Things Reagan Did


The revisionism of history that goes on with respect to Ronald Reagan is a disservice to both the populace at large and the man himself. The unveiling of a statue of Reagan at the capital proved yet another opportunity for people like Fox News host and radio personality Sean Hannity, among others on the right, to peddle their misinformation about President Reagan and his policies.

Ronald Reagan Cowboy HatI lived through his administrations and voted for him in my first Presidential election. I remember his tenure well. Hannity has talked about President Barack Obama‘s need to “follow the Reagan model” as if it were a flawless plan for a presidency. Regardless of your views, like all Presidents, Reagan wasn’t perfect.

Don’t get me wrong — President Reagan deserves credit for many things. Chief among them is giving the country back the sense of confidence that began eroding with the scandals of the Richard Nixon administration.

Another major positive is that human rights, prior to his tenure, was seen entirely as a liberal issue. His efforts, though rife with hypocrisy at the time, transformed this from a partisan issue into a nearly-universal bi-partisan one.

His oratory skills were simply amazing. His speech to the nation after the Challenger disaster is something every citizen should strive to see (scholars consider it one of the 10 best American speeches of the 20th century).

However, Reagan wasn’t responsible for many things attributed to him by misguided pundits. Reagan, for example, grew up in a time when immigration was considered a hallmark of American values. In one of the only examples where he even commented on it he told an audience of naturalizing immigrants that immigrants “enlivened the national life with new ideas and new blood,” and “enrich us” with “a delightful diversity.” This is also a President who signed a bill giving amnesty to 2.7 million illegal aliens.

Gorbachev-Ronald-ReaganAnother inconvenient hypocrisy involves condemning any President for considering the option of meeting leaders of enemy states without pre-conditions. The Reagan model would dictate exactly this course. If Reagan had insisted on such pre-conditions we’d have never gotten anywhere with the Soviet Union. Reagan reached out, openly, without pre-conditions (to the complete shock and disgust of most of his own party leadership) to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev just after taking office in 1981. This didn’t go anywhere as Brezhnev was on his deathbed at the time. He then did the same thing with both his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, but both men died not long after assuming power. It was no surprise that he did exactly the same thing when Mikhail Gorbachev finally took control. He sent a personal letter to Gorbachev that was hand-delivered by then Vice President George H. W. Bush. The letter included an open invitation to a summit. It represented the first major step toward finally bringing an end to the Cold War.

Some other tidbits that Americans who didn’t live through the Reagan years should know about “the Reagan model” as it existed — not as it is being re-envisioned:

