Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?

From the Archive: On Presidents’ Day, opinion polls rate the greatest U.S. presidents, with Ronald Reagan now typically scoring at or near the top — and George W. Bush at or near the bottom. Though the Bush rating is hard to dispute, Robert Parry argued in 2009 that Reagan deserved a similar placement.

By Robert Parry (Originally published 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.

President Ronald Reagan (Drawing by Robbie Conal, robbieconal.com)

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, Ford and Carter won scant praise for addressing the systemic challenges of America’s oil dependence, environmental degradation, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation – all issues that Reagan essentially ignored and that now threaten America’s future.

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.

In his First Inaugural Address in 1981, Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

When it came to cutting back on America’s energy use, Reagan’s message could be boiled down to the old reggae 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.

Reagan pushed for deregulation of industries, including banking; he slashed income taxes for the wealthiest Americans in an experiment known as “supply side” economics, which held falsely that cutting rates for the rich would increase revenues and eliminate the federal deficit.

Over the years, “supply side” would evolve into a secular religion for many on the Right, but Reagan’s budget director David Stockman once blurted out the truth, that it would lead to red ink “as far as the eye could see.”

While conceding that some of Reagan’s economic plans did not work out as intended, his defenders – including many mainstream journalists – still argue that Reagan should be hailed as a great President because he “won the Cold War,” a short-hand phrase that they like to attach to his historical biography.

However, a strong case can be made that the Cold War was won well before Reagan arrived in the White House. Indeed, in the 1970s, it was a common perception in the U.S. intelligence community that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was winding down, in large part because the Soviet economic model had failed in the technological race with the West.

That was the view of many Kremlinologists in the CIA’s analytical division. Also, I was told by a senior CIA’s operations official that some of the CIA’s best spies inside the Soviet hierarchy supported the view that the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse, not surging toward world supremacy, as Reagan and his foreign policy team insisted in the early 1980s.

The CIA analysis was the basis for the détente that was launched by Nixon and Ford, essentially seeking a negotiated solution to the most dangerous remaining aspects of the Cold War.

The Afghan Debacle

In that view, Soviet military operations, including sending troops into Afghanistan in 1979, were mostly defensive in nature. In Afghanistan, the Soviets hoped to prop up a pro-communist government that was seeking to modernize the country but was beset by opposition from Islamic fundamentalists who were getting covert support from the U.S. government.

Though the Afghan covert operation originated with Cold Warriors in the Carter administration, especially national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the war was dramatically ramped up under Reagan, who traded U.S. acquiescence toward Pakistan’s nuclear bomb for its help in shipping sophisticated weapons to the Afghan jihadists (including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden).

While Reagan’s acolytes cite the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan as decisive in “winning the Cold War,” the counter-argument is that Moscow was already in disarray – and while failure in Afghanistan may have sped the Soviet Union’s final collapse – it also created twin dangers for the future of the world: the rise of al-Qaeda terrorism and the nuclear bomb in the hands of Pakistan’s unstable Islamic Republic.

Trade-offs elsewhere in the world also damaged long-term U.S. interests. In Latin America, for instance, Reagan’s brutal strategy of arming right-wing militaries to crush peasant, student and labor uprisings left the region with a legacy of anti-Americanism that is now resurfacing in the emergence of populist leftist governments.

In Nicaragua, for instance, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (whom Reagan once denounced as a “dictator in designer glasses”) is now back in power. In El Salvador, the leftist FMLN won the latest national elections. Indeed, across the region, hostility to Washington is now the rule, creating openings for China, Iran, Cuba and other American rivals.

In the early 1980s, Reagan also credentialed a young generation of neocon intellectuals, who pioneered a concept called “perception management,” the shaping of how Americans saw, understood and were frightened by threats from abroad.

Many honest reporters saw their careers damaged when they resisted the lies and distortions of the Reagan administration. Likewise, U.S. intelligence analysts were purged when they refused to bend to the propaganda demands from above.

To marginalize dissent, Reagan and his subordinates stoked anger toward anyone who challenged the era’s feel-good optimism. Skeptics were not just honorable critics, they were un-American defeatists or – in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable attack line – they would “blame America first.”

