Rewriting Ronald Reagan

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

V. The Reagan Legacy

    While most media reports acknowledged at Reagan’s death the warmth and charisma of the man, and his powers as a “Great Communicator,” they did not note the strenuous attempts to rebut him by the array of powerful communicators known as the national media elite. The most notable omission in all the gracious obituaries and histories is the media’s own aggressive role in attempting to define the Reagan era down. Reporters, editors, and anchormen fought Reagan’s policies tooth and nail, built a scandal industry to taint Reagan with the “sleaze factor” (which they quickly dropped in the 1990s), and often dismissed him personally as a dangerously bellicose and ignorant man still lost in his old movie roles.

    The hostility didn’t end when Reagan left office either. The media continued to paint the Reagan era as a horrific time of low ethics, class warfare on the poor, and crushing government debt. Even after he left office, Ronald Reagan’s legacy was still a juicy target for liberal journalists, who blamed his administration for everything from flammable pajamas to sexual harassment in public housing.

Don Regan: “What’s the bottom line of the Reagan Administration? It’s a great record.”
Lesley Stahl: “Bottom line: largest deficits in history, largest debtor nation, can’t afford to fix the housing emergency or the drug crisis.”
— Exchange on Face the Nation, May 15, 1988. [MP3 Audio]

■ “President Reagan was unfair to the poor.”
“He was a rich man’s President.”
“He had a negative view on women’s rights.”
“He was unfair to blacks.”
“He didn’t know what he was doing.”
“He was unfair to the middle class.”
“He was unfair to old people.”
— Statements people were asked to agree or disagree with in Washington Post/ABC News poll released June 30, 1988.

■ “I think it’s a dangerous failure at least in terms of programs. A mess in Central America, neglect of the poor, corruption in government....And the worst legacy of all, the budget deficit, the impoverishment of our children.”
U.S. News & World Report Editor Roger Rosenblatt summarizing the Reagan record during CBS News GOP Convention coverage, 1988.

■ “I think there is a question mark on the domestic policy: I think he left an uncaring society...a government that was not as concerned.”
— UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas on CBS Nightwatch, December 30, 1988. [MP3 Audio]

■ “And so it goes with President Bozo...coming to the end of his eight-year reign, and reign it has been, no matter how it rained on the poor. The hell with the poor, it’s their own fault; we all feel that way.”
Boston Globe Associate Editor and long time reporter David Nyhan, in a December 28, 1988 column.

■ “I predict historians are going to be totally baffled by how the American people fell in love with this man and followed him the way we did.”
— CBS’s Lesley Stahl on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas, January 11, 1989. [MP3 Audio]

■ “In 1984, he would win again. It did not seem to matter that the deficit was growing; homeless families were in the street; and real wages were declining. Reagan’s campaign team turned the whole first term into a movie, featuring the Americans with restored faith. In 1984, Reagan had persuaded the majority of Americans that it was morning again in America.”
— Liberal historian Garry Wills narrating the PBS documentary series Frontline, January 18, 1989.

■ “He talked about being proud of what’s happened with the economy, about the millions of new jobs that have been created. And as I listened to that, I also thought one out of five babies born in the United States are born into poverty. There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country now that are homeless, have no place to live. I wonder, how does your father reconcile that in his mind? How does he reconcile those two things?”
— CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith to Maureen Reagan on January 12, 1989, the morning after President Reagan’s farewell address. [MP3 Audio]

■ “The borrow-and-spend policies that Ronald Reagan presided over have bequeathed to his chosen successor a downsized presidency devoid of the resources to address long neglected domestic problems.”
— Reporters Michael Duffy and Richard Hornik in Time, February 20, 1989.

■ “Analysts will also recognize that Ronald Reagan presided over a meltdown of the federal government during the last eight years.  Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric and imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to wide-scale abuse....Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan’s laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry, the scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deterioration of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities, the dangerous state of the air traffic control system — not to mention the staggering deficit.”
— CBS reporter Terence Smith in a New York Times op-ed piece, November 5, 1989.

■ “In the 1980s the minimum wage has really lived up to its name. Since it was last raised to $3.35 an hour in 1981, inflation has eroded its purchasing power by 27 percent. Meanwhile, the Reagan era became famous for skyrocketing maximum wages as greed became fashionable throughout the land.”
Time Associate Editor Richard Lacayo, November 13, 1989.

Bill Moyers: “When it comes to visuals, do you miss Ronald Reagan?”
CBS’s Lesley Stahl: “Well, I guess as a television reporter yes, but as an American citizen, no.”
— Exchange on PBS’s Bill Moyers: The Public Mind, November 22, 1989.

