The Future Belongs to the Contras: Ranking Reagan
By David Snyder, COO
In my piece on where President Obama slots into the ranks of the former chief executives, I had Reagan at 19 before inserting Obama, Reagan at 20 after inserting Obama. For many, leaving Reagan out of the top 10 is paramount to high treason; for equally as many, leaving him out of the bottom 10 is criminal. As ever, the answer lies in that delightful gray sludge taking up the middle. Following the previously mentioned piece, I had more responses to where I put Reagan than where I put Obama, such is the legacy and emotion, for better worse, the man holds nearly 30 years after leaving office. I figured I ought to flesh out my thoughts on the Great Communicator to clear up any murkiness.
In my heart of hearts, Reagan is in the bottom ten. The economy slumped dramatically during his presidency and his successful attempts at deregulation contributed to the next generation of financial crises. His Cold Warrior rhetoric didn’t ensure the collapse of the Soviet Union, it only brought the fear of nuclear exchange to its highest point since the Cuban Missle Crisis. If anything, Reagan made the Soviets look tough, as they stood up to the posturing Americans while the Soviet people starved. Worst of all was Iran-Contra, the most ethically and politically dubious action a commander and chief has taken since Hoover watched the house of cards come tumbling down, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and flitted off to the White House bunker. Probably.
I know history is hardly so black and white. Every president has ten times the follies and blunders than he does success stories, so it’s no wonder those failures are only magnified by whichever president’s opposition. Some of the detractor’s qualms really are perfectly fair, as I believe Iran-Contra to be. Others less so, such as the economy under Reagan, which the president has very little real power over.
For many, Reagan was the president of their life, much like Obama is to mine. There can be no denying his powers of persuasion and leadership. “The future does not belong to the faint hearted…” Reagan inspired an entire generation of youngsters to enter the political realm when they could have very well taken their talents to Wall Street, and for that I thank him. Do I wish he hadn’t convinced them of uber patriotic Randism? More than almost anything, but such is the reality we inhabit.
By Randism I mean the philosophy of Ayn Rand, that of “rational self-interest.” Rational self-interest is a euphemism for greed over empathy, and I’m sincere in my hatred for her worldview, which so many have found so profoundly brilliant. Ronald Reagan was one of those who ditched the New Deal Democrats for Barry Goldwater and his band of Randians. And yes, Reagan was a Democrat at one point. A staunch fan of Franklin Roosevelt, as it happens. But like so many, he was swayed by the too good to be true ideology of Rand and her surrogate in Goldwater. After all, who doesn’t believe that wealth and success should be reserved for the hardest working and most talented? It’s common sense. In the United States, everybody has an equal shot at the good life, so the one who pulls himself (and it’s always a he) up by the bootstraps and does the best job will have earned their success. Right? The crucial issue at hand is that the idea that the U.S. is a land of level playing fields and equal access is a myth that never held water. The color of one’s skin, the chromosomes of one’s genome, the place of one’s birth, the health of one’s location, the quality of one’s education, and an infinite number of variations have never and will never allow for a level playing field. However, in the eyes of Rand and those of like mind failure is only the fault of the weak spined or faint of heart.
Reagan’s impact on his party is nearly unfathomable. Republican presidential candidates can’t get to comparisons between themselves and Reagan fast enough. On the right, Reagan’s legacy is just a notch below Lincoln’s. The great irony of both of those men is their progressivism: Lincoln’s abolitionism and Reagan’s New Deal roots. His shadow looms over his party and their adversaries, as the Republicans seem forever trapped by the success of his presidency and the party’s notable recent failures (the Bush years, Middle Eastern wars, Great Recession, and Donald Trump). The Democrats are equally suffocated by him because of their need to fight the entrenched myth of his successes. It may be long until all Republicans are not compared to Reagan, and when Democrats aren’t measured by their attacks on Reaganism and those who wish to succeed him.
What I will never allow him to be redeemed for is Iran-Contra. In 1979, Iran infamously underwent their reactionary Islamic revolution, culminating in the removal of Muhammed Reza Shah from the throne and the implementation of an Islamic Republic headed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Shortly after the revolution’s completion, Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq declared war on one another. The loss of the Shah and the shocking anti-U.S. sentiment ringing out of all of Iran caused the U.S. to move from closest ally to explicit enemy. When it came to picking sides in the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. chose Hussein’s Iraq, aligning themselves with a genocidal tyrant. As the war raged on, stalemate after stalemate ensued leading to nothing but lost lives and bloodied soil, as the only Shia dominant countries in the world slaughtered one another. Meanwhile, the Cold War was still raging elsewhere in the world. In the most cliched Cold War move of them all, Reagan’s administration sold weapons to the Iranians to fund anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, the Contras. While funding and arming the very army hell bent on defeating them, Iraq, the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran to illegally funnel money to a noted ruthless and brutally violent terrorist group in Nicaragua. Iran, in turn, used the U.S. funds to fight the U.S. funded Iraq. Something doesn’t quite add up there. It came to light that the U.S. sought to ensure a stalemate in the war by covertly supplying both sides. 700,000 deaths later, the Iran-Iraq War concluded in 1988 in a stalemate. Ronald Regan’s administration exited the scandal unscathed. And now, nearly 30 years later, I struggle to find the will to go on living as I write about the events that ensued. I’m really talking myself into A. a deep depression for the follies of my country and B. dropping Reagan down to 40.
I’ve just had a lot of caffeine and watched and the episode where Jim and Pam finally smooch so I have found the will to live once more.
I don’t think I’m being unfair to Reagan. His qualities as a leader made America, for lack of better phrasing, feel great again. “It’s morning in America…” That’s good stuff and few could have delivered that message like the Great Communicator. Though the Berlin Wall and Soviet apparatus only came tumbling down after he left office, Reagan’s steadfast anti-communism and calls to “Tear down this wall!” are the stuff of legend and had a real impact on the fall of the world’s most powerful communist state.
In my piece on President Obama, I explained that I regard presidents less so on their legislative achievements and more so on how they led the country. Only a fool would deny that Reagan led the country. For that reason alone, the man is staying in my top 20. Just don’t bring up Iran-Contra again or the dude is straight back to hanging out with Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan on Shithead Island.