A Not-So-Fond Remembrance of Reagan - June 7, 2004 - TimesWatch.org

Times Watch for June 7, 2004

A Not-So-Fond Remembrance of Reagan

Marilyn Berger's front-page obituary for President Ronald Reagan starts out promisingly, with references to Reagan's unquenchable optimism: "Ronald Wilson Reagan, a former film star who became America's 40th president, the oldest to enter the White House but imbued with a youthful optimism rooted in the traditional virtues of a bygone era, died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles." Then she notes how Reagan "touched the hearts of Americans" when he wrote of his encroaching Alzheimer's.

In the ninth paragraph she says: "He managed to project the optimism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the faith in small-town America of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the vigor of John F. Kennedy. In his first term he restored much of America's faith in itself and in the presidency, and he rode into his second term on the crest of a wave of popularity."

But one soon realizes that the Times considers "optimism" to be the whole story of Reagan's presidency, as if Reagan's popularity was based merely on presenting an amiable fa"ade to the American people. It's an attitude that enables the Times to dismiss the substance of Reagan's Cold War and economic successes.

Berger segues into Iran-Contra just before the inside jump: "But late in 1986, halfway through his second term, Mr. Reagan and his administration were plunged into turmoil by an effort to deal too rashly with the same kind of hostage crisis that he had accused President Jimmy Carter of handling too gingerly in Iran".The deception and disdain for the law invited comparisons to Watergate, undermined Mr. Reagan's credibility and severely weakened his powers of persuasion with Congress. Scrutiny of his appointees increased; Supreme Court nominees were rejected or withdrawn; and more of his aides were accused of ethics violations than in any other administration up until that point."

Reagan and the Cold War: Just Got Lucky?

In addition, she hints Reagan got lucky regarding the greatest achievement of his administration: "It was Mr. Reagan's good fortune that during his time in office the Soviet Union was undergoing profound change, eventually to collapse, setting off a spirited debate over Mr. Reagan's role in ending the cold war. His supporters argued that his tough policies were the coup de gr"ce and his detractors attributed the end to the accumulated influence of 45 years of the American policy of containment. But wherever the credit was due, the thaw came on his watch."

Later, she even ventures the line embraced by sore-loser liberals that Reagan's aggressiveness actually prolonged the Cold War: "Some analysts believe that buildup, along with military exercises and reconnaissance that were seen from the Soviet perspective as provocative, may have strengthened Soviet hawks and actually delayed efforts by Mr. Gorbachev to bring reform to the Soviet Union."

There's more of Reagan's luck and his ability to "captivate" the American people despite making otherwise fatal foul-ups: "His resilience and good humor after he was struck by an assailant's bullet in 1981 reinforced the public's affection for him. Gliding gracefully across the national stage with his boy-next-door good looks and his lopsided grin, he managed to escape blame for political disasters for which any other president would have been excoriated. If the federal deficit almost tripled in his presidency, if 241 marines he sent to Beirut were killed in a terrorist bombing, if he seemed to equate Nazi storm troopers with the victims of the Holocaust, he was always able to rekindle public support. He became known early on as the Teflon president. His Hollywood background, long considered a liability, became his greatest asset in the political arena, and he was a master at using it to captivate the American people."

Berger runs through the liberal litany of Reagan's "heartless" administration ("heartless" being liberal-speak for "attempting to cut government spending"): "In the first years of the Reagan administration, when unemployment was rising, insurance for workers who lost their jobs because of foreign competition was scaled back. Middle-income college students became ineligible for government-backed loans and more than a million people lost their food stamps. In 1981, the Department of Agriculture proposed that ketchup be considered a vegetable in calculating the nutritional values of school lunches. The suggestion caused such an uproar that the rule was never instituted. When Social Security disability benefits were cut off for 500,000 people, the federal courts restored payments to 200,000, but the cuts furthered the perception that the administration was heartless."

While Berger ensures Reagan is blamed for the deficit and recession, the taming of inflation is due not to Reagan but outside forces: "After the 1981-82 recession, Mr. Reagan presided over the longest economic expansion in history, one that saw the creation of 16 million jobs. By his seventh year in office the stock market was reaching an all-time high. Inflation had dropped and the prime interest rate was down, partly a result of the collapse of oil prices and partly from the policies of the Federal Reserve."

(If you blinked while reading that last paragraph, you missed Berger's full comment on the record economic expansion of the Reagan years.)

By contrast, the blame for the 1987 stock market meltdown is placed squarely on Reagan's shoulders: "The market meltdown highlighted the administration's failure to deal with the budget and trade deficits and the failure of supply-side economics to encourage investment and productivity. Economists' warnings that the administration was mortgaging the country's future were finally heeded, and the president and Congress agreed to a deficit-reduction package."

The Anti-Reagan Laundry List

Like the rest of the media, Berger discovers homelessness during a Republican administration: "Unemployment declined, but more people were living below the poverty line, and homelessness became a national concern. When Mr. Reagan was asked about the problem in 1984, he replied that some needy people might be 'homeless by choice.'"

(While politically incorrect to say, there's ample evidence for that phenomenon.)

And of course, Berger doesn't forget the ultimate liberal anti-Reagan argument-those awful budget deficits: "Within six years the deficit more than doubled, from $79 billion in Mr. Reagan's first year in office to $173 billion. In the 1987 fiscal year it dropped back to $150.4 billion but edged up again in 1988. Still, Mr. Reagan repeatedly refused to consider tax increases."

