By David Swanson, AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org/)
June 6, 2004
Ronald Reagan had the birth of a deity. Within 20 minutes of his inauguration, Iran freed the hostages that wimpy Jimmy Carter had been unable to rescue. I was 11 years old at the time and impressed but baffled. How had he done it?
http://www.alternet.org/graphics/story_lowrez/reagantoast.jpgNo one seemed to know or very much care. Apparently the Iranians had wanted to make a statement about how much they disliked Carter, and we didn't want to dwell on the motivations of Iranians. The important thing was that the hostages were finally coming home to heroes' welcomes. At last we'd rescue some trees from yellow ribbons. The kids at my school who had sung "Bomb Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" at the talent show would have to get a new song. It was Morning in America, and we needed to put our childhoods behind us. I'd be in high school soon, and Oliver North would come warn my history class about the danger of communism in Nicaragua.
Reagan was immortal. When he was shot, the television showed it to us and told us about it thousands of times. Reagan cheerfully joked with the doctors and bounced right back. The country did not suffer during his brief absence, because he was not absent from his essential function as an encouraging personality. Nor did later signs of senility diminish his role.
Today, as the media pours out its tributes, as the Washington Post lavishes over 10,000 words, as Senator John Kerry praises good old Ronnie to the skies, much of the commentary is about personality, almost all of it is laudatory, and I have been unable to find one mention of hostages in Iran.
We have forgotten Reagan's birth and will soon forget his death as well. He will become an eternal brave and smiling president: dentures and a cowboy hat hovering over the Potomac like a Cheshire cat. His presence will be unavoidable. Already if anyone asks me the name of a building or highway or train station and I don't know it, I encourage them to wait a little while and then expect it to be called Reagan. Most things are named or renamed Reagan these days, at least in Washington.
Reagan is the source of a number of trends in American politics. Through the late 1970s, wages and working conditions were improving for ordinary Americans. From the day Reagan fired the air traffic controllers through eight years of his tax cutting and military spending, it became clear that a divide would be opened up between the rich and the rest of us, that public education and care for our young, old, and ill would be slashed in the name of militarism, and that – in short and anachronistically – Reagan would be the most radical approach toward a George W. Bush presidency prior to George W. Bush.
Reagan is also the source of many of the relationships in Iran and Iraq that have troubled the United States since. Kevin Phillips' recent book "American Dynasty" does a good job of summarizing the strong evidence that Bill Casey and George H.W. Bush made a deal with the Iranians not to release the hostages until after the 1980 U.S. presidential election. This would mean that Reagan's election was illegal, that the trading during the Iran-Contra scandal had a precedent, that Reagan and G.H.W. Bush's buildup of Saddam Hussein's military was motivated in part by a desire to counter weaponry and money that the United States had given Iran in exchange for Reagan's election, that our media has completely fallen down on the job, and that we're all a bunch of suckers. That just can't be right. Please forget I mentioned it.
David Swanson is Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association. (http://www.ilcaonline.org/)
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RIDING REAGAN'S COFFIN
http://www.memphisflyer.com/IMAGES/EDWEATHERS2.JPGForgive me, but I am about to speak ill of the dead.
In the coming months, the Republican propaganda machine will shift into high gear. Their goal: to turn Ronald Reagan into a saint. Just watch. First will come the coffin in the Capitol rotunda. Then there will be a proposal to put Reagan’s face on the dollar coin. Next will come a demand that his statue appear on the Washington Mall. And at the Republican Convention in September -- oh, just wait. The highlight of that week will be a long, elegiac video of Saint Ronald, with moving music, snippets of favorite speeches, and the voiceover of, say, Charlton Heston. When the video ends, there will be heard the rapturous cheers of the faithful.
Then George W. Bush will try to ride Ronald Reagan’s coffin back into the White House.
For that reason, it is necessary now to speak ill of the dead.
