He was covered as an ambitious former aide elected to Congress at 28, then as a reluctant leader; as a tea party darling, then as a symbol of the Washington establishment; as an extremist, then as a voice of reason.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who said Wednesday that he will not seek reelection in November, maintained a complicated relationship with a press corps whose changing portrayals of him reflected the shifts in national politics that may have hastened his retirement at age 48.
In an interview on Fox News in 2012, when he was the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Ryan said, “It kind of goes without saying that there’s definitely a media bias. ... I’m a conservative person; I’m used to media bias.”
By the next presidential election cycle, such criticism seemed tame when compared to Donald Trump's harsh declarations that reporters are “scum” and “the lowest form of life.” With Trump as the head of the GOP, Ryan even morphed into a media defender, at times.
As President Trump railed against leaks to the media last year, Ryan said, “Leaks are concerning because leaks can often compromise national security, but that’s the problem of the leaker, not the journalist.”
When Trump tweeted a nasty remark about the intelligence and physical appearance of MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, Ryan said, “Obviously, I don’t see that as an appropriate comment. What we’re trying to do around here is improve the civility and tone of the debate, and this obviously does not do that.”
In recent years, Ryan’s basic decency and even temper set him apart from the face of his party. He collected positive coverage for saying things like: “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.”
Not terribly bold stuff. And Ryan nevertheless supported Trump right through Wednesday’s retirement announcement, when he said, “I’m grateful that we have unified government that the president, with his victory, gave us.”
Still, Ryan’s occasional willingness to criticize Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric cast the speaker, in some press accounts, as a moderating influence on the GOP — a far cry from his image circa 2012, when the New York Times editorialized that he had authored “the most extreme budget plan passed by a house of Congress in modern times” and then conceived a “new budget [that] is, if anything, worse, full of bigger, emptier promises.”
Ryan’s policy prescriptions have not changed. He said Wednesday that he is “extremely proud” of his efforts to reduce government spending through cuts to social welfare programs. But as Trump entered and advanced in politics, personal decorum became a point of greater emphasis in news coverage, and Ryan became a kind of foil for the coarse billionaire.
At the same time, Ryan’s status dropped precipitously at Breitbart News, which heralded him as “one of the GOP's intellectual leaders” (when presidential candidate Mitt Romney picked him as a vice-presidential running mate in 2012), but came to vilify him as part of “the swamp establishment in Washington.”