■ “The decade had its highs (Gorbachev, Bird)...
...and the decade had its lows (Reagan, AIDS)”
Boston Globe headlines over ’80s reviews by the paper’s columnists, December 28, 1989.

■ “By ‘selling the sizzle’ of Reagan, as his aide Michael Deaver put it, the administration spun the nation out of its torpor with such fantasies as supply-side economics, the nuclear weapons ‘window of vulnerability,’ and the Strategic Defense Initiative.”
U.S. News & World Report Senior Editor Harrison Rainie, December 25, 1989/January 1, 1990.

■ “It will take 100 years to get the government back into place after Reagan. He hurt people: the disabled, women, nursing mothers, the homeless.”
— White House reporter Sarah McClendon in USA Today, February 16, 1990.

■ “The missteps, poor efforts and setbacks brought on by the Reagan years have made this a more sober Earth Day. The task seems larger now.”
Today co-host Bryant Gumbel, April 20, 1990.

■ “We went through a trance with a mesmerizing leader and enjoyed the moment. You remember it was good morning again, morning again in America, and the sun was always coming up. No dark clouds, live for the moment, don’t worry about the debts, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about paying them off, don’t worry about the long-term future. And I think that’s the legacy....I don’t think I said the most lawless. I think the record is the worst since the Harding years and that’s probably saying about the same thing.”
— Former Washington Post editor Haynes Johnson discussing his Reagan-bashing book Sleepwalking Through History, March 12, 1991 Today.

■ “By many measures, the Reagan Administration was a failure. It left us with a huge debt and an unfocused domestic policy. It got us in a moral mess with Irangate and a military disaster in Lebanon.”
— NBC News President Michael Gartner reviewing Lou Cannon’s book, President Reagan: Role of a Lifetime in The Washington Post, April 21, 1991.

■ “It’s been called a legacy of the ’80s, left on the sidewalks of America. An economic lesson about shrinking resources and growing needs in every major city. In Los Angeles, the welfare line starts at dawn and grows all day.”
— Reporter Richard Roth on the November 7, 1991 CBS Evening News.

■ “The amazing thing is most people seem content to believe that almost everybody had a good time in the ‘80s, a real shot at the dream. But the fact is, they didn’t. Did we wear blinders? Did we think the ’80s left behind just the homeless? The fact is that almost nine in ten Americans actually saw their lifestyle decline.”
— NBC reporter Keith Morrison, February 7, 1992 Nightly News. [MP3 Audio]

■ “You place the responsibility for the death of your daughter squarely on the feet of the Reagan administration. Do you believe they’re responsible for that?”
— NBC reporter Maria Shriver interviewing AIDS sufferer Elizabeth Glaser, July 14, 1992 Democratic convention coverage. [MP3 Audio]

■ “The subtext of the recovery-and-healing line is that America is a self-abusive binger that must go through recovery. Thus: the nation borrowed and spent recklessly in the 1980s, drank too deeply of Reagan fantasies about ‘Morning in America’ and supply-side economics. And now, on the morning after, the U.S. wakes up at the moment of truth and looks in the mirror. Hence: America needs the ‘courage to change’ in a national atmosphere of recovery, repentance and confession.”
Time Senior Writer Lance Morrow welcoming the Clinton presidency, Jan. 4, 1993.

■ “We have seen in the past, during Reagan-Bush administration days, when huge slashes went through, when entire programs were dismantled, and what ends up being left sometimes in its wake is the sort of vacuum and chaos and even more problems than were there to begin with.”
CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith responding to Pat Buchanan’s criticism of the Clinton “Reinventing Government” report, September 8, 1993.

■ “The number of measles cases in the US plummeted from 27,786 in 1990 to just 2,237 last year. Apparently the epidemic that raged through the preschool population after President Reagan cut funds for immunization has finally run its course.”
Time’s “Health Report” in “The Week” section, October 18, 1993.

■ “I don’t shield my politics in this book, as I do in much of my journalism, as I’ve been disciplined to do. The Reagan years oppressed me because of the callousness and the greed and the hard-hearted attitude toward people who have very little in this society, so all of that came together at around age 40 for me.”
New York Times editorial page editor and former Washington bureau chief Howell Raines on the PBS talk show Charlie Rose, November 17, 1993. [MP3 Audio]

■ “Aren’t you worried that we’re going to go back to the days when Ronald Reagan suggested that ketchup and relish be designated as vegetables?”
— Katie Couric to Representative Duke Cunningham, February 22, 1995 Today. Reagan never suggested that.

■ “In the corporate takeovers of the 1980s, the Reagan administration was a wallflower at the orgy.”
— First sentence of Time Associate Editor Richard Lacayo’s February 27, 1995 sidebar on Microsoft anti-trust settlement.