As president, Ronald Reagan was a mediocrity. He has left no legacy. He did not change the world in any significantly good way. His greatest achievement was to win a war with Grenada. He ran for president blaming Jimmy Carter for high gas prices and for letting Americans be taken hostage in Iran -- both situations that no American president could have prevented. (If you believe otherwise, then you must blame George W. Bush for today’s high gas prices and for the 2,700 Americans killed on 9/11.) Reagan came into office spouting stories of welfare mothers driving Cadillacs–stories that, it turned out, were simply figments of his speechwriters’ ever-fertile imaginations.
On Reagan’s watch 241 marines were killed by terrorists in Lebanon. On his watch, Antonin Scalia, the most reactionary Supreme Court justice in generations, was placed on the bench (thereby negating Reagan’s admirable appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor). On Reagan’s watch, the U.S. supported and armed Saddam Hussein in Iraq. On Reagan’s watch the proposed Star Wars anti-missile system made us the laughing stock of the world military and scientific community, and America’s poorest schoolchildren were told that ketchup was a vegetable.
And on Reagan’s watch, the most insidious threat to the Constitution since Watergate took place: Iran-Contra. If Reagan knew that Oliver North, John Poindexter and their cronies were breaking the law in the Iran-Contra deal, then Reagan was a criminal. If he didn’t know, then he was merely a figurehead.
All the evidence points to the latter: that Ronald Reagan, as president, was in fact simply a figurehead–a voice, a grin and a head of good hair. An official inquiry by a nonpartisan commission later declared that Reagan just “didn’t understand” the Iran-Contra scandal and that while it was going on, the White House was “in chaos.” Just as his opponents had claimed before his election, Reagan wasn’t so much president as an actor performing the role of president. He didn’t need to understand the scripts. He simply had to read them aloud.
In this, George W. Bush is in fact the natural political heir of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, famously, refused to consider any national policy that could not be written down on a 3 X 5 notecard; Bush, it appears, refuses to read even that much. Reagan reduced national policy to two simple concepts: 1) taxes are evil and 2) the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire. Change “Soviet Union” to “Iraq/Iran/North Korea,” and “Evil Empire” to “Axis of Evil,” and you’ve got George W. Bush’s entire national policy. Just like Reagan, Bush sees the world as the Black Hats vs. the White Hats, and, beyond that, has almost no ideas of his own. Like Reagan, Bush simply reads aloud what his speechwriters put in front of him. George W. Bush is Ronald Reagan in miniature. Reagan was a better actor.
The Republican propaganda machine would have us believe that Ronald Reagan singlehandedly brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Soviet Union. This, of course, is nonsense. The Soviet Union fell apart because, as any political scientist, liberal or conservative, will tell you, it was the product of a flawed economic and political system and because discontented empires ultimately bankrupt their rulers. To the extent that any American president could claim some credit for the end of the Soviet Union, Reagan could claim only to be the last of eight Cold War presidents who had contributed to that end, beginning with Harry Truman.
No, Reagan left no meaningful legacy--nothing as significant as Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation or Richard Nixon’s overtures to China or Jimmy Carter’s lasting peace between Israel and Egypt.
Speaking of Carter, let me end with a true story. In 1989 (I believe it was), shortly after he left office, Ronald Reagan came to Memphis to deliver a speech to a group of businessmen. He read the speech, collected a reported $100,000 speaking fee, and immediately left town. That same week, Jimmy Carter came to Memphis. During his stay, Carter picked up a hammer and helped build houses for the poor as part of Habitat for Humanity. Carter received no money. That’s the difference, to my mind, between a pitchman and a statesman.
May Ronald Reagan rest in peace. He was, to all appearances, a genial man. But in the months to come, let us not be led astray. As president, Ronald Reagan was no saint.
Jun 7th, 2004, 09:09 PM
There is a lot negative to be said about Ronald Reagan, but who wants to criticize a 93-year old man who had advanced Alzheimers for ten years? I am sure there are worse ways to go, but I can think of a lot better ways, too. He has not been President for a long time. Only time will tell how he will truly be remembered, probably not in my lifetime, though, will we find out.
