The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama didn’t sound too much like Ronald Reagan on Thursday. But, at first, neither did Reagan.

Obama addresses the media on Friday. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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It didn't take long in the wake of the apparent downing of Malaysia Air 17 for American partisanship to snake its way into the conversation. After President Obama gave brief (and somewhat clunky) comments on the attack before a pre-planned event on Thursday, conservatives were quick to draw a comparison with another president, much more popular with the right: Ronald Reagan.

That comparison is tricky.

Here's Obama, shortly after Thursday's attack.

"[O]bviously the world is watching reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border," Obama said. "And it looks like it may be a terrible tragedy. Right now, we’re working to determine whether there were American citizens onboard. That is our first priority."

On Fox News' Kelly File, the network's digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt expressed frustration at Obama's comments and the president's decision to move on to pre-planned campaign fundraisers in New York last night. Obama's comments were particularly bleak, he argued, in light of how President Reagan responded to the attack on Korean Air Flight 007 in 1983. That attack (explored nicely by Newsweek) was the result of the airplane's autopilot being mis-set, and it flying over the airspace of the then-Soviet Union. Nearly 270 people were killed, including 61 Americans. Reagan, Stirewalt said, "wanted Americans to feel reassured and resolute" in his response to the attack. He contrasted that with Obama's "endless talking, his endless fundraising, his endless effort to control every 15 minutes of every news cycle" which "saps him of the ability to speak with authority and resolution when he needs to."

The conservative site Hot Air was perhaps more blunt in a post titled, "This is how an American president should address Russian aggression."

It is unfair to be too critical of the president for waiting to gather his facts before addressing the situation. But 31 years ago, at a time with far less reliable technology or communications capabilities, President Ronald Reagan immediately addressed an eerily similar situation – when Soviet forces shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Here's Reagan. It is undeniably different in tone and in format than the remarks Obama delivered Thursday.

It also came four days after the attack, and after two other public comments.

When the Post first reported on the Korean Air flight the day after the attack -- September 2, 1983 -- we wrote this:

At first, the White House viewed the incident as not sufficiently critical to bring the president back to Washington. [Spokesman Larry] Speakes told reporters in the morning that Reagan would not cut short his vacation. He said the president had "every facility, every capacity, every capability" to deal with the crisis from the five-room house on his ranch.

In part, that's because it wasn't yet clear that the flight had been shot down. It wasn't until Friday morning that Reagan was told that this is indeed what happened.

On the day of the incident, Reagan ordered flags to half-staff, in honor of those killed -- a group which included Rep. Lawrence McDonald (D-Ga.). The next day, once the facts were clear, Reagan gave remarks to reporters. He began with a brief remembrance of Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson who'd died of an aneurysm shortly after giving a press conference on the Korean Air flight on the 1st. Reagan then offered a balanced assessment of what was known,  and announced that the United Nations would be meeting that day.

Our first emotions are anger, disbelief, and profound sadness. While events in Afghanistan and elsewhere have left few illusions about the willingness of the Soviet Union to advance its interests through violence and intimidation, all of us had hoped that certain irreducible standards of civilized behavior, nonetheless, obtained. But this event shocks the sensibilities of people everywhere.

The above address to the nation came three days later, on September 5. By then, the politics were clear and the events themselves much less murky. Reagan:

And make no mistake about it, this attack was not just against ourselves or the Republic of Korea. This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.

The Soviet Union apologized for the attack in 1992.

Five years after the Korean Air downing, a similar situation arose. A U.S. naval ship, the USS Vincennes, was in the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, as part of an effort to defend vessels toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War. When Iran Air Flight 655 was detected by the Vincennes, the ship mistakenly attacked, downing the flight and killing all 290 passengers. (You can see the attack itself at the 9:40 mark in this video.)

President Reagan did not address the nation, instead issuing a short statement from Camp David on the day of the attack.

We deeply regret any loss of life. The course of the Iranian civilian airliner was such that it was headed directly for the U.S.S. Vincennes, which was at the time engaged with five Iranian Boghammar boats that had attacked our forces. When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack.

Over time, it became clear that what Reagan called a "proper defensive action" by the Vincennes was perhaps better described as a series of mistakes. It continues to color the relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

On Friday, President Obama again spoke about the attack on the Malaysia Air flight over Ukraine. He acknowledged that an American, Quinn Lucas Shantzman, had been killed. Overall, the tone was very different, just as Reagan's statements changed in his day-after press conference.

I think it's important for us to recognize that this outrageous event underscores that it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine. For months we've supported a pathway to peace, and the Ukrainian government has reached out to all Ukrainians, put forward a peace plan and lived up to a cease-fire, despite repeated violations by the separatists, violations that took the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and personnel.

"Russia," he said, "has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to de-escalate the situation," instead continuing "to violate Ukrainian sovereignty and to support violent separatists."

The understanding of what happened over Ukraine continues to evolve. It is as loosely analogous to what happened in 1983 as that Korean Air attack was to the Iran Air flight. In all three circumstances, the geopolitics were enormously different, as was the direct effect on American citizens. But politics is politics, and often the endless effort to control every 15 minutes of every news cycle saps the politically motivated of the ability to speak with authority and resolution when they need to.