On Native Ground
RONALD REAGAN WITHOUT TEARS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The treacle being spewed out by the press about the death of former President Ronald Reagan has been hard to take.
I lived through the decade that Barbara Ehrenreich called "The Worst Years of Our Lives." I watched the debasement of everything I believed in. I watched the destruction of the New Deal and the Great Society and the rise of a culture of greed and mendacity. I watched artifice replace governing. I watched bedrock economic principals get tossed aside. I watched lie upon lie stacking up while seeing the so-called liberal media give "The Great Communicator" a free ride.
In short, the genesis of the state this nation is in today began with the election of Ronald Reagan as President.
Would President George W. Bush have been possible without President Ronald Reagan?
Would the lies that pushed this nation into an unneeded invasion of Iraq have been as effective without the Reagan administration getting away unpunished after the Iran-Contra Affair? Would the nexus of apocalyptic right-wing Christianity and the imperial dreams of the neo-conservatives taken place without President Reagan's embrace of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?
For me, watching the Reagan years unfold was an exercise in horror and frustration, but it turned out to just a warm-up to a presidency that is even worse.
In the fall of 1980, I could not believe that voters would be so stupid that they would elect a man who was all style and little substance, a man who offered simplistic solutions to complex problems, a man who masked his conservatism with a folksy manner.
I was a freshman in college at the time, just starting out as a journalist. I came from a working-class family; the political catechism I grew up with was that Democrats took care of the people and Republicans took care of the rich. I knew to my bones that a Reagan presidency would be a disaster.
That November night in 1980, watching the election returns and seeing the landslide of votes for President Reagan, I knew this country was doomed. Nothing good was going to come out of a Reagan presidency. And sadly, it turned out to be true.
For me, it was seeing my student aid cut, and seeing my sister and my mother lose the monthly Social Security checks that paid for school - checks we got upon my father's death at age 45 in 1980. I enlisted in the Army National Guard to pay for my tuition and hoped that I wouldn't get sent off to one of the many little wars the Reagan administration seemed to be fomenting.
My basic training company at Fort Benning was filled with guys who were just out of the unemployment line. I saw factories closed and unions broken. The word "homelessness" entered the language, and soup kitchens and shelters reappeared in what would become the worst recession since the 1930s.
This was "morning in America." Changing the school lunch rules so ketchup could be classified as a vegetable. Tax cuts for the rich. "Winnable" nuclear wars. Support for murderous thugs in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and South Africa (not to mention getting cozy with a guy named Saddam Hussein, a dictator we sold chemical and biological weapons to in the 1980s). A disease called AIDS and a total lack of response by a president who ignored the deadly epidemic. The $640 toilet seats for the Pentagon. Sending Marines to Lebanon in an ill-defined mission and skulking away after a truck loaded with explosives drove into a lightly-defended compound and killed 239 Marines on a Sunday morning. A glorious military victory over 4,000 Cuban construction workers on an insignificant little island called Grenada; an adventure timed to distract Americans from the Lebanon debacle.
Then I think of the people President Reagan brought with him to Washington: James Watt, Edwin Meece, Caspar Weinberger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich, Oliver North, John Poindexter, William Casey, Alan Greenspan. These people comprised the most corrupt administration ever seen, up to that point. Little did we know that two decades later, many of these men would be recycled into an even more corrupt administration.
I never thought President Reagan would win a second term. The damage he had done was clear for all to see in 1984. But once again, people fell for the "nice guy" persona and failed to note the rising budget deficits, the gutting of social welfare programs, the upward distribution of wealth, the proxy wars around the globe and the general transformation of this nation into something less than noble.
We got four more years of President Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra, a scandal that dwarfed Watergate in its sheer brazenness. Against the wishes of the U.S. Congress and the American people, our government - with, I believe, the knowledge and consent of then-President Reagan and most of the top echelon of his administration - secretly sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to fund a private army to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Laws were broken and the American people were lied to repeatedly. The fact that President Reagan, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and the rest of the folks involved escaped prosecution was itself a crime.
While all this was happening, our nation was missing the signs that the Soviet Union was tottering. Prewsident Reagan didn't "win" the Cold War as much as benefit from forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into bankruptcy and collapse in an effort to keep up with the U.S. in an arms race it couldn't win.
That arms race nearly bankrupted our nation in the process. Thanks to President Reagan's overspending on defense, he oversaw the largest peacetime increase in the national debt - from $909 billion when he entered office to $2.6 trillion when he left.
In retrospect, the arms buildup was completely unnecessary. President Reagan purged analysts from the CIA who dared to say that the Soviets were too broke to be a military threat; the CIA would later be caught totally off-guard by the collapse of the pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
That second term was when the economy started to recover. But we know now that the 1980s were an age where wealth was created, not by creating new products or services, but by dismantling and reshuffling already existing assets.
This was the age of "greed is good." Government was the problem, not the solution, President Reagan and his followers proclaimed. Let the magic of the marketplace solve our nation's ills, they told us.
When it came to domestic policy, the Reagan Revolution hinged on a simple theory. In the private sector, spending borrowed money is called investment. When the government borrows money, it's just spending. Government doesn't invest, it just consumes. And if it's not consuming, it's getting in the way of free enterprise with its taxes and regulations. This theory - that the free market was infallible and government was evil - was taken as gospel by the Republicans.
President Reagan's laissez-faire approach to economy resulted in one of the greatest transfers of wealth in this country's history. According to data gathered in federal surveys, the wealthiest 20 percent in the U.S. received 99 percent of the total gains in the economy between 1983 and 1989. During that same period, the richest one percent picked up 62 percent of the new wealth that was created.
During the Reagan years, the number of millionaires in the U.S. tripled while the share of our nation's wealth held by the richest one-percent rose from 20 percent in 1970 to 40 percent in 1990. The tax cuts of the Reagan years, which dropped the highest federal individual tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, contributed greatly to this trend.
Instead of public investment, we saw social programs eliminated to pay for more tax cuts. From 1980 to 1990, federal spending on transportation and infrastructure was cut 68 percent, spending for education and training went down 60 percent and law enforcement and government expenditures declined 58 percent.
The idea of using government to increase incomes, reduce unemployment and maintain a social safety net is now politically unfashionable, thanks to Reagan. The only public spending that's still acceptable is money for the military-industrial complex and corporate welfare.
The conservatives now weep and wail over the death of President Ronald Reagan. They lionize him as a courageous visionary who's in the same league with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt - the President who "won" the Cold War and restored this nation's "greatness" on the international stage.
Having lived through that time, and having seen the effects of what eight years of Reagan did for this country, President Ronald Reagan's real legacy to America isn't one to celebrate. It's a legacy of criminality abroad and plunder at home. It's a legacy of the devaluation of the public sphere and how a second-rate actor pulled off his greatest role: the genial dunce as great leader.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.