Rewriting Ronald Reagan

How the Media Have Worked to Distort, Dismantle and Destroy His Legacy

I. Reagan the Man

    While most Americans appreciated Ronald Reagan’s love of country and common sense conservatism, the media elite scorned him as either a showman fooling his audience, or a dunce who was unfit for high office. As the media told the story, Reagan was an airhead living in a fantasy world, a mesmerizing Music Man fooling the public with a phony bill of goods, a man who was cruel or uncaring to poor people and a puppet for the greedy rich. Reporters often agonized over why the American public liked Reagan and could not see through the White House spell and share the media’s contemptuous view of him.

■ “Pretty simplistic. Pretty old-fashioned. And I don’t think they have much application to what’s currently wrong or troubling a lot of people....Nor do I think he really understands the enormous difficulty a lot of people have in just getting through life, because he’s lived in this fantasy land for so long.”
— NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw speculating on Reagan’s values in Mother Jones, April 1983.

■ “The mission that Reagan has embarked upon has nothing to do with his personal charm. He has set out to reverse the course of American government that was charted by Franklin Roosevelt. If F.D.R. explored the upper limits of what government could do for the individual, Reagan is testing the lower limits. Reagan’s opinions and policies would be enough in another time to have protesters marching in the streets, or worse. And yet something about Reagan soothes and unites — even though the effects of his programs may repel.”
— Essayist Lance Morrow in the July 7, 1986 Time magazine cover story, “Why Is This Man So Popular?”

■ “So I think [Ronald Reagan] is going to have to pass two or three tests. The first is, will he get there, stand in front of the podium, and not drool?”
— ABC White House reporter Sam Donaldson on a planned Reagan press conference, NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman, March 18, 1987.

■ “The Acting President: Ronald Reagan and the Supporting Players Who Helped Him Create the Illusion That Held America Spellbound”
— Title of 1989 book by Bob Schieffer, CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent, and Gary Paul Gates, co-authors of The Palace Guard.

■ “They [Reagan and Thatcher] quickly formed a bond that overcame their differences of age, gender and — many whisper — IQ scores.”
Washington Post reporter David Broder, May 27, 1989.        

■ “To the self-indulgent age of the ’80s and to the characters that gave it special flavor at home — Oliver L. North and Ronald Reagan, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Arthur Laffer and his curve, the Yuppies and the leveraged buyout dealmakers — good riddance.”
— Former Washington Post editor Haynes Johnson, December 29, 1989.

■ “Reagan’s approval ratings never put him in the top rank of most popular Presidents; that was always a myth. And his confectionary, heavily scripted presidency tended to lead the country backward.”
Newsweek Senior Writer Jonathan Alter, December 31, 1991 news story.

■ “[Bush] is about to make matters worse by hauling out Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention. Reagan has become a symbol of what went wrong in the ’80s. It’s like bringing the Music Man back to River City, a big mistake.”
Newsweek reporter Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group, August 1, 1992.

■ “I think the best evidence I can give that we do a lousy job covering politics is to look at the politicians: Ronald Reagan was President of us for eight years — Ronald Reagan! Reporters should have been writing for the entire eight years of his reign that this man was gone, out of it....He should have been covered as a clown.”
— NBC reporter Bob Herbert during a panel discussion at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in Fall 1992, as reported in a June 21, 1993 National Review article by Stephanie Gutmann. Herbert is currently a New York Times columnist.

■ “All of us who covered the Reagans agreed that President Reagan was personable and charming, but I’m not so certain he was nice. It’s hard for me to think of anyone as nice when I hear him say ‘The homeless are homeless because they want to be homeless.’ To my mind, a President should care about all people, and he didn’t, which is why I will always feel Reagan lacked soul.”
— UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas in the July 1993 Good Housekeeping.

■ “In the plague years of the 1980s — that low decade of denial, indifference, hostility, opportunism, and idiocy — government fiddled and medicine diddled, and the media were silent or hysterical. A gerontocratic Ronald Reagan took this [AIDS] plague less seriously than Gerald Ford had taken swine flu. After all, he didn’t need the ghettos and he didn’t want the gays.”
CBS Sunday Morning TV critic John Leonard, September 5, 1993. [MP3 Audio]

■ “I was a correspondent in the White House in those days, and my work which consisted of reporting on President Reagan’s success in making life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white, and healthy saddened me. My parents raised me to admire generosity and to feel pity. I had arrived in our nation’s capital [in 1981] during a historic ascendancy of greed and hard-heartedness.”
New York Times editorial page editor (and former Washington Bureau Chief) Howell Raines in his 1994 book Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis.

■ “Let’s not debate his presidency, but his passing. As opposed to a man like Reagan, Nixon is, was highly regarded as a genuine statesman with a first-class mind.”
— Bryant Gumbel, April 26, 1994 Today.

■ “How much did Reagan fool the American people and how much did he simply play into their wishes? Were they misled by the nature of his campaigning or were they led into ways they wanted to go? Was Reagan sort of a modern Pied Piper? It’s my instinct about it that he very successfully delayed the apprehension of reality by this country for about a decade. He made people feel that things were better than they were, that the external dangers were greater than they were.”
— Former PBS anchor Robert MacNeil in the 1995 Liz Cunningham book Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age.

Time’s Jack White: “And he was extraordinarily lucky in that he wasn’t brought down by the Iran-Contra scandal.”
Columnist Charles Krauthammer: “Oh, come on.”
White: “...It verged on treason. He was extraordinarily lucky on that. He tried to turn the clock back on civil rights. There’s a whole history of problems with this guy that some of us don’t join you in the view that he’s the most successful presidency.”
Krauthammer: “...He ushered in the collapse of the Soviet empire, which is the greatest achievement of the last 50 years.”
Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas: “He had kind of an intuitive idiot genius.”
— September 25, 1999 Inside Washington. [MP3 Audio]

■ “Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead! That’s one of the conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a tremendous amount of interest and fire today, Monday, September the 27th, 1999.”
— NBC co-host Katie Couric opening Today before an interview with Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, who actually wrote that President Reagan was “an apparent airhead.” He told Couric, “He was a very bright man.” [MP3 Audio]

Co-host Bryant Gumbel: “Well, later on this morning we’re going to be talking on this President’s Day about this presidential survey. Who would you think finished first?...Of all the Presidents when they did first to worst. Oh c’mon, you would know.”
Co-host Jane Clayson: “Ronald Reagan.”
Gumbel, dropping his pen: “First?!?!”
Clayson: “Who was it?”
Gumbel: “No! Reagan wasn’t even in the top ten. Abraham Lincoln. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
— Exchange on CBS’s The Early Show about C-SPAN poll of historians which ranked Reagan 11th, February 21, 2000.

■ “I used to say I thought if you were down on your luck and you got through the Secret Service, got in the Oval Office and said, ‘Mr. President, I’m down on my luck,’ he would literally give you the shirt off his back. And then he’d sit down in his undershirt and he’d sign legislation throwing your kids off school lunch program, maybe your parents off Social Security, and of course the Welfare Queen off of welfare.”
– ABC’s Sam Donaldson, who covered the White House during the 1980s, on Good Morning America, June 11, 2004. [MP3 Audio]

■”Reagan, like just about every other actor who ever passed through Hollywood, had a very hard time viewing sex as something to repress. This genial hedonism would later express itself in Reagan’s embrace of supply-side economics. Tax cuts would pay for themselves, he told himself, and when they didn’t, he left to his two White House successors the drudge work of reducing the huge budget deficit.”
— Former Newsweek reporter and U.S. News & World Report editor Timothy Noah in a Washington Post book review, March 29, 2007.