At the passing of Ronald Wilson Reagan, everyone remembers stories about the man and the president–his leadership and vision, his humanity and optimism, his deep love of country and belief in the power of freedom. But any measure of his accomplishments has to begin by noting his unique placement in history as a firmly conservative president arriving at the end of an era dominated by liberalism–in both parties. Everything he accomplished he did by the force of his personality and words, often having to drag along a number of embarrassed moderate Republicans as well as out-persuade Democrats. Everything he changed he managed to do against a daily wave of media hostility to his agenda.
Think of everything Reagan did, and then add: He did it all before Fox News. He did it all before the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon. He did it all before the instant battle cry of his defenders could hit the Internet. He did it all before C-SPAN caught on and people could enjoy the game of watching entire speeches and debates and then observing how the network tricksters discombobulated them into liberal hatchet jobs. He did it all when (well, eventually) the only conservative regular on the big networks was ABC’s George Will, and at that time Will was still fashionably fussing about Americans being “taxophobic” and spurning Reagan’s “Morning in America goo.”
In the prologue to his book on Reagan Dinesh D’Souza captured the flavor of how Reagan was greeted by the Washington establishment. Everything Reagan sought to accomplish seemed ludicrous and uneducated to the long-standing liberal consensus. Tax cuts would be wildly inflationary. A foreign policy based on the radical notion that Communism should be put on the ash heap of history was dismissed as a bellicose fantasy too dangerous for the nuclear age. At the end of it all, Reagan was the wise man, and all his detractors–Democrats and ersatz Republicans, political scientists and economists, “Sovietologists” and journalists–were the dummies.
Conservative media critics could fill many books with utterly wrongheaded Reagan-attacking quotes from the so-called objective media. For ten years, we’ve imagined how we would greet this sad occasion, and how we could channel the deluge of liberal bias into a single message.
Part of remembering Reagan is to remember all the hilariously incorrect quotes about him. At the 1988 Republican convention, Roger Rosenblatt, then editor of U.S. News & World Report, transfixed his CBS interviewers by describing the Reagan legacy as “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.” In the summer of 1989, NBC’s Bryant Gumbel was still snottily dismissing reality with spit-take lines like this: “Largely as a result of the policies and priorities of the Reagan administration, more people are becoming poor and staying poor in this country than at any time since World War II.”
In our lesser moments, it would be tempting to remember the mean-spirited personal attacks on Reagan by media figures, starting with Sam Donaldson joking on the David Letterman show in 1987 about a press conference dealing with Iran-Contra: “So I think [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?” And then there’s Chris Matthews joking in 1995 on Good Morning America about Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease: “The trouble is that Ronald Reagan left us with the check. He may not remember all this, but he left us with a $3 trillion debt.” Donaldson and Matthews both warmly recalled Reagan and his era Satuday. We should welcome them to the party.
The first draft of history was written by the daily press as the Reagan presidency unfolded, and that draft was laughably wrong. The drafts since then have acknowledged that time makes Reagan stand out. The first President Bush showed, at least domestically, what could happen if a Republican sought the love and acceptance of liberal journalists. President Clinton was in many ways the polar opposite of Reagan: Reagan was the man of principle, Clinton the man who finessed every focus group. Reagan came to Washington amid mockery over his simple-minded vision to change the world, Clinton came to Washington to soak up adulation about the size of his brain. Reagan spurred a tidal wave of change, Clinton surfed around on it.
The public record of what media figures said about Reagan’s policies is historically important, to underline the obstacles he had to overcome to succeed. It’s odd to witness acknowledgments of Reagan’s greatness as they tumble from the mouths of liberal journalists who fought him tooth and nail, including those who screamed questions at him on the White House lawn. Andrea Mitchell acknowledged Saturday night on MSNBC that Reagan indisputably won the Cold War. What will Lesley Stahl say?
We should welcome any reevaluation by the reigning pundits of the Reagan era as the truth winning out. We should welcome the warm glow of nostalgia from all Americans who share it. Reagan won over many adversaries by his magnanimity under rhetorical assault. Bitterness at this time wouldn’t be Reaganesque.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.