■ “You can look at the economics of Reaganism, for example, or some of the bombast of his foreign policy, and find all manner of flaws in there.”
— NBC’s Tom Brokaw on PBS’s Charlie Rose, May 2, 1996.

■ “An awful lot of people, Cal, decided during the Reagan years that this could be done painlessly. Remember Ronald Reagan, your old buddy, he used to say, you know, ‘All you’ve got to do is cut waste, fraud, and abuse, cut welfare, cut foreign aid,’ and that’s how you would solve the problem. Reaganism never involved pain for God-fearing, taxpaying, hard-working middle Americans. Now, finally, the Reagan fantasy is coming face to face with reality.”
U.S. News & World Report Senior Writer Steven Roberts on CNBC’s Cal Thomas show, May 16, 1995.

■ “Although most Americans benefitted, the gap between the richest and poorest became a chasm. Donald Trump and the new billionaires of the 1980s recalled the extravagance of the captains of industry in the 1880s. There were losers. Cuts in social programs created a homeless population that grew to exceed that of Atlanta. AIDS became an epidemic in the 1980s, nearly 50,000 died. Reagan largely ignored it.”
— Narrator of PBS American Experience profile of Ronald Reagan, February 24, 1998. [MP3 Audio]

■ “Even without evidence of a direct link to the Oval Office, Iran-contra had portrayed the President as either a figurehead in a rogue government or an impotent and forgetful leader whose lack of attention to detail had finally caught up with him and the nation. To the problems of homelessness, AIDS, the skyrocketing budget deficit, and a frightening arms buildup could now be added a morally suspect foreign policy. And this, from the man who had made a return to an old-fashioned moral ethic central to his national plan.”
— ABC anchor Peter Jennings and co-author Todd Brewster in The Century, a book reviewing events between 1900 and 1999.

■ “Reagan turned the country to the right. There was a Reagan revolution, a very conservative revolution, and it was social Darwinism. If you can’t make it, tough. I mean, he did not believe in social welfare and, but at the same time, he did build up our military. He had a secret plan to spend one trillion dollars on new arms when he came in.”
— Former UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas speaking at a March 3 Newseum session shown by C-SPAN on March 4, 2002.

■ “Most of those who are physically, economically or otherwise disadvantaged, deeply resented and still resent his insistence that government is the problem, not the solution. Severe and continuing cutbacks in government services to the poor and vulnerable resulted, and the gulf dividing rich from poor widened.”
— Former New York Times Washington Bureau Chief R. W. “Johnny” Apple in a June 11, 2004  “news analysis.”

Ted Koppel: “There were some fairly contentious issues and he was a fairly controversial President — we’ve more or less overlooked much of that over the past week. But I suspect as his friends and supporters try to raise to him to the very heights there, and perhaps find a place for him on Mount Rushmore, that some of that controversy and some of the debate will come back.”
Peter Jennings: “No doubt about it.”
— Exchange during ABC’s live coverage of Reagan funeral events about 7:45pm EDT on June 11, 2004.

CBS’s Morley Safer: “You talk about a vision, and it’s some kind of abstract, vague idea. Did his [Ronald Reagan’s] vision include extraordinary deficits? Did his vision include cutting of the budgets for education and a back of the hand in terms of public education?”
Larry King: “History will not be kind to him?”
Safer: “No, I don’t think history particularly will be kind....I don’t think history has any reason to be kind to him.”
— CNN’s Larry King Live, June 14, 2004. [MP3 Audio]

■ “He definitely had an agenda, and was a social Darwinist. ‘If you can’t make it, tough.’ Was, you know, survival of the fittest, this is the whole approach. He appointed people at the head of his, of departments and agencies who were against the premise of the agency. With [Anne] Gorsuch of the EPA, [James] Watt of, to Interior, who wanted to sell all of the Western lands to privatize and so forth. So the whole thing is that he really did think that government was the problem and not the solution, which he said to the very end. At the same time, he, I think, he obviously was well liked, and I think that the poor did not prosper under him at all.”
— Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas on CNBC’s Tim Russert, June 9, 2007.

■ “Time for Countdown’s number two story, ‘Worst Persons in the World.’ The bronze goes to Mike Kilburn, county commissioner of Warren County, Ohio....The commissioners there are rejecting $373,000 in stimulus money for three new buses and vans meant to get the county’s rural residents to health care and educational opportunities. Kilburn said, ‘I’ll let Warren County go broke before taking any of Obama’s filthy money. I’m tired of paying for people who don’t have. As Reagan said, government is not the answer, it’s the problem.’ Uh, Commissioner Kilburn, Reagan’s dead, and he was a lousy President.”
— Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown, April 22, 2009.