June 3, 2009
There's been talk that George W. Bush was so inept that he should trademark the phrase "Worst President Ever," though some historians would bestow that title on pre-Civil War President James Buchanan. Still, a case could be made for putting Ronald Reagan in the competition.
Granted, the very idea of rating Reagan as one of the worst presidents ever will infuriate his many right-wing acolytes and offend Washington insiders who have made a cottage industry out of buying some protection from Republicans by lauding the 40th President.
But there's a growing realization that the starting point for many of the catastrophes confronting the United States today can be traced to Reagan's presidency. There's also a grudging reassessment that the "failed"- presidents of the 1970s--Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter--may deserve more credit for trying to grapple with the problems that now beset the country.
Nixon helped create the Environmental Protection Agency; he imposed energy-conservation measures; he opened the diplomatic door to communist China. Nixon's administration also detected the growing weakness in the Soviet Union and advocated a policy of détente (a plan for bringing the Cold War to an end or at least curbing its most dangerous excesses).
After Nixon's resignation in the Watergate scandal, Ford continued many of Nixon's policies, particularly trying to wind down the Cold War with Moscow. However, confronting a rebellion from Reagan's Republican Right in 1976, Ford abandoned "détente."
Ford also let hard-line Cold Warriors (and a first wave of young intellectuals who became known as neoconservatives) pressure the CIA's analytical division, and he brought in a new generation of hard-liners, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
After defeating Ford in 1976, Carter injected more respect for human rights into U.S. foreign policy, a move some scholars believe put an important nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union, leaving it hard-pressed to justify the repressive internal practices of the East Bloc. Carter also emphasized the need to contain the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in unstable countries like Pakistan.
Domestically, Carter pushed a comprehensive energy policy and warned Americans that their growing dependence on foreign oil represented a national security threat, what he famously called "the moral equivalent of war."
However, powerful vested interests--both domestic and foreign--managed to exploit the shortcomings of these three presidents to sabotage any sustained progress. By 1980, Reagan had become a pied piper luring the American people away from the tough choices that Nixon, Ford and Carter had defined.
Cruelty with a Smile
With his superficially sunny disposition--and a ruthless political strategy of exploiting white-male resentments--Reagan convinced millions of Americans that the threats they faced were: African-American welfare queens, Central American leftists, a rapidly expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal government.
When it came to cutting back on America's energy use, Reagan's message could be boiled down to the old Bob Marley lyric, "Don't worry, be happy." Rather than pressing Detroit to build smaller, fuel-efficient cars, Reagan made clear that the auto industry could manufacture gas-guzzlers without much nagging from Washington.
The same with the environment. Reagan intentionally staffed the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department with officials who were hostile toward regulation aimed at protecting the environment. George W. Bush didn't invent Republican hostility toward scientific warnings of environmental calamities; he was just picking up where Reagan left off.