Most of Hollywood cannot stand Charlton Heston, even though he and I were friendly at one time. When he dies, it will be tribute city all over Hollywood even though his politics and acting are both terrible. If you live long enough (like me) people never bring up the bad stuff.
Jun 7th, 2004, 09:24 PM
I don't take any joy at him dying. It is sad for me to see someone die, even if I disliked this person. But people need to know the truth, especially when the media goes about saying how great he was.
Jun 11th, 2004, 07:13 AM
It's one more dead white supremacist. Good riddance.
Jun 11th, 2004, 07:33 AM
It's one more dead white supremacist. Good riddance.
How do you know?
Jun 11th, 2004, 07:51 AM
How do you know?
Nor sure what you're asking.
a) If you're arguing he's not dead, you have a point. Maybe he's alive.
b) If you're asking am I sure we're well rid of him, I'm sure I'M well rid of him.
c) If you're asking if he was a white supremecist, I know that becasue I lived through his governorship and his presidency. to give a few examples
Opposed Nelson Mandela's release from prison
Supported apartheid governemnt in South Africa
Attempted to gut Voting rights act
kicked off his presidential bid by going to location where civil rights workers were killed, and rather than mentionthem, instead stated his support for 'states rights'. The same arguements as those who killed those same civil rights workers.
He was the last true, great opponent of equal rights for African-Americans and cut, or attempted to cut, virtually every program designed to achieve that aim.
For white supremacists, I suppose, he was a leader. But even white Americans have to admit he saddled their grandchildren truly huge federal deficits. He did poor and middle class whites great economic harm, and virtualy everyone else except rich whites great harm period.
Jun 14th, 2004, 03:35 PM
Saturday 12th June 2004 :
Reagan, Race and Remembrance
by Tim Wise
If one needs any more evidence that whites and people of color live in two totally different places, politically and psychically, one need only look at the visual evidence provided by the death of Ronald Reagan.
More to the point, all one needs to know about this man and his Presidency can be gleaned by looking even haphazardly at the racial and ethnic makeup of the crowds flocking to his ranch, or his library to pay tribute. So too will it be apparent from the assemblage lining the streets of DC for his funeral procession, or gathering in the Capitol Rotunda to pay respects to their departed hero.
They are, and will be -- in case you missed it or are waiting for the safest prediction in the history of prognostication -- white. Far whiter, one should point out, than the nation over which Reagan presided, and even more so than the nation into whose soil he will be deposited within a matter of days.
While persons of color make up approximately 30 percent of the population of the United States, the Reagan faithful look like another country altogether. As they gathered in Simi Valley -- home of the 40th President's library, as well as the jury that thought nothing of the police beating of Rodney King -- one wonders if they noticed the incongruity between themselves and the rest of the state in which they live: a state called California, where people like them are slightly less than half the population now.
Doubtful. Most of them, after all, are quite used to never seeing black and brown folks, since the vast majority of whites live in communities with virtually no people of color around them.
That the mourners wouldn't notice the overwhelming monochromy of their throng is no surprise. But it has been more than a little interesting that no intrepid reporter - or at least someone pretending to be such a creature -- has thought to ask the obvious question about the racial makeup of those losing sleep over the death of Ronald Reagan, versus those who frankly aren't.
After all, there are really only two possible interpretations of the sanguine reaction by people of color to Reagan's death: namely, either black and brown folks are poster children for insensitivity, or perhaps they know something that white folks don't, or would rather ignore.
The former of these is not likely -- after all, millions of black folks actually forgave George Wallace for God's sake when he did a partial mea culpa for his racist past before his death -- but the latter is as certain as rain in Seattle.
What white folks ignore, but what most black folks can never forget, is how Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act at the time of its passage, calling it an unwarranted intrusion on the rights of businesses, and never repudiated his former stand.
