FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2004
LEGENDS: In this mornings New York Times, Paul Krugman offers his take on the legend of Reaganomics. But then, throughout the coverage of President Reagans death, grinning TV entertainers have put themselves into the legend business. Tim Russert continued the process last night when he did Larry King Live. In particular, Russert continued to push a growing legend about Reagans integrity regarding Iran-contra. Because Russert is such a major press figure, we think its worth taking a second look at the way he is spreading this tale.
Early on, Larry asked an open-ended question about President Reagans appeal. What, Tim, did he represent, do you think, that touched so many people? Even so many people who disagreed with him politically? Surely someone could answer that question without deceiving the people to whom King referred. But Russert has been in the legend business all week. Try to believe that he said this:
RUSSERT: I think thats a very important point, Larry. You know, in my lifetime, there only have been two presidents who I remember coming forward and acknowledging a mistake, a big mistake: John Kennedy on the Bay Of pigs and Ronald Reagan on Iran-Contra. And both of them, I think, enhanced their credibility and popularity by doing just that.What touched so many people about Reagan? According to Russert, it was the way he came forward and acknowledged his big mistake about the Iran-contra mess. Indeed, only one other president has behaved so forthrightly in the past fifty-four years! Later, Russert returned to this moving theme, offering a bizarre account of Reagans conduct. The president, to his credit, stepped forward, Tim said (full text below). Which I think is very, very essential.
Russert, eager to peddle his own feel-good book, was peddling a ludicrous legend. On last Sundays Meet the Press, the grinning showman praised the late president for his March 4, 1987 speech to the nationthe only time Reagan publicly acknowledged that he had actually traded arms for hostages in the Iran-contra boondoggle. But in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Lou Cannon explains, in painful detail, the way Reagans aides had to struggle to get him to make this one grudging statement. Meanwhile, Cannon gives unblinking accounts of Reagans overall conduct in this matter. For example, heres a partial description of the inspiring presidents November 19, 1986 press conference:
CANNON (page 613): [I]f Reagan was more effective in this performance than he had been six days earlier [in a national address], the content of his news conference answers was even more damaging than his television speech had been. Almost every answer that dealt with a question about the Iran initiative was at variance with the facts. The most serious misstatement, and one Reagan certainly knew was false, was his response to a question from Charles Bierbauer of CNN, who asked if the United States had been involved with Israel in supplying weapons to Iran. We, as I say, have had nothing to do with other countries or with their shipments of arms or doing what theyre doing, Reagan said. When Andrea Mitchell pointed out that [Reagan chief of staff] Don Regan had told reporters that the U.S. government had condoned an Israeli weapons shipment just before the release of American hostage Benjamin Weir, Reagan went deeper into the hole, saying, Well, no, Ive never heard Mr. Regan say that, and Ill have to ask him about that. But he didnt have to ask. Within twenty minutes of the news conference the White House chief of staff directed the press office to issue a correction acknowledging that there was a third country involved in our secret project with Iran.This is just a small part of Reagans overall performance in the episode Russert finds so inspiring. Five months later, amid massive lobbying by his top staff, Reagan finally did admit, in his March 4 speech, that he had traded arms for hostages. But he soon reversed himself. According to Cannon, heres what happened after Reagan acknowledged his big mistake in the way Russert found so stirring:
CANNON (page 657): The March 4 speech was a turning point for Reagan. He still faced many difficult days during the Iran-contra hearings and he would subsequently revert, to use Abshires word, to his original contention that he had never traded arms for hostages. Reagan would never be able to accept completely his complicity in the affairin his memoirs he would say that it was as if Americans were forgiving me for something which I had never done. Parvin, whose speech had brought Reagan as close as he would ever come to an outright admission of trading arms for hostages, concluded that what Reagan had really wanted to say was I didnt do it, and Ill never do it again.Only one other president had behaved so nobly, Russert laughably said. As noted yesterday, Cannon gives a lengthy account of this whole affair. Reading it might help you see how foolish Russerts prize legend is.
At the end of this mornings column, Krugman makes a sensible suggestion. So heres my plea, the columnist says. [L]ets honor Mr. Reagan for his real achievements, not dishonor himand mislead the nationwith false claims about his economic record. But entertainers like Russert have books to sell, and you have to set a pleasing tone if youre going to close the deal. If you read last evenings transcript, note the way the grinning scribe peddles his book from beginning to end. And note the way he peddles a legendmisleading the nation, to use Krugmans term. And yes: This is the actual face of the gang we still describe as a press corps. Theyve been in the legend business for years. Russerts foolish spinning of Iran-contra helps us see how his tribe works.