Under Reagan, a right-wing infrastructure also took shape, linking media outlets (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.) with well-financed think tanks that churned out endless op-eds and research papers. Plus, there were attack groups that went after mainstream journalists who dared disclose information that poked holes in Reagan’s propaganda themes.

In effect, Reagan’s team created a faux reality for the American public. Civil wars in Central America between impoverished peasants and wealthy oligarchs became East-West showdowns. U.S.-backed insurgents in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan were transformed from corrupt, brutal (often drug-tainted) thugs into noble “freedom-fighters.”

With the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan also revived Richard Nixon’s theory of an imperial presidency that could ignore the nation’s laws and evade accountability through criminal cover-ups. That behavior also would rear its head again in the war crimes of George W. Bush. [For details on Reagan’s abuses, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]

Wall Street Greed

The American Dream also dimmed during Reagan’s tenure. While he played the role of the nation’s kindly grandfather, his operatives divided the American people, using “wedge issues” to deepen grievances especially of white men who were encouraged to see themselves as victims of “reverse discrimination” and “political correctness.”

Yet even as working-class white men were rallying to the Republican banner (as so-called “Reagan Democrats”), their economic interests were being savaged. Unions were broken and marginalized; “free trade” policies shipped manufacturing jobs abroad; old neighborhoods were decaying; drug use among the young was soaring.

Meanwhile, unprecedented greed was unleashed on Wall Street, fraying old-fashioned bonds between company owners and employees.

Before Reagan, corporate CEOs earned less than 50 times the salary of an average worker. By the end of the Reagan-Bush-I administrations in 1993, the average CEO salary was more than 100 times that of a typical worker. (At the end of the Bush-II administration, that CEO-salary figure was more than 250 times that of an average worker.)

Many other trends set during the Reagan era continued to corrode the U.S. political process in the years after Reagan left office. After 9/11, for instance, the neocons reemerged as a dominant force, reprising their “perception management” tactics, depicting the “war on terror” – like the last days of the Cold War – as a terrifying conflict between good and evil.

The hyping of the Islamic threat mirrored the neocons’ exaggerated depiction of the Soviet menace in the 1980s – and again the propaganda strategy worked. Many Americans let their emotions run wild, from the hunger for revenge after 9/11 to the war fever over invading Iraq.

Arguably, the descent into this dark fantasyland – that Ronald Reagan began in the early 1980s – reached its nadir in the flag-waving early days of the Iraq War. Only gradually did reality begin to reassert itself as the death toll mounted in Iraq and the Katrina disaster reminded Americans why they needed an effective government.

Still, the disasters – set in motion by Ronald Reagan – continued to roll in. Bush’s Reagan-esque tax cuts for the rich blew another huge hole in the federal budget and the Reagan-esque anti-regulatory fervor led to a massive financial meltdown that threw the nation into economic chaos.

Love Reagan; Hate Bush

Ironically, George W. Bush has come in for savage criticism, but the Republican leader who inspired Bush’s presidency – Ronald Reagan – remained an honored figure, his name attached to scores of national landmarks including Washington’s National Airport.

Even leading Democrats genuflect to Reagan. Early in Campaign 2008, when Barack Obama was positioning himself as a bipartisan political figure who could appeal to Republicans, he bowed to the Reagan mystique, hailing the GOP icon as a leader who “changed the trajectory of America.”

Though Obama’s chief point was that Reagan in 1980 “put us on a fundamentally different path” – a point which may be historically undeniable – Obama went further, justifying Reagan’s course correction because of “all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability.”

While Obama later clarified his point to say he didn’t mean to endorse Reagan’s conservative policies, Obama seemed to suggest that Reagan’s 1980 election administered a needed dose of accountability to the United States when Reagan actually did the opposite. Reagan’s presidency represented a dangerous escape from accountability – and reality.

Still, Obama and congressional Democrats continue to pander to the Reagan myth. In 2009, as the nation approached the fifth anniversary of Reagan’s death, Obama welcomed Nancy Reagan to the White House and signed a law creating a panel to plan and carry out events to honor Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011.

Obama hailed the right-wing icon. “President Reagan helped as much as any President to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics — that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day,” Obama said. [For more on Obama’s earlier pandering about Reagan, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Dubious Praise for Reagan.”]