Or that as Governor of California, Reagan dismissed the struggle for fair and open housing, by saying that blacks were just 'making trouble' and had no intention of moving into mostly white neighborhoods.
Perhaps they have a hard time forgetting that of all the places Reagan could have begun his campaign for the Presidency in 1980, he had to choose Philadelphia, Mississippi: a town famous only for the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. And perhaps they recall that the focus of his speech that day was 'state's rights,' a longstanding white code for rolling back civil rights gains and longing for the days of segregation.
Maybe they have burned in their memories the way Reagan attacked welfare programs with stories of 'strapping young bucks' buying T-Bone steaks, while hardworking taxpayers could only afford hamburger, or how Reagan fabricated a story about a 'welfare queen' from Chicago with 80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security cards, receiving over $150,000 in tax-free income. That Reagan picked Chicago as the site of this entirely fictional woman, and not some mostly white rural area where there were plenty of welfare recipients too, was hardly lost on African Americans.
Perhaps black folks and other people of color remember the words of former Reagan Education Secretary Terrell Bell, who noted in his memoir how racial slurs were common among the 'Great Communicator's' White House staffers, including common references to Martin Lucifer Coon, and 'sand ******s.'
Perhaps they recall that Reagan supported tax exemptions for schools that discriminated openly against blacks.
Perhaps they recall how his Administration cut funds for community health centers by 18 percent, denying three- quarters-of-a-million people access to services; how they cut federal housing assistance by two-thirds, resulting in the loss of about 200,000 affordable units for renters in urban areas.
Or how Reagan opposed sanctions against the racist South African regime, and even denied that apartheid, under which system blacks could not vote, was racist, noting that its policies were 'more tribal than racial.'
And it isn't surprising that few if any Salvadorans or Guatemalans who came to the U.S. in the 1980s, fleeing from violence in their countries, were to be seen placing flowers outside Reagan's library either.
After all, the former were forced to seek refuge here precisely because Reagan was so intent on funneling money and arms to the murderous death-squad governments who were responsible for killing so many of their countrymen and women; and the latter no doubt recall how Reagan brushed off the genocidal policies of Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt -- whose scorched earth tactics, especially against the nation's indigenous resulted in at least 70,000 deaths -- by saying he was getting a 'bum rap' on human rights, and was instead a man of 'great personal commitment,' who was dedicated to 'social justice.'
That whites would view much of this as irrelevant, even whining or sour grapes on the part of communities of color, is only proof positive that for many if not most such folks, the opinions of, and even the humanity of black and brown persons with whom they share a nation is of secondary importance to the fact that Reagan - as many have been gushing these past few days -- 'made them feel good again.'
But how can healthy people feel good about a leader who does and says the kinds of things mentioned above? Obviously the answer is by denying that racism matters, or that its victims count for anything. Even more cynically, it is no doubt true that for many of them, it was precisely Reagan's policy of hostility to people of color that made them feel good in the first place. By 1980, most whites were already tiring of civil rights and were looking for someone who would take their minds off such troubling concepts as racism, and instead implore them to 'greatness,' however defined, and 'pride,' however defined, and flag waving.
Whites have long been more enamored of style than substance, of fiction than fact, of fantasy than reality. It's why we have clung so tenaciously to the utterly preposterous version of our national history peddled by textbooks for so long; and it's why we get so angry when anyone tries to offer a correction.
It's why we choose to believe the lie about the U.S. being a shining city on a hill, rather than a potentially great but thoroughly flawed place built on the ruins and graves of Native peoples, built by the labor of enslaved Africans, enlarged by theft and murder and an absolute disregard for non-European lives.
As Randall Robinson points out in his recent book, Quitting America, when such subjects are broached, the operative response from much of the white tribe is little more than, 'Oh, that.'
