Looking at Reagan through (Charlie) Rose-colored Glasses
About 45 minutes into a recent show devoted to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Charlie Rose, host of the PBS program that bears his name, finally got around to asking a pointed question. He peered into the vacant eyes of Edmund Morris, author of the Reagan bio Dutch and asked this:
"When you look at Reagan, what will be the harsh judgment of history? We know from you: a great man; ended the Cold War; responsible, in part, for the fall of communism and the beginning of a post-Cold War world. Where are the flaws? Where will history judge him harshly?"
Morris didn't pull any punches. "I think that history will judge him kindly because his public achievements were enormous," he said. "I don't think his character will enchant future generations as much as it did ours."
Rose pounced on the opening: "What do we mean by 'character'?"
"His personal charm and charisma, which was so strong," replied Morris. He went on to explain that you really had to be there, in 1980s America, to feel the full Reagan effect. That's the way it is, said Morris, with figures like Reagan and DeGaulle, who so strongly embody their country and their time. Morris's "harsh judgment" is that, come the year 2050, John Q. Public won't fully comprehend the extent of the enchantment held for Reagan by the likes of Morris and Rose.
Well, I guess that's what passes for hard-hitting journalism on a show whose closing credits boast that the host's wardrobe is courtesy of "purple label by Ralph Lauren." We might have gotten a tougher interview if Morris had been interrogated by Lauren in a suit stitched by Rose.
Thank goodness Charlie Rose isn't the only nightly public affairs show on PBS. The evening before (Feb. 6), the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer looked back on the Reagan presidency.
Why all the attention, you ask? The former president had just turned 90, and a collection of his writings, Reagan In His Own Hand, was published to mark the occasion.
Sleepy Jim had five distinguished talking heads on hand to assess the Gipper. Three were familiar NewsHour faces -- journalist Haynes Johnson and historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith. Rounding out the panel was conservative Annelise Anderson, the editor of the new book, and liberal Roger Wilkins, a history professor and civil rights activist. (Wilkins was pinch-hitting for NewsHour regular Doris Kearns Goodwin.)
Because the subtitle of the book is The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America, most of the discussion focused on whether our 40th president merits the label "revolutionary."
Three (Anderson, Smith and Beschloss) said yes. Johnson countered that Reagan was "strong" and "consequential," but not revolutionary. Wilkins conceded that Reagan was "a brilliant president," though he didn't care for his "anti-black populism." He cited a few instances where Reagan used code words -- such as the phrase "states' rights" in a Mississippi speech -- to let white bigots know he was on their side.
Anderson came to Reagan's defense, and Wilkins acknowledged that Reagan, whatever the consequences of his words and deeds, was not personally a racist. Wilkins recalled a column he had written that criticized Reagan's South Africa policy, which so upset the president that he called Wilkins to say emphatically he was not a racist.
That was the extent of the criticism of Reagan on the NewsHour. Wilkins didn't delve into Reagan's devotion to the white-ruled apartheid state -- which would suggest the "revolutionary" president had quite a counter-revolutionary streak -- nor did he address other ugly aspects of Reagan's global crusade to make the world safe for right-wing butchers.
To be fair to Wilkins, an infrequent talking head, foreign policy isn't his strong suit. Nor is it Goodwin's. Nor, apparently, is it the strong suit of any of the handful of liberals with regular access to American viewers. Thus, we have stumbled upon a fundamental law of public affairs TV: "If you place any value whatsoever on the lives of non-elite non-whites in the Third World who are endangered by U.S. policies, don't call us, we'll call you. But dont hold your breath."
Reagan facilitated mass slaughter in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Lebanon (of Palestinians), Angola and Mozambique. He aided and abetted torture and repression in Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines, South Korea, South Africa, Zaire, Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Panama and Haiti.
Does this bother any of the actual or pretend TV liberals? Will Goodwin, Eleanor Clift, George Stephanopoulos, Sam Donaldson, Juan Williams, Mara Liason or Mark Shields raise these points in the continuing boob-tube debates on the proposed Reagan Memorial on the National Mall?
If not, maybe it's time to find space on public affairs TV -- as hosts and regular panelists -- for folks like Randall Robinson, Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, Allan Nairn, Jeff Cohen and Amy Goodman. That is, for informed, articulate liberals and lefties whose bleeding hearts don't clot at the water's edge.
Dennis Hans, a lecturer on American foreign policy and mass communications at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and The Black World Today.