Despite the grievous harm that Reagan’s presidency inflicted on the American Republic and the American people, it may take many more years before a historian has the guts to put this deformed era into a truthful perspective and rate Reagan where he belongs — near the bottom of the presidential list.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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26 comments on “Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?

  1. angryspittle on said:

    I have said for years, stretching back to 1981 or 82 that St. Ronnie was the greatest fraud ever perpetrated upon the American people.

  2. Well, unlike GWBush, at least Reagan was elected twice so he’d actually qualify for the worst elected president award. And Reagan much to the chagrin of the righties actually appears to have wanted to cut nuclear weapons while president. (Yes there may be more usable and powerful weapons to replace those nuclear warheads.) This is unlike the fundy christer GWBush, who allied himself with those who’d bring on… and appears to have actually thought such an end would be positive.

    I’d like to read more on the US (or proxies) backing Afghan rebels in the mid and late 1970s. Not saying it’s not true, just want some sourcing–surprised I don’t remember people like Alfred McCoy mentioning such things, but then again the “Politics of Heroin” has been revised many times.

    I know that the Saudis would send young men they didn’t want in the kingdom in the 1980s to fight in Afghanistan, is the same true for the 1970s and did the US encourage such activities by the Saudis before the Soviets invaded?

  3. Lester Shepherd on said:

    None of the them are worth anything. JFK was a rapist (probably serial), Lincoln was a white supremacist, W was a brat frat boy, FDR had his lovers, Obama is a huge liar, Raygun began the sure decline of America, and on and on and on……

  4. Lester Shepherd:

    Obama is a bigger liar than GWBush or Reagan, ha, ha, ha, etc.

    JFK, rapist? Provide evidence.

    FDR had lovers, are you joking. You seem to be.

    Where did Lincoln say that Caucasians should rule over those of a darker skin tint? Yep, that’s what white supremacists assert.

  5. George W. Bush was much much worse – two needless wars in service to that parasite israel that were not paid for, as well as tax cuts for the rich that were not paid for which sent our economy reeling from surplus to debt … and the lack of regulation to head off the bank fraud/mortgage bubble … and the fake energy crisis which harmed California in cahoots with Enron crooks … on and on it goes … Bush 43 is five rungs lower than the next worst president

  6. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Nobody mentioned the 600 ship navy–that was billions and billions into the hands of the defense contractors that built new or refurbished mothballed obsolete scrap iron. I think they recently renamed the missile test site on Kwajalein after him, too. God only knows how much we pour into that sink-hole for the benefit of Rayeheon, McDonnel Douglas, Boeing and others. We’re apparently still playing “StarWars” in the midst of a tanking economy. Which reminds me, it seems like in times of uncertainty, the two principle varieties of lunacy that come to the forefront are screwball religion and UFO hysteria. We’ve seen plenty of religious hypocrisy lately, so be on the lookout for flying saucers. Reagan apparently believed in those too.

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  8. Fibonacci65 on said:

    I believe Reagan was the first of the puppet Presidents and now America is saddled with, Bush and Obama being the latest of this horrible crew. (I wonder if Clinton was hated for not being one, not sure) I lived in England when Reagan visited and the newspapers dared ask “Is he ga-ga?” The response from doctors was that he was suffering early dementia, which did not come to light in America for many years afterwards. I lived in Canada when he visited there and was told by those who knew that he shook all over with frailty, could barely walk, needed two bannisters to get up 3 steps to a stage and wore tons of make up. Why, oh why was this never, ever looked into by American media? Oh right, he never had sex!

    • In the USA, it was pretty clear in 1981 that Reagan was showing early signs of dementia.

      After challenging one of his first presidential press conference performances, the US press corps gave him a pass.

      I believe the TV journalist Lesley Stahl admitted as much in book she wrote. Though I think she was writing about Reagan in about 1986.

      Any how just go read the very confused press conference transcripts from ’81, ’82, ’83. The ones were Reagan is asked direct questions.

