Reagan: The Retake
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2004; 8:31 AM
The uplifting tone with which journalists are eulogizing Ronald Reagan is obscuring a central fact of his presidency: He had a very contentious relationship with the press.
Most reporters liked the Gipper personally--it was hard not to--but often depicted him as detached, out of touch, a stubborn ideologue. Sam Donaldson, Helen Thomas and company would do battle in those prime-time East Room news conferences that Reagan relished, and he would deflect their toughest questions with an aw-shucks grin and a shake of the head. Major newspapers would run stories on all the facts he had mangled, a practice that faded as it became clear that most Americans weren't terribly concerned.
The media dubbed him the Teflon president, and it was not meant as a compliment.
Reagan was, quite simply, a far more controversial figure in his time than the largely gushing obits on television would suggest.
He took a pounding in the press after his first tax cut when a deep recession pushed unemployment to 10 percent and drowned the budget in red ink.
He was widely portrayed as uninformed and uninterested in details, the man who said trees cause pollution and once failed to recognize his own housing secretary.
He was often described as lazy, "just an actor," a man who'd rather be clearing brush at his California ranch and loved a good midday nap.
His 1983 invasion of Grenada was not universally applauded--especially after his spokesman told the press the day before that the idea was "preposterous"--and his withdrawal of the Marines from Lebanon after 241 were killed in a bombing attack brought blistering editorials.
He was often depicted as a rich man's president with little feeling for the poor, as symbolized by the administration's "ketchup is a vegetable" school lunch debacle. Detractors said he was presiding over the "greed decade."
During the 1984 campaign, Reagan stood in front of a senior citizen's project built under a program he tried to kill--but his aides didn't care, concluding that the pictures were more important than the reporters' contrary words.
Journalists had a field day digging into administration corruption. Senior officials in the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development Department, along with ex-White House aide Michael Deaver and national security adviser Robert McFarlane, were convicted of various offenses. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted but later pardoned by the first President Bush.
Reagan's siding with the Nicaraguan rebels was enormously divisive, and negative coverage of the Iran-contra scandal devoured much of his second term. "Crisis Blemishing President's Hands-Off Style," said a 1986 Washington Post article by Lou Cannon, Reagan's biographer.
His triumphs, of course, were extensively chronicled as well, and he left office at 77 on a renewed wave of popularity.
What the Great Communicator quickly figured out was that he could deliver his message over the heads of the Washington press corps--often decried at the time as media "manipulation" but now an accepted staple of spin-laden politics.
Why was much of the coverage of Reagan so different from the way he is being revered today? Is it because many journalists were liberals appalled by his conservative philosophy? That may have been a factor, but something more fundamental is at work--something also on display in the days after Richard Nixon's death, when Watergate was relegated to sidebar status.
There is a natural tendency in the media to say nice things after someone has died. More important, a man's legacy looks very different 15 years after he leaves the White House, and following a long illness that took him out of the political wars. No one knew when Reagan stepped down that his military buildup would ultimately play a role in the demise of the evil empire he railed against. Critics denounced his legacy of record-shattering budget deficits, but in the resulting economic boom such shortfalls came to be viewed as less dramatic, another sign of how Reagan redefined the political debate.
The press, by its nature, tends to get down in the weeds of day-to-day controversies that envelop any president. But when the protagonist is off the stage and the camera pulls back, a brighter picture emerges and the setbacks tend to fade from memory. What is left are the big accomplishments and the inspirational qualities that Reagan brought to the office. (Bill Clinton is unlikely to benefit from such a cultural cease-fire when his memoirs are published this month, if only because not enough time has passed since his turbulent presidency.)
In his 1988 book "On Bended Knee," author Mark Hertsgaard complained that "news accounts generally failed to make clear the real-world implications of Reagan's inability or unwillingness to distinguish fact from fiction." That so many journalists seem to have changed their view in 2004 may represent Reagan's final triumph over the press.
Some other views, starting with the Chicago Tribune:
"The Reagan Revolution lives. It abides in the White House, whose occupant is Ronald Reagan's ideological heir as much as he is George Herbert Walker Bush's son. It rules over both houses of Congress, whose leaders endorse Reagan's vision of lower taxes, a lower level of many social services, cooperation with corporate enterprise and homage toward religion and tradition.
