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Sharp divisions marked Reagan tenure

The lavish praise for President Reagan obscures that much of  his record through eight years in office was highly controversial and intensified social and political divisions.
President Reagan in the Oval Office in October 1987Barry Thumma / AP file
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As the nation mourns its 40th president, much is being made of Ronald Reagan's role in reordering U.S.-Soviet relations and dramatically redefining the terms of the political debate over tax policy, defense, domestic priorities and social justice. The outpouring of flattering eulogies and tributes since the conservative icon died Saturday is what presidential historian Robert Dallek described yesterday as "hagiography" of a highly popular political leader.

But the lavish praise obscures that much of Reagan's record through eight years in office was highly controversial and intensified social and political divisions. Even now, nearly 16 years after he left office, some major interest groups and key voting blocs most adversely affected by Reagan policies remain bitter about his legacy.

The controversies and scandals included attacks on the federal school lunch program and aid to the poor, anti-union tactics, the illegal sale of arms to Iran and Reagan's 1985 participation in a ceremony at a German cemetery where Nazi soldiers are buried.

No group may have chafed more at Reagan's policies and views than African Americans, who assailed the president for opposing racial quotas and for seeking to obtain a tax credit for Bob Jones University, a segregated southern school.

"For many Americans, this was a time best forgotten," said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and a longtime civil rights activist. "He was a polarizing figure in black America. He was hostile to the generally accepted remedies for discrimination. His appointments were of people as equally hostile. I can't think of any Reagan policy that African Americans would embrace."

The former actor and California governor offended blacks when he kicked off his 1980 general election campaign by promoting "states rights" -- once southern code for segregation -- in Philadelphia, Miss., scene of the murder of three civil rights workers 16 years before. Early in his first term, Reagan ordered some of his toughest budget cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, aid to families with dependent children and other "means tested" programs that were critical to large numbers of lower-income black families. Until a public protest forced Reagan to back away, his Agriculture Department sought to cut the school lunch program and redefine ketchup and relish as vegetables.

Reagan had vowed to protect the "social safety net" of programs for the poor, the disabled and the elderly when he unveiled his economic recovery plan on Feb. 18, 1981. But two years later, White House budget director David A. Stockman said in an interview that the safety-net assurances were "just a spur-of-the-moment thing that the press office wanted to put out."

Blaming trees
Isabel V. Sawhill, who oversaw a project examining the economic and social consequences of Reagan policies for the Urban Institute, said Reagan took office when major economic forces were producing growing income inequality. Although Reagan's policies were not the cause of income disparities between rich and poor, she said, they contributed to the trend through "tax cuts that were very tilted to the more affluent" and "cuts in programs for the less well off. Those did contribute to growing inequality."

There were other controversies:

Reagan fired 13,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 after they staged a work stoppage, and he appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board who were hostile to union organizing. His interior secretary, James G. Watt, and senior Environmental Protection Agency officials infuriated environmentalists by assaulting safeguards and aggressively attempting to open public lands in the West to private developers. Reagan, during his 1980 campaign, blamed trees for emitting 93 percent of the nation's nitrogen oxide pollution -- giving rise to jokes about "killer trees."

The combination of a huge "supply-side" tax cut, a historic military buildup and a painful two-year recession produced huge budget deficits and a near tripling of the national debt that haunted the country and policymakers for years and drained resources from social programs. And the administration showed indifference to an emerging AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. By the time Reagan delivered his first speech on the epidemic in May 1988 -- about eight months before he left office -- the disease had been diagnosed in more than 36,000 Americans, and 20,849 had died.

"Reaganomics" failed to reduce the deficit, but the combined policies of the administration and the Federal Reserve Board helped usher in the longest peacetime economic expansion since the end of World War II -- a nearly eight-year boom that made many people rich and left a pleasant "morning in America" memory in the minds of millions of voters.

Bitburg visit
Reagan's June 12, 1987, speech at the Brandenburg Gate calling on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall has been widely seen as the apogee of his moral leadership abroad. But even his top aides considered his decision to go to a German military cemetery two years earlier as the nadir.

Ignoring pleas from Jewish leaders and numerous liberal and conservative thinkers, Reagan attended a commemorative ceremony in Bitburg where 49 soldiers of the Waffen SS were among the 2,000 buried. The White House insisted the president had no choice but to honor the invitation of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel condemned the visit as an insensitive act that "wounded" Jews worldwide and distorted history by equating Holocaust victims with Nazi soldiers.

Perhaps Reagan's greatest legacy was in helping to accelerate an end to the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was an outspoken anti-communist who described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," yet he forged productive relations with the reform-minded Gorbachev. The stagnant Soviet system had been in decline for decades, and it came under additional pressure from Reagan's defense buildup and deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe, and the CIA-backed mujaheddin fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Ten months after Reagan left office, Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall that marked the division of their country. On Christmas in 1991, Gorbachev stepped down and the Soviet Union and the Cold War passed into history. Some historians credit Reagan with providing the critical push that finally led to the toppling of the Soviets. Overall, however, the "Reagan Doctrine" of aiding anti-communist insurrections had mixed -- and in some cases catastrophic -- long-term results.

Following in the footsteps of the Democratic Carter administration, Reagan surreptitiously supported mujaheddin rebels in Afghanistan in their prolonged battle against occupying Soviet forces. As part of that initiative, the CIA supported Muslim radicals from other Islamic countries. One of the first non-Afghan volunteers to join the ranks of the mujaheddin was Osama bin Laden.

Iraq as lesser of two evils
Reagan pursued one other foreign policy initiative that proved highly damaging to U.S. interests in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era. Fearing that Iranian revolutionaries who had overthrown the shah and taken U.S. diplomats hostage might overrun the Middle East and its oil fields, the Reagan administration for five years provided military intelligence, economic aid and covert supplies of munitions to Iraq's armies in support of Saddam Hussein's war with Iran. The administration ignored Iraq's use of chemical weapons and treated Hussein's government as the lesser of two evils.

The Reagan years were marred by scandals involving Watt and White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver. But the most damaging was known simply as "Iran-contra."

The administration in 1984 secretly sold arms to Iran, a terrorist nation, to raise cash for Nicaraguan contra rebels, despite a congressional ban on support for the Latin American insurgency. An independent investigation concluded that the arms sales to Iran operations "were carried out with the knowledge of, among others, President Ronald Reagan [and] Vice President George Bush," and that "large volumes of highly relevant, contemporaneously created documents were systematically and willfully withheld from investigators by several Reagan Administration officials."

Fourteen officials were criminally charged and 11 convicted, although many were later pardoned. Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel who ran the inquiry, said there was "no credible evidence" that Reagan broke the law, but he set the stage for the illegal activities of others. Impeachment, Walsh said, "certainly should have been considered."

Watt was forced to resign from his Cabinet post after a series of controversies, including the uproar that followed his portrayal of five members of an advisory panel as "every kind of mix you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."

On Sept. 23, 1988, Deaver was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $100,000 for lying to a congressional subcommittee and federal grand jury about his lobbying activities after he left his White House post.

Staff writer Paul Schwartzman and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.