MISLEADING THE NATION: As noted, Russert had more to say about Iran-contra. What will history say of Ronald Reagan? King asked at one point. After discussing the Cold War and economic growth, Tim began dreaming again:
RUSSERT: Also I think Iran-contra will be talked about, which was a very, very serious issue. As you remember, Larry, taking arms, and sending them to Iran, and then the money that was gotten from those sales, diverted to the contras in Nicaragua. People probably forget now, but some were even suggesting a potential impeachment. But it was late enough in the presidents second term that that never actually took form.According to Russert, Reagan made a very, very essential statement about a very, very serious matter. But Russerts account completely misstates what Reagan actually said. In fact, in the speech which Russert praises, Reagan finally said that he did know it was happening. Heres part of what Reagan said that day. This, of course, is the very tape Russert played on Sundays Meet the Press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/04):
REAGAN (3/4/87): 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 thats true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.Last night, Russert wished away the most basic facts. But so what? The grinning entertainer was building a legend. Result? He misled you again.
HE EVEN SAID THIS: Yes, Russert even said this last night, swept away by the need to build legends:
RUSSERT: One other political point: The Republicans achieved control of the United States Congress for the first time in 70 years, of both houses, under Ronald Reagan.Can Russert possibly think thats true? In 1980, the GOP took control of the Senate for the first time since 1952. They took the House in 1994. Tim was getting carried away. But Larry just asked the next question.
From the annals of polite Big Pol conduct
PERFECT GENTLEMEN: Youll recall John Kerrys surly behavior when he paid his respects to Reagan (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/9/04). Lets face itcharacter counts in a possible president. Luckily, the New York Times fearless scribe, David Halbfinger, was willing to report what he did:
HALBFINGER (5/9/04): Mr. Kerry, who came to Los Angeles to see his daughter Alexandra, 30, graduate from the American Film Institute on Wednesday, briefly paid his respects to Mr. Reagan at the presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., Tuesday afternoon. Momentarily cutting through a cordon of mourners, he saluted Mr. Reagans coffin with his hand over his heart, bowed his head, crossed himself, saluted again and leftall in the space of a minute.Good God! But then,. its just like a Massachusetts liberal to engage in such fake, phony conduct. Halbfinger was shocked when Kerry refused to spend ten hours standing in line with the proles. And he wasnt afraid to tell his readers about the war heros troubling conduct.
This morning, we finally see the sequel. Yesterday, President Bush and other Big Pols also paid their respects to Reagan. They certainly could have jumped the line too. But in Bushs case, we saw real character! Heres how Sheryl Gay Stolberg describes his visit in this mornings Times:
STOLBERG (5/11/04): President Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush, made a quick visit on Thursday evening, surprising some of the everyday people who were already in the Rotunda. They approached the coffin silently and bowed their heads. Then Mr. Bush put his hands on the flag, smoothing it, before he led Mrs. Bush away.Clearly, the Bushes didnt cut into lineor Stolberg, like Halbfinger, would have said so. Impressively, Bill Frist and Mikhail Gorbachev stood in line for ten hours too:
STOLBERG: Earlier in the day, Senator Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, escorted the new interim president of Iraq, Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, who bowed his head and put his right hand across his chest. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, lingered by the coffin and placed a hand on it.Stolbergs failure to describe any rooting tells us it just didnt happen. But dont take Stolbergs word for this. Thom Shanker also describes Gorbachevs visit this morning. He didnt see Gorby cut in line either:
SHANKER: His solemn duties for the day came first, and Mikhail S. Gorbachev bowed his head before the coffin of Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday and stopped at Blair House to pay a condolence call on Nancy Reagan.Readers of the New York Times got an invaluable lesson this week. Bush and Frist were perfect gentlemenbut thanks to the work of David Halbfinger, Times subscribers learned about the character problems of a liberal line-jumper. Four years ago, Katharine Kit Seelye played the same role, endlessly alerting her papers readers to the troubling conduct of Candidate Gore. When Gore wouldnt tell lies, she just made her lies up. This week, Times readers saw their clowning paper continue its valuable work.