Three Reasons Ronald Reagan Was Not the Best President Ever
A different era
Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was the 40th president of the United States, from 1981-1989. 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 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 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 had to do with his speech following the Challenger disaster. Generation X and Y are more likely to remember his warm, grandfatherly-like tones 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 it's a soothing thought, it's a dubious proposition.
Here are three issues that Ronald Reagan did not handle well as president, and would have been roundly criticized for by today's media.
What do Lebanon, Iran and anti-communist anti-Sandanista rebels in Nicaragua have in common? This mess, that came to light in Reagan's second term in 1986.
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 then 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.
Money for Nicaragua
In the meantime, Honduran Contral militants challenged the communist Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The Contras may have been barbarous 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. However, thought the administration, if there was just money hanging around from, say, the sale of arms to Iran... well, that could go to the Contras.
And Ronald Reagan?
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.
Reagan's Iran-Contra Speech
Who is the best president since 1981
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.
It's morning in America, and everybody is white.
No leadership on 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.