  • Reagan almost single-handedly saved Social Security by making a deal with then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to keep benefit levels the same and to raise payroll taxes which guaranteed the entitlement for decades to come. What’s more is that in mid-1981 we were being bombarded with warnings that there was virtually no way to avoid the system imminently going bankrupt. Today the vitriol is much worse over the potential of it going broke in 2037. (source, source, source)
  • The Federal Government expanded significantly during his administration. The number of workers in the government rose by 61,000. The Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the largest federal agencies, was not only increased substantially by Reagan but was promoted to a cabinet-level department by him. Under President Bill Clinton, by contrast, the number of Federal employees fell by 373,000. (source)
  • He tripled the national debt. (source)
  • He compromised on arms controls with the Soviets and, at one point, came within a whisker of agreeing with Gorbachev to scrapping all of boths sides nuclear arsenals (Reagan had a strong belief that nuclear weapons should be abolished). The only thing that kept this from happening was Reagan’s hard-headed refusal to drop “Star Wars” (his ill-fated missile defensive initiative). (source)
  • Reagan was extremely critical of Israel during his time in office. He condemned an Israeli preventive strike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 (known as Operation Opera) and suspended arms shipments to them. In 1982 he very publicly demanded they stop bombing Lebanon in an attempt to oust the PLO from there. These are just two of several such instances. (source)
  • Much is made about Barack Obama apologizing for America but Reagan apologized for America several times including to China, Poland and at least twice to Japan. In 1988 he apologized officially to Japan for WWII internment camps. The legislation he signed said America showed “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership”. We also paid reparations to Japan totaling $1.6 billion. (source)
  • Yes, he cut taxes heavily at the beginning of his first term (Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981). The top rate went from 70% in 1981 down to 28% in 1988. What isn’t often brought up is that he then raised various taxes after that (in 1982, ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 & ’87) in a bid to make up for the record deficits that resulted and the negative impact it had on the nation. This is, by the way, a positive mark on his tenure. When the financial estimates of 1981 proved to be way off the mark he altered his plans. (source)
  • The Capital Gains tax was just one of the taxes Reagan raised. Lowering it was one of the four main pillars of his economic policy. In 1981 he reduced it to its lowest level since the Hoover administration to 20%. However, in 1986 he reversed himself and set it to match standard income rates which then maxed out at 28%. (source)
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 950.68 when he took office. A year later, after his massive tax cuts, the Dow was at 845.89 (down 12%). He started raising taxes and, as he continued, the Dow climbed to over 2,200. Does this sound at all the way Sean Hannity describes the Reagan plan? He tells listeners that Reagan cut everyone’s taxes and the greatest era of American prosperity resulted. Uh huh. Tax cuts had nothing to do with it. An August 1983 Congressional Budget Office report stated, “Lower interest rates after mid-1982 permitted the recovery to begin.” (source)
  • Unemployment rose steadily during his first term and saw a peak of 10.8% during 1982-83 which is the highest it has been since. It was 7.2% when he took over. It didn’t get back to that number until June of 1984 (It bounced around after that until July of 1986 when it finally stayed below 7.2% for the duration). (source)
  • Mortgage rates were lousy under Reagan. The best you could do during all 8 years he was in office, for a 30-year mortgage, was 9.11%. For much of his term the rate was in the 13% range. Can you imagine the outcry today if that was the best you could do? (sourcesource)
  • James WattWe had a Secretary of the Interior, James Watt who was openly hostile about the environment. When speaking about his poor record on the environment before Congress he stated, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” If you think that’s bad then how about this from one of his speeches regarding his staff: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” That finally got him fired. In 1983 he drew nearly universal ire for banning the Beach Boys from playing on the Washington Mall for the July 4th celebration (something they’d done many times before). He felt such “rock bands” attracted the wrong element and instead wanted a more “wholesome” show headed up by Las Vegas icon Wayne Newton. Nancy Reagan even protested saying she was a Beach Boys fan. It turned out that Watt wasn’t even aware of who the Beach Boys were. (source)
  • Anne Burford GorsuchHe had one of the worst heads of the Environmental Protection Agency in its history in a woman named Anne Burford (then known as Anne M. Gorsuch). Republicans and Democrats alike accused her of being against the very organization she headed as she set out to dismantle it the moment she started in the post. She often boasted that she’d cut the thickness of the book of clean water regulations from six inches to a half-inch. She had to resign in disgrace (with 20 of her top employees) in 1983 due to “conflicts of interest” involving the Superfund (environmental cleanup) program. She gave money from the fund to Republican Congressional candidates for their 1982 mid-term elections. When she wrote her own book she said that she was following direct orders from Reagan and fired when the investigation began to focus on his role. Adding credibility to this claim is that Reagan attempted, a year later, to appoint her to the chairmanship of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and the Atmosphere. The Republican-controlled Senate forced him to withdraw her nomination.
  • We should have seen these two disastrous appointments coming. In 1980 while campaigning for the Presidency he claimed that trees were the major cause of air pollution. (source)
  • That wasn’t the strangest reality to come out of his time in the White House. In mid-1988 his former Chief of Staff, Don Regan, reported that much of Ron and Nancy Reagan’s schedules, along with many key executive decisions, were first vetted by astrologers. Often the dates and decisions were amended to fit with their recommendations. This behavior dates back to at least 1967 when the Reagan’s insisted on a very specific, rather curious time of 12:10am to swear him in as California’s newest Governor. (source)
  • In a bid to cut school lunch program budgets the administration attempted to have ketchup and relish reclassified from condiments to vegetables so that the mandate to serve vegetables could be met with these items instead. The attempt failed after a major public outcry. Believe it or not this actually was based on some sound reasoning (kids wouldn’t eat the vegetables anyway costing millions of dollars in waste) but the presentation and defense of it was so bad that it couldn’t recover. (source)
  • More government officials (appointed by Reagan) were indicted and convicted (over 100) than under any other President including 21 major posts. To this day I have a hard time thinking of any period during his tenure when indictments weren’t dominating the news. (source, source)
  • Reagan gave Saddam Hussein WMD’s. In 2002 conservative Robert Novak wrote: “An eight-year-old Senate report confirms that disease-producing and poisonous materials were exported, under U.S. government license, to Iraq from 1985 to 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.
  • Reagan totally ignored, at its most critical period, the outbreak of AIDS. Remember, the first cases came to light in 1981. Reagan’s own Communications Director, Pat Buchanan (yes, that Pat Buchanan) said that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men,” and “The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” Reagan only mentioned AIDS in mid-1987. By that time over 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed and nearly 21,000 had died. The disease had reached 113 countries counting more than 50,000 cases.
  • Wall Street collapsed in 1987 with the DOW dropping 1,000 points (remember it was only at 2,700 at the time), a huge 37% drop. (source)
  • His tenure left successor George H.W. Bush with an economy so impacted that he faced two recessions and a deficit so crushing that Bush had to go back on his own famous promise, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” The reversal cost Bush the Presidency but also helped to right the economy after he left.
  • His out-of-the-gate policies were so “popular” and “successful” at the time that Republicans lost 26 seats in the 1982 Congressional election (even with the help of Anne Burford). (source)
  • In January, 1981, Reagan claimed the federal budget was “out of control”. At the time the deficit was almost $74 billion while the federal debt reached $930 billion. By 1983 the deficit reached $208 billion. When he left office the national debt reached $2.6 trillion.
  • In his eight years in office the United States moved from being the world’s largest international creditor to become its largest debtor nation.
  • Reagan removed restrictions that prevented mortgage companies from lending to homeowners without them putting down a significant amount first. This led directly to the subprime mortgage fiasco. (source, source, source)
  • One of the most religious Presidents of our time did virtually nothing to put down abortion. In fact, history shows, like many Presidents, he simply told abortion foes what they wanted to hear and then did nothing about it once in office. In the final accounting two out of his three Supreme Court appointments were supporters of the Roe v. Wade decision. (source)
  • One of the very few steps he took in that regard was to ask Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to produce a report showing the believed long-term physical and emotional trauma women suffered as a result of having an abortion. Pro-Life Koop couldn’t find any scientific data to support this supposition and refused to produce the final version of a draft report. (source)
  • Reagan deregulated the financial sector allowing them free reign to gamble with our money. This allowed the savings and loan scandal of the late 80’s, the hedge fund troubles and today’s financial meltdown as only these changes allowed for the creation of credit default swaps, etc.
  • He understood the value and impact of unions (having been the head of one himself earlier in life) and aggressively courted them. His efforts were so successful that, in addition to other unions, he won the endorsement of none other than the very powerful and influential Teamsters. They endorsed him even after the famous PATCO strike where Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers. (source)

