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By Bill Gallagher

"But who is this Santa Evita?
Why all this howling hysterical sorrow?
What kind of goddess has lived among us?
How will we ever get by without her?"
-- "Evita," lyrics by Tim Rice.

DETROIT -- We in Detroit are blessed to have the wonderful Pistons -- a rare gift -- a great defensive basketball team challenging the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA title. The attention focused on the Pistons has spared us some of the gushing media adoration for Ronald Reagan.

The network sports commentators have been hyping the myth of the invincible Lakers and largely ignoring the determination of the lads from Detroit. They are much like their colleagues in news organizations who have been unrestrained in their overwhelming praise of St. Ronald and forget the scrutiny required from the devil's advocate corps.

Yes, I know the dictum of Diogenes: "Do not speak ill of the dead." Yet when the worshipful deification of the departed distorts reality beyond recognition, duty beckons and journalists must get off the sentimental journey and start reporting the facts, disturbing as they are. The truth must trump adulation.

Like Evita Peron, Ronald Reagan did have some charm and virtue. He was affable, humorous and optimistic. But he and his administration were far from saintly, and many at home and around the world suffered and died from the Reagan touch.

Yet during his presidency and in his death, Reagan's PR handlers have performed magnificently, managing positive media coverage of his achievements and deflecting attention from his many failures.

His most significant achievement certainly was the arms deals he cut with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, defusing the Cold War.

Nancy Reagan, perhaps aided by her astrologer, deserves credit for urging her husband to take the dramatic steps that helped end the long conflict.

But let's not forget that many around Reagan opposed making peace with the Soviets, most notably the crazed and often criminal neocons who have now re-emerged to shape and dominate George W. Bush's dangerous world view.

Crediting Ronald Reagan with single-handedly ending the Cold War is wretched excess and fails to recognize the courageous contributions of people like presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, to name just a few. And, of course, the American people, who sacrificed and paid for the costly confrontation.

The Iran-Contra scandal involved far more serious crimes than Bill Clinton's lies to cover up his sexual romps. Bribing terrorists in Iran with arms to free hostages and then using the proceeds to finance an illegal war in Nicaragua was disgraceful, criminal and impeachable.

However, after Watergate, the nation didn't have the stomach to bounce another president. Still, we should never forget the gravity of a White House gone wild and the man in charge just smiling and shrugging off his responsibility for the lawlessness.

A few of Reagan's minions were fired and criminally charged, but the details of his role in the duplicity remain nebulous and his acceptance of responsibility tenuous. The closest he got to coming clean was when he said in 1987, "A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not." I still have no idea what that means.

Reagan was an unflinching supporter of the apartheid government of South Africa. He once said, "They have eliminated the segregation that we once had in our country," ignoring the fact that South African police at the time were shooting black demonstrators.

Reagan said flat-out he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most important measure to end racial segregation since the Civil War. He supported granting tax-exempt status to private schools that practiced racial discrimination.

He embraced a rogues gallery of murderous military bosses who brought killing fields to Central and South America, and used the CIA to subvert democratic movements in order to protect elite establishments in the region. That's a part of the Reagan record his myth-makers cannot erase.

And then, of course, he played a decisive role in Saddam Hussein's survival in the Iran-Iraq war. Reagan helped make it possible for the evil dictator to use terrible weapons "against his own people," acts that later became a rallying cry for George W. Bush to wage war against Iraq.

Ronald Reagan used backroom diplomacy to supply intelligence information and hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees to prop up Saddam Hussein after Saddam's unprovoked attack on Iran. In 1982, the Reagan State Department removed Iraq from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism, thus opening the door for aid and trade.

Reagan sent his special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, on a secret mission to Baghdad in 1983. Bearing a gift of cowboy boots from the president to Saddam, Rumsfeld worked out a deal to provide Iraq with high-value military intelligence from U.S. satellites and pledged to sell U.S.-made helicopters that were converted for military use.

Following Reagan's lead, the French and Germans began providing arms and military technology and materials to Iraq. According to Kenneth Pollack in his new book, "The Threatening Storm," the help for Saddam included "building vast complexes for Iraq's chemical warfare, biological warfare, and ballistic missile programs."

By mid-1983, it was well known in Washington that "almost daily" Iraq was using chemical weapons on Iranian forces. Not a peep of protest from the Reagan administration. Later Saddam used those satellite photos the Reagan administration provided to help pinpoint the drop of chemical bombs on Kurdish civilians near Hallabja. Iraq had become a regime that murdered its own people, a menacing threat to its neighbors and a dear friend of the United States.

Ronald Reagan facilitated many of the very crimes George W. Bush would cite 20 years later to justify his war with Iraq.

At home, Reagan supported the deregulation of the savings and loan industry and then presided over the collapse of the S and Ls, sticking the taxpayers with a nearly $1 trillion bill. His record on the environment was a joke, summed up by his odd assertion that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."

St. Ronald chose to treat AIDS -- unquestionably the most serious public health threat during his presidency -- as if it simply didn't exist.

The Centers for Disease Control warned of the spread of the deadly virus in 1982. While health professionals clamored for action, Reagan wouldn't even mention the disease publicly until 1987. By that time, 25,000 people had died of AIDS.

And, alas, there was Reaganomics, the salvation of capitalism and dread of the "welfare queens."

The Reagan mantra was to cut taxes for the rich and cut off benefits for the poor. That process was supposed to eliminate the federal deficit.

That greatest of St. Ronald's many fables resulted in the haves getting more and the have-nots less.

Eventually, to his credit, Reagan recognized the folly and raised taxes substantially to undo the mess he had created. In the end, though, the Reagan legacy is the idea that there is a free lunch for the rich and that the role of government is to transfer the burden of its costs to the middle class.

While conservatives and their slaves in the liberal media hail the "great prosperity" of the Reagan years, the truth is that, by almost every measurement, Bill Clinton's economic stewardship was vastly superior and his policies helped many more people.

Jobs and personal income grew substantially more under Clinton than under Reagan. The one statistic that should make the martini-sippers at country clubs across the land choke on their olives is that, during the Clinton years, the Dow grew 700 percent more than under Reagan's watch.

And -- can you imagine? -- that happened in a time of fiscal restraint.

Reagan preached reducing government debt. Clinton practiced the principle.

Yet the myths and fables of Ronald Reagan endure, enhanced with the help of the largely uncritical media that finds fiction more comfortable than fact.

He was far from a great president, he was not even good.

So, St. Ronald, we bid you farewell. May you rest in peace with the words of that commie Che from "Evita" ringing in your ears.

"She had her moments -- she had some style.
But that's all gone now as soon as the smoke from the funeral clears.
We're all going to see how she did nothing for years.
But the star is gone, the glamour's worn thin.
That's a pretty bad style for a state to be in.
Instead of government, we had a stage.
Instead of help, we were given a crowd.
She didn't say much, but she said it loud."


Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 15 2004