I hope it is not just me who thinks the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is going too far. This group has taken upon itself the ambitious task of naming at least one notable landmark in every state for the ailing former president. But that’s not all. No, they want more. Much more. They also want one notable landmark in every county in the country too. Advocates are already pressing for a Reagan Memorial on the Mall. Can’t the man die first?
In the eyes of Republicans of course Reagan is their hero. Consequently he must be our hero too. One reason he perhaps looms so large in the imagination of Republicans is that really there weren’t that many great Republican presidents, so beggars can’t be choosers. It is unlikely any Republican president will ever match Lincoln’s legacy. But since Lincoln, the pickings for Republicans have been slim. The Great Depression occurred on Hoover’s watch. (Hoover and Jimmy Carter have a lot in common: presidents who were in power in troubled times that were largely beyond their control, but who managed to excel as leaders and statesmen more after they left office than when they were in it.) Eisenhower is the best of the bunch since Lincoln; he knew how to balance a budget and run a country. Nixon of course, was the biggest embarrassment of all time for the Republican Party. Ford was a transition president. One term presidents don’t qualify as legacy material, as Bush I found out although he was one of the better ones.
Clearly the current Bush is running hard to meet and exceed the Reagan legacy and, unfortunately, he is doing a great job. He’s created deficits far larger than Reagan achieved, and Reagan created deficits on a magnitude never seen before.
I wonder if the people supporting this project were asleep during the 1980s. I certainly wasn’t. I was a newly minted civil servant. Although I had no exposure before the bizarre workings of government, things quickly went beyond comical to ludicrous. I worked at the Defense Mapping Agency at the time and remember being just astounded by the amount of money being thrown at our agency. When it came to defense spending, Star Wars was just the tip of the iceberg . We literally couldn’t find enough places to spend the money. Much of it went to create systems way beyond their time to move maps produced on paper to digital maps. I was part of a massive reengineering effort at the time. I remember business trips for hush hush requirements sessions with defense contractors as they tried to automate our enterprise business processes. I’m not sure whatever happened to these systems, or even if they got off the ground. I do know when I left in 1987 they weren’t operational. But there was no let up in the defense money pouring in. I am sure we did our best to prop up the share prices of bloated and wasteful defense contractors. (The Meese Commission, which was charged to look into waste and fraud in federal agencies, gave our agency high marks. This was a source of considerable amusement to us at the time, and another sign that the Reagan Administration had lost touch with reality.)
The downsizing of the federal work force was another constant started when Reagan took office and has continued ever since. Early in my career I was fortunate in the sense that I was working in the Defense Department, and that put us largely off limits. But by the 1990s, downsizing had hit DoD too. About the time I left the Air Force my office was being looked at to be A-76’ed (referring here to Circular A-76, otherwise known as the “let’s fire feds and replace them with overpaid contractors” Executive Order.)
We seem to have forgotten just what a wreck Reagan made of the government. Defense money was squandered for bombers costing billions of dollars and for laser satellite systems that were supposed to shoot down enemy missiles from space (but never did). The Savings and Loan fiasco also happened on the Reagan watch. In an attempt to make banks compete, the Reagan Administration let S&L’s invest in all sort of murky investments that caused S&L’s and banks to fail all across the country. The U.S. taxpayers bailed out these mistakes to the tune of over $100B.
And then there were the cast of bizarre characters populating the top ranks of government. As one example, we had Anne Burford Gorsuch, at the EPA, whose idea of improving the environment was to decimate the agency, and who set the sterling example of chain smoking in her office. And of course who can forget Energy Secretary James Watt, who showed his sterling political skills by saying he had the perfect staff because “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”.
Meanwhile, we had Reagan involving the CIA and our military in all sorts of banana republics. We invaded Grenada because a few Marxists were running around. We funded what amounted to government terrorists in a civil war in El Salvador that killed and terrorized thousand of people for more than a decade. We did similar operations in places like Guatemala and Costa Rica. Reagan approved a brilliant strategy of providing “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan with shoulder-launched Stinger missiles. These same freedom fighters, of course, are today’s Taliban and many of the weapons we supplied are now being turned against our forces. Reagan also cozied up to Saddam Hussein and sent no less than current Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld to Baghdad to make nice and to offer U.S. military aid. And then there was the plainly illegal but under the table shenanigans that Oliver North directed from his office at the National Security Council in the White House. Lets also not forget the hundreds of marines killed by a terrorist bombing in Lebanon for which Reagan assumed “full responsibility” but naturally didn’t pay a political price.
Arguably Reagan did change the shape of government. Before he took office most of us thought of the government as an institution by and for the people. Reagan portrayed the government as a somewhat evil institution not to be trusted. His “legacy” continues today to portray the government this way. He embraced supply side economics that led to the largest deficits in the history of our country, during either peace or war.
Is this the stuff of legacy? Apparently. Because here in Washington the Reagan Legacy Project has been very busy. First National Airport was renamed to Ronald Reagan National Airport. Those of us who remember Reagan were very puzzled by this. He hated Washington and couldn’t wait to get away from it for extended vacations in California. Why name an airport after him next to a city he loathed? But there was also the Ronald Reagan Building at Federal Triangle, which has the dubious honor of being the most expensive federal building every constructed, busting its budget numerous times (all that marble gets expensive!) The Reagan Building may well be a fitting landmark to the man. As a president who gave us the largest deficits of all time, it is fitting to name the most costly and badly managed federal construction project after him.
Will Ronald Reagan make it on Mount Rushmore? Rest assured the Reagan Legacy Project is working hard on this endeavor too. But also be confident of this: history will judge Reagan as a lesser president, not a great president. Naming so many things after him and putting him on Mount Rushmore won’t change the facts. He was a nice guy but a disaster of a president. Fifty years from now his name will only evoke snickers.