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Three Reasons Ronald Reagan Was Not the Best President Ever

Curt is a fan of history, including 20th-century America, presidents of the United States, and classic cinema.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

Was Ronald Reagan the Best President Ever?

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was the 40th president of the United States, from 1981 to 1989. In the 21st century, he has become a legend among conservatives and Republicans. Stories are told about his small-government stance and his commitment to "traditional American values." People selectively remember him projecting a seriousness toward the world that purportedly made other nations respect the United States and made the Soviet Union fear it.

The truth is, other factors from the era cloud our objectivity.

  • There was no internet and no 24-hour news cycle.
  • CNN launched in 1980 and was a relatively new concept.
  • Cable grew rapidly in the mid-'80s.
  • As an example of the media climate at the time, when the shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, only fledgling CNN covered the launch and the ensuing story in the hours after the explosion. No other network covered it until later in the day. Most of the people who heard the news first were kids watching the launch at school.
  • Reagan was the first president many Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers remember, and a lot of their memories may have been formed during the Challenger disaster. Generations X and Y are more likely to remember his warm, grandfatherly tones from that speech than his politics.
  • He followed the Carter years of stagnant economic conditions and fuel shortages, and changed the tone from one of "Americans must sacrifice" to "no American should sacrifice." While that was a soothing thought, it's a dubious proposition.

Here are three issues that Ronald Reagan did not handle well as president, which would have been roundly criticized by today's media.

Ronald Reagan in the cabinet room, discussing Iran-Contra with John Tower and Edmund Muskie

Ronald Reagan in the cabinet room, discussing Iran-Contra with John Tower and Edmund Muskie

3 Reasons Why Reagan Was Not the Best

1. Iran-Contra

What do Lebanon, Iran, and anti-communist anti-Sandanista rebels in Nicaragua have in common? The mess that came to light during Reagan's second term in 1986.

2. Arms for Hostages

When seven Americans were taken hostage and held in Lebanon by Iranians from the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the Reagan administration hatched a plan: Israel would ship weapons to Iran, then the United States would resupply Israel and take the money. In return, Iran would release the hostages.

The US didn't want to give the arms directly to Iran at first, because it was a state sponsor of terrorism, but later in the game, the arms sales were direct. Did the Revolutionary Guard release the hostages? No. They released two and kidnapped more, and the US sent Iran more and more weapons.

3. Money for Nicaragua

In the meantime, Honduran Contra militants challenged the communist Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The Contras may have been rapists and arsonists, but they weren't commies, so it was the Reagan administration's intention to supply them with money. There was a problem: the Boland amendment prohibited giving them money. The administration thought that if there was just money hanging around from, say, the sale of arms to Iran... well, that could go to the Contras.

Was It All Ronald Reagan's Fault?

It's unknown how much Reagan knew about the money being sent to Nicaragua. That was Oliver North's scheme, primarily, and Reagan "didn't recall" many of the details. But the arms for hostages? And the fact that the hostages weren't being released? All signs point to his knowledge of the matter, and it happened while he was captain of the ship.

Ronald Reagan, Taxes, and Debt

Think Reagan kept taxes low and the debt in check? Think again.

In 1981, the top tax rate was 70%. In 1989, it was 28%. His 1981 tax cut blew such a hole in the federal budget that he raised taxes 11 more times before leaving office. He was never able to match, with income, the amount that he spent.

Reagan cut domestic spending but increased the Pentagon budget. The middle class bore the brunt of the tax increases. The entitlement programs that funded "welfare queens?" He didn't really touch them.

As for the national debt, it tripled on Reagan's watch from $900 million to $2.8 billion.

Reagan, speaking on AIDS

Reagan, speaking on AIDS

No Leadership During AIDS Epidemic

Ronald Reagan did virtually nothing about the AIDS epidemic as it grew and grew, and people became more and more frightened and lost family members.

A great deal of Ronald Reagan's support came from the new religious right, helmed by Jerry Falwell's political action group, the Moral Majority. Falwell contended that "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." And in Reagan's cabinet? Communications director Pat Buchanan called it "nature's revenge on gay men."

Reagan's surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the Reagan administration "because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs." The president's advisers, Koop said, "took the stand, 'They are only getting what they justly deserve.' "

With a rapidly-spreading disease that primarily targeted a segment of America that had little sympathy from anybody, it seemed okay to ignore it.

Between 1983 and 1984, the number of AIDS cases quadrupled and the number of AIDS deaths did as well. Not a peep. By 1985, over 6,000 Americans had died, while Reagan's funders continued to scream about the moral depravity of gay people.

Reagan finally broke his silence in 1987, after nearly 21,000 deaths, near the end of his second term.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.