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

As we Californians learned anew in our energy-deregulation woes, a bit of government regulation isn't necessarily a bad thing. In 1982, Reagan signed the law deregulating the savings and loan industry, announcing, "All in all, I think we've hit the jackpot," which many wealthy thieves did—leaving the rest of us to pay the casino for the most expensive boondoggle in U.S. history. Though there were plenty of Democrats involved in that mess, don't forget to thank Reagan as well for costing us hundreds of billions of dollars in freeing us from those fussy regulations.

Nowhere were Reagan's civic Luddites more cynically effective than at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Programs intended to finance and build low-cost housing for the poor instead became a cash trough for the administration's cronies. In eight years of unabated corruption that only came to light during the Bush administration, HUD, Congress found, had lost billions of taxpayer dollars to fraud and mismanagement.

As if cutting HUD's budget 57 percent hadn't been enough, much of the remaining funding was allocated by ideological appointees with no housing experience, low-cost or otherwise. They awarded contracts to persons with even less experience, such as James Watt, who, after being forced from his Interior job for telling one racist joke too many, was paid $440,000 for making a few phone calls to HUD.

One outraged observer wrote, "It now appears that the taxpayers will take a loss of at least $2 billion [it ultimately was more than $8 billion] on the cozy little, sleazy little, greedy little deals that were made. Let it be said up top: the primary responsibility for this debacle lies squarely in the lap of Ronald Reagan."

The source of this quotation? Conservative columnist James J. Kirkpatrick.

Like Dubya's call today to let "faith-based" organizations cure society's ills, Reagan said he believed his budget gouges could be offset by citizens practicing the biblical notion of tithing, as he said, "the giving of a tenth to charity." Reporters' perusal of Reagan's tax records found that he was giving more like a hundredth—1.4 percent—of his own earnings to charity.

And the next time someone tries to tell you that Reagan was a fiscal conservative, remind them that he left the country with a financial debt that surpassed the debts accrued under all other U.S. presidents combined and that he never once submitted a balanced budget to Congress. That bit of fiscal restraint was left to a Democrat, Bill Clinton.

Speaking of Bubba, the conservative-bias media went apeshit when he pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich. Imagine the howls if Rich had gone on to kill his ex-wife, dismember her body and burn it. Oregon authorities in December 2000 arrested Robert Wendell Walker Jr. for doing just that to his former bride. Reagan had pardoned the convicted bank robber in 1981. Law-enforcement authorities could not recall another instance in which such a violent criminal had received a presidential pardon. Walker had no political ties, and no one knows to this day why Reagan cut him loose.

Not every government office suffered under Reagan. He bloated the Pentagon with the largest peacetime military buildup in our history, while the National Security Council, which had a staff of 35 at the height of the Vietnam War under LBJ, swelled to 255 employees under Reagan. Spying on American citizens reached new heights, with numerous examples of government infiltration of labor unions and of organizations opposed to our involvement in Central and South America.

And we were pretty involved, backing the wrong sides in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Argentina and other military dictatorships or oligarchies where citizens were living under hideously worse circumstances than our founding fathers had endured. In many cases, they were virtual slaves, with no vote and no rights in dictatorships that routinely tortured and murdered opposition voices. (Guatemala's three-decade-old military regime, described by Reagan as "totally committed to democracy," killed more than 200,000 of its own people in the 1980s. In Argentina, it has since been revealed, the babies of murdered political prisoners were given up for adoption to members of the ruling class.) Yet, by Reagan's measure, the citizens of these countries and others like them—consider the example of Ferdinand Marcos' Philippines—were supposed to be proud that the government torturing and murdering them wasn't communist.

Shortly after moving into the White House, Reagan told The Wall Street Journal, "Let us not delude ourselves. The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren't engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn't be any hot spots in the world."

By that world-view, if it weren't for Russia, South Africa would have been a nation of happily disenfranchised darkies singing in the mines. If Reagan had his way, there might still be a brisk market in "Free Nelson Mandela" T-shirts. It was only by overriding Reagan's veto that Congress joined the rest of the civilized world in passing sanctions against the brutal, racist South African government.

I know people who met Reagan, and they didn't think he seemed like the sort of fellow who'd cozy up to murderers or enjoy blighting the environment. Was he evil? I think it was more that he simply didn't get it. He had his beliefs, and information that didn't fit those confines was rejected out of hand. As one of his White House aides put it, "Reagan doesn't have the knack for weighing alternatives."

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