Ronald Reagan: Overcoming a Fierce First Draft of History
Table of Contents:
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. For the first five years of his ex-presidency, the Reagan legacy was still a juicy target for liberal journalists, who blamed his administration for everything from flammable pajamas to sexual harassment in public housing. Only his brain-robbing Alzheimer’s disease put the brakes on media hostility.
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.”
— Exchange on Face the Nation, May 15, 1988.
“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
— UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas on CBS Nightwatch, December 30, 1988.
“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 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.
“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.
“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.
“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
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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 just left behind 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. (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
“You place responsibility for the death of your
daughter squarely at 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.
“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
— 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. (With WMV video/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
— Katie Couric to Rep. 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
— Narrator of PBS American Experience profile of Ronald Reagan, February 24, 1998.
“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
— Former UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas speaking at a March 3 Newseum session shown by C-SPAN on March 4, 2002.