"It energizes a host of scholars, writers and political organizers, many of them associated with and paid for by the network of business-financed think tanks that helped launch Reagan's movement in the 1970s.And it continues to inspire millions of rank-and-file Americans. No, a majority of Americans are not Reaganite conservatives; Reagan won majorities, Reaganism never did. But at least a quarter of the electorate is devoted to the 40th president's memory and to his political vision."
The Los Angeles Times: "No one since Franklin D. Roosevelt reshaped American politics or restored the primacy of the presidency more than Ronald Reagan.
"Reagan redefined the message of the Republican Party, expanded its reach to working-class voters who had rejected it for decades, and put in place the final pieces of a conservative alliance that has carried the GOP to unified control of Congress and the White House for the first time in half a century.
"As the 'Great Communicator,' Reagan changed the way presidents pursued their goals, elevating the role of direct communication with the public through television. He hastened the realignment of the South from solidly Democratic to the cornerstone of GOP strength. And he crystallized an antigovernment populism that still constrains Washington's role in society."
USA Today begins with the naysayers:
"He was too old to be president, the political pros scoffed in 1980. He was too conservative. Just an actor, and in B-movies at that. Remember Bedtime for Bonzo? Played second banana to a chimpanzee.
"But the conventional wisdom was wrong in 1980, as it was so often when it came to Ronald Wilson Reagan. He won that election, ousting a sitting president and leading a conservative tidal wave. Four years later, running for re-election, he carried 49 states and won the biggest electoral-vote landslide in the nation's history. One of just 12 people to complete two terms in the White House, he left the United States and the world a different place. On his watch, the Cold War began to end, U.S. prestige was restored at home and abroad, major initiatives to cut taxes and reduce regulations were launched and the federal government's programmatic ambitions were curtailed for a generation...
"The nation's 40th president was routinely underestimated during his day, from his first contest for governor of California in 1966 to the time his congressional opponents took his measure as president. His foes' misjudgments turned out to be one of his great advantages, his closest advisers would conclude."
The Baltimore Sun takes the anecdotal approach:
"Once, after a news conference, Ronald Reagan returned to the Oval Office where his senior advisers were waiting to tell him he had gone too far in flatly ruling out a tax increase. He needed to leave himself some 'wiggle room,' they said, so he would have space to maneuver in the congressional battle then looming.
"Silently fuming, Reagan heard them out. One of the aides drafted a short statement backing off slightly from what the president had just told reporters. Reagan grabbed the paper from the aide and snatched a pen from his desk so fiercely that the inkstand went flying. 'Here's what I want to say,' he said. Then he scrawled, 'No new taxes' across the page and thrust it back at his lieutenants.
"Reagan presided over a complex presidency, and he may have been a complicated man, but there was a simplicity to the political philosophy that guided his actions: Government was too big, taxes were too high, and the Soviet Union was not only an 'evil empire,' as he once famously put it, but a mortal threat. He was not unwilling to compromise - he eventually agreed to a steep tax increase - but he did so reluctantly, and usually after getting most of what he wanted."
"In death," says the Boston Globe, "Reagan performed some of the same political alchemy as in his life, freeing conservatives from their bitterness and forcing liberals to put aside their causes and acknowledge higher national values. Through his decade of illness the former president had only grown in stature. His was the head on the conservative coin, and his legacy was celebrated by Republicans as assiduously as Democrats ever honored Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in death.
"Thus, the news of his passing yesterday carried the power to transform the political moment. It came as the party he loved needed a bracing reminder of its first principles and as the president who sought to emulate his values needed some bolstering.
"President Bush -- who proudly dubbed himself a Reagan Republican, claiming the lanky Californian as a mentor even though his own father occupied the Oval Office -- had taken to invoking Reagan to win support when his policies were under attack."
Newsweek recalls Reagan's 40th anniversary D-Day speech:
"He spoke with such grace, such conviction and such power that only the most cynical observers recalled that Reagan himself had spent World War II in Hollywood, making training films. That day at Normandy -- and all the other days of his remarkable public life -- Reagan was doing what he did best: making us believe in a vision of America as a beacon of light in a world of darkness, as the home of an essentially brave and good people.
