Ronald Reagan's Hurtful Side June 12, 2004 by Stan Simpson source When I think of Ronald Reagan, I think of Nelson Mandela. One is without question one of the great men of modern times. The other, well, was a bad actor. Now that Reagan is buried, there's no better time to unearth the truth of his distorted legacy. His civil and human rights record was so deplorable it anchors him among the lower rung of modern presidents. His indifference to South Africa's apartheid government needlessly added to Mandela's 27-year prison term. While the Great Communicator harangued Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that Berlin Wall, he apparently got laryngitis and didn't push South Africa's racist white-minority rulers to end its government-sanctioned oppression of the black majority. Instead, Reagan, who valued South Africa's anti-Communist standing, proposed "constructive engagement" with its leaders, essentially an endorsement of the status quo. Had America stepped up with sanctions, which is what most of the world was doing, apartheid would have tumbled sooner than 1994, when a released Mandela was elected president. "With specific regards to human rights, the Reagan era left a lot to be desired," says Richard A. Wilson, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut. "Reagan could have supported multiracial elections in [South Africa] much, much sooner. A policy of `constructive engagement' was not a clear lead or stance in the awfulness that was apartheid." Insensitivity, particularly to people of color, was the hallmark of Reagan's eight years in office. He kicked off his presidential campaign in 1980, not in his California hometown, but in Philadelphia, Miss. - notorious for the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. In espousing a "states' rights" agenda - translated into "pro-segregation" in the South - Reagan let the good ol' boys know he'd have their back. When Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday into law in 1983, he couldn't resist a dig at the slain civil rights leader. When asked if he thought King was a communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, "We'll know in 35 years, won't we?" - referring to the time frame in which classified FBI tapes would be released. His administration made the mindless suggestion, in an effort to cut back on free school lunch programs, that ketchup and relish could be considered vegetables. America's 40th president opposed affirmative action, appointed mostly conservative judges and civil rights commissioners, supported Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, and backed a slew of rightist dictators. As he was with apartheid, the Gipper's silence about a raging AIDS epidemic spoke volumes. In commemorating World War II, Reagan, against the advice of his advisers and Jewish leaders, laid a wreath in 1985 at a cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany - the resting place of more than 40 Nazi soldiers of the notorious Waffen SS. "I don't know what his personal feelings may have been," Julian Bond, chairman of the national NAACP, said over the phone Friday. "But whatever they were, his political feelings were developed to appeal to that group of Americans who aren't comfortable with democracy and justice and fair play." This week's mourning of Reagan was nauseating because so many engaged in a whitewashing of his record. You can't evaluate Bill Clinton without mentioning Monica. You can't revisit Nixon without bringing up Watergate. And you cannot anoint Reagan as one of our great presidents without talking about his thoughtless actions on civil and human rights. Reagan's self-effacing charm, one-liners and avuncular ways made some look past his shortsighted public policy. "His personality trumped his politics," Bond says. "He apparently was a decent human being, loved his wife, was friendly to all. And that geniality for many people masked the bad side of his politics." In the plus ledger, Reagan brought pride and toughness to the United States after a Jimmy Carter era that had us looking soft. Reagan's influence in ending the Cold War with the Soviets was significant. His survival of an assassination attempt from a kook named Hinckley was heroic. In the sunset of his life and battling the debilitation of Alzheimer's, the man who elevated the conservative political movement engendered something he doled out sparingly as president. Compassion. Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail: email@example.com If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at ctnow.com/archives.