After enduring a night of syrupy media coverage of a former president's death, I received what felt like a more apt headline from a friend: "Ronald Reagan, Apologist for Apartheid, Ignorer of AIDS and Funder of Death Squads, Dead at 93."

He was full of contradictions, left a terrible legacy and one far from the saintly image many Americans were left with -- race politics and racial policies that attacked civil rights, shameless boosterism of big business and Wall Street, shameful education and AIDS policies, an undeclared war not on poverty but on the poor and homeless, a trillion-dollar deficit and the blood of so many Central Americans at the hands of U.S. taxpayer-financed death squads.

All this effusive talk of Reagan as the "Great Communicator" and the "Gipper," his boyish charm and purposed belief in old-time values, doesn't change the fact that he was an actor, first and foremost, well-schooled in the ways of manipulating the media and projecting an image -- that's all, folks.

Below are a few points I thought interesting from the coverage by The New York Times.

As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Times cites a historian's account that Reagan's FBI file "disclosed that he had named people in secret."

A former General Electric spokesman, Reagan gained familiarity in how to toe the party line. Writes the Times, "Hundreds of times a year he delivered a speech warning of a growing tide of government control and wasteful government programs. He was apparently so convincing that he convinced himself."

Despite his stated and supposedly vehement opposition to big government, the federal payroll ballooned during his tenure, a tendency he showed as governor of California. In that role, the Times reports, "the budget more than doubled and the number of state employees grew by 34,000."

Then came this beauty:

Reaganomics, as his economic program became known, was based on the theory that a cut in taxes would stimulate economic growth, generating higher revenues and making the deficit disappear. In the 1980 Republican primaries Mr. Bush called this supply-side plan "voodoo economics." And Mr. Reagan's own director of the budget, David A. Stockman, suggested that the president was simply proposing a repackaging of economics intended to favor the rich, whose gains would ultimately trickle down through the rest of the economy.

Despite widespread criticism of the idea, Mr. Reagan was able to sell the program to Congress, both a tax cut and a $28 billion increase in the military budget.

Also from the Times, but put in list format by me:

  • CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, under which more than 300,000 of the poor were employed in 1980 and 1981, was eliminated.

  • Eligibility standards were tightened for food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

  • Medicaid rolls were reduced, and limits were put on Medicare payments.

  • In the first years of the Reagan administration, when unemployment was rising, insurance for workers who lost their jobs because of foreign competition was scaled back.

  • Middle-income college students became ineligible for government-backed loans and more than a million people lost their food stamps.

  • In 1981, the Department of Agriculture proposed that ketchup be considered a vegetable in calculating the nutritional values of school lunches. The suggestion caused such an uproar that the rule was never instituted.

  • When Social Security disability benefits were cut off for 500,000 people, the federal courts restored payments to 200,000, but the cuts furthered the perception that the administration was heartless.

  • In the first year of Mr. Reagan's second term, the United States, once the biggest creditor nation, became the biggest debtor nation in the world despite some efforts on his part to alter the trade balance.

  • Reagan's budget director and inventor of the "rosy scenario" later wrote a book titled "The Triumph of Politics," in which he describes exaggerating "the administration's success in reduced spending and minimized the projected deficit," writes the Times.

    "If the Securities and Exchange Commission had jurisdiction over the White House," Mr. Stockman wrote, "we might have all had time for a course in remedial economics at Allenwood penitentiary."

    The Times adds:

    On Oct. 16, 1987, The Wall Street Journal reported that the economy was one of the two bright spots in a Reagan administration that was increasingly paralyzed by its Iran-contra troubles. Then, on Oct. 19, the stock market suffered the most severe single-day decline up to that point in its history, dropping 508 points.

    And despite getting credit for the downfall of the former Soviet Union, Reagan may not have had as much to do with it as thought, writes the Times:

    Some analysts believe that buildup, along with military exercises and reconnaissance that were seen from the Soviet perspective as provocative, may have strengthened Soviet hawks and actually delayed efforts by Mr. Gorbachev to bring reform to the Soviet Union.

    Of course, if I'd wanted to be partisan, I might have used the following quote from former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, D-Mass.: "Most of the time he was an actor reading lines who didn't understand his own programs. I hate to say it about such an agreeable man, but it was sinful that Ronald Reagan ever became president."


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