... where I'm joined by my Cracked co-workers Alex Schmidt and Tom Reimann. It's also what I'm talking about in this column today. Here goes!
Given the nature of this article, it would border on bad taste for me to mention that this past Sunday marked the 12th anniversary of the death of Conservative Republican Godhead Ronald Reagan, but alas, I just did. That said, he'd merit a mention even if I didn't still have a bunch of decorations to take down, solely on the strength of all the comparisons the Donald Trump candidacy has drawn to that of Reagan's.
Does that slogan look familiar?
I sincerely hope the comparisons end at the candidate stage for a whole bunch of reasons, but one especially: If you ask me, Ronald Reagan was the worst goddamn president this country has elected to date. I talk about that on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by my Cracked co-workers Alex Schmidt and Tom Reimann. It's also what I'm talking about in this column today. Here goes!
If we're talking pure numbers, there really isn't anything to argue about when it comes to which administration oversaw this country in the shadiest manner. Reagan wins that hands down. During his time in office, an astounding 138 members of his team were investigated, indicted, or convicted for their roles in various scandals. You could argue that merely being investigated shouldn't count, but that would be a stupid argument. Of course being investigated counts. Plenty of people live their entire lives without being the subject of an investigation of any sort, you know?
Even if you did take that part out of the equation, the number of Reagan administration officials who were convicted of wrongdoing of some sort is astonishing, especially when compared with the statistics of famously "corrupt" presidents like Nixon or Clinton. This list on DailyKos.com just references those who were convicted of crimes that related to the jobs they performed as part of the administration. There are 21 names on the list. A similar list about the Nixon presidency would only produce eight names. Clinton's would have just one.
It's not just that a lot of scandals plagued the Reagan presidency; it's that they were gigantic scandals. Remember the Iran-Contra affair? If so, it's probably just the part where Oliver North's testimony somehow made him a celebrity.
My mom fucking loved this dude.
The details of the controversy were slightly less charming. Basically, senior Reagan administration officials agreed to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon. So much for not negotiating with terrorists, am I right, Reagan fanboys? Oh, they also used some of the profits from those arms deals to fund Contra forces in Nicaragua, who were hoping to topple the socialist government in that country.
We didn't know about "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select, Start" back then.
There were two huge problems with this scheme. For one, we had an arms embargo in place with Iran, meaning those sales were illegal. For two, Congress had recently passed the Boland Amendment, which prohibited the use of government money to fund the Contras. In other words, it was a huge deal, what with all of the circumventing of the law and whatnot. The jury is still out on whether Reagan had direct knowledge of the scheme, but it's almost worse if he didn't. Keep your subordinates in order, for fuck's sake. And this was just one of the massive scandals that happened on his watch. Another highlight was the Savings and Loan Scandal, which bled taxpayers of around $150 billion.
Also, not to point fingers or anything, but the first Space Shuttle explosion happened while he was in office. I mean, sure, it's probably a bit of a stretch to pin that on him, but still, it happened. Besides, it's not just scandals that made Reagan impressively terrible for the country. His policies were garbage, too! For example ...
A lot of different names have been assigned to the fiscal policy that Ronald Reagan unleashed on the world. During the 1980 Republican Primaries, George H.W. Bush called it "Voodoo Economics." As awesome as that sounds, it wasn't a compliment. The most textbook-sounding name for it is "Supply-Side Economics." But the most commonly used label is "Reaganomics." Whatever you call it, the basic thinking is that wealthy people are job creators, and the best way to boost a sluggish economy is to cut taxes on those job creators so they can, you know, create more jobs. In other words, the good fortune of the nation's richest citizens would eventually trickle down to the less well-off parts of society.
Did it work? That depends on whom you ask. If you were rich at the time, it absolutely worked. Stock markets were booming, corporations were raking in windfall profits, people were doing lots of coke ...
Still a better investment than a DeLorean.
... it was a great time to be alive and extremely wealthy.
