Call it the conservative media critic's Y2K problem. As the year 2000 creeps up, the networks are seeking to sum up the century, and their review of history isn't any fairer than their coverage the first time around.
ABC anchorman Peter Jennings stands at the helm of a massive undertaking titled "The Century," which began as a best-selling book by Jennings and Todd Brewster, a former editor and writer with Life magazine. The book is being cross-promoted with excerpts on ABCNews.com as well as twelve hours of recently aired specials on ABC and sixteen hours on The History Channel.
The mammoth, 600-page volume details the 20th century, decade by decade, examining major events and the key figures of those events. But don't mistake the length for depth. The chapter "New Morning: 1981-1989" recycles many of the old shibboleths often heard from the media about the "decade of greed," degrading the Reagan years as a time of naivete, instead of recognizing the true pride and patriotism with which many remember it.
Cynicism rains on the parade of Reagan's "Morning in America" as the authors proclaim: "In fact, it would be hard to imagine a time more devoted to historical revisionism than this decade...in America, in particular, feelings of nostalgia for less complicated times ran so high it felt occasionally as if the society had been transplanted to the grounds of an elaborate theme park where a tidied-up, even cinematic, version of the past could be lived out in comfort."
To make their point, the authors crib some of the worst diatribes from 1980s newscasts and cast them as history. "Finally, with the deepening of the chasm separating America's rich and poor, the arrival of AIDS and a drug epidemic in the inner cities, the soaring deficits encouraged by Ronald Reagan's ambitious defense spending, and the insider trading scandals that brought down two of Wall Street's most outrageous billionaires, it was hard not to feel that the nation was just pretending to be in better times, distracted by the fizz and bubble of its new wealth, tolerating the worst kinds of ethical and moral abuse, pushing aside bad news or, worse, delaying its full impact for future generations."
Whew. That mouthful makes you yearn for the Depression by comparison. Of course, when the authors come to the Clinton years, they found economic optimists were no longer living in Disneyland: "By the late nineties the nation seemed to have arrived at an economic Eden."
Had enough of Jennings & Co. attacking Reagan's ethics as if Clinton's problems didn't exist? Sorry, they're not quite done. Toward the end of the chapter, in discussing Iran-Contra, the authors drag out the old damned-if-you-did, damned-if-you-didn't approach, insisting the scandal "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."
Well, at least they had to give credit to Reagan for boldly leading the charge to end the Cold War. Or did they? Jennings and Brewster write that after the 1980 election, "some had feared the former California governor for his simplistic and extremist rhetoric, particularly on issues of foreign policy." They contended that "most people" (don't you just love it how they play with that term?) "assumed that an old maxim would apply - the one that said the office had a tendency to smooth the edges, turn all men into moderates," and that Reagan would turn out to be a president like his two Republican predecessors: "conservative, yes, but unchallenging either to the long-established principles of containment as regards foreign policy or to the consensus on social policy that had been in place since the time of Roosevelt and the New Deal. They could not have been more wrong."
Silly us. Here I'd thought all along that by breaking the self-delusion of detente, Reagan had nudged communism onto the ash heap of history. Just like we believed Reagan had given us the greatest peacetime expansion in history, reversing the dismal fiscal performance of his Democratic predecessor. Just like we believed Ronald Reagan had restored a sense of national pride , an unbridled optimism in the nation's future.
Who are "we"? We are the people who elected the man to two landslide election victories. We are the Americans who will forever be grateful for Ronald Reagan.
Poor, uneducated, and easy-to-command us.