warriors in the Carter
administration, especially national security adviser Zbigniew
Brzezinski, the war was dramatically ramped up under Reagan, who traded
U.S. acquiescence toward Pakistan's nuclear bomb for its help in
shipping sophisticated weapons to the Afghan jihadists (including a
young Saudi named Osama bin Laden).

While Reagan's acolytes cite the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan as
decisive in "winning the Cold War," the counter-argument is that Moscow
was already in disarray - and while failure in Afghanistan may have
sped the Soviet Union's final collapse - it also created twin dangers
for the future of the world: the rise of al-Qaeda terrorism and the
nuclear bomb in the hands of Pakistan's unstable Islamic Republic.

Trade-offs elsewhere in the world also damaged long-term U.S.
interests. In Latin America, for instance, Reagan's brutal strategy of
arming right-wing militaries to crush peasant, student and labor
uprisings left the region with a legacy of anti-Americanism that is now
resurfacing in the emergence of populist leftist governments.

In Nicaragua, for instance, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (whom
Reagan once denounced as a "dictator in designer glasses") is now back
in power. In El Salvador, the leftist FMLN won the latest elections.
Indeed, across the region, hostility to Washington is now the rule,
creating openings for China, Iran, Cuba and other American rivals.

In the early 1980s, Reagan also credentialed a young generation of
neocon intellectuals, who pioneered a concept called "perception
management," the shaping of how Americans saw, understood and were
frightened by threats from abroad.

Many honest reporters saw their careers damaged when they resisted the
lies and distortions of the Reagan administration. Likewise, U.S.
intelligence analysts were purged when they refused to bend to the
propaganda demands from above.

To marginalize dissent, Reagan and his subordinates stoked anger toward
anyone who challenged the era's feel-good optimism. Skeptics were not
just honorable critics, they were un-American defeatists or - in Jeane
Kirkpatrick's memorable attack line - they would "blame America first."

Under Reagan, a right-wing infrastructure also took shape, linking
media outlets (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.) with well-financed
think tanks that churned out endless op-eds and research papers. Plus,
there were attack groups that went after mainstream journalists who
dared disclose information that poked holes in Reagan's propaganda

In effect, Reagan's
team created a faux reality for the American public. Civil wars in
Central America between impoverished peasants and wealthy oligarchs
became East-West showdowns. U.S.-backed insurgents in Nicaragua, Angola
and Afghanistan were transformed from corrupt, brutal (often
drug-tainted) thugs into noble "freedom-fighters."

With the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan also revived Richard Nixon's
theory of an imperial presidency that could ignore the nation's laws
and evade accountability through criminal cover-ups. That behavior also
would rear its head again in the war crimes of George W. Bush. [For
details on Reagan's abuses, see Robert Parry's Lost Historyand Secrecy & Privilege.]

Wall Street Greed

The American Dream also dimmed during Reagan's tenure.

While he played the role of the nation's kindly grandfather, his
operatives divided the American people, using "wedge issues" to deepen
grievances especially of white men who were encouraged to see
themselves as victims of "reverse discrimination" and "political

Yet even as
working-class white men were rallying to the Republican banner (as
so-called "Reagan Democrats"), their economic interests were being
savaged. Unions were broken and marginalized; "free trade" policies
shipped manufacturing jobs abroad; old neighborhoods were decaying;
drug use among the young was soaring.

Meanwhile, unprecedented greed was unleashed on Wall Street, fraying
old-fashioned bonds between company owners and employees.

Before Reagan, corporate CEOs earned less than 50 times the salary of
an average worker. By the end of the Reagan-Bush-I administrations in
1993, the average CEO salary was more than 100 times that of a typical
worker. (At the end of the Bush-II administration, that CEO-salary
figure was more than 250 times that of an average worker.)

Many other trends set during the Reagan era continued to corrode the
U.S. political process in the years after Reagan left office. After
9/11, for instance, the neocons reemerged as a dominant force,
reprising their "perception management" tactics, depicting the "war on
terror" - like the last days of the Cold War - as a terrifying conflict
between good and evil.

hyping of the Islamic threat mirrored the neocons' exaggerated
depiction of the Soviet menace in the 1980s - and again the propaganda
strategy worked. Many Americans let their emotions run wild, from the
hunger for revenge after 9/11 to the war fever over invading Iraq.

Arguably, the descent into this dark fantasyland - that Ronald Reagan
began in the early 1980s - reached its nadir in the flag-waving early
days of the Iraq War. Only gradually did reality begin to reassert
itself as the death toll mounted in Iraq and the Katrina disaster
reminded Americans why they needed an effective government.

Still, the disasters - set in motion by Ronald Reagan - continued to
roll in. Bush's Reagan-esque tax cuts for the rich blew another huge
hole in the federal budget and the Reagan-esque anti-regulatory fervor
led to a massive financial meltdown that threw the nation into economic

Love Reagan; Hate Bush

Ironically, George W. Bush has come in for savage criticism, but the
Republican leader who inspired Bush's presidency - Ronald Reagan -
remained an honored figure, his name attached to scores of national
landmarks including Washington's National Airport.

Even leading Democrats genuflect to Reagan. Early in Campaign 2008,
when Barack Obama was positioning himself as a bipartisan political
figure who could appeal to Republicans, he bowed to the Reagan
mystique, hailing the GOP icon as a leader who "changed the trajectory
of America."

Though Obama's
chief point was that Reagan in 1980 "put us on a fundamentally
different path" - a point which may be historically undeniable - Obama
went further, justifying Reagan's course correction because of "all the
excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and government had grown and grown,
but there wasn't much sense of accountability."

While Obama later clarified his point to say he didn't mean to endorse
Reagan's conservative policies, Obama seemed to suggest that Reagan's
1980 election administered a needed dose of accountability to the
United States when Reagan actually did the opposite. Reagan's
presidency represented a dangerous escape from accountability - and

Still, Obama and
congressional Democrats continue to pander to the Reagan myth. On
Tuesday, as the nation approached the fifth anniversary of Reagan's
death, Obama welcomed Nancy Reagan to the White House and signed a law
creating a panel to plan and carry out events to honor Reagan's 100th
birthday in 2011.

hailed the right-wing icon. "President Reagan helped as much as any
President to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that
transcended politics - that transcended even the most heated arguments
of the day," Obama said. [For more on Obama's earlier pandering about
Reagan, see's "Obama's Dubious Praise for Reagan."]

It's a sure thing that the Reagan Centennial Committee won't do much
more than add to the hagiography surrounding the 40th President.

Despite the grievous harm that Reagan's presidency inflicted on the
American Republic and the American people, it may take many more years
before a historian has the guts to put this deformed era into a
truthful perspective and rate Reagan where he belongs -- near the
bottom of the presidential list.

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