Yes white man, that. That exactly. That thing we were raised to gloss over, to speak of in hushed tones, as if by our diminished volume or failure to audibilize it, it will go away; that perhaps they will forget about it, and instead join with us in praise of our country, since that is most definitely how so many of us envision it.
White people, especially those who are upper-middle class and above, have no reason on Earth to be aware of the truth, let alone to dwell on it. The truth is, after all, so messy, so littered with the bodies of dead Nicaraguans, and dead Haitians murdered by Duvalier while Reagan stood by him; so soiled by his support for Saddam Hussein. Better to ignore all that, and to go mushy before the pictures of Reagan in his cowboy hat, to remember a President who, for all of his murderous policies abroad and contempt for millions at home, at least never got a blow job in the Oval Office.
This is the twisted psychosis of growing up privileged, as a member of the dominant group: a group that must view their nation as fair and just, as a place struck off by the literal hand of God, as a place where 'average' guys like Ronald Reagan can become 'great leaders.' As a place where an 'aw shucks' smile, and a profound lack of knowledge about the details of public policy -- or even the names of foreign leaders -- is not only not cause for embarrassment, but yet another good reason to vote for someone; where refusing to read up on important policy details prior to a key international meeting so one can watch The Sound of Music on TV, is seen as endearing rather than cause for a recall.
This is why we get people like George W. Bush, for those who haven't figured it out yet. Oh sure, vote fraud and a pliant Supreme Court help, but were it not for the love affair white Americans have with mediocrity posing as leadership, things never could have gotten this far.
It's why a bona fide moron like Tom DeLay can brag about not having a passport (because, after all, why would anyone want to travel abroad and leave 'Amur'ca,' even for a day) and not be seen as the epitome of a blithering idiot, and why he could probably be elected again and again in thousands of white dominated congressional districts in this country, and not merely in Texas.
Having to grapple with the real world is stressful, and people with relative power and privilege never know how to deal with stress very well. As such, they long for and applaud easy answers for the stress that occasionally manages to intrude upon their lives: so they blame people of color for high taxes, failing schools, crime, drugs, and jobs they didn't get; they blame terrorism on 'evil,' and the notion that they hate our freedoms: a belief one can only have if one really thinks one lives in a free country in the first place.
In other words, delusion is both the fuel that propels people like Ronald Reagan forward in political life, and then makes a rational assessment of his legacy impossible upon his death.
I think this is why so many white people remember him fondly, and are truly crestfallen at the thought of his physical obsolescence: simply put, much of white America needs Ronald Reagan; a father figure to tell them everything is going to be O.K.; a kindly old Wizard of Oz, to assure them that image and reality are one, even when the more cerebral parts of our beings tend towards an opposite conclusion.
With Reagan gone, maintaining the illusion becomes more difficult.
But knowing white folks -- I am after all one of them, and have been surrounded by them all of my life -- I have little doubt that where there's a will to remain in la-la land, we will surely find a way.
Reagan has been released from the lie, finally, and may his soul find peace among the millions of dearly departed victims of his policies around the world.
Meanwhile, the rest of us must pull back the curtain on all phony heroes, Reagan among them, lest we create many millions more.
Jun 14th, 2004, 03:37 PM
Reagan: A contrary viewThe 40th president led a sustained attack on programs of importance to African Americans
Former President Ronald Reagan
By Joe Davidson
Updated: 5:04 p.m. ET June 07, 2004It’s customary to say good things about the dead.
Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court. He signed legislation for a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. He thawed relations with the Soviet Union and signed a nuclear weapons treaty. He was warm and amiable and had a good sense of humor. He liked horses.
Now let's talk about what he did to black people.
After taking office in 1981, Reagan began a sustained attack on the government’s civil rights apparatus, opened an assault on affirmative action and social welfare programs, embraced the white racist leaders of then-apartheid South Africa and waged war on a tiny, black Caribbean nation.
