Reagan without sentimentality

He told us government was the problem -- and his corruption-plagued administration made sure of it.


Joe Conason
June 9, 2004 2:56AM (UTC)

In death as in life, Ronald Reagan maintains an extraordinary, almost elemental capacity to attract the positive and repel the negative. His energy, his grit, his poise and his powers of public persuasion were the pride of his supporters and the envy of his opponents. We will hear much more about all those qualities during the coming week, as the nation prepares for his funeral. During the period of mourning, most criticism of the deceased leader will be tempered by respect for his family and friends.

Yet it should be possible to eulogize rather than mythologize the 40th president and his times -- to acknowledge the skill, charm and commitment, without indulging in a sentimental revisionism that erases the historical reality of the 1980s. On the passing of a former president, celebration and commemoration overwhelm clarity and accuracy; and that is especially true in this instance. The American press was rarely critical of Reagan, and the partisan mythmaking process began more than a decade ago.

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Ideas matter, as the conservatives like to say, and so do the stubborn facts. As Republicans seize this singular opportunity to advance their agenda behind the Reagan cortege, it's imperative to recall what actually happened during his eight years in the White House -- and to underline the consequences of the ideas that he promoted.

At his 1981 inauguration, the new president voiced his simple revolutionary credo: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

That remark was prescient, although not in the sense that Reagan intended. His naive faith in the private sector's capacity to regulate itself, along with his disdain for many of the necessary functions of the modern state, allowed cronies and crooks to flourish. Inept government, corrupt government and cynical government became severe problems during his tenure, leaving fiscal wreckage that remained for many years after he returned to private life.

The millions of words of hagiographic copy uttered and written this week will make scant mention of the scandal epidemic that marred Reagan's presidency (aside from the Iran-contra affair, which few commentators understand well enough to explain accurately). Disabled by historical amnesia, most Americans won't recall -- or be reminded of -- the scores of administration officials indicted, convicted or expelled on ethics charges between 1981 and 1989.

However historians will assess Reagan's responsibility, the record is what it is. Gathering dust in the news archives are thousands of clippings about the gross influence peddling, bribery, fraud, illegal lobbying and sundry abuses that engulfed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon, to name a few of the most notorious cases.

In his 1991 book "Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years," journalist Haynes Johnson came up with an unflattering statistic: "By the end of his term, 138 Reagan administration officials had been convicted, had been indicted, or had been the subject of official investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violations."

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These cases affected the nation's health, security and financial soundness. Consider the example of the EPA, where Reagan's contempt for environmental regulation led to the appointment of dishonest, incompetent people who coddled polluters instead of curbing them. Dozens of them were forced to resign in disgrace, after criminal and congressional investigations, and several went to prison. Or consider the HUD scandal, in which politically connected Republicans criminally exploited the same housing assistance programs they routinely denounced as "wasteful." Billions in EPA Superfund and HUD dollars were indeed wasted because of their corruption.

Reagan's HUD Secretary Sam Pierce took the Fifth Amendment when called to testify about the looting of his agency -- the first Cabinet official to seek that constitutional protection since the Teapot Dome scandal. But he wasn't the only Cabinet official to fall in scandal. So did Attorney General Edwin Meese, in the Wedtech contracting scandal, and so did Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the Iran-contra affair (although he was pardoned at the 11th hour by President George H.W. Bush).

The Pentagon procurement scandals, which involved literally dozens of rather unpatriotic schemes to rip off the military, revealed the system of bid-rigging and gift-greasing that accompanied Reagan's defense buildup. Worse, the president had been warned, two years before the scandal broke, about the growing allegations of fraud within the Defense Department by a blue-ribbon commission he had appointed. When the scandal broke with a series of FBI raids in 1988, he was about to leave the White House.

Most emblematic of the Reaganite attitude toward government was the savings-and-loan scandal. The president's advisors had convinced him that if he would only deregulate the thrift industry, a gigantic bonanza of growth and investment was sure to follow. His sunny quip when he signed the deregulation bill in 1982 was typical Reagan: "All in all, I think we've hit the jackpot." There's no reason to doubt he sincerely believed that with government shoved aside, everyone would prosper. The best reckoning of the costs of his benign intentions is a trillion dollars.

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Even Reagan's harshest critics didn't claim that he condoned the abuses that were tolerated -- and in some cases perpetrated -- by his appointees. Nor did he profit personally from those abuses. He was a "big picture" president who was detached from the details of government, delegating authority to aides he trusted too much. Historians will determine Reagan's personal responsibility for the disasters as well as the triumphs on his watch.

So let the former president be remembered for his optimism, his achievements, and his love of country. But let his mistakes be remembered as well. Reagan deserves no less. The sentimental version doesn't do justice to him and his legacy, for better and worse.


Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Ronald Reagan

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