Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?

From the Archive: Ronald Reagan, who was born on Feb. 6, 1911, ranks among the most honored U.S. presidents of modern times with his name etched into public buildings across the country. Even Democrats shy from criticizing his legacy. But is this Reagan worship deserved, Robert Parry asked in 2009.

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.

Ronald Reagan photographed in a cowboy hat at Rancho Del Cielo in 1976.

Ronald Reagan photographed in a cowboy hat at Rancho Del Cielo in 1976.

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, despite their other shortcomings as leaders.

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.

Despite egregious abuses of power, 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 to begin exaggerating the Soviet menace, and he promoted a new generation of hard-liners, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, into key government jobs.

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 last national election (and led the first round of balloting in the 2014 election). 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 Ambassador 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 in 2005 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 (much of it deserved), 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’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.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

16 comments for “Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?

  1. William Winkelman
    February 11, 2014 at 01:00

    One of the earliest indications of Reagan’s bad character was that he sold his colleagues of the Screen Actors Guild down the river before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He ruined their careers by labeling them as Communists during the hearings. That advanced him in the Republican Party’s esteem and propelled his future political career. Never mind the road kill of those who had taken his friendship and loyalty to them for granted.

  2. pondscum
    February 7, 2014 at 15:14

    Historians consider Buchanan to be the worst president due to the harm he caused the nation with his support for the budding secessionist movement of the South. Reagan can easily claim that title due to his support for the budding corporatist movement of the wealthy. All presidents subsequent to Reagan -bad as they all are- can’t hold the match to the oligarchic candle that was Reagan.

  3. OH
    February 6, 2014 at 20:17

    To someone in Guatemala who had their intestines pulled out and fed to dogs in front of their children by Rios Montt, when Reagan said Rios Montt had a bum rap on human rights from the liberals, that would make him the worst president ever no matter what other factors are involved. Reagan seduced a generation of suckers with cruelty and laid the foundation for Bush.

    • Roch
      February 7, 2014 at 10:06

      Your word ‘seduce’ is correct –a good looking actor who fooled many who could not understand the difference between a few hours of screen and the real world.

  4. Bill
    February 6, 2014 at 18:10

    This is an excellent beginning for providing an accounting of the appalling presidency of Benedict Ronald. Indeed volumes of books could and should be written about his rotten presidency, enough to fill a library dwarfing his Simi Valley homage by his cult worshipers. Anyone who lived through the 1980s knows there are many other things about him that must be included in appraisal of his presidency. I of course understand there is a limit to time and space to craft a robust summary account of him for this birthday. So, allow me to mention in brief some noteworthy additions in the treachery, betrayal, and treason committed by him. And yes, you do have a very solid case against him for the worst presidency EVER. Absent in the article were any mention of Reagan’s acknowledged involvement in keeping the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran in 1980 (confirmation by other countries’ elected officials and spy agencies, William Casey, etc.), his disarming of American Marines sent to Beirut and subsequent bombing, the invasion of Grenada, the failed assassination attempt of Muammar Gaddafi and subsequent failure to finish him off thus permitting the bombing of Pan Am 103, and Gaddafi’s survival for another 25 years…

    Reagan is the patron saint of the Tea Party anger machine, setting the rhetorical examples with his most famous quotes as he barked angrily, “Go ahead, make my day!”, “Put up or shut up”, “We begin bombing in 5 minutes”, “I paid for this microphone”, etc… He is the original practitioner of infusing anger into politics, and his imitators continue this wildly irresponsible behavior in wrecking havoc in America today. His “sunny optimism” was a total fraud, purely a shallow acting job, the truth is he was more the arch angel of anger. His latter day followers bring anger into the rhetoric they spout on Faux News, Tea Party town halls, Tea Party campaigns, and the vast right wing punditry. This behavior may be with us for a long while, and so will the far-too-many monuments in his graven image, so Shame on Anyone who enables this all by giving occasional positive statements about that man. And a note to Jimmy Carter: You should have gone public before the election with the information you had about Reagan/Bush/Casey and the October Surprise. You might have saved America, and thousands of lives throughout the world!

  5. mirageseekr
    February 6, 2014 at 16:58

    Just as George Orwell predicted history that doesn’t support the current regime is tossed down the memory hole and re-written. The internet might be our salvation, never has it been easier to keep track of history no matter what propaganda mass media spews everyday. Also with more people making contributions on blogs, message boards, independent news and even youtube, people seem to finally be waking up from the government hypnosis that has held on so long as they can see for themselves what the truth is.

  6. rh
    February 6, 2014 at 16:04

    I was alive in the 1980’s, a mother in my mid-late 20’s and early 30’s with 2 small children, a full-time job during the week and a part-time all weekend job, barely surviving financially with my husband and children. I met an old woman in 1987 from the home right in back of our blue collar neighborhood who loved my backyard organic garden. She talked at length to me in her very heavy German accent, invited me for tea in her home and, of course, got some of my tasty and healthy vegetables. She had emigrated from Nazi Germany after meeting and marrying an American GI right after WWII in 1945. She as well as her whole family had been sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1942 for being members of the Roma (gypsy) minority in Poland. She was 18 in 1942 and was the only survivor of her extended family. She had been sent on a death march in 1945 to Germany but managed to break away, going West (she hated the Russians who she knew were coming from the East) and also knew she HAD to find the Americans – which she did. She then met her husband and emigrated to the U.S. in 1947.

