15 Years Later, the Remaking of a President
Monday, June 7, 2004
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 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 citizens' 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 age 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. But more important, a president'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.