(Of course, Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush won liberal praise by raising taxes in 1990-and the deficit increased to a record $290 billion in 1992.)

Next, on to the S&L crisis and a laundry list of bad things that happened on Reagan's watch: "Banking was another major area of deregulation, the disastrous consequences of which were to become clear after Mr. Reagan left office in the savings and loan scandals that could cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars".there were more farm foreclosures in the Reagan years than at any time since the Depression".In the first year of Mr. Reagan's second term, the United States, once the biggest creditor nation, became the biggest debtor nation in the world despite some efforts on his part to alter the trade balance."

On the domestic front, the Reagan years apparently weren't much better: "The Reagan administration also challenged the longstanding view that the government should aggressively protect civil rights." But note that what Berger's talking about are quotas and affirmative action-quite a liberal definition of civil rights.

She even obliquely brings up the long-discredited liberal conspiracy "October Surprise" theory-the argument that the Reagan campaign negotiated to delay the release of the hostages until after the election: "No sooner had Mr. Reagan taken the oath of office at noon on Jan. 20, 1981, than the 52 American hostages who had been held in Iran since Nov. 4, 1979, were released in accordance with an agreement that President Carter had completed only hours before. The timing of the release led to questions about whether Mr. Reagan or his staff had struck a private deal with the Iranians."

In a section evaluating Reagan's career, Berger repeats a harshly negative assessment from the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, one of Reagan's chief rivals. By contrast, O'Neill's own Times obituary from January 7, 1994 featured no negative quotes about O'Neill-and also included more nasty O'Neill jabs at Ronald Reagan. (Reagan had sufficient class not to go after Tip O'Neill with similar vitriol.)

Berger follows that with positive views of Reagan from historians Kenneth Lynn and Paul Johnson, then notes: "But to many other historians and political scientists, Mr. Reagan's accomplishments will not secure his place among great American presidents."

She quotes historian Thomas Cronin, who apparently speaks for those "many others" when he says of Reagan: "Did he expand opportunities for all Americans regardless of race, gender or income bracket? It's my view Reagan has not enlarged the equity factor nor the educational opportunities for most Americans. He was too late, too little and too lame when it came to human rights abuses at home and abroad. He was not willing to be a leader."

Having sniped at Reagan's inauguration by bringing up the October Surprise, Berger takes a swipe at the end of his office: "Moments after the inauguration of George Bush as the nation's 41st resident, Mr. Reagan returned to California, to writing his autobiography, to riding his horses and chopping wood on his ranch and to the new house in Bel-Air. There were some political appearances and a visit to Japan that occasioned an uproar when it became known that he was being paid $2 million by a Japanese communications group for his appearances there."

(Interestingly, the final print edition eliminates the most pro-Reagan paragraph of the early version of Berger's obituary, initially posted on the Times website Saturday: "Preaching the hometown virtues of smaller government, lower taxes and a stronger military, Mr. Reagan brought a jaunty optimism to the White House and led the country out of the malaise lamented by Jimmy Carter, the Democrat who preceded him.")

For the rest of Berger's obituary of Ronald Reagan, click here.

" Marilyn Berger | Obituary | Ronald Reagan

Reagan's "Seeming Indifference" to the Poor

"An Impact Seen, and Felt, Everywhere" is Todd Purdum's Monday piece on the extent of Ronald Reagan's legacy, from the Schwarzenegger governorship to the Supreme Court, and even contains this flattering teaser line: "He was almost always popular, and many now say, usually right."

But at the end there's this sour note: "Historians will long debate the impact of the huge federal budget deficits run up under Mr. Reagan's leadership, the efficacy of his tax cuts, the effects of his administration's involvements in Central America, his seeming indifference to civil rights, the environment and the plight of the poor."

Only if one equates "indifference" with "disapproval of massive increases in federal spending."

For the rest of Purdum on Reagan's legacy, click here.

" Todd Purdum | Ronald Reagan

Reagan and the Virtue of "Simplicity"

Monday's editorial remembrance of Reagan isn't exactly bursting with praise: "Looking back now, we can trace some of the flaws of the current Washington mindset-the tax-cut-driven deficits, the slogan-driven foreign policy-to Mr. Reagan's example".He will almost certainly be ranked among the most important presidents of the 20th century, forever linked with the triumph over Communism abroad and the restoration of faith in free markets at home."

Just as it did in Reagan's obituary, the Times editorial finds the secret to his success in dumb luck: "He profited from good timing and good luck, coming along when the country was tired of the dour pedantry of the Carter administration, wounded by the Iranian hostage crisis, frustrated by rising unemployment and unyielding inflation. Mr. Reagan's stubborn refusal to accept the permanence of Communism helped end the cold war. He was fortunate to have as his counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader ready to acknowledge his society's failings and interested in reducing international tensions."

Reaganomics takes an expected hit, before the Times pays Reagan a backhanded compliment for his "simplicity": "When Ronald Reagan was elected, the institution of the presidency and the nation itself seemed to be laboring under a large dark cloud. Into the middle of this malaise came a most improbable chief executive-a former baseball announcer, pitchman for General Electric, Hollywood bon vivant and two-term California governor with one uncomplicated message: There was no problem that could not be solved if Americans would only believe in themselves. At the time, it was something the nation needed to hear. Today, we live in an era defined by that particular kind of simplicity, which expresses itself in semi-detached leadership and a black-and-white view of the world. Gray is beginning to look a lot more attractive."

For the rest of the Times editorial on Reagan, click here.

" Editorials | Ronald Reagan