The greatest president of the 20th century has passed away. Everyone is assessing and re-assessing the giant legacy of this man, as well as the winning personality that helped create it. Even the national media produced coverage you might call loving at times, or at the very least respectful to that broad mass of Americans who loved Ronald Reagan.
They’ve noted the obvious achievements of the man. He had a winning smile and an inspirational optimism, and he renewed Americans’ love and hopes for their country. His determined resistance to global communism led to the end of the Cold War. He re-energized the Republican Party into a force that now controls the White House and both houses of Congress.
Their coverage could be more forceful on the economic turnaround. Few remember anymore that 1979 and 1980 were the nation’s worst economic years since the Great Depression. Reagan saved America from Jimmy Carter economics: He brought inflation down from 13.5 to 4.1 percent; unemployment, from 9.5 to 5.2 percent; the federal discount rate, from 14 to 6.5 percent. Under Reagan, the number of jobs increased by almost 20 million; and the median family income rose every year from 1982 to 1989. It was the greatest peacetime expansion in American history. What a record!
Sadly, not every report showed respect for our lost leader. Within minutes of the news of Reagan’s passing hitting the television, CBS was running a canned piece by reporter Jerry Bowen that hammered Reagan for getting a cozy house loan and “cashing in” with personal appearances after his presidency was over. It was a very cheap shot. It was, thankfully, also the exception. Perhaps the most poignant tribute was delivered by Dan Rather, a man who always seems to strike the right tone during times of national sadness.
But the most notable omission in all the gracious obituaries and histories is the media’s own role in the Reagan era — fiercely hostile and often indistinguishable from the Democratic talking points of the day. 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. When it was over, 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.
It would have been nice to have a less vicious press corps when Reagan was able to enjoy it. Instead, the usual storyline was like a political cartoon, heavy on vitriol and light on accuracy. Newsweek‘s “conventional wisdom” box summarized the 1980s as “Greedy Yuppies screwed homeless. Big party on deck of Titanic.”
CBS morning host Kathleen Sullivan sized up the Reagan years this way: “While the wealthy got most of the attention, those who needed it most were often ignored. More homeless, less spending on housing. The gap between the top and the bottom grew in the ’80s. … The AIDS crisis began in the ’80s. Some say the decade’s compassion gap made it worse.”
At the 1992 Democratic convention, NBC reporter Maria Shriver cued up AIDS sufferer Elizabeth Glaser: “You place the responsibility for the death of your daughter squarely at the feet of the Reagan administration. Do you believe they’re responsible for that?” (Glaser said, yes.)
Reagan fans from coast to coast must be finding the generosity of the media obituaries gratifying, but also befuddling. Those who today acknowledge the greatness of Ronald Reagan and his mark on the world are the very same people who spent so many years trying to diminish his reputation and impact. When his work was done, they sought to revise the record and demean his leadership. They could have gone another generous step in their obituaries and acknowledged that Reagan’s achievements came despite their own unrelenting propagandistic opposition.
Children today have no personal memory of President Reagan, and are probably taught too little about him in school. But they also have no personal memory of the armory of slings and arrows and insults that Reagan bravely endured and ultimately obscured with his towering accomplishments. We still owe it to Reagan (and to his progeny as well as ours) to explain how and why he remade America and the world.