Dutch Reagan is back. The one-time Iowa radio announcer who took telegraphed accounts of baseball games and embellished them into such dramatic play-by-play descriptions of field action that listeners believed he was at the game, is on the radio again.
As president, Dutch is once more trying to convince listeners that he's in command. Or, as he said last week on what was the first of a series of radio broadcasts designed to end "all the confusion and all the conflicting things that come out of Washington," he intends to bring "the facts to the people as simply as I can . . . "
The facts? Following every Reagan press conference, the entire government is forced to be on call for reporters assigned to the Presidential Error beat. In the White House, Reagan-said-this-but-he-meant-that specialists are available. If this Anti-Confusion squad doesn't know the facts, it refers callers to spokesmen in the Office of Management and Budget, the food stamp office, the Social Security office and the are-the-Russians-ahead-of-us-or-are-we-ahead-of-the-Russians? office at the Defense Department.
Even Tip O'Neill, the speaker of the House, is releasing lists of "completely inaccurate" statements by Reagan following presidential press conferences.
But the effort to align the president with the factual will take more than tipsheets from Tip and more than disinfectants from the White House cleanup crew. What's needed is a Fact-Finding Commission to Find Some Facts for Ronald Reagan.
In emergencies, Congress regularly dispatches fact-finding missions--"blue-ribbon panels" they are called by headline writers--to all corners of the globe. Can't one be dispatched to the Department of Agriculture a few blocks away to talk with the acting assistant deputy whose files have the facts on food stamps? Or the bureaucrat at Labor who has the right unemployment figures?
Should the Fact-Finding Commission To Find Some Facts for Ronald Reagan be convened, its first business before going into the field would be to find the facts on whether Ronald Reagan or journalists are more accurate. This dispute was raised by the president himself in his January interview with Dan Rather. Defending himself against the "effort that goes clear back into the campaign, and including the last press conference, to have me constantly out misstating facts," Reagan expressed the wish to Rather that "someday we can sit down and I would like to match my accuracy with that of the media and I think I'd come out on top."
The commission shouldn't have trouble with this. It could begin with a question for Rather: How many times in the past 10 years have you gone on the air to report about nonexistent welfare queens? For Reagan, the commission can ask him to match scorecards with Rather. On CBS radio on Jan. 22, Rather needed only about two minutes to document and refute four Reagan errors from the president's previous press conference. That's a rate of one error corrected per 30 seconds. Can Reagan, with Rather transcripts in hand, beat it?
If Reagan vs. Rather is the dream match of the future, the scorecard of Reagan vs. The New York Times editorial board is already in. At his last press conference, Reagan, referring to "an editorial in a paper this morning," accused The Times of unfairness. He claimed that the editorial had misstated the budgetary reality of the WIC nutrition program. It is, said Reagan, receiving "much greater money" than before. A few days later, The Times, its fact checker apparently rechecking, again documented that the program was receiving much less money.
America would be well-served by a Fact-Finding Commission To Find Some Facts for Ronald Reagan. I nominate as chairman the young fellow the State Department brought to Washington from Central America to bolster its case that the Nicaraguans were sending Cuban-trained soldiers to El Salvador but who ended up saying that he was "the only foreigner" he knew of to be fighting in El Salvador.
The commission, no matter who chaired it, would face a problem. Reagan could refuse to accept the findings, meeting it head on with one of his perfected anti-fact defenses, the telling anecdote: Back when I was governor of California, I remember this one fact-finding commission. . . .