Book excerpt: How the media created the legend of Ronald Reagan, from “Tear Down This Myth” by Will Bunch
February 04, 2011 12:30 am ET
by Will Bunch
This weekend, sandwiched between the Super Bowl and the news out of Egypt, America will mark 100 years since the birth of late President Ronald Reagan, who was born on Feb. 6. 1911 and died in 2004. There will be plenty of Reagan’s political associates like Peggy Noonan and Pat Buchanan all over the tube, offering their personal recollections – but if the past is any indicator, the Ronald Reagan who’ll be presented to the American people this weekend is a myth.
An entire generation of voting Americans too young to remember the 1980s will see a glorified Gipper, not the divisive figure who actually served as fortieth president. In my 2009 book, “Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy,” I pay considerable attention to the role of the media in creating the Reagan myth – to some extent while he was still in office but even more so since the late 1990s, when conservatives launched a shrewdly calculated campaign to recast Reagan’s image as a bronze idol.
No time was that more true than in the days that marked Reagan’s death and funeral in June 2004. In fact, a team of Reagan’s former White House advance team – the people in charge of spectacular backdrops for the Gipper’s soundbites while he was president – spent years creating a media-friendly, pre-packaged memorial that would burnish the Reagan myth forever. It was led by former aides Jim Hooley and Rick Ahearn, who even gave their plan a catchy name: Operation Serenade.
In this exclusive excerpt from “Tear Down This Myth,” here’s how the plan worked:
Reagan’s death and funeral was a “spontaneous” moment of national unity and shared grief that had been mapped out for years, his aides nurturing his image against their fears of a liberal media covering the event. “We need every opportunity to show the media, who might be skeptical, that this is the way that America feels about the guy,” Ahearn said. “This is a legacy-building event.” Hooley used the same formula that has been so successful for much of Reagan’s eight years in the White House, which they called “HPS,” for “headline, picture, story,” to be cast by them and not the journalists. His preordained “HPS” for the Reagan funeral, he told the Wall Street Journal, was “Ronald Reagan as a man who won the Cold War, who brought back America’s faith in itself.”
And so viewers saw a funeral procession route with mourners waving some fifth thousand tiny American flags, a touch arranged in advance by Hooley. They worked with a nearby college and even with Waste Management – a supplier of portable toilets – to guarantee that the somewhat isolated Reagan Library in Simi Valley could handle the hundred thousand people who eventually filed by Reagan’s casket. Ahearn, the Washington Post reported, decided that “Reagan’s riding boots, fitted in the stirrups of the riderless horse accompanying the caisson for the procession to the Capitol, should be left scuffed but not dusty. He took a little saddle soap to them.” Most importantly, the Reagan advance team generated a non-stop flow of images to a media universe that had exploded in the fifteen years since the Great Communicator had left the Oval Office. This included the around-the-clock cable channels that had learned that viewers could be mesmerized by an hour of overhead shots of a moving hearse – in spite of, or perhaps because of, the weird similarity to the images of accused killer O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco chase a decade earlier. Even the final sighs and whispers of the Reagan family were captured on shotgun microphones. “Each gesture was minutely choreographed,” wrote Richard Goldstein of the week’s events, “every tear strategically placed.”
The almost funny part was that all the worrying of the former Reagan aides about “the liberal media” was for nothing. The powerful Beltway journalists who covered Reagan on bended knee, in author Mark Hertsgaard’s famous phrase, practically lay prostrate upon the Gipper’s death. It was a combination of the normal human impulse to speak nothing ill of the dead and a kind of warped nostalgia for the close – and often way too close – bonds between Reagan’s associates and the elite reporters who covered the administration. The so-called liberal media bent over backwards to show it wasn’t biased when the conservative Reagan was president, many believe, and now with his death it performed a full backflip.
“I was worried about that.” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said at week’s end on CNN. “I mean, I think what you’ve had is a sort of 30-year campaign on the conservative side to say the media is liberal, and now I think you’re having another reaction from liberals who are saying, wait a minute, when we look at a week like this, a week of praise for Ronald Reagan, it is very hard to say we have a liberal media anymore.”
Hard indeed. Even the right-wing Fox News Channel presents more liberal Democrats in a normal week than a viewer saw on any of the cable channels in the second week of June 2004, in which viewers were treated to a non-stop cavalcade of right-wing stars such as Peggy Noonan and Pat Buchanan, each with his or her own adoring memories of the patron saint of their conservative movement, each reinforcing the headline, picture, story that Reagan had won the Cold War and restored America’s faith. The American electorate in 2004 included some voters who were only four years old when Reagan left office, but such viewers would have little clue that the 1980s were such a divisive time in American history. One unnamed TV executive in the Reagan funeral aftermath told Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post: “Today history is what we say it is.” Fox did invite on one anti-Reaganite, the arch-tongued cartoonist Ted Rall, so that host Sean Hannity could describe him as “thoughtless, mean, hateful.”
Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, wrote that “the initial burst of news coverage would have you believe that Reagan was a cross between Abe Lincoln and Mother Teresa, with an overlay of Mister Rogers.” Even more troubling, he noted, was the way that right-leaning talk radio lashed out at the few who tried to offer a different perspective on a divisive president. Kunkel added: “Those who weren’t remembering Reagan in the politically approved way – who credited him for his gracious demeanor, say, or sense of humor – were derided as patronizing. And those who actually had the audacity to point out that as president, Reagan alienated millions of people at home and abroad, were blasted as unpatriotic.”
And so you might think that the week of uninterrupted coverage, which virtually wiped the growing, bloody insurgency against the George W. Bush-led occupation of Iraq off the air and off the front page, was an immense hit with the American viewer, the ones who weren’t lining the California freeways with red-white-and-blue flags. But not really that much: viewership did increase modestly, but not as much as for the death of another icon of the 1980s, Princess Diana. Perhaps it was a function of the couch-potato age we live in, or a sign that the Gipper wasn’t as much of a people’s president as the talking heads implied, but Frank Rich noted in the New York Times that the reported viewing crowds of a hundred thousand in the Capitol and another hundred thousand at Simi Valley was actually not so great by historical standards, that an estimated 3 million people had watched the cross-country funeral train of President Warren Harding, now generally rated as one of the worst presidents of the past century. Even reporters who waded into the crowds found opinions as divided in 2004 as they had been back in 1987. “Somebody came up to me and said, wait a minute, why are they honoring this guy?” the Post’s Dionne noted . “He cut my student loans.”
Leave it to a reporter for the international press, Julian Borger of Britain’s Guardian, to point out what was ignored in the American media, that Reagan’s death was not at all a moment of national unity, that the outpouring of grief and respect from everyday Americans was overwhelmingly from what had become known in post-Gipper culture as red America, a heavily Christian fundamentalist and conservative crew of talk-radio fanatics and supporters of the Iraq War and President George W. Bush. “They fly flags on their lawn,” he wrote, “and they are almost entirely white.” Borger and several other commentators noted the unsurprising fact that virtually none of the people filing past Reagan’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda were black, even though the surrounding District of Columbia is overwhelmingly African-American. He quoted one mourner who sounded as if she were channeling Rush Limbaugh when she pointed up at the rotunda where Reagan lay in state, and said, “Americans like straight-talking presidents. If it was Clinton up there you would have had four people.”
The death of Reagan some six-and-a-half years ago, and the remarkable tenor – not to mention the depth — of the news coverage, especially on cable TV news channels, marked something of a turning point. It showed the extent to which a vast content-hungry media world – much more extensive than when Reagan was president in the 1980s, when their main concern was the half-hour evening network newscast — was eager to swallow the manufactured myths about Ronald Reagan, and thus honor what the unnamed TV executive told Hoagland, that “today history is what we say it is.” Any chance for an honest portrayal of Reagan and his presidency – the dangerous overreach of the Iran-contra scandal, the growing embrace of deficit spending (both in Washington and for credit-card-laden consumers), or even the positive idea that his greatest contribution to history was a heartfelt desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons (an idea out of step with modern conservative thinking) – has been tossed down the memory hole for the last decade.
What the American people have been news-fed instead has been an ideology loosely based on Reagan, called Reaganism – a notion that has led to the Tea Party’s hatred of anything involving government and the bogus ideas that taxes can only be cut or that diplomacy with America’s rivals is for wimps. With each passing election, more and more of the electorate is too young to have remembered or experienced the real Ronald Reagan, yet are searching for an idealized president based on these right-wing perpetrated fallacies. Many of the worst aspects of the George W. Bush presidency – more tax cuts for the rich, soaring deficits, and “axis of evil” bluster – were rooted in this legend of a man who wasn’t there.
If we don’t work to tear down the Reagan myths in our political dialogue, our elections will be decided by voters like a 30-something woman from Amarillo, Texas, whom I met outside the Reagan Library in Simi Valley in the summer of 2008, when I was writing “Tear Down This Myth.” She was vacationing with her husband and young son, and she confided she was a young child when Reagan was in the White House. “I learned a lot when he passed away,” she told me, saying she’d watched quite a bit of the news coverage of the 2004 funeral. “I watched it all day,” she said. “I learned he was a great man.”