  9. Irish Mike on said:

    Much as I’d love to give a long response to this ridiculous re-write of history, I’ll limit my response to the small point of blaming Reagan for Hurricane Katrina, which hit after President Reagan had died. It was a failure of STATE and LOCAL government that made the tragedy worse. Before a disaster strikes, it is up to local groups, not Washington DC, to have shelters ready, to have buses ready to transport people, and to provide security in the immediate aftermath. The absolute failure of the Democrat Governor and Mayor to properly plan made an effective after-storm plan inoperable. Florida, despite many more storms, and Mississippi, despite bearing as much of Katrina as Louisiana, were far better prepared for both the storm and its aftermath. Oh, and both had Republican governors. Will the next installment address the success of “No Nukes”? Or perhaps President Clinton’s deft handling of the emerging radical Islamist threat? Or maybe how Chris Dodd and Barney Frank helped Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac make housing affordable for everyone?

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      That is a very small point.

    • You don’t know it all.. First of all Hurrican Katrina hit one Labor Day
      weekend.. Florida has many more than La. or Texas especially category 5.
      1st the Mayor declares a disaster and asks for help.
      2. the only power the governor has is to declare a disaster and ask at the
      time FEMA which no one was at home..
      3. The Governor also had the power to call out the National Guard of
      Louisiana, but they didn’t have any.. In Iraq at the time 2/3 of the
      troops in Iraq were National Guards from the South. Texas, Louisiana,
      Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and parts of Florida.. She had no one
      to call out to help.. the federal government took them to Iraq. By the
      time FEMA showed up most had passed and the damage had been done..I did
      not see where Katrina was blamed for Katrina.. All I saw was the tax
      cuts for disasters.. which is still happening today in Texas..The
      fires in Texas new fiscal year started 9/1/2011, Perry had cut the
      volunteer fire departments budget from $30 Million to $ 7 Million which
      was used up the first week in the fires in Bastrop, Texas.

      At the time the Mayor and Governor of Louisiana did all they were
      allowed to do.. FEMA did get there and took over, and it was North or
      South Carolina National Guard that were sent to Louisiana since their
      Guard was in Iraq.. So don’t blame the Mayor or Governor and I know
      neither one. But I spent days trying to find friends and families to
      find out if they were o.k.

      The South had the largest amount of National Guard troops there and
      put the blame where you want.. it was not Louisiana’s choice..

  10. Irish Mike:

    Radical Islam emerged while Clinton was president, are you really that stupid?

    That’s a Reaganlike memory you have.

    A major US city mostly flooded, and the federal guvmint did nothing for days, portraying the disaster as something solely the fault of poor local planning is simply a lie.

    Housing should be affordable to everyone. As should necessary medical care.

    That said, Goldman Sachs sure helped sell a lot of the bonds that backed delusional and purely speculative house pricing (note the different terminology).

    Was Goldman Sachs taken over by the guvmint as with Fannie and Freddie, neither of which had been government since like 1968, oh wait Goldman got bailed out thru the government rescue of AIG. And still Goldman got off with some paltry fine for it’s gross abuses.

    Name any large city in Florida that is below the water level of one the biggest rivers in the world? I’m waiting. That’s below.

    • Even worse, Goldman Sachs was an investment bank—ineligible for a bailout. Ah, but they got status changed to a ‘commercial’ bank, thus making bailout money available for them. Ah, friends in high places.

  11. Couple of things: 1) Reagan flooded the US with cheap imports. Carter never got the credit he deserved for protecting export markets.

    2) Irish Mike: You picked up on: “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.” This is not the same thing as blaming Reagan for Katrina. But I will say that Katrina was not a natural disaster. The Pittman Construction Co. was tasked to build the levee. Pittman told the US Corp of Engineers the levee they proposed would only protect for a level III hurricane. The Corp said it was adequate. Pittman was so worried about it that it took the Corps to court. The court with all of its knowledge of the stress of huge waves on dams sided with the Corp., so Pittman was forced to build to specs. Turned out that the Corp was wrong; Pitmann was right. Had Pitmann prevailed NO would only be ankle deep in water. The real problem was they did not want to spend the money. So they paid more in the long run. It was not a natural disaster. Did not proofread; hope it makes sense.

