Not Too Late for a War Crimes Tribunal

He turns 91 this week, so its possible Ronald Reagan cant remember. But Jim Washburn cant forget

He once told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had witnessed the suffering of the concentration camps firsthand, filming their liberation with the Signal Corps in World War II. Not unless there were death camps along Santa Monica Boulevard: Reagan was in California for the entire war.

At one point, deep in the mire of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, Beirut dispatched an ambassador to the White House. Reagan was awakened to meet with the man, who told the president and his aides a tale of treachery, terror and the apocalypse. The diplomat later noted that Reagan seemed to listen with real appreciation. Then the diplomat paused, and Reagan asked, "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Danny Thomas?"

When he proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, the Star Wars technology he spoke of bore less relation to what scientists thought possible than to an "inertia projector" he had guarded in the 1940 Warner Bros. spy movie Murder in the Air.

His era of movies didn't deal in ambiguities but clearly defined good guys and bad guys. There's no drama if the bad guy is a pushover, so in Reagan's real-time movie, the Soviet Union became the Evil Empire. He claimed they had superiority over us in submarine and missile technology, when the opposite was true. With our multiwarhead missiles, we had a clear atomic superiority, if such a thing even matters once you're untold megatons beyond mutually assured destruction. Reagan stated the Soviets were engaged in a massive military buildup, while its growth had been essentially flat since 1975, with most of its new resources supporting its war in Afghanistan, which proved to be the Soviets' Vietnam.

And now, of course, it has become our Afghanistan, with our troops fighting a regime of extremist thugs, some of them "freedom fighters" the Reagan administration trained and armed to fight the Soviets. Osama bin Laden was one of the freedom-hating freedom fighters enjoying the U.S.'s none-too-particular largesse back then.

In Reagan's world of absolutes, there were no pollution problems and the homeless were that way because they chose to be. Jobless? Reagan would wave a 30-page want-ads section at you, heedless that most of the jobs required a high level of skill. Welfare was to be judged wholly on the evidence of a "Chicago Welfare Queen," who in Reagan Anecdote Land had used 80 names and 30 addresses to bilk the system of $150,000 but in reality was a woman accused of using four names to accrue $8,000.

Recall how Republicans hammered Al Gore as a habitual liar after he uttered a few half-truths? Reagan quite possibly never gave a speech without lying, and it wasn't dopey stuff about what medications his dog was taking but instead was the material that shaped his administration.

Based on a few skewed anecdotes about wasteful, bureaucratic government, Reagan set about dismantling it. The people he brought in to head the various departments were mostly persons with a noted antipathy for those departments, such as Secretary of the Interior James Watt, whose previous job was running anti-environmentalist Joseph Coors' Mountain States Legal Foundation. Watt proudly didn't enforce the Endangered Species Act or strip-mining laws, gave billions of dollars of publicly held coal reserves to private companies, and tried to put another 30 million acres of public land into private hands.

Watt said he saw no need to preserve our environment for future generations because he was convinced the Lord was returning soon to scourge the earth clean anyway. That's good, solid science for you: the world is just a big cheese wheel, and Reagan's godly men were privileged to know the expiration date, so forget about having respect or wonder for the magnificent and fragile processes that make the planet work, forget future generations or a sense of responsible stewardship. Just shut up and drink your slurry.

Watt's counterpart at the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch, was similarly lax about enforcing existing laws and allowed the agency's new policies to be shaped by the same corporations accused of violating pollution laws. When Congress questioned these cozy ties, the Reagan administration initially refused to turn over requested documents (for which Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress), not for national security reasons or a compelling argument of executive privilege, but simply because they didn't want the people to know the people's business. You can draw your own parallels to Dick Cheney's current stonewalling on his secret meetings with Enron officials.

One bit of good environmental action emerged from the Reagan years: Congress passed an extension of the Clean Water Act. Reagan vetoed it, of course, but Congress overrode his veto.

In other areas, antitrust regulations were ignored, workplace safety was compromised, medical research and services were curtailed, understaffing and underfunding of agencies contributed to everything from lax customs inspections to space shuttle explosions, AIDS was a disease Reagan couldn't even bring himself to mention, and ketchup was almost reclassified as a vegetable for school lunch programs.

Don't like rap music? Blame Reagan. His administration slashed inner-city programs like Head Start, and his budget cuts forced schools to drop "nonessential" programs such as the arts. Remove the music education and access to instruments from kids who still have an artistic impetus, and you get rap.

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