Unfortunately, all that wealth never trickled down the way it was supposed to. Wages for lower- and middle-class Americans didn't rise much at all, and they haven't since. Income inequality became significantly worse during the Reaganomics years, at least partly leading to the "one percent" situation we find ourselves in now. What it amounted to was a massive transfer of wealth from one segment of society to another. I think there's a name for that kind of thing, but it's escaping me at the moment.
Also, despite enacting a fiscal policy that relied on reduced government spending to succeed, the Reagan administration spent its way to an insane $2.7 trillion debt, thanks in large part to defense spending meant to combat communism -- as if simply putting Rocky Balboa on the case wasn't more than sufficient.
We'll talk more about Russia in a bit. But first, let's look at another factor that played into average Americans not prospering in the slightest under Reagan.
You know what used to be the shit? Going on strike. For decades, the American workers' go-to method of ensuring they were taken care of on the job was choosing not to work until their demands were met. Using the ever-present threat of mass work stoppages as leverage, union leaders were able to negotiate on the behalf of workers to make sure their wages and benefits improved as long as productivity and profits increased.
For the most part, this practice came to a screeching halt in the '80s under Reagan, which is the exact opposite of what he promised would happen when he was running for president. Sure, he was a former actor, but he was also president of the Screen Actors Guild for a while. Even better, he was the first person in that role to lead his troops into a strike. However, the fact that he eventually settled that strike in a way which was so beneficial to the other side that fellow actors like Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney labeled it "The Great Giveaway" was mostly left out of that discussion.
You remember Mickey Rooney, right kids?
Ironically enough, one of the unions that threw their support behind the Reagan campaign was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, more leisurely known as PATCO. I say that's ironic because it was our then-president's involvement in a PATCO labor dispute that effectively served as the death knell for unions in this country.
In an effort to improve their working conditions, nearly 13,000 government-employed air traffic controllers walked off the job. It was a huge risk, on account of how, as federal employees, the law forbid them from participating in a strike of any kind. No worries, it's not like any president in his right mind would risk the negative press that would come with firing thousands of Americans who simply wanted a little less stress at work. In theory, Nixon could've done exactly that when 200,000 postal workers went on strike in 1970, but even he wasn't that crazy. "Send in the National Guard to deliver mail for a few weeks instead" crazy, sure, but not "mass fire thousands of Americans" crazy.
And besides, Reagan was a pro-union president whom PATCO helped usher into office. He would have their back, right? Nah. On August 5, 1981, Ronald Reagan fired everyone who refused to return to work ...
On live television, no less.
... which was more than 11,000 people. His justification for the controversial move, along with the law forbidding government workers from striking, was that the walk-off constituted a "peril to national safety," as if having to find and train thousands of new air traffic controllers overnight wasn't going to cause any problems. It definitely did. While the feds were able to get around 50 percent of scheduled flights back in the sky in relatively short order, it took a full decade before federal air traffic controllers reached the training and staffing levels they'd been at prior to the dispute.
Before Reagan intervened in the PATCO dispute, using replacement workers to end a strike was severely frowned upon. It was made technically legal way back in 1938, but it was also seen as a thuggish way to undermine one of the American worker's best and only means to fight back against shitty work conditions. Once the president says it's cool, though, all bets are off. Private employers absolutely took this as a sign that they were free to use replacement workers in the event of a strike.
In other words, the thing requested on this sign never happened.
As mentioned before, without the nuclear option of a strike at their disposal, unions become way less effective. At the height of their powers in this country, nearly 40 percent of workers in the private sector were unionized. It's somewhere around seven percent today. If you've ever wondered why wages just stopped increasing at some point in the last few decades in this country, the destruction of unions is your answer. Productivity increases, profits go up, worker pay at the lowest levels stays the same. It's the opposite of how the "American Dream" is supposed to work, and people treat Reagan like a hero for making it all possible.
