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Ronald Reagan: Still the Teflon President?

The media often forget history when notable leaders die -- including the fact that Bill Clinton enjoyed higher approval ratings than The Great Communicator.
 
 
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The death of Ronald Reagan has become yet another reminder that news organizations often turn sentimental at the death of a former leader, no matter what legacy he or she leaves behind.

Reagan's death, especially following the tragedy and torture of Alzheimer's disease, likely struck editors and reporters with a responsibility to go easy on the former president. Few, after all, protested the sacking of the CBS television movie about Reagan a few months back.

And the man did win two presidential elections, the second by a landslide, and led a rebirth of a Republican party that had been rocked by Watergate and other scandals. But let's not forget that the often-mocked Bill Clinton accomplished much the same for his party, and despite the Lewinsky disgrace, left office with approval ratings higher than Reagan's (and no federal budget deficit, to boot).

So the overwhelming praise for a president who plunged the nation into its worst deficit ever, ignored and cut public money for the poor, while also ignoring the AIDS crisis, is a bit tough to take. During my years at Brooklyn College, between 1984 and 1988, countless classmates had to drop out or find other ways to pay for school because of Reagan's policies, which included slashing federal grants for poor students and cutting survivor benefits for families of the disabled.

Not to mention the Iran-contra scandal, failed 'supply-side economics,' the ludicrous invasion of Grenada, 241 dead Marines in Lebanon, and a costly military buildup that may have contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union (there were plenty of other reasons too) but also kept us closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, besides leaving us billions of dollars in debt.

And should we even mention the many senior Reagan officials, including ex-White House aide Michael Deaver and national security adviser Robert McFarlane, convicted of various offenses? What about Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, indicted but later pardoned by the first President Bush?

Paying respect is one thing, and well deserved, but the way the press is gushing over Reagan is too much to take, sparking renewed talk of putting him on the $10 bill or Mount Rushmore.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted today that when the media, back in the 1980s, dubbed Reagan the "Teflon" president "it was not meant as a compliment." Apparently, he is still the Teflon president, even in death.

Some newspapers, at least, have readily acknowledged some of his many shortcomings in editorials, even if it's only a fraction of their overall rosy review.

The Philadelphia Inquirer stated, "Yes, he butchered facts, invented anecdotes, indulged White House chaos, and seemed dreamily unaware of the illegal deeds done during Iran-contra. He was guilty of all that, as well as union-busting, callousness to the poor, a failure to grasp America's multicultural destiny." The Boston Globe, meanwhile, declared the "Reagan legacy also includes the improbable Star Wars' missile defense proposal and the shameful Iran-Contra scandal. And the humming economy was energized in large part by deep tax cuts and heavy military spending that together produced crippling budget deficits. Reagan did little to advance such goals as education or civil rights."

The New York Times recalled, "Mr. Reagan's decision to send marines to Lebanon was disastrous, however, and his invasion of Grenada pure melodrama. His most reckless episode involved the scheme to supply weapons to Iran as ransom for Americans who were being held hostage in Lebanon, and to use the proceeds to illegally finance contra insurgents in Nicaragua."

Had you read the Washington Post, you would have found, "A lot of people were hurt by these policies, a fact that in our view did not weigh heavily enough on this president. His intermittent denigration of government, and of people who depended on government services, fed into and bolstered hurtful and unfair stereotypes."

For me, however, the Los Angeles Times, which had the advantage of following Reagan from his first days as California governor, seemed to offer the best assessment, declaring that his administration had far more problems than most other papers admitted.

"As president, Reagan was genial, ever-smiling -- ignoring unpleasant facts, idealizing hopeful fantasies," the paper's editorial said. "The mark of Reagan's presidency was paradox. Having campaigned as an implacable foe of government deficit spending, he left office with a federal debt that was nearly triple its level when he was inaugurated. He succumbed, as Bush has, to the fallacious 'supply side' economic notion that government revenues rise if taxes are cut."

The L.A. Times continued, "Hero though Reagan was to so many Americans, his legacy is marred. Economically, the Reagan years were epitomized by a freewheeling entrepreneurialism and free spending. But the affluent got more affluent and the poor got poorer. The number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third. The Reagan administration's zeal for deregulation of industry helped create the savings and loan debacle, which left taxpayers holding the bag for billions of dollars in losses."

Still, the fact that enough other papers all but glossed over his troubles concerns me. Newspapers, especially on the editorial page, are looked upon to give fair assessments of politicians, especially one as powerful and impactful as Reagan. And yet we see The Las Vegas Review- Journal rewriting history in defending Reagan's poor economic practices by blaming Congress: "Critics will no doubt point to ballooning budget deficits in the 1980s, ignoring the fact that Congress refused to implement the lean budgets the Reagan administration proposed and instead went on a spending spree facilitated by the overflowing federal coffers triggered when the president's tax cuts pulled the country out of its economic doldrums and led to unprecedented growth."

Among the worst, however, was The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, which also apparently likes to ignore the facts, in claiming that Reagan "took full responsibility" for Iran-contra. When was this? When he continuously claimed not to remember his involvement?

Maybe that is just what happens when people die. The death of Richard Nixon 10 years ago -- the last U.S. president to pass on -- also sparked positive reviews of many elements of his life, but his Watergate legacy and other lowly acts often held center stage. In Nixon's case, however, it was hard to ignore such an obvious downfall.

In Reagan's case, his genial public persona, and Alzheimer's end, may have made it more difficult to knock down a popular leader, despite the fact that some argue Iran-Contra was a more impeachable offense than Watergate.

Maybe it's to be expected that the press, when covering a leader's death, will take a kinder, gentler approach. But in the interests of fair, accurate journalism -- something that has become a leading issue in the media today -- no former leader should be above a frank, complete, and balanced assessment.

Joe Strupp ( jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is senior editor for E&P.