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The Worst Years Of Our Lives

by Ted Rall

to more on Reagan's shameful legacy

For a few weeks, it became routine. I heard them dragging luggage down the hall. They paused in a little lounge near the dormitory elevator to bid farewell to people they'd met during their single semester. Those I knew knocked on my door. "What are you going to do?" I asked. "Where are you going to go?" A shrug. They were eighteen years old and their bright futures had evaporated. They had worked hard in junior and senior high school, harder than most, but none of that mattered now. President Reagan, explained the form letters from the Office of Financial Aid, had slashed the federal education budget.

Which is why the same grim tableau of shattered hopes and dreams was playing itself out across the country. Colleges and universities were evicting their best and brightest, straight A students, stripping them of scholarships. Some transferred to less-expensive community colleges; others dropped into the low-wage workforce. Now, nearly a quarter century later, they are still less financially secure and less educated than they should have been. Our nation is poorer for having denied them their potential.

After the 1981 assassination attempt, the press took a large step beyond just ignoring Reagan gaffes; a new, lower standard for presidential expectiations was put into place. As a 1983 European trip approached, ABC News presented not one, but two, stories describing how hard Reagan was working to prepare. Later, it came out that his research included watching a Sound of Music TV rerun

They were by no means the hardest-hit victims of Reaganism. Reagan's quack economists trashed scholarships and turned welfare recipients into homeless people and refused to do anything about the AIDS epidemic, all so they could fund extravagant tax cuts for a tiny sliver of the ultra rich. Their supply-side sales pitch, that the rich would buy so much stuff from everybody else that the economy would boom and government coffers would fill up, never panned out. The Reagan boom lasted just three years and created only low-wage jobs. When the '80s were over, we were buried in the depths of recession and a trillion bucks in debt. Poverty grew, cities decayed, crime rose. It took over a decade to dig out.

Reagan's defenders, people who don't know the facts or choose to ignore them, claim that "everybody" admired Reagan's ebullient personality even if some disagreed with his politics. That, like the Gipper's tall tales about welfare queens and "homeless by choice" urban campers, is a lie. Millions of Americans cringed at Reagan's simplistic rhetoric, were terrified that his anti-Soviet "evil empire" posturing would provoke World War III, and thought that his appeal to selfishness and greed -- a bastardized blend of Adam Smith and Ayn Rand -- brought out the worst in us. We rolled our eyes when Reagan quipped "There you go again;" what the hell did that mean? Given that he made flying a living hell (by firing the air traffic controllers and regulating the airlines), I'm not the only one who refuses to call Washington National Airport by its new name. His clown-like dyed hair and rouged cheeks disgusted us. We hated him during the dark days he made so hideous, and, with all due respect, we hate him still.

Not everybody buys the myth that Reagan won the Cold War by demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this [Berlin] wall" or bankrupting the Soviet Union via the arms race -- Zbigniew Brezinski's plot to "draw the Russians into the Afghan trap" by funding the mujahedeen, Chernobyl and covert U.S. schemes to destabilize the ruble had more to do with the end of the USSR. Gangsterism replaced the ossified cult of the state, millions of Russians were reduced to paupers, revived radical Islamism in Central Asia and eliminated our sole major ideological and military rival. That increased our arrogance and insularity, left us in charge of the world and to blame for everything, paving the road to 9/11. (Reagan even armed the attacks' future perpetrators.) Anyway, the Cold War isn't over. In which direction do you think those old ICBMs point today?

The lionizers are correct about one thing: Reagan was one of our most influential presidents since FDR, whose New Deal safety net he carefully disassembled. He pioneered policies now being implemented by George W. Bush: trickle down economics, corporate deregulation, radicalizing the courts, slithering around inconvenient laws and international treaties. On the domestic front, he unraveled America's century-old social contract. What the poor needed was a kick in the ass, not a handout, said a president whose wealthy patrons bought him a house and put clothes on his wife Nancy. National parks were to be exploited for timber and oil, not protected. The federal tax code, originally conceived to redistribute wealth from top to bottom, was "reformed" to eradicate social justice.

Bush also models his approach to foreign policy on that of the original Teflon President. Reagan elevated unjustifiable military action to an art. In 1983, anxious to look tough after cutting and running from Lebanon, Reagan sent Marines to topple the Marxist government of Grenada. His pretext for invading this Caribbean island was the urgent plight of 500 medical students supposedly besieged by rampaging mobs. But when they arrived at the airport in the United States, the quizzical young men and women told reporters they were confused, never having felt endangered or seen any unrest.

In a bizarre 1985 effort to free a few American hostages being held in Lebanon, Reagan authorized the sale of 107 tons of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, at the time one of our staunchest enemies, with the proceeds to be used to fund rightist death squads in Nicaragua -- something Congress had expressly forbidden him to do. Evidence strongly suggests that Iran-Contra was at least his second dirty deal with Islamic Iran, the first being the October Surprise, which delayed the release of the Iranian embassy hostages until after the 1980 election was over. Ronald Reagan eventually admitted to "trading arms for hostages," yet avoided prosecution for treason and the death penalty.

Reagan, like Bush 43, technically served in the military yet studiously avoided combat. Both men were physically robust, intellectually inadequate, poorly traveled former governors renowned for stabbing friends on the back -- Reagan when he named names during McCarthyism. Both appointed former generals as secretaries of state and enemies of the environment to head the Department of the Interior. Both refused to read detailed briefings, worked short hours, behaved erratically in public appearances, ducked questions about sordid pasts, and relied on Christianist (the radical right equivalent of Islamist) depictions of foes as "evil" and America, invariably as embodied by himself and the Republicans, as "good." Based on intelligence as phony as that floated to justify the war against Iraq, Reagan bombed Muslim Libya.

© Ted Rall 2004
Reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor June 11, 2004 (

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