The spread of AIDS in the United States literally coincided with the start of the Reagan presidency. There were AIDS deaths prior to 1980, but only a few, and we didn't recognize them as AIDS-related because we didn't even know the disease existed at the time. And we're just talking two or three deaths, so it's not a thing that would've shown up on the radar of any previous administration.
By 1982, more than 600 people in the United States had succumbed to AIDS. That's a lot. By 1984, the death toll reached 5,596. Once things get that out of hand, you'd expect to have heard something from the government about it, but that didn't happen. Despite the disease having taken the lives of thousands of Americans, Ronald Reagan didn't even say the word "AIDS" publicly until 1985.
In fact, the entirety of the Reagan administration's response to the situation prior to that year is captured in this seven-minute-long documentary that originally appeared on the Vanity Fair website.
That "response" mostly amounts to a series of exchanges in which White House press secretary Larry Speakes lightheartedly insinuates that a reporter who keeps asking questions about AIDS might be gay.
See, that's the thing. It was considered a "gay" disease for the longest time. For the most part, gay people don't vote Republican, and even if they did, if you're the kind of president who thinks your job is to make the apocalypse happen, you probably just assumed AIDS was the Lord's way of punishing homosexuals.
It wasn't until an Indiana grade school student named Ryan White was barred from returning to class after being diagnosed with AIDS that the administration started looking into the possibility that maybe the disease wasn't caused by "sin" after all.
What's especially problematic about our government's refusal to acknowledge AIDS until 1985 is that for years before that, blood that was infected with the disease was used to make blood-clotting medicine that hemophiliacs rely on to live.
Here's a movie about it, if you've got a couple hours to spare.
Thousands of Americans who took these drugs were infected with HIV. As early as 1983, the Centers for Disease Control suspected AIDS might be spreading through blood plasma products. They held a meeting at the time with members of the pharmaceutical industry which ended with someone from the CDC pounding his fist on the table and asking "How many people have to die before we do something?" The White House didn't bother looking into it for two more years.
It's hard to say how many Americans died as a result of the Reagan administration's laidback attitude toward the AIDS epidemic, but does the number even matter? Even if it's just one, that's enough. George W. Bush spent a couple of minutes sitting in stunned silence after hearing about 9/11, and we haven't let him live that shit down since, as if there was anything he could've done in those few moments aside from symbolically startle the shit out of a room full of kids.
This is different. Reagan could've done something, he just didn't. That's unforgivable. There's no other way to put it.
I said earlier that we'd mention Russia again, and sure enough, here we are. Without exception, nothing commanded President Reagan's attention more than Russia. There were seemingly no lengths he wouldn't go to in the name of making sure Russia failed at every damn thing they tried in the '80s. He spent millions of dollars in taxpayer money supporting any and every effort to fight communism (or anything that sort of resembled it) anywhere in the world it happened to rear its head. It was called the "Reagan Doctrine," and it explains not only our economy-wrecking obsession with shooting Russian missiles out of the sky, but also our multiple attempts to interfere in the politics of Central America at the time.
I'm still curious if that Star Wars shit would've worked.
Our support for the Contras in Nicaragua garnered the most headlines, but it was our silent intervention in a conflict on an entirely different continent that set us on the path to our current "war" with radical Islam.
In 1978, a communist-leaning regime took control of Afghanistan after a violent coup. Any geography buffs reading this will note that Afghanistan is conveniently located just a stone's throw (over a few other countries) from Russia, so naturally, this was a development the Soviets more than welcomed. The same couldn't be said for Afghanistan's Muslim majority, who were subjected to a series of radical reforms, some of which included mass killings of those who disagreed too vociferously with the changes being made. Rebel forces began rising up to challenge the communist government. When said government asked for assistance maintaining control of the country, Russia was more than happy to oblige.
Of course, none of this was lost on the United States. When Afghan fighters proved to be more of a challenge to the Russian military than anyone expected, we were all about helping to make sure Russia's unfortunate situation only got worse. The CIA descended upon Afghanistan to find out what they could do to help, reporting back to Reagan with videos like this one ...