So thorough was Reagan’s attack on programs of importance to African Americans, that the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, an organization formed in the wake of Reagan’s attempt to neuter the official U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said he caused "an across-the-board breakdown in the machinery constructed by six previous administrations to protect civil rights."
America's move to the political right
During his two terms in office, Reagan captured, solidified and came to personify America’s move to the political right. His greatest legacy is as leader of that swing in the American political spectrum. That shift made “liberal” a dirty word and Democrats cower. What had been conservative became moderate. What was moderate was pushed to the left wing. The shift was so pronounced and profound that black America giddily embraced Bill Clinton despite his promotion of programs, criminal justice and welfare policies in particular, that would have been called racist and reactionary under Reagan.'Ronald Reagan, it is fair to say, was really an anathema to the entire civil rights community and the civil rights agenda.'
— Ronald W. Walters
University of Maryland professor
"Ronald Reagan, it is fair to say, was really an anathema to the entire civil rights community and the civil rights agenda,” Ronald W. Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told BET.com just a few hours after Reagan died, at age 93, on Saturday.
Walters, in his book “White Nationalism/black Interests – Conservative Public Policy and the black Community,” argues that George W. Bush’s election in 2000 secured the domination of American politics “by the radical Conservative wing of the Republican party, a project begun when Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House in 1980.”
His overwhelming defeat of incumbent Jimmy Carter that year brought a new spirit to America, at least white America. The United States was still reeling in self-doubt after being run out of Vietnam. National shame was raw because 52 Americans had been held hostage by Iran from November 1979 until after Reagan’s election.
In 1984, he successfully campaigned for reelection on a “Morning in America” theme. But his presidency was a long and dreary night for African Americans. Consider this record. Reagan:
Appointed conservative judges, like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who continue to issue rulings to the detriment of African Americans. Walters notes that just 2 percent of Reagan’s judicial appointments were black.
Began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., near the site where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.
Supported racism with remarks like those that characterized poor, black women as “welfare queens.”
Fired U.S. Commission on Civil Rights members who were critical of his civil rights policies, including his strong opposition to affirmative action programs. One of the commissioners, Mary Frances Berry, who now chairs the Commission, recalls that the judge who overturned the dismissal did so because “you can’t fire a watchdog for biting.”
Sought to limit and gut the Voting Rights Act.
Slashed important programs like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) that provided needed assistance to black people.
Appointed people like Clarence Thomas, who later became a horrible Supreme Court Justice, to the Equal Opportunity Commission; William Bradford Reynolds, as assistant attorney general for civil rights; and others who implemented policies that hurt black people.
Doubted the integrity of civil rights leaders, saying, “Sometimes I wonder if they really mean what they say, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they're victims of prejudice."
Tried to get a tax exemption for Bob Jones University, which was then a segregated college in South Carolina .
Defended former Sen. Jesse Helms’ “sincerity” when that arch villain of black interest questioned Martin Luther King’s loyalty.
The federal budget during the Reagan years tells the tale in stark, dollar terms. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as reported by the Los Angeles Times as Reagan left office in 1989, programs that helped black America suffered greatly during his tenure.
Using information from the Center, the Times published a table showing “some reductions in social programs under the Reagan administration; in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation”:
BY THE NUMBERS Cuts in social programs
Fiscal year (In millions of dollars) 1981 1988
Training and employment $9,106 $2,887
Energy assistance $1850 $1162
Health services, including community health centers and care for the homeless $856 $814
Legal Services $321 $232
Compensatory Education $3,545 $3,291
Housing assistance for elderly $797 $422
Community services block grant (funds local anti-poverty agencies) $525 $290
Frustration with African Americans
Despite this record, Reagan expressed frustration, during a 1989 CBS interview, about his relations with African Americans. "One of the great things that I have suffered is this feeling,” he said, “that somehow I'm on the other side" of the civil rights movement.
