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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Critics question Reagan legacy
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online

Ronald Reagan in 1992
Nothing stuck to the "Teflon President", opponents said
As tens of thousands of Americans file past the casket of Ronald Reagan, some observers are quietly - and not so quietly - beginning to question the accolades heaped on the late president since his death.

Many obituaries have highlighted his sunny charm and good humour, while others have credited him with helping to end the Cold War, restore America's confidence in itself and "get government off people's back", as he himself would have put it.

But critics point out that there was another side to his presidency - record budget deficits, economic pressure on the middle class, human rights abuses in Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal.

Correctives are being issued even to the claim that he was the most popular president in modern history.

Less popular than successors

Gallup poll data suggest that he was roughly as popular as Bill Clinton over time - with President Clinton running slightly higher approval ratings than Reagan during the second half of each man's presidency.

Past presidents look a lot better when compared to the present
Mark Weisbrot,
And neither ever reached the 90% approval ratings that both George W Bush and his father achieved briefly early in their terms.

Economist Mark Weisbrot says the adulation in the wake of Reagan's death is natural.

"Past presidents look a lot better when compared to the present," he told BBC News Online.

Even Richard Nixon - forced to resign in disgrace - was remembered as a great statesman when he died, rather than as the architect of Watergate, said Mr Weisbrot, of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

But he is unreserved in his own evaluation of Reagan, dismissing his economic policies as "mostly a failure" and accusing him of backing governments that engaged in systematic rape and torture.

Reagan promoted an economic theory known as "supply-side economics" - which George Bush senior famously derided as "voodoo economics" when running against Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980.

The theory held that tax cuts for the rich would lead them to save and invest money, leading to increased productivity and lower unemployment.

Weak economy

"None of this happened," Mr Weisbrot said. "If you look at the 1980s, it was the worst decade of post-World War II growth.

"The median wage was flat, and there was a massive redistribution of income, with wealth going to the top one or two percent of the population," he said.

He was like everybody's grandfather - nobody would believe that he would cut student aid or not be for the environment
Patricia Schroeder,
Former Congresswoman
He was scathing over the Reagan administration's backing for anti-Communist Guatemalan strongman Efrain Rios Montt, who led the Central American country during some of the worst human rights abuses of its 36-year-long civil war.

"Congress required him to certify that [Guatemala] was improving human rights, which he did. Reagan was praising Rios Montt when there were systematic rapes and tortures going on," he said.

Other critics have pointed out that - perhaps more mundanely - Reagan's fiscal rhetoric rarely matched his actions.

Former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder still laughs when recalling budget battles with the Reagan White House.

"This is a person who said he believed in balanced budgets but ran the biggest deficit in history," she said.

"He never produced a balanced budget," the self-described liberal Democrat told BBC News Online.

Reagan promised to reduce the size of government - but government spending increased by 25%, adjusted for inflation, on his watch, Timothy Noah wrote in the online journal Slate.

And the number of civilian government employees increased slightly, he added.

"Fittingly, the Ronald Reagan Building... today houses 5,000 employees and is the largest government building in Washington," he wrote.

'Teflon President'

But even at the time the public rarely blamed him for failing to live up to his words - leading Mrs Schroeder to coin the phrase "Teflon President" to describe him.

"No one could believe that he could do anything wrong," she said. "He was like everybody's grandfather - nobody would believe that he would cut student aid or not be for the environment."

Oliver North testifies over the Iran-contra scandal
North said he thought Reagan knew about the Iran-Contra affair
She said Reagan's staff managed to deflect blame from the president.

"The White House was very managed. If anything went wrong, they would blame the staff, not him."

The policy reached its apotheosis in the scandal that became known as the Iran-Contra affair.

Banned by Congress from supporting anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua, Reagan's National Security Council (NSC) backed them secretly - with money raised by selling arms to Iran in violation of a separate US embargo.

When word of the arrangement leaked out, NSC chair John Poindexter resigned; the man who directed the operation, Lt Col Oliver North, was fired.

Eleven administration officials were convicted on criminal charges over the affair.

Impeaching Reagan should certainly have been considered
Lawrence Walsh,
Iran-Contra special prosecutor
Oliver North claimed Reagan and then Vice-President George Bush senior knew about the arrangements, but they denied it and no evidence was ever found to disprove their claims.

A special prosecutor's report said that Reagan and Vice-President Bush had some knowledge of either the arrangement or the cover-up.

The arms sales to Iran "were carried out with the knowledge of, among others, President Ronald Reagan" and his vice-president, prosecutor Lawrence Walsh concluded.

The Reagan administration "wilfully withheld... large volumes of highly relevant, contemporaneously created documents", he added.

He said impeaching Reagan "certainly should have been considered", the Washington Post reported.

But Mr Walsh's report was not completed until 1994 - the year that Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer's disease and withdrew from public life.

After her years of fighting the Reagan administration, Mrs Schroeder is now philosophical about the battles of the 1980s.

"History has got to be neutral," she said. "In 30 or 40 years we will look back and see what actually happened."

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