... which presents the people of Afghanistan as devoutly religious, honorable folks who simply wanted to be free from the chains of communism, and all they needed to make it happen was an army's worth of training and supplies from us. As almost all of us know now, the leader of those rebel forces was the beaming ray of sunshine earning heaps of praise from the Western media in this 1993 article.
Yes! That is Osama bin Laden. Thanks for asking. He was our pal for a lot of years, which we proved by sending him all the weapons he needed (and more) to fight off the Russians. It probably seemed like a great investment at the time, but to say it came back to haunt us as a nation would be a massive understatement. We stayed friends for a while after Russia left, and we even stayed on relatively good terms throughout our first invasion of Iraq in the early '90s. Our decision to keep a military presence in the Middle East after that conflict ended put a serious strain on the relationship, though, and that's why the Taliban and Al-Qaeda eventually became household names in the United States.
When we inevitably went to war with Afghanistan, it turned into one of the longest military conflicts in our country's history, thanks in large part to the fact that during the 1980s, we trained them incredibly well. USA! USA! USA!
One of the least-discussed aspects of Reagan's legacy is how his pioneering work in mental healthcare reform kind of maybe led to the overwhelming homelessness crisis we've been dealing with for decades now.
It all started when he was just the lowly governor of California. In 1967, he signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act into law, which made forced institutionalization or medication of people who might be suffering from mental illness significantly more difficult. This followed years of the state moving patients in state-run mental health facilities to group care facilities and boarding houses and such. Or if you'd prefer the elevator pitch version: They kicked the mentally ill out of hospitals and made it harder for them to get back in, should the need ever arise in the future.
Not that we kept those hospitals open anyway.
These boarding houses were less about treating mental illness and more about keeping people just alive enough for the facility to collect government money for it. Even worse, a lack of funding meant that there weren't enough of these facilities to accommodate all the people who needed them, leading to a severe spike in homelessness in California shortly after the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act became law.
The statistics regarding mentally ill people in the criminal justice system followed suit, increasing by 50 percent within a year.
Obviously, with success rates like that, the next logical step is to take the program nationwide. When Reagan took over as president, that was literally one of the first things he did. Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980 with the intention of fixing our rapidly failing mental health system. Ronald Reagan repealed it in 1981, opting to give the money to states as block grants that could be spent on whatever the hell they want.
A starter tank for the local police force, perhaps?
With that single stroke of a pen, the problems that plagued California after de-institutionalization became the law of the land for the rest of the country. It was around this same time that heinous crimes committed by people suffering from mental illness started making headlines -- a trend which kicked off, fittingly enough, when John Hinckley, Jr. shot Reagan in a (presumably) failed attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster.
One of the first mass shootings I remember hearing about took place in San Ysidro, California in 1984, when a man named James Huberty walked into a McDonald's and opened fire, killing 21 people and injuring 19 more.
It was the worst mass shooting committed by a lone perpetrator in the nation's history at the time. Tragically, in the weeks after the massacre, it was revealed that Huberty had called a mental health facility just a day prior and attempted to have himself committed. A receptionist took a message and promised he'd get a call back. That call never came.
So the next time a rabid firearms enthusiast says that improving mental health treatment is the answer to controlling gun violence in this country, tell them that they're probably right, and then remind them how much of a shame it is that their favorite president didn't see it the same way.
Vote for Adam on Twitter @adamtodbrown. You should also come see him tell jokes live and in person in Chicago on June 25th at North Bar in Wicker Park. Get tickets here! Adam would also like to thank Diana Cook for her help researching this column. Follow her on Twitter @misstirio.
Ronald Reagan might have brought upon the end of the world. See why in 5 World Leaders Who Were Accused of Being the Antichrist. And see how Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 5 Insane Strategies That Won Elections (and Changed History).
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Want to know how to go mano-a-mano with a president? Daniel O'Brien can help with How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country.