February 6th marked the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, considered by some as one of America´s truly great Presidents. Indeed, some presidential historians have called him a “transformative” figure because he is credited with presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the domestic front Reagan is hailed by conservatives as the President who began to get the “burden” of a bloated government off the backs of the people. Moreover, “the great communicator” as he was called, is praised for restoring a sense of optimism and honor to the American people after the demoralizing debacle in Viet Nam. Even President Barak Obama has expressed his admiration for the accomplishments of the movie actor who rose to become the 40th President of the most powerful nation in the world. The airways were filled with praise and accolades for Ronald Reagan, the revered, beloved, iconic figure. I heard few if any words about his warts and blemishes. It was as if he had none.
Though Reagan may already be enshrined in the memory of many as one of America´s greatest Presidents, I have a different set of reflections and perspectives on his legacy. My recollections of him are mostly negative. Frankly, he seemed like a very amicable person and I admired the remarkable love affair between him and his adorable wife Nancy. My reactions have to do with policy not personality. The Reagan I remember did more damage to civil rights and the culture of rights for working people and the poor than any President in the latter half of the 20th century. He was no hero or iconic figure for Blacks, workers or poor people.
The Reagan I remember launched a vicious and calculated assault on race-based remedies like affirmative action and other initiatives emanating from the Civil Rights Movement. Tapping into the “white backlash” against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, he was the first President to use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to declare affirmative action and race-based remedies “reverse discrimination” and “black racism.” He not only de-prioritized civil rights enforcement by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, his Attorney General Edwin Meese actually used the power of his office to file lawsuits on behalf of Whites who were allegedly harmed by affirmative action programs.
Exploiting this same undercurrent of White resentment, Reagan skillfully attacked the Welfare and Food Stamp Programs and other aspects of the New Deal and Great Society social safety network, contending that they constituted a heavy and unjustified burden on the backs of American taxpayers. He declared war on “welfare queens” and “food stamp cheats,” cleverly citing examples of individuals guilty of violating the rules of these programs who just happened to be Black. Despite the fact that there were always more Whites than Blacks on welfare and food stamps, the racial subtext of the Reagan assault played to the misconception that these were “Black programs,” which combined with civil rights laws and affirmative action initiatives, were encroaching on rights and well-being of Whites. Under the guise of reducing the size of government to provide relief for taxpayers, his goal was to dramatically reduce or eliminate social safety net programs. My recollection is that what Reagan actually did was cut social programs to transfer the tax dollars to beef-up the military budget for his showdown with the Soviet Union.
Simultaneous with his assault on civil rights and social programs, the Reagan I remember advocated dramatic tax cuts and deregulation to “stimulate” business, so-called “supply side economics.” David Stockman, his Director of the Office of Management and Budget, later admitted this approach was essentially a “trickle down economic” scheme to further enrich the wealthy. As Rev. Jesse L. Jackson characterized it, Reagan´s sleight of hand was “reverse Robin Hood” where he took from the poor and gave to the military and the rich. Derided by some prominent members of his own party as “Voodoo Economics,” Reaganomics resulted in a huge increase in the national deficit by the end of Reagan´s term.
The Reagan I remember was a pro-big business, anti-labor hardliner hell bent on destroying unions as the guardian of the aspirations of working people. When the air traffic controllers union, PATCO, went on strike to demand more controllers and better working conditions, Reagan demanded that they return to work or be fired. When they refused, true to his word, he fired more than 11,000 PATCO affiliated controllers and replaced them with non-union workers. He effectively crushed the union and defied the replacement workers to organize. The reverberations of the destruction of PATCO were felt far beyond the air traffic controllers. In an era where capital flight, plant closings and globalization were beginning to take their toll on organized labor, Reagan basically sent an unambiguous message on behalf of the economic elite that labor had better get used to working for the wages, benefits and conditions offered by the bosses or else face losing jobs all together. He ushered in an era of corporate dominance of unions and workers, the effects of which we are still reeling from today.
The Reagan I remember was a son of the New Deal, and a liberal in his younger years, who reinvented himself as a conservative ideologue, determined to decimate the “big government” programs that comprised the social safety network, which were antithetical to his new found Capitalist fundamentalism. Reagan claimed to have never seen racism. Therefore, it is understandable that he generally opposed civil rights legislation. He once remarked that “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” The Reagan I remember was so oblivious to negative racial attitudes towards Blacks (or so he wanted to pretend) that he went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, near the site where four civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, to launch his campaign for President in 1980. He delivered a ringing endorsement of “state´s rights” and railed against government dictating unpopular policies to the states. Without a doubt, this was a calculated extension of Richard M. Nixon´s “southern strategy” and a blatant appeal to White voters, large numbers of whom held racial animus towards Blacks. This was hardly of concern to the man who was to become America´s 40th President.
Perhaps, the pundits, analysts and commentators had amnesia about this “darker side” of Ronald Reagan as he was being profusely praised as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. Or perhaps they, like so many Americans, even those who were hurt by his policies, were deceived by his pleasant smile and charming demeanor. Ronald Reagan, never received an Academy Award as a B rate actor, but he deserves the Academy Award of the 20th Century for his performance as President of the United States. Apparently, he fooled a lot of people!