Reagan Myths Live On
Retrospectives excluded critics,
by Peter Hart & Julie Hollar
Extra newsletter, Fairness and
Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), August 2004
As the media spent the week after his
death memorializing Ronald Reagan, journalists redefined the former
president's life and accomplishments with a stream of hagiographies
that frequently skewed the facts and glossed over scandal and
"Ronald Reagan was the most popular
president ever to leave office," declared ABC anchor Elizabeth
Vargas (6/6/04). "His approval ratings were higher than any
other at the end of his second term." Though the claim was
repeated by many news outlets, it is not true; Bill Clinton's
approval ratings when he left office were actually higher than
Reagan's, at 66 percent versus Reagan's 63 percent (Gallup, 1/1014/01).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt also topped Reagan with a 66 percent
approval rating at the time of his death in office after three
In general, Reagan's popularity during
his two terms tended to be overstated. The Washington Post's lead
article on June 6 began by calling him "one of the most popular
presidents of the 20th Century," while ABC's Sam Donaldson
(6/5/04) announced, "Through travesty, triumph and tragedy,
the president enjoyed unprecedented popularity." The Chicago
Tribune (6/6/04) wrote that "his popularity with the electorate
was deep and personal .... Rarely did his popularity dip below
50 percent; it often exceeded 70 percent, an extraordinarily high
But a look at Gallup polling data brings
a different perspective. Through most of his presidency, Reagan
did not rate much higher than other post World War II presidents.
And during his first two years, Reagan's approval ratings were
quite low. His 52 percent average approval rating for his presidency
places him sixth out of the past 10 presidents, behind Kennedy
(70 percent), Eisenhower (66 percent), George H.W. Bush (61 percent),
Clinton (55 percent) and Johnson (55 percent). His popularity
frequently dipped below 50 percent during his first term, plummeted
to 46 percent during the Iran-Contra scandal, and never exceeded
68 percent. (By contrast, Clinton's maximum approval rating hit
Some in the media similarly emphasized
Reagan's likeability. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asserted, "You
could hate his policies, but it was hard not to like Ronald Reagan"
(6/6/04). But Reagan's "likeability" numbers did not
score much higher than those of other modern presidents, including
Jimmy Carter (Extra!, 3-4/89).
No time for critical voices
Mainstream media relied heavily on Republicans
and former Reagan officials to tell the story of Reagan and his
accomplishments, resulting in a decidedly one-sided version of
events. A June 7 article in the New York Times on Reagan's impact
claimed that Reagan "was almost always popular and, many
now say, usually right." The article stated that "Reagan
lived long enough to enable many of his old lieutenants, and some
more dispassionate chroniclers as well, to argue that he had also
been right on some of the bigger questions of his time."
Six of the eight sources the article quoted
were former Reagan staffers or Republicans, one was longtime Reagan
devotee Margaret Thatcher, and one was University of Chicago law
professor Cass Sunstein, who gave no argument that Reagan was
"right" about anything. No other "dispassionate
chroniclers" were quoted. Should readers be surprised that
Reagan's friends and former colleagues still think he was right?
Television news displayed an even more
pronounced reliance on Reagan's Republican
admirers. The Sunday morning shows (6/6/04) almost exclusively
featured Republicans; former Reagan chief of staff James Baker
appeared on all three networks, as well as Fox and CNN. Fox News
Sunday (6/6/04) featured, in addition to Baker, current national
security advisor Condoleezza Rice, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
and Sheila Tate, former press secretary for Nancy Reagan. MSNBC's
June 6 Hardball program featured Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Republican representatives David
Dreier and Chris Cox, and Reagan strategist
Interviewing Reagan's admirers may have
provided an intimate view of the former president, but it yielded
virtually no acknowledgment of his flaws. Former Secretary of
State Alexander Haig, when asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper (6/6/04)
to name Reagan's greatest weakness or failing, responded, "I'm
not going to criticize the president. And even if I wanted to,
I would never do it on an occasion such as this. We should be
grateful that the world was a better place because of Ronald Reagan's
Even when potentially critical voices
were included, the tendency was to soften any disagreements over
Reagan's policy. On NPR's Morning Edition (6/7/04), Susan Stamberg
interviewed Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher along with
Democratic strategist Paul Begala. Clearly, though, this was no
time for disagreement, as evidenced by one of Stamberg's questions
to Begala: "You once famously said that politics is show
business for ugly people. Ronald Reagan makes a liar out of you.
He was an extremely handsome, attractive man." Begala's response:
"Boy, was he."
Reagan's influence over world politics
and the direction of the Republican Party were important aspects
of the media's Reagan tributes. But more often than not, the more
controversial aspects of Reagan's legacy were either downplayed
or recast as footnotes.
Time magazine (6/14/04) cheered that "the
Reagan years were another of those hinges upon which history sometimes
turns. On one side, a wounded but still vigorous liberalism with
its faith in government as the answer to almost every question.
On the other, a free market so triumphant-even after the tech
bubble burst-that we look first to 'growth,' not government, to
solve most problems."
As NBC's John Hockenberry put it (6/5/04),
"The Reagan revolution imagined the unimaginable. When poverty
and welfare were at crisis levels in the 1980s, Reagan declared
war on government and turned his back on the welfare state."
