In the hours after Reagan’s passing, the most praise many insiders could muster was he was a nice guy who told funny jokes. This was pervasive in the cable and network coverage during the following days as well. He was not entirely and not always under siege during his years away from Washington beginning in 1989. There was the occasional intellectually accurate and historically correct portrayal of Reagan the man, Reagan the political leader, and Reagan the world leader.
Often, though, they got things both large and small about Reagan wrong.
The elite media had miscalculated Reagan. Even in death. Only after a giant blowback by the American citizenry did some come around, by the end of the week of the official period of mourning for Ronald Wilson Reagan, and even then often only grudgingly.
To be sure, there have been the almost obligatory mentions of failings, misdeeds, and controversies—above all, the Iran Contra scandal and Reagan’s initial denial of wrongdoing. There have also been reminders of the inattention to the spreading AIDS epidemic, the widening economic inequalities that accompanied the go-go boom of the 1980s, and, of course, the soaring budget deficit and a near tripling of the national debt.
Not reported was the work Ronald and Nancy Reagan did for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, including taping fund-raising appeals. Along the way, they became friends with the actor Paul Glaser and his wife Elizabeth, who’d contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion.
She died in December 1994, just one month after Reagan had announced his Alzheimer’s, and yet among the first people Glaser heard from were the Reagans.
Nonetheless, years later, a columnist for the Post called Reagan “infamous” for not taking up the issues of AIDS earlier in his presidency. Webster’s Dictionary defines infamous as “having a reputation of the worst kind.”
The news magazines and weekend TV shows, after monitoring a full week of outpouring from the American people, struck an often different tone from that of the newspapers and columnists and commentators during those seven days.
Over the weekend of June 12, after the funeral, every public affairs show on cable and network television was devoted to the legacy and memory of Ronald Wilson Reagan, and a more substantive understanding took hold with many guests and hosts.
From Cal Thomas’s After Hours, which featured a deep discussion with former Reagan policy aide Marty Anderson, to CNN’s The Novak Zone, which had no guests, just columnist Bob Novak hosting, reminiscing about Reagan, interspersed with footage of the life and times of the Gipper, there was also serious consideration.
>>> For more on this, see Craig Shirley’s new book, “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.”
Outside Lou Cannon and a few other veteran beat reporters, Novak had known and covered Reagan longer than nearly anyone else in American journalism. As a conservative columnist, Novak was allowed to offer his opinion of Reagan over the years and frequently was favorable—though not always.
Also, many explored the impact the Reagan funeral had on the presidential campaign. And the discussion began in earnest about Reagan’s place in history.
Other papers and columns began to appear almost immediately, disputing the plaudits and praises of the last week for Reagan and his legacy. Katie Couric had said some kind things about the marriage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, words that resulted in her receiving some criticism.
The network talking heads could not win for losing. At the beginning of the week, they’d been too harsh, viewers thought, and many citizens had called to complain. By the end of the week, having heard from and seen the outpouring, they had pulled back and now were in trouble with the professional critics.
Bernie Shaw, who’d retired from the anchorman gig, had been personally invited by Nancy Reagan to the National Cathedral, and he bravely had no hesitation about describing the funeral and the week as “American majestic.”
For all the talk of him being divisive, in two national elections, Reagan received 1,014 electoral votes to the 62 electoral votes for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. For all the talk about deficits during his presidency, it shrunk as a percentage of GDP from 6.3 percent to 3.2 percent by 1988, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Pick up nearly any high school textbook in America today, and most are filled with agenda-driven misstatements of facts if not downright prevarications about Reagan or just downright misunderstandings of the man.
Too often, writers bend history to their own liking rather than bending themselves to satisfy the facts.
Larry Kudlow, a top official in the Reagan administration and one of the few supply-siders to come out of Wall Street, grasped this better than most. “Reagan would say something and people would say, here’s what he really meant, but what he really meant was what he said.”
“Reagan would say something and people would say, here’s what he really meant, but what he really meant was what he said.”
Kudlow was part of a small group of conservatives in 1991 who had enjoyed a private lunch with the former president at the City Club in New York. Ed Meese was there, as was Caspar Weinberger and conservative writer John Fund.
It was at a time when some on the right were having growing concerns about President Bush, but Reagan made clear he was sticking with Bush, supported his re-election, and that was that.
Kudlow also recalled happily that Reagan had always hated the International Monetary Fund. Kudlow was impressed with Reagan’s loyalty to Bush and judgment about the IMF.
As is too often the case, American history is reduced to a shorthand interpretation or construction, not rooted in fact, but based upon a fallacy.
George Washington, in fact, lost more battles than he won during the Revolution. It is taught that America’s entry into World War II began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when in fact Roosevelt studiously avoided declaring war on Germany and Italy and did so only after Hitler and Mussolini had declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. Even after the attack on December 7, 1941, there was no will for getting involved in another European war, though there was 100 percent will for going to war with the Empire of Japan.
As George Santayana once said, “history is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”
The history of Ronald Reagan is too important to be left to people who weren’t there who wrote about things that never happened.
This has been adapted from Craig Shirley’s new book “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.” To hear more on this topic, please join us at The Heritage Foundation on Oct. 19 from 12 to 1pm for a discussion with Craig Shirley.