A Bump From Reagan?
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; 8:55 AM
A Bush administration official casually mentioned to me that one side benefit of the outpouring of tributes to Ronald Reagan is knocking Iraq out of the news for several days.
Not to mention that John Kerry has been forced to suspend his campaign for the week, figuring that it will be impossible to buy a headline.
But the impact could be far greater than that.
With the media spending the week largely singing Reagan's praises -- and the government actually shutting down Friday -- it's natural to wonder whether the country will come to regard the 43rd president as the man most suitable to carry on the legacy of the 40th. Bush's presidency resembles Reagan's more than that of his father, as has often been observed, while Kerry, despite offering Reagan his due, actually battled the Gipper as a senator, especially over Nicaragua.
All this may prove meaningless by November, but at the moment, as you may have noticed, there is no other news. It feels like I'm back in the '80s: Baker, Meese, Deaver, Shultz all over TV, lots of talk about Gorbachev and the commies. All that's missing is a sound track by Billy Joel, Barry Manilow and Bob Seger.
I figured the '04 speculation wasn't far off when I saw Andrew Sullivan declare: "I have no doubt that Reagan would have endorsed the war to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq from theocrats and tyrants." Personally, I have no doubt that we ought to be careful about extrapolating what a dead person would have thought about any subsequent issue.
Reagan transformed American politics, no question about it. It's hard to imagine Bill Clinton having declared the era of big government to be over had Reagan earlier not declared government to be the problem, not the solution (although the Gipper didn't succeed in shrinking it much). Can he transform 2004 as well?
One obvious difference: There was a whole movement of crossover voters known as Reagan Democrats. There don't seem to be many Bush Democrats (or Kerry Republicans, for that matter). Politics is far more polarized than it was in the days when Reagan and Tip O'Neill could fight by day but share stories at night. These days, it's all about base politics, in both senses of the word.
Adam Nagourney of the New York Times tries fitting W. for a suit of Reaganite threads:
"From the shores of Normandy to President Bush's campaign offices outside Washington, Mr. Bush and his political advisers embraced the legacy of Ronald Reagan on Sunday, suggesting that even in death, Mr. Reagan had one more campaign in him -- this one at the side of Mr. Bush. . . .
"Mr. Bush's advisers said Sunday that the intense focus on Mr. Reagan's career that began upon the news of his death on Saturday would remind Americans of what Mr. Bush's supporters have long described as the similarities between the two men as straight-talking, ideologically driven leaders with swagger and a fixed idea of what they wanted to do with their office.
" 'Americans are going to be focused on President Reagan for the next week,' said Ed Gillespie, the Republican national chairman. 'The parallels are there. I don't know how you miss them.'
"Even some Democrats said they were concerned that the death of Mr. Reagan would provide a welcome, if perhaps temporary, tonic for a president who had been going through tough political times."
Doyle McManus picks up the theme in the Los Angeles Times:
"Can Ronald Reagan's political magic work in one last election -- this time for President Bush?
"Republican strategists acknowledged Monday that they hope the nation's week of mourning for Reagan, who died Saturday, will turn into a boost for Bush's reelection campaign.
"Officially, GOP leaders said it would be unseemly to talk about the political impact of Reagan's death. . . . But unofficially, several Republican strategists said the nation's outpouring of nostalgia and respect for Reagan may have offered Bush an opportunity to improve his flagging popularity -- if he can find a way to don the mantle of his well-loved predecessor.
"Even before Reagan's death, Bush and his campaign deliberately borrowed some favorite themes from the Republican revolution of 1980: optimism, national confidence, military strength, tax cuts, economic recovery.
"This week, trying not to sound overtly political, Republican spokesmen again looked for polite ways to remind voters that Bush is, in many ways, Reagan's ideological heir."
Noam Scheiber stakes out the opposite view in The New Republic:
"Is the timing of Reagan's death really such a bummer for Kerry? Obviously it's a problem if Kerry can't recoup the money he passed up when he had to cancel two multimillion dollar fundraisers this week. But, given the fundraising success he's had so far, I can't imagine that will be the case. And, as far as the public campaign goes, I'd say Reagan's death represents a bit of a break for Kerry. This, after all, was the week Bush was supposed to recast himself as a president who plays well with others. Since the press was clearly gearing up to provide wall to wall coverage of his foreign travels and meetings, it's hard to see how Kerry wouldn't have 'disappeared from public view altogether' anyway. Now Reagan's death pushes Bush to the margins of public view, too -- essentially freezing the race where it was beforehand. If I'm Kerry, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
"(True, Bush may get a soft bounce from the nostalgia and good-feeling aroused by the Reagan coverage. But he was going to get that whether Reagan died this weekend, a year ago, or four months from now. As long as that was going to happen, much better to have the death drown out what the Bush campaign had billed as a pivotal moment in the marketing of its candidate.)"
The Note deftly straddles the issue, offering reasons that Reagan's death helps Bush:
"1. Reminds Americans how much they like an optimistic Westerner as their president.
"2. Overshadows for a week President Bush's troubles with world leaders and continued death and uncertainty in Iraq.
"3. Bush Doctrine is a descendent of now uniformly celebrated Reagan foreign policy vision.
"4. Prominence of 41 reburnishes the Bush Brand -- he did all the morning shows today and he's expected to be visible at the end of the week's events.
"5. Gives the current President Bush a chance to make one of the best and most-watches speeches of his life on Friday. . . . "
And some other reasons why Reagan's passing doesn't help his successor:
"1. Overshadows President Bush's week on the world stage.
"2. Doesn't happen closer to the election.
"3. Makes Bush seem smaller and less unifying at home and abroad compared to Reagan.