The long-term impact of cuts in social spending, gutted environmental
protections and other casualties of Reagan's "war on government"
were relegated to passing mentions.
Reagan's fervent support for rightwing
governments in Central America was one of the defining foreign
policies of his administration, and the fact that death squads
associated with those governments murdered tens of thousands of
civilians surely must be included in any reckoning of Reagan's
successes and failures. But a search of major U.S. newspapers
in the Nexis news database turns up the phrase "death squad"
only five times in connection with Reagan in the days following
his death-twice in commentaries (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/6/04;
Chicago Tribune, 6/8/04) and twice in letters to the editor (San
Francisco Chronicle, 6/8/04; LA. Times, 6/8/04). Only one news
article found in the search (LA. Times, 6/6/04) considered the
death squads an important enough part of Reagan's legacy to be
The three broadcast networks, CNN and
Fox didn't mention death squads at all, according to Nexis. Nor
were any references found in the transcripts of the broadcast
networks to the fact that Reagan's policy of supporting Islamicist
insurgents against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan
led to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Reagan administration's friendly policy
towards Saddam Hussein was another neglected media topic. During
the Reagan years, the U.S. offered significant support to Iraq,
including weapons components, military intelligence and even some
of the ingredients for manufacturing biological weapons like anthrax
The rare opportunities for critical reflection
about Reagan's policies were turned into additional evidence of
his strength, as when Time magazine (6/14/04) suggested, "Even
when his views were most intransigent-when he wondered out loud
whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a Communist or failed for nearly
all of his presidency to speak the word AIDS even once Reagan
gave Reaganism a human face." Time followed that strange
assessment with a comment from Bush adviser Karl Rove: "He
made us sunny optimists.
His was a conservatism of laughter and
openness and community.
Journalists seemed determined to show
that any criticisms of Reagan could be turned upside down. As
Dan Rather explained on CBS's 60 Minutes (6/6/04), "The literal-minded
were forever troubled by his tendency to sometimes confuse life
with the movies. But he understood, like very few leaders before
or since, the power of myth and storytelling. In his films and
his political life, Ronald Reagan stood at the intersection where
dreams and reality meet, and with a wink and a one-liner, always
held out hope for a happy ending."
Even Reagan's contradictions were somehow
construed as strong points. As Time put it (6/14/04), "So
great was Reagan's victory in making his preoccupations into enduring
themes of the national conversation that it may not matter that
his record didn't always match his rhetoric. He insisted, for
instance, that a balanced budget was one of his priorities. But
by the time Reagan left office, a combination of lower tax revenues
and sharply higher spending for defense had sent the deficit through
The Iran-Contra scandal, which loomed
too large to ignore, was often written off by journalists. "As
we look back today, it's like just a speck in the eight years
of his presidency," explained CNN's Judy Woodruff (6/7/04).
Meet the Press host Tim Russert (6/6/04) showed a clip of Reagan's
famous response to the scandal, in which he stated, "A few
months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for
hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's
true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
Russert praised this tortured evasion of culpability as "very
Whatever reporters made of Iran-Contra,
though, Reagan's triumph over such problems was more important
than the incidents themselves. CBS reporter Anthony Mason (6/6/04)
explained: 'The deficit doubled during the Reagan years. His second
term was scarred by the Iran-Contra scandal, but he never lost
that common touch. Ronald Reagan had an uncanny ability to make
Americans feel good about themselves." That bond with American
citizens remained front-and-center throughout the media. As CBS
anchor Dan Rather put it (6/5/04), Reagan "was the great
communicator, yes. But he was also a master at communicating greatness.
He understood that, as he once put it, 'History is a ribbon always
unfurling,' and managed to convey his vision in terms both simple
and poetic. And so he was able to act as a conduit to connect
us to who we had been and who we could be."
Reagan and the media
The overwhelmingly positive coverage of
Reagan struck some as a significant change. As Washington Post
media reporter Howard Kurtz noted (6/7/04): "The uplifting
tone with which journalists are eulogizing Ronald Reagan is obscuring
a central fact of his presidency: He had a very contentious relationship
with the press." Others would certainly
disagree with Kurtz's assessment; Mark Hertsgaard's 1988 book,
On Bended Knee: The Press & the Reagan Presidency, for example,
characterized the press corps as being basically uncritical during
the Reagan years.
In any event, it would be hard to argue
that current coverage of Reagan carries any lingering traces of
that formerly "contentious" relationship. If anything,
some reporters now seem to think that the main lesson learned
from the Reagan years was not to be critical. As ABC's Sam Donaldson
put it (6/4/04), "Reporters over the years made the mistake
of saying, 'Well, he made this mistake, he made this mistake.
He got that fact wrong.' The American public got it right. It
Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence
in Journalism (USA Today, 6/7/04) had an interesting take on what
he acknowledged were "almost completely uncritical"
media reports on Reagan: "For networks that are accused of
being liberal, this is a way for them to show that they are fair."
One would hope that an overwhelmingly uncritical assessment of
important political and historical matters would not meet anyone's
definition of "fair" journalism.