And this is hardly a comprehensive list of the things Reagan did that fly in the face of the rhetoric being put forth on Fox News these days. I didn’t even go into Iran-Contra—his biggest scandal. Remember also the next time Sean Hannity goes on about Reagan and his “greatest era of prosperity” this Wall Street Journal report on job creation. It says that Reagan created 16 million jobs (not 21 million as Hannity purports) while President Clinton created 23.1 million. George W. Bush? 3 million. Hannity punching bag, Jimmy Carter, created 10.5 million in just a single term.

One of the biggest canards is Reagan’s trickle down economics (which he borrowed from 1920’s Republicans, and we know how that worked out), also known as supply-side economics or Reaganomics. His own budget director stated that it was nothing but rhetoric and “was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate.” There is no evidence anywhere to show that giving the rich more tax breaks results in a better economy for all.

(A note about sources used in this entry: I have provided links for sources where possible but those source links are anything but exhaustive. For simplicity sake I have mainly included only a single source for readability purposes. In some cases Wikipedia is used but the information there is referenced simply as convenience as the information is readily available on other sources whose links tend to change. Virtually all of the entries start from my direct memory and were checked across several sources.)

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  1. Gotta love comments from people that make flat statements and provide zero details. Which facts specifically are you questioning? I lived through Reagan. I posted corroborating evidence from sources like the Wall Street Journal. Just because Sean Hannity doesn’t agree doesn’t mean my facts are incorrect.

    Unless you’ve got a bit more to say I don’t know why anyone would bother getting on to comment other than to underscore my belief that such people are just blind zealots with no ability to think for themselves.

  2. I have to give you credit for this post. I’m a teacher in Maryland and this is one of the most complete posts available that provides a realistic insight into President Reagan that isn’t overflowing with bias. I too grew up on Reagan and had begun to think my memory was failing given all the conflicting reports of his record from biased sources.

  3. We obviously lived in diferent Americas in the 70’s and 80’s. My memories are of big recoveries and lower taxes(my check stubs showed that much). I would also adivise not using newspaper articles and oages like ehow and wikipedia even for expediance. Show the actual sources, you had five government charts and documents and they were strong support for what you were saying, the articles and such really let me down. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but your choice of sources to list aren’t encourageing.

  4. Rich Heimlich on

    Gene, thanks for the comment. We lived in the same America.

    Please see these two pieces for comparison:

    Unemployment Comparison: Obama vs. Reagan
    Another Hannity Factoid Scrutinized

    The first one shows the bust, boom and bust of the Reagan era that virtually all economists and historians agree on. You can compare that also to the DOW data above. It was not just a recovery and lower taxes. It also marks the points of major tax overhauls so the belief that your check was bigger just touches one facet of the discussion.

    The second covers a much wider period and talks about GDP/Real GDP and shows that the period you mention was much more complex.

    Furthermore I stand behind my sourcing. This piece is sourced more than 99% of all blog postings and even mainstream reporting on the topic. The only ehow reference was as the third source that was supported secondarily by a New York Times piece and primarily by data direct from the FDIC. More to the point, many of the newspaper references were regarding perceptions at the time driven, in large part, by newspaper stories of the day. If you don’t recall, for example, all the doom and gloom over Social Security going bankrupt within a year then you’ve simply forgotten the fact that it was all over the news. Pick any paper of your choosing and you’ll find the same stories in them on this issue at that time.

    I welcome any reader to do what I did and present their own source to back up their position. I plan to continue updating the piece now and again but it takes time and I’m not getting paid to do so.

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