He also was on the wrong side of international issues important to African Americans. Reagan crushed the government of Grenada in 1983 because he felt it had fallen too far into the orbit of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Grenada is a tiny place, smaller in size than Philadelphia, with fewer people than Peoria. His trumped-up excuse was American medical students on the Caribbean island nation were threatened by government officials he called “a brutal group of leftist thugs.”
He outraged African Americans and others by relating to apartheid South Africa as a friend and ally. His program of constructive engagement amounted to a go-slow policy under which apartheid was criticized but essentially tolerated. It was a policy that delayed the independence of Namibia, then controlled by South Africa, blocked United Nations’ condemnations of South African attacks on nearby African countries and permitted American corporate support for the racist régime. He was loyal to South Africa because, as he told CBS during an interview early in 1981, it was "a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."
Even as the majority of the American people came to oppose
Jun 14th, 2004, 03:38 PM
Reagan and the Media: A Love Story
What is it about Republicans and their distrust of the mainstream media? As most news outlets are portraying the dead Ronald Reagan as an iconic and heroic figure, the Pew Research Center has released a survey that shows GOPers trust the major media organizations much less than Democrats. Only 15 to 17 percent of Republicans believe the network news shows are credible. Even Fox News Channel is trusted by only 29 percent of Republicans; CNN is trusted by 26 percent of this band. About a third of Democrats said they have faith in the networks, and 45 percent said they consider CNN credible. (Only one in four Democrats considered Fox a trustworthy news source.) The Pew report notes, "Republicans have become more distrustful of virtually all major media outlets over the past four years, while Democratic evaluations of the news media have been mostly unchanged."
But doesn't the current Reaganmania in the media undercut the old conservative bromide that the media is a dishonest bastion filled to the brim with liberals seeking to undermine Republicans? On NPR, interviewer Susan Stamberg eagerly participated in the rah-rah and raved that Reagan was an "extremely handsome" and "physically vibrant guy," saying little about his policies. CNN's Judy Woodruff repeatedly referenced Reagan's "extraordinary optimism" and reported that "everyone admired" his marriage with Nancy Reagan. Crossfire initially booked only Reagan friends, aides, and admirers. The Washington Post has devoted far more inches to the man then his policies. There have been some voices of gentle criticism. But mostly it's been a gushfest, as if the divisive and bitter battles that occurred on Reagan's watch--over his trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy, his contra war in Central America, his severe cutbacks in social programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, his effort to expand the nuclear arsenal, his firing of 13,000 air traffic controllers, his defense of the apartheid regime of South Africa--never happened. (For a cheat sheet on the worst of the Reagan years, see this piece I wrote in 1998.) As this week's lead editorial of The Nation (drafted by yours truly) notes, "It's as if Gore Vidal coined the phrase 'United States of Amnesia' for the moment of Ronald Reagan's death."
Much of the media coverage accepted and promoted--as fact--the right's favorite mantras about Reagan: he won the Cold War, he renewed patriotism, he was a lover of freedom and democracy. (For a challenge to that last point, see my piece at TomPaine.com.) There was little in the way of counterbalance. His role in the demise of the Soviet Union remains a question of historical debate, yet he has been depicted as the man who brought the Commies to their knees. Even Democrats got into the act. Senator Barbara Boxer of California praised Reagan because America "regained respect" in the world during his presidency. (She was trying to make a not-too-subtle point about the current occupant of the White House, but she should go back and check what she had to say about Reagan's foreign policy in the 1980s.)
Strong. Optimistic. Visionary. Reagan was described in warm, fuzzy and glorious terms. In the coverage that I've seen, there was little discussion of his less positive features, such as his not infrequent flights from reality. While commander-in-chief, he commented that submarine-based nuclear missiles once launched could be recalled. They cannot. Of the brutal military in El Salvador, he said, "We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador." (These forces--backed and trained by the US government--massacred 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote in December 1981, and the Reagan administration denied this mass murder happened.) Justifying his constructive engagement policy with the racist government of South Africa, he said, "Can we abandon this country that has stood beside us in every war we've ever fought?" The leaders of the ruling Afrikaners of South Africa had been Nazi sympathizers. He also claimed that segregation had been eliminated in South Africa--when blacks still did not have the right to vote and were banned from certain areas and facilities.