    Her story was a fascinating one but she concentrated on the here and now in 1987 from her unique perspective as a WWII Nazi concentration camp survivor under a fascist dictator. She talked at length about “that sociopath” Ronald Reagan and how he had began the downfall of the U.S. She said, “You Americans are just so happy go lucky, always thinking that things will get better – if you just work hard enough and just wish that good times will fall from the sky, they will. But there are very evil forces out there (which we now call the neocons) which will destroy the prosperity of this country, especially for working class people unless you somehow stop them. They are NOT conservatives but are just plain old fascists in conservative sheep’s clothing. They will steal your money very slowly and with mind numbing propaganda on your TV sets and from your Congress and will pit one group against another in their never ending quest for absolute power . They will set this country up for a huge downfall, much worse than the 1930’s Depression. It was great in this country in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but things began to get worse in the 1970’s. It’s really too bad because there is so much good in this country and its’ people.”

    I was flabbergasted at what she said in 1987 and hadn’t thought much about politics – politicians were all crooks to me (both Democratic and Republican, but especially Republican). I had always been uneasy about Reagan, voting for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1988. Personally, I seemed to attract the worst bully abuse in the workplace so, subconsciously, I saw Reagan for what he was – a smiling sociopath working to make the 1% of this country the new plutocratic rulers with all the stolen wealth and the rest of us 99% the barely surviving serfs (or worse).

    Once the bloodless coup d’etat happened in December 2000 with the Supreme Court appointing George Bush II President, I knew the beginning of the end had begun. THE OLD ROMA WOMAN WAS RIGHT!!! I am preparing as best I can along with other people, learning homesteading skills beyond organic gardening, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

    One thing the old woman did not warn about (and probably did not think about) was the Global Climate Change the planet is undergoing due to fossil fuel pollution. At least, she had a place to run to – none of us can outrun the physics of green house gas pollution changing our climate which is now showing itself in the “100 year drought” in the Western U.S., the extreme cold in the Eastern U.S. and the myriad weather upsets in the rest of the world (125 degrees F in Australia). We are under the mercy of the corporations and the corporatists (like the Koch brothers and the Bilderberger folks) who now run the world and the U.S. government. Until Wall Street is permanently under water, nothing will be done (and there is a lot that can be done now). Then the U.S. government will act the same way as in WWII, that suddenly the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor when they knew about it at least 3 days in advance. But the American people were isolationists at the time and didn’t want to get into any more of Europe’s wars. So it took a “jolt” like Pearl Harbor to get them going. The sad thing is that WWII could have been prevented (as ALL wars can) but that is another topic to write.

    The same thing will happen again, as history repeats itself, a mass U.S. mobilization to go to solar and wind power will happen. The government will act like this just happened when NOAA was told in 2004 in no uncertain terms but the researcher was told to use 2030 in his calculations or he’d be fired but he knew it would be 2015. The model predicting the past two months weather was published in 1990 by James Hansen. The first paper on global climate change was published in the 1880’s – that’s eighteen eighteys. So, just like the cigarette manufacturers denied, denied, denied that their products caused cancer, emphasema and premature death until overwhelming evidence was finally produced, the oil, gas conglomerates are doing the same thing with their propaganda commercials about fracking and pipelines! And the U.S. government won’t do anything until climate change is causing massive death (if then). I just hope that it won’t be too late to save our country and species.

  7. Kevin Schmidt
    February 6, 2014 at 15:40

    Actually, Obama is the worst pResident ever, followed by Dubya, and then Ronnie, and then Clinton. They all support and defend the status quo 1%.

    • sufferingsuccatash
      February 6, 2014 at 15:56

      Throw in Nixon with that mix and I agree. It is hard to put the bar any lower the Dubya—–and I’ve seen them all back to Truman.

    • lexy
      February 7, 2014 at 03:54

      if you think Obama is worse than Reagan, you must be an uninformed fool or emotional racist. go do some serious reading. Reagan destroyed America.

  8. Tim
    February 6, 2014 at 14:46

    And the truth will set you free! I lived through the reign years and I’m amazed at the young republicans who weren’t even born yet but still worship him!
    He destroyed the America I grew up in.

  9. DM
    February 6, 2014 at 14:14

    He’s got my vote for the worst. After reading Fooling America…what an eye opener that was! His campaign kickoff in Philadelphia, MS. His GOLDEN shower economics. He screwed so many Americans and they still this B actor was a God, rather than a complete fraud.

  10. FranktheMc
    February 6, 2014 at 14:00

    For the record, I heard from a G.W.U. med student that Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after his 1981 assassination attempt. I guess we can’t judge too harshly.

  11. jv
    February 6, 2014 at 13:34

    obviously, rick was either not alive in the 80’s or was too young to notice the change that took place…one major omission is mention of the S&L crisis, which was a precursor to the 2008/9 meltdown, and our continuing banking saga…

  12. Rick
    February 6, 2014 at 10:27

    Grudging reassessment : Translation – History is being re written !

Comments are closed.