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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

A Different Era

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, and would have been roundly criticized for 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? This 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.

Reagan's Iran-Contra Speech

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.

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.

Everything Ronald Reagan said about AIDS from 1981-1987

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.


Ara Vahanian from LOS ANGELES on May 29, 2019:

I am actually reading and studying about the Reagan years right now as I red this and Reagan was a controversial President for sure. But do I think he was the worst? No, but he also wasn't as good as conservatives say he was. It is a tough call whether to have a smaller government and less taxes on business or whether to have a bigger government and more taxes on the rich. What do we do? Tough question, but Reagan was not the best president. He had charisma, he was funny, and had a great relationship with the press. These are all admirable qualities. One of his strengths was that he confronted the then Soviet Union and signed an arms reduction treaty I believe in 1987. It seems the author has done his research. A great president is someone who is able to be an effective communicator, great statesman, and an individual that puts the needs of the country above his party. Did Reagan satisfy all of these? Probably not. I would rank Ronald Reagan in the middle as far as presidents are concerned but once again, this is a tough call.

Matthew on July 04, 2015:

I think Reagan was a great President. The mood of the country when Carter left office compared to the one when Reagan left eight years later was night and day. Reagan seemed to convince everyone that things would get better and they did. I give Reagan credit for being able to trust Gorbachev and thaw the Cold War. He didn't win the Cold War but he thawed it and had he not trusted Gorbachev I am sure things would have ended very differently.

As for Iran Contra, I can believe he didn't know about it. For one thing he was very hands off as a President and for another, there are some that believe he was suffering from Alzheimer's in his 2nd term. Some long time friends would meet him and report that he seemed to not recognize him.

As for AIDS, it is a horrible disease but it wasn't a campaign issue in 1984, 1988 or even 1992. Democrats didn't make it an issue and funding to fight AIDS in Africa didn't reach respectable levels until George W. Bush was President. Yes, that means that under Clinton AIDS funding to Africa didn't amount to much, yet nobody blames Clinton for that.

Personally Reagan and Clinton were the best Presidents of my lifetime but so little was known about AIDS and even though 21,000 had died from it, by then it was still uncommon to die from it. Cancer, heart disease, suicide and others cost more human lives and got more attention.

The Logician from now on on November 01, 2014:

So right William, but we all know liberals have to rewrite history to believe in their own lies.

William Avitt from Dayton, Ohio on October 31, 2014:

Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 almost unanimously. Seriously, he won 49 out of 50 states in 1984. That is, to this day, the biggest win of any Presidential candidate ever. And it was for his RE-ELECTION. I love how liberals keep trying to rewrite history. The simple fact is, Reagan was a superhero and just about everyone in the country, Republicans AND Democrats, knew it

Sanctuary on January 15, 2014:

Actually we are still paying for the out come of his policies. Even worst we failed to change them at the end of the cold war when we had a golden opportunity to make the World a better place. The only thing we added was greed on a massive scale.

cathylynn99 from northeastern US on January 14, 2014:

the people who liked carter least were foreign dictators and the arms companies supplying them.

The Logician from now on on January 13, 2014:

I'll give you just one reason he was the best president ever - he made Jimmy Carter a one term president. I can't imagine where the country would be today, if it would be today, had Jimmy Carter won a second term.

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