  12. CORNEL WILLIAMS on said:

    The reason that the GOP appears to have the edge over the Dems in the national debate is due to the fact that the Dems allowed the GOP Reagan revisionist history canard to sink into the minds of those not familiar with the true Reagan Record.
    Number one, Ronald Reagan was accused, by a woman name Selene Walters, of raping her in 1952 (See the April 29, 1991 issue of People Magazine). Dems never bring that up.
    Over 135 members of the Reagan Administration were indicted, for Forced to Resign for Crimes (see Sleep Walking Through History by Haynes Johnson).
    Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was “Never will the U.S. make deals with terrorists. Reagan was a liar, he was already making deals with them (Read the book by Barbara Honegger, the former Reagan White House Policy Analyst, and a member of the Reagan-Bush 1981 transition team, The October Surprise. Or, read the book by Reagan’s OWN Daughter, Patti, “The Way I See It,” whereby she confessed that she overheard her father, Ronald Reagan, discussing over the telephone deals that he had made with the Iranian terrorist to hold the 52 American hostages in captivity until AFTER the 1980 Presidential Election).
    Ronald Reagan, Nov. 6, 198, “We have not, repeat, exchanged weapons for hostages nor shall we.” That was a damn lie! And Reagan, two days later, had to go before the American people again, and ADMIT that he lied.
    Ronald Reagan’s illegal transfer of weapons to Iran in the 1980′s violated 1) The U.S. Arms and Export Munitions Control Act, 2) The 1979 Congressional Arms Embargo against Iran, and his transfer of funds to the Contra’s VIOLATED two Boland Amendments that he signed into law HIMSELF!
    Reagan committed Treason against the United States Government, and had Obama did the same, even the Dems would have insisted that he resign.
    Reagan was a fraud and a liar. White bigots love him because he made the white man feel comfortable about his racism. Let’s not forget that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Oxford Miss., the place where three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1963.
    Reagan, grudgingly signed the Martin Luther King birthday into a national holiday (remember what he said before signing it, “the public will know the truth about this guy (King) one of these days.”
    Reagan insulted the Congressional Black Caucus by meeting with them only three times (I believe), and he vetoed the trade sanctions act against apartheid South Africa in 1986.
    And, it is a complete lie that Reagan “WON” the Cold War. That is a lie. Read the book, “Way Out There In The Blue” by Francis FitzGerald, which is a great chronology on how the Cold War ended. Reagan was basically mentally incompetent by the time the Cold War ended. And it ended, for the most part, THREE (3) YEARS after Reagan left office.
    The Ronald Reagan so called Legacy is the GREATEST REVISIONIST HISTORY canard in the history of United States Politics. The man was a complete fraud, with the worst record of a United States President in history. He even increased the national debt by 189% The man was a fraud, created by white bigots who felt comfortable under a President who used terms like “Welfare Cadillac,” and “Big Stud Buck.”

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Amen, Brother! He would have been a traitor, but in his demented state, he would have been deemed incompetent to stand trial if examined by responsible medical experts. A patsy, puppet president surrounded by a corrupt machine. And this is what our country names airports after??? Hypocrisy knows no shame.

  13. Lamont Sanford on said:

    Hey, everyone seems to ignore or forget:
    * Ronnie was a pretty fair lightbulb pitchman for GE.
    * He shilled for 20 Mule Team BORAX.
    * While Gov of the late, not-so-great State of . . . he was known more for napping than anything else.
    * If the Republicants don’t come up soon with a viable prez candidate, Ronnie just might make a comeback.

  14. Reagan’s policies were never as popular as he was personally. If Clinton was ‘slick Willy,’ Reagan was ‘smarmy Ronnie.’ People forget his ruinous treatment of the disabled (in addition to the rest of the points made here). People also forget that George H. W. Bush began his first campaign down 17 points in the polls to Dukakis, due to Reagan’s economic policies. Dukakis lost by running the worst campaign in modern memory plus the Willie Horton race baiting video. Republicans never win on substance but on successfully painting ugly slander against their opponents.

  15. that was supposed to be “…17 points down in the polls.”

  16. Gregory L Kruse on said:

    A very enjoyable side to my bowl of rice. After reading many Parry articles over the past two years, I find it light reading.

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