Reagan maintained that real earnings were increasing in the United States when they were decreasing. In 1983, he said, "There is today in the United States as much forest as there was when Washington was at Valley Forge." But the US Forest Service estimated only about 30 percent of forest lands of 1775 still existed 208 years later. He once told the story of a brave WWII bomber commander who stayed behind with an injured subordinate and went down with the plane, noting that this commander was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News checked and found no such event had occurred--except in a 1944 movie. In 1985, Reagan quipped, "I've been told that in the Russian language there isn't even a word for freedom." There is; it's svoboda. In the 1987 book, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home, Gary Wills notes that on two occasions, Reagan told visitors to the White House that when he was in the military he had filmed the Nazi concentration camps. That was false. He had served in Los Angeles, where he had made training films.
Even Reagan's devotees could not avoid the obvious. In Triumph of Politics, David Stockman, Reagan's White House budget director, writes of one meeting with the boss: "What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable, relevant facts and wanders in circles? I could not bear to watch this good and decent man go on in this embarrassing way. I buried my head in my plate."
But now Reagan is hailed as a decisive and passionate leader. Few of the examples above are included in the glowing media coverage. How do the media-bashers of the right account for that? On NPR, the subject of Reagan's drifts from reality was politely raised by Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan during an interview with David Gergen, who was communications director for Reagan. Gergen's response was illuminating. Here's the exchange.
Conan: Hmm. For a while, the press used to keep a running record of his malapropisms, his mistakes and things that he'd gotten wrong, facts he'd remembered from the movies that he presented as real. After a while, they stopped because people didn't care.
Gergen: Well, that's right. You know, I was one of the people that had to keep a total on those things and he'd ask me to go check them out. He had said during--after he became president, he said, 'I want you to go look up these various things that I said that people accuse me as being wrong and let's get the record straight.' So I went and looked up--you know, he said during the  campaign that trees kill more people than--pollution from trees kills more people than--from pollution from automobiles. Well, as you can imagine, the press had a field day with that. They all went crazy and he said that in New Hampshire....And there were a lot of things like that. You know, '50 taxes on a loaf of bread,' and there were not 50 taxes on a loaf of bread. As to the pollution issue, there is a question about--it's a little bit like cows: Do cows cause pollution? There are some issues that scientists raise, but of course, trees by and large are very good for us.
I came to defend him, Neal, on the basis on some of these things, that Reagan was telling larger truths, that--I went out and defended him once, you know, 'You've got to remember the importance of parables in life. Don't try to use every one of these stories as an absolute truth to see them in parables.' And I think that's the way the country saw him. I got a lot of grief for saying 'parables.' I got attacked by some people. But I think the country did see them as sort of stories that pointed to larger truths rather than stories that were necessarily, you know, grounded in a day-to-day reality. I mean, he remembered things out of movies he thought actually happened.
I'm not going to second-guess Conan, who did not follow up on this point, but isn't one obvious question: what was the "larger truth" that was served by Reagan's claim that trees cause pollution? How did it enhance public discourse by making false claims about the amount of taxation levied on a loaf of bread? Parables? Imagine if during the 2000 campaign, Al Gore, caught in factual inaccuracies, had defended himself by saying he was speaking in parables. How would the media have covered that?
It is no fun to kick the dead. And I am not suggesting that journalists, anchors and media commentators do so--especially when the man in the casket was beloved by so many. But it is not unreasonable--or disrespectful--to have an honest discussion about Reagan and his legacy and to acknowledge (and explain why) he was hardly a hero to all. The media too often gave him a free ride when he was president (see Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency), and that ride has continued this week.