Ronald Reagan has finally died at age 93. Predictably, politicians from both major parties have issued gushing tributes to this venal and vicious man, who was happy to slash workers’ wages, see families thrown onto the street, support sadistic death squads and bomb other countries, if this was in the interests of the American ruling class.
Meanwhile, if recent history is any guide, the mainstream media will steer well clear of providing an accurate portrayal of Reagan, the man and the president. Last year, in a stunning act of cowardice, CBS canceled its much-publicized “docudrama” about Ron and Nancy, The Reagans, caving in to a campaign by the Republican National Committee, right-wing radio hosts, Fox News and conservative Internet sites. The movie was instead shown later to a much smaller audience on the Showtime cable network.
Conservatives attacked the film for portraying Reagan as homophobic, and Nancy as a domineering wife and mother who pulled the strings behind the scenes while abusing her children. They were apparently even more incensed that James Brolin, husband of liberal icon Barbra Streisand, played the part of Reagan.
While The Reagans was undoubtedly a monumental example of third-rate TV schlock, examples cited by conservatives of substantial inaccuracies didn’t hold up. One complaint was that the movie showed Reagan ignoring the AIDS crisis because of its association with gay sex, and telling his wife, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.”
But in real life, Reagan refused to mention AIDS publicly for six years, under-funded federal programs dealing with the disease and, according to his authorized biography, said, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague,” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”
C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, later revealed, “because transmission of AIDS was understood primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the president took the stand, they are only getting what they justly deserve.”
In the movie, Nancy slaps her 5-year-old daughter, Patti. In real life, Patti wrote, “I first remember my mother hitting me when I was eight. It escalated as I got older and became a weekly, sometimes daily, event.”
In the movie, Nancy insists, “Ketchup is a vegetable! It is not a meat, right? So it is a vegetable.” In real life, Reagan directed the Department of Agriculture to classify ketchup as a vegetable in September 1981 in an attempt to slash $1.5 billion from the federal school lunch program.
Conservatives also criticized the movie for what it did not include. “Does it show he had the longest and strongest recovery in postwar history?” asked Reagan’s White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
But Reagan’s economic policies were a disaster for working-class Americans. Reagan presided over the worst recession since the 1930s, and economic growth in the 1980s was lower than in the 1970s, despite the stimulus of military Keynesian policies, which created massive federal budget deficits and tripled the federal debt. By the end of the decade, real wages were down and the poverty rate had increased by 20 percent.
The real problem with The Reagans was not that it was too critical of the Reagan presidency, but that it was largely uncritical. According to The New York Times, the movie “paints [Reagan] as an exceptionally gifted politician and a moral man who stuck to his beliefs, often against his advisers’ urgings.”
Reagan was many things, but “gifted” was not one of them. “Poor dear,” remarked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, his closest international ally, “there’s nothing between his ears.” As for a “moral man,” Reagan’s morality included union busting–beginning with his dismissal of striking air traffic controllers in 1981–an unprecedented war on the poor, opposition to civil rights and support for apartheid South Africa. The “moral” Reagan trained and supported terrorists, including the Nicaraguan contras (“the moral equal of our Founding Fathers”) who killed over 30,000 people, and Islamic radicals in Afghanistan who later formed the al-Qaeda network.
Reagan was also a liar. In November 1986, he publicly denied that his administration had been illegally selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the contras. One week later he was forced to retract this statement, but denied that the sale was part of a deal to free U.S. hostages. The following year, Reagan admitted that there had been an arms-for-hostages deal, but denied he knew anything about it.
In 1992, that too proved to be a lie when former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was compelled to release notes from a January 1986 meeting revealing, “President decided to go with Israeli-Iranian offer to release our 5 hostages in return for sale of 4,000 TOWs [U.S. missiles] to Iran by Israel.”
The man whose administration spearheaded class warfare on behalf of the rich, dragged American politics to the right, and rebuilt US imperialism after the Vietnam debacle, is dead. Good riddance.
PHIL GASPER is professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. He is a member of the National Writers Union and a frequent contributor to Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review . He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org