In 1985, Kevin Martin was a grad school dropout with a dull office job when Ronald Reagan changed his life: Fearing the president's missile buildup and anti-Soviet rhetoric could spark nuclear war, Martin became a door-to-door canvasser for a pro-nuclear-freeze group that had helped stage a million-person demonstration in New York a few years earlier. "Reagan actually prolonged the Cold War by strengthening the old-line hawks in the Soviet Union" through his strident attacks on communism, contends Martin, now executive director of the disarmament group, today called Peace Action. "If it wasn't for [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev, he wouldn't have gotten squat."
Last week, Martin was among a corps of Reagan foes chagrined by the gush of glowing tributes to the 40th president. "Reagan is being portrayed as this great lover of freedom," Martin says. "But he didn't lift a finger to support the antiapartheid movement." Maverick liberal columnist Christopher Hitchens calls last week's adulatory Reagan coverage by the media "pseudo-monarchical, hagiographic trash." And perennial dissident Noam Chomsky grouses that apart from funerals for sitting presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the attention paid to Reagan's death is unprecedented in his lifetime. "The treatment of a former president as a figure to be worshiped," he says, "is reminiscent of what took place when Soviet leaders died."
With his big win in 1980 and landslide victory in 1984, it's easy to forget that Reagan also inspired fierce dislike and resistance. During the 1980s, the membership rolls of Martin's disarmament group swelled to a quarter million. As for the National Organization for Women, "Ronald Reagan was our No. 1 recruiter," says President Kim Gandy. Last week, some of Reagan's harshest critics while in office, including the environmental group Sierra Club and the pro-abortion-rights EMILY's List, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to do so right after his death. Their silence notwithstanding, historian Rick Shenkman says that "any president who attempts great change is going to be loathed by a significant portion of the country."
Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland, Calif., a Democrat who succeeded Reagan as governor of California in 1975, notes that Reagan was loathed especially by many African-Americans and union leaders: "He defined himself by those he opposed." Reagan's tense relations with blacks started early, when he stumped for states' rights during his 1980 presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were killed in 1964. In his first term, Reagan cut the budget of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and appointed anti-affirmative-action commissioners. "They turned the commission into a total mockery of what it was supposed to be," complains Ralph Neas, then executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. When Reagan vetoed sanctions for apartheid South Africa, Congress overrode him.
One of the boldest acts of Reagan's first term, the firing of striking air-traffic controllers, was trumpeted by his backers as an early show of mettle. But it also "signaled an open season on labor unions," inspiring employers to forgo labor negotiations and threaten lockouts, says Robert Borosage, codirector of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. "Reagan trampled unions, with an impact that continues today."