Where's the Rest of Him?
        by ERIC ALTERMAN

     Both Republican candidates battled to claim the mantle of the Gipper. John
     McCain calls himself "a true Reagan Republican." George W. Bush retorts,
     "It is not Reaganesque to say one thing and do another." The pundits keep
     score but, once again, miss the point. If McCain wants to enjoy another episode
     of his now-famous penchant for public self-flagellation, that's his business.
     But Bush's exercise in unctuous untruth appears to be accepted at face value.
     It's as if Reagan, now diagnosed with Alzheimer's, has given the rest of us amnesia.

     For Ronald Reagan was many things, but most undeniably he was a pathological liar.
     True, he also gave every impression of being an unbelievable moron (which is why SNL
     could once parody his pathetic excuses for the Iran/contra scandal with a skit that depicted
     Reagan as--get this!--brilliant and competent). His worshipful, if fanciful, biographer Edmund
     Morris even calls him an "apparent airhead." The President's famous cluelessness was so obvious
     during his years in office that his defenders would attempt to deploy it as a defense of his actions,
     as if he were a small child or a beloved but retarded uncle. The President tended to "build these
     little worlds and live in them," noted a senior adviser.
     "He makes things up and believes them," explained one of his kids.

     Recall that ol' Dutch frequently made arguments about history based on movies he half-recalled.
     He thought he'd liberated concentration camps. He invented what he called "a verbal message"
     from the Pope in support of his Central America policies, news to everyone in Vatican City. In
     1985, Reagan one day announced that the vicious apartheid regime of P.W. Botha had already
     "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country."

     Not only did Reagan make things up, he also forgot some things that most of us consider pretty
     important. Morris, for instance, lets us in on the astonishing fact that the President not only did
     not know his own Secretary of Housing and Urban Development--no big whoop, as the guy
     was, after all, black--but that Mr. Family Values also failed to recognize his own son (his own
     son!) while attending his graduation. If any of us had a parent given to such behavior, we might
     feel compelled to look into some sort of institutionalized care, if only for his own protection.

     But another, more significant, little-mentioned tendency of the ex-President was his
     fondness for genocidal murderers. I do not use the term "genocide" lightly.

     Take Guatemala. That nation's official Historical Clarification Commission charged its own
     government with a campaign of "genocide" in murdering roughly 200,000 people, mainly Mayan
     Indians, during its dictatorial reign of terror. The commission's nine-volume 1999 report singled
     out the US role in aiding this "criminal counterinsurgency." The violence in Guatemala reached a
     gruesome climax in the early eighties under the dictatorship of the born-again evangelical, Gen.
     Efraín Ríos Montt. Nine hundred thousand people were forcibly relocated and entire villages
     leveled. As army helicopters strafed a caravan of 40,000 unarmed refugees seeking to escape to
     Mexico, Reagan chose that moment to congratulate Ríos Montt for his dedication to democracy,
     adding that he had been getting "a bum rap" from liberals in Congress and the media. His
     Administration soon provided as much aid to the killers as Congress would allow.

     Reagan showed a similar indulgence toward the terrorists in El Salvador. The President and his
     equally immoral advisers consistently behaved as if they were hired public relations agents for the
     murderers of children, nuns, priests and peasants. Not long after these killings reached the
     amazing level of more than 200 per week--in a country with just 5.5 million people--Reagan
     mused aloud that they were not the work of "so-called murder squads" on the right, but of
     "guerrilla forces" who think they "can get away with these violent acts, helping to try and bring
     down the government, and the right wing will be blamed for it." In fact, only days later, Vice
     President Bush flew to San Salvador to insist that "every murderous act" committed by
     "right-wing fanatics...poisons the well of friendship between our two countries," and that "death
     squad murders" could cost the killers "the support of the American people." Didn't Reagan know
     what Bush knew? Does anyone care? After the war, the Catholic archdiocese in San Salvador
     documented the number of killings on each side. The tally: military and government-assisted
     death squads, 41,048; left-wing guerrillas, 776. Reagan was off by almost 5,500 percent. Liar or
     moron? You tell me.

     Historians are starting to provide a useful corrective, perhaps in anticipation of an orgy of
     dishonest eulogies like those for Richard Nixon in 1994, while pundits casually credit Reagan
     with inspiring Moscow's capitulation in the cold war, via his obsession with Star Wars. But as
     Frances FitzGerald demonstrates in her new book, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan and
     Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, the historical record does not even remotely support
     this wishfully ignorant thesis. Similarly, in Matthew Evangelista's new work, Unarmed Forces,
     we discover the key role played by transnational forces in convincing Gorbachev & Co. to shut
     down the arms race in spite--not because--of the belligerence emanating from Reagan and his

     Public Affairs is about to reissue an updated edition of Reagan expert Lou Cannon's
     comprehensive biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Cannon ignores
     Guatemala and bends over backward to be generous to his subject's odd belief structure. But as
     Herbert Mitgang observed of the 1990 edition, simply "by being eminently fair," the book proved
     "a devastating account of Ronald Reagan's presidency."

     Despite Cannon's solid historical reconstruction and Edmund Morris's nutty nonfiction novel,
     the key question about Reagan remains not only unanswered but unasked.
     It is just this:

     How did this childlike fantasist and friend of genocide convince a nation of reasonably
     intelligent, God-fearing and generally decent citizens to avert its eyes from the heart
     of darkness that beat beneath Ronald Reagan's congenial smile?

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