Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debates are being held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California — so you can be sure that each candidate will deliver an effusive homage to Reagan, and then explain why he or she is Reagan’s one true heir.
(The first GOP presidential debates were in Cleveland, and even there Reagan was invoked by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham.)
But no matter how much the candidates talk about Reagan, you can be sure that none of these extremely important things about him will come up. And maybe that’s appropriate — since if Reagan stood for anything as president, it was creating a completely fictionalized version of the past.
1. Reagan launched his 1980 general election campaign with a speech lauding “states’ rights” outside Philadelphia, Mississippi — the site of the notorious “Mississippi Burning” murder of three civil rights workers in 1964.
James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were abducted and killed in Mississippi by the local Ku Klux Klan in June 1964 — a case that garnered enormous national attention because, as Schwerner’s widow said, he and Goodman were white.
On August 3, 1980, Reagan traveled to the Neshoba County Fair, which a prominent state Republican had recommended as the place to find “George Wallace-inclined voters.” There — within walking distance of the earthen dam where the murderers of the three civil rights workers had surreptitiously buried them just 16 years before — Reagan delivered a speech including these lines:
I know that in speaking to this crowd, that I’m speaking to what has to be about 90 percent Democrat. I just meant by party affiliation. I didn’t mean how you feel now. I was a Democrat most of my life myself. …
I believe in states’ rights. … And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment. …
As columnist William Raspberry wrote upon Reagan’s death, his endorsement of “states’ rights” — the same phrase white Southerners had used for decades to justify Jim Crow segregation — was “bitter symbolism for black Americans” and “an important bouquet in [GOP] courtship” of Dixiecrats.
The “states’ rights” reference was just one of many racist dog-whistles Reagan employed throughout his political career. During his unsuccessful 1976 run for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan decried “welfare queens” and a “strapping young buck” who bought T-bone steaks with food stamps. In his 1984 reelection campaign he even returned to Philadelphia and declared that “the South shall rise again.”
2. Reagan probably made a deal to keep U.S. hostages in Iran until after the 1980 election.
If there was one issue that dominated the 1980 presidential race between Reagan and Jimmy Carter, it was that 52 Americans were being held hostage by Iran’s then-brand new Islamic Republic. After holding the hostages for 444 days, Iran finally released them on January 20, 1981 — right after Ronald Reagan finished his inauguration speech.
In the first GOP debate this year, Ted Cruz suggested that Iran let the hostages go because they were so scared of Reagan. A more likely explanation is that Reagan’s campaign, worried that Carter would get a last-minute boost if he were able to free the hostages before the election, made a secret agreement with the Iranian government to keep them. (As a headline in the Onion book Our Dumb Century put it: “Hostages Released: Reagan Urges American People Not to Put Two and Two Together.”)
Decades later, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a definitive answer to what happened. However, some people who were in a position to know have said there was such a deal. These include Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first post-revolution president of Iran, and Yitzhak Shamir, then-Foreign Minister of Israel. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat later said the Reagan campaign asked him for help keeping the hostages in Iran. And while a House of Representatives investigation cleared Reagan in 1993, the declassified version of the report failed to mention that the Russian government had sent them a six-page report claiming that William Casey (Reagan’s campaign manager and then his first head of the CIA) secretly met with the Iranian government three times in Paris and Madrid. And Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat who led the inquiry, said in 2013 that their conclusion might have been different if they’d known that the George H.W. Bush administration had concealed a 1980 State Department cable reporting that Casey was in Madrid.
While this may seem like a conspiracy theory, remember that the 1968 Nixon campaign is proven to have done something very similar: conspiring with the South Vietnamese government to prevent a peace deal that could have bolstered Nixon’s opponent Hubert Humphrey.
Moreover, as the Iran-contra scandal later demonstrated, Reagan clearly wasn’t averse to secret deals with Iran. In 1985, representatives of Iran sent the Reagan administration secret messages asking to buy U.S. weapons for their war with Iraq. The Iranians offered to pay both in money and the use of their influence to gain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Iran’s allies. Reagan agreed. (Making the scheme even more convoluted, money generated by the arms sales was eventually used to circumvent a congressional ban on U.S. funding of the Contras, an anti-communist militia fighting the Nicaraguan government.)
3. Reagan wasn’t a particularly popular president.
Of the 11 presidents since World War II, Reagan had the sixth-highest average approval rating while in office, behind Kennedy, Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Johnson.
That’s not to say Reagan wasn’t beloved by some Americans. According to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush told him in 1987 that “Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him.”
4. The economy wasn’t much better during Reagan’s presidency than during Carter’s.
If Americans remember anything about politics in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s that the economy was horrible when Carter was president, but then Reagan came in and fixed everything and the economy boomed.
This isn’t true at all. The U.S. economy grew at an average annual rate of 3.6 percent when Reagan was president, just a little faster than the 3.4 percent under Carter. Reagan’s presidency had a higher average unemployment rate — 7.5 percent compared to the average during Carter’s presidency of 6.5 percent — with more jobs created each month under Carter. And for those who care about such things, the federal budget deficit was much lower under Carter. The one thing that was significantly better when Reagan was president is that the average rate of inflation was 4.1 percent, compared to 10.4 percent under Carter.
What Reagan did have that Carter didn’t was a dedicated cadre of pundits who came to work every day to tell Americans how great they had it with Reagan. Their figurative children are still telling the same fairy tale today.
5. Reagan’s biggest fan? Saddam Hussein.
It’s well known that Reagan helped arm Iraq during the extraordinarily brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad for a chummy meeting with Saddam Hussein.
What’s less understood is that Saddam reciprocated the affection. After the U.S. captured Saddam in 2003, he was interrogated by FBI agent George Piro. Saddam told him, in Piro’s words, that Reagan had been a “great leader” and an “honorable man” whom Saddam wished he could have met in person.
6. Reagan was to blame for the biggest pre-2008 bank bailout.
“This bill is the most important legislation for financial institutions in the last 50 years. … All in all, I think we hit the jackpot,” said Reagan as he signed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982. Reagan declared that the bill, which changed the rules governing Savings & Loans, was “the first step in our administration’s comprehensive program of financial deregulation.”
By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the S&L industry lay in smoking ruins after a long campaign of looting that eventually cost taxpayers about $132 billion. This was the largest bailout of the financial industry in U.S. history until the Wall Street collapse of 2008.
7. Reagan didn’t meaningfully cut taxes for anyone except the top 1 percent.
Reagan didn’t cut taxes on the U.S. as a whole as much as he changed them. He cut income taxes, which fall most heavily on richer taxpayers, while increasing payroll taxes, which are disproportionately paid by the middle and working class. When all the alterations to the tax code are taken into account, by the end of his presidency the poorest 20 percent of households were paying a slightly higher tax rate than when Carter was president; the middle 20 percent had gotten a minuscule tax cut; and the top 1 percent had seen their taxes fall significantly.
This was, of course, by design. As David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, acknowledged in 1981, the promise of tax cuts for everyone “was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate” for the richest. “Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?” Stockman asked about the passage of Reagan’s first tax bill. “The hogs were really feeding. The greed level, the level of opportunism, just got out of control.”
Caption: President Reagan adjusts a white Stetson hat presented to him following a speech on the budget to the Trade Association. Reagan’s hand is bandaged from surgery, Jan. 9, 1989, Washington, DC, USA.