"4. Gives Democrats confidence that the candidate and the campaign aren't politically tone deaf -- illustrated by . . . their statements and actions since Saturday.
"5. No Bush ad traffic change could backfire."
Fred Barnes resurrects a piece about Reagan and the press:
"Ronald Reagan had an unusual way of dealing with reporters and columnists: He transcended them. He didn't complain about what they wrote or said on TV. At least I never heard that he had. He didn't flatter them, as some politicians do, by pretending to admire their work, in hope they'd produce puff pieces about him. So far as I know, he didn't have friends in the Washington press corps and didn't want any. I think the press -- with a few exceptions such as Bob Novak, Lou Cannon, and George Will -- was a blur to him.
"This was a gift, not a shortcoming. It drove journalists crazy, particularly the few conservative ones, because they crave recognition as individuals, distinct from the pack. But the chief effect of Reagan's obliviousness was to empower him. Since he didn't worry about the press, his presidency and his campaigns were not shaped by media coverage. He felt no need to pander to the press. His aides were often thrown into a tizzy by critical stories, especially in the Washington Post. But Reagan wasn't. He was free to pursue policies and say things the press was sure to loathe. He was free to be Reagan."
Barnes recalls being part of an off-the-record press session in '84, and then this:
"Reagan was amazingly disciplined. I was thrilled in 1986 to be invited to lunch with Reagan in the small study next to the Oval Office. This wasn't Reagan's idea but Pat Buchanan's. Buchanan was communications czar at the White House, and I was writing the White House Watch column for the New Republic. The lunch was off the record, but I figured I'd pick up some fascinating tidbits I could leverage into pieces. I was sadly mistaken. Reagan told great Errol Flynn stories and one about director Ernst Lubitsch's subtle way of dealing with sex in movies, but not much else. The worst part was I'd heard him tell the same Lubitsch story at the afternoon session in 1984."
Journalists, as I noted yesterday, have changed their tune about Reagan since the 1980s. But with Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and others now praising the Gipper, the Washington Times sees a trend:
"Democrats have ranged from circumspect to effusive in their praise of Ronald Reagan since the former president's death Saturday, but they were often dismissive at best of the 'Great Communicator' while he was president.
"Former House Speaker Thomas P. 'Tip' O'Neill Jr. once called Mr. Reagan 'the least knowledgeable of any president I've ever met, on any subject. He works by three-by-five cards.' Mr. Reagan was judged by many Democrats as in over his head -- an 'amiable dunce,' as Democratic power broker Clark Clifford famously described him.
"In the tributes that have poured forth since he died Saturday of pneumonia at 93, just about every Democrat has praised him for his amiable nature. Left unsaid is that many of them regarded him as a dunce -- or worse. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who announced this weekend he was suspending his presidential campaign for several days to honor Mr. Reagan, less than a year ago used the former president as the symbol of what Democrats should oppose."
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Gail Shister finds some unlikely voices to accuse the media of excess:
"Television will go overboard on covering Ronald Reagan's funeral events, say Dan Rather of CBS and Tom Brokaw of NBC. ABC's Peter Jennings isn't so sure.
" 'They will be over-covered,' Rather says. 'Even though everybody is respectful and wants to pay homage to the president, life does go on. There is other news, like the reality of Iraq. It got very short shrift this weekend.' . . .
"Yesterday, CBS, ABC and NBC, along with the 24-hour cable news networks, reported live as the former president's body was moved from a Santa Monica, Calif., funeral home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
"Rather, 72, who covered the funerals of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973 and John F. Kennedy in '63, points to 'herd journalism' as the driving force in the Reagan coverage. 'Once the herd starts moving in one direction, it's very hard to turn it, even slightly. Nationally, the herd has grown tremendously.' "
Jennings "admits he was nervous about going live yesterday with the Reagan motorcade.
'The last time I had to do it was with O.J. Simpson [the 1994 car chase] and I had nothing to say after a certain period of time,' says Jennings, 64."
Since when has that stopped anyone on TV?
For those tired of all the plaudits, Christopher Hitchens serves up some anti-Reagan red meat in Slate:
"I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn't like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter's briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn't, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.
"The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife -- the one that you remember -- because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon."
Not exactly pulling his punches. Nation writer David Corn, meanwhile, recycles a piece titled "66 Things to Think About When Flying Into Reagan National Airport":
"The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, colluding with Guatemalan thugs, pardons for F.B.I. lawbreakers, voodoo economics, budget deficits, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos, public housing cutbacks, redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt.
"Getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated schools, disinformation campaigns, 'homeless by choice,' Manuel Noriega, falling wages, the HUD scandal, air raids on Libya, 'constructive engagement' with apartheid South Africa, United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy's astrologer.
"Drug tests, lie detector tests, Fawn Hall, female appointees (8 percent), mining harbors, the S&L scandal, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, Al Haig 'in control,' silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Debategate, White House shredding, Jonas Savimbi, tax cuts for the rich, 'mistakes were made.' "
The list goes on.
Despite some balanced editorials, says Editor & Publsher's Joe Strupp, "the overwhelming praise for a president who plunged the nation into its worst deficit ever, ignored and cut public money for the poor, while also ignoring the AIDS crisis, is a bit tough to take. During my years at Brooklyn College, between 1984 and 1988, countless classmates had to drop out or find other ways to pay for school because of Reagan's policies, which included slashing federal grants for poor students and cutting survivor benefits for families of the disabled. . . .
"Paying respect is one thing, and well deserved, but the way the press is gushing over Reagan is too much to take, sparking renewed talk of putting him on the $10 bill or Mount Rushmore."
You mean the Rushmore thing isn't a done deal?
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