Are you ready for Reaganpalooza? February 6 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, and the coming week will be loaded with events, op-eds, and television packages commemorating the day and celebrating the 40th president.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the University of Southern California are holding an academic-star-studded conference on the Reagan legacy. Sarah Palin will deliver the keynote address at a gala being mounted at Reagan's former ranch in Santa Barbara, California.
Preparing for the Reagan centennial, the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which seeks to name schools, roads and courthouses across the country after the Gipper, launched a new website
. Past and present Reaganites will be out in force -- on cable television, on editorial pages, on blogs -- to hail Reagan as the greatest president of the past century, or the nation's entire history.
The Reagan acolytes will contend that he brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union with his hawkish stance and tough talk ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
") and revived the U.S. economy with tax cuts and spending cuts. That he single-handedly restored American greatness after the gloomy 1970s. All this is debatable.
In his second term, Reagan took steps to improve relations with the Soviet Union, a nation that was crumbling internally, and this detente made it easier
for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to continue with his perestroika
reforms that would mark the end of the USSR. And though inflation and unemployment fell during the Reagan years, Reagan, who raised taxes after he cut them, saddled the nation with large deficits, and did little as a massive wave of de-industrialization hit working class Americans (ask a 1980s steelworker). During the Reagan years, wages for middle- and low-income families dropped.
The big Reagan picture will be a topic of contention for historians for years to come. In the meantime, it should not be forgotten that there was a dark side to the Reagan presidency. And that deserves as much attention as Reagan's famous sunny disposition.
An entire book could be written chronicling the dreadful deeds of the Reagan crowd. But, in an act of pre-emptive counter-programming, here's a partial list.
-- The Reagan administration routinely made common cause with tyrants. It got cozy with the fascist, anti-Semitic, and torture-fancying generals of the Argentine junta and backed human-rights abusing governments throughout Latin America. The administration tried to cover up a massive massacre of civilians in El Salvador, because it was backing the rightwing military there. It resisted efforts to oppose and isolate the racist leaders of apartheid South Africa, instead opting for "constructive engagement" with the white minority government of Pretoria. It enthusiastically endorsed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, with Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1981 toasting Marcos
, "we love your adherence to democratic principles and the democratic process." (Five years later, when a popular uprising threatened Marcos, the Reagan administration did cut him loose.) Much of this despot-coddling was done in the name of anti-communism, revealing that Reagan and his crew had a rather narrow and situational approach to championing freedom and democracy.
-- Its crusade against communism led the Reagan administration to support a not-too-secret secret war in Central America, aiding the Nicaraguan contras fighting against the socialist government of Nicaragua. Reagan referred to the contras as "freedom fighters," but his fondness for them led the U.S. government down the road to hypocrisy -- and worse. The CIA produced an "assassination manual" for the contras. And as a CIA inspector general report later acknowledged, the agency, in supporting the contras, worked with individuals it suspected of being involved in drug-dealing. Ponder this contradiction: As Nancy Reagan was preaching, "Just Say No," the CIA, implementing administration policy, was knowingly using suspected drug-runners in this secret war. Of course, the administration's involvement in this covert war partly led to the Iran-contra scandal
, during which the administration secretly sold weapons to Iran to gain the release of hostages held by terrorist groups -- even while the administration was strenuously pressuring NATO allies not to sell such weapons to Iran, and while proclaiming an official position of never negotiating with terrorists. Working out of the White House, Reagan aides funneled the money raised in these Iranian arms deals to furnish munitions to the contras, all as a way of circumventing a congressional ban on such support.
-- Scandals galore marked the Reagan years. The 1980s savings and loan scandal -- partly caused by the administration's aversion to even minimal regulation -- resulted in a bailout that transferred hundreds of billions of dollars from taxpayers to S&L scammers. Top Reagan aide Michael Deaver was convicted of perjury related to influence-peddling. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Republican-wired consultants pocketed millions for rigging contracts.
The Reagan years were a time of fierce and divisive controversies, over policy and politics. Ronald Reagan's administration more than once resorted to skulduggery to get its way. Overseas, it sided with brutes. At home, it gave tax credits to private schools that segregated. The depiction of Reagan as one of the nation's most glorious leaders is but a conservative cartoon. His legacy is far more complicated -- and blemished. Next week will be an appropriate time to remember that. But I'll bet Sarah Palin doesn't get around to mentioning any of this.
Full Reagan Centennial Coverage
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.