"'We will always remember,' he said that long-ago day. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may be always free.' Freedom -- from self-doubt, from the Soviet threat, from uneasiness about our national power and capacity to do great things -- was Reagan's gift to his country."
Slate's Tim Noah sounds a contrarian note:
"As an antigovernment crusader and as a warmonger, Reagan turned out to be all bark and no bite . . .
"As Michael Kinsley has observed, after Reagan's two terms spending by the federal government was one quarter higher, factoring out inflation, than when he got there; the federal civilian workforce had increased from 2.8 million to 3 million; and federal spending, as a share of Gross Domestic Product, had decreased by one percentage point to 21.2 percent. 'If Ronald Reagan and his 'Reaganauts' could only slow down the growth of government spending, not reverse it or eliminate wasteful programs, what hope is there for any other conservative president?' complained the conservative Heritage Foundation soon after Reagan left office. The only major government agency Reagan managed to eliminate was the Civil Aeronautics Board . . .
"Reagan can probably claim some credit for ending the Cold War, but his principal weapon, characteristically, was spending -- the Soviets bankrupted themselves trying to keep up with the Pentagon's weapons-buying binge through the 1980s. Reagan's greatest achievement in foreign affairs was therefore linked to his greatest achievement in domestic affairs. He taught Republicans that they could be even less responsible than Democrats.
"Government spending is not (at least in my view) inherently irresponsible. What is irresponsible is spending money you don't have . . .
"Today, what does it mean to be a Republican? It means you can cut taxes indiscriminately and needn't worry about the debt you're piling up. It certainly doesn't mean that you want to shrink the federal government. Indeed, government spending under George W. Bush has increased faster than it did under Bill Clinton. Before Reagan, pandering was principally a Democratic vice. Today, it's principally a Republican vice. Ronald Reagan performed that transformation, and it remains his most enduring legacy."
Andrew Sullivan hails the man he calls the greatest president since FDR:
"He was and is my hero, my political inspiration, the reason I was proud to call myself a 'conservative,' when I first came into political consciousness. My first twenty years were spent in England and so he will always take second place to Margaret Thatcher in my understanding of what political courage means, but I was proud to wear a 'Reagan '80' button in my English high-school, an act that, at the time, was akin to admitting to being a mass-murderer.
"I was proud at Oxford to greet the arrival of Pershing missiles in Britain with a champagne party. And when I came to America in 1984, it was in the midst of his triumphant re-election campaign. I even got to go to a rally where he promised to raise our taxes. It was a gaffe. We didn't care. We loved him."
National Review's Mac Owens defends the legacy:
"We can be fairly sure that the mainstream (liberal) press will be respectful, but will cleave to the conventional (liberal) wisdom that consistently has portrayed Reagan as an amiable dolt whose presidency was little more than a case of 'sleepwalking through history.' To liberal sophisticates, Reagan was a real-life Forrest Gump. His successes were the result of dumb luck, and his popularity was due to the shallowness of the American people.
"According to the conventional (liberal) wisdom, the Reagan presidency unleashed domestically the 'decade of greed' during which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Not only did his tax cuts favor the well-to-do, they also led to deficits without end, saddling the country with massive debt.
"Meanwhile, in the international arena, his saber rattling derailed relations with the Soviet Union, leading to unnecessary increases in defense spending. Only the 'liberal,' open-minded Mikhail Gorbachev was able to undo the damage wrought by President Reagan and end the Cold War.
"Fortunately for the historical record, there is a serious reevaluation of the Reagan presidency underway."
But historian Rick Perlstein, in Salon, offers three reasons why the right is using this "necrophiliac orgy" to distort reality:
"The first is that if Reagan's partisans succeed in creating an indelible memory of him as someone that everyone loved all the time, they will have won an important political struggle with consequences for today.
"The second is that if his partisans succeed in minting Reagan in public memory as a repository of bedrock principle, they will have been complicit in letting forgetting win the battle against remembering -- because on their own, conservative terms, Reagan was often a sellout.
"And last, if they manage to make the rest of us remember Reagan as the embodiment of the kind of genial conservative even a liberal could love -- a refreshing counterweight to the lunatic conservatives we have to deal with now -- they will have scrambled history instead of helping to inform it. Because Reagan was always much more frightening than the sunny optimist of now-popular legend."
Whew -- this argument isn't running out of steam any time soon.
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