One evening during the last campaign, around midnight, I was in the middle of yet another dusk-to-dawn stint pounding out speeches in the Old Executive Office Building. The press had been carping again about the president’s detachment, although they were beginning to catch on to how potent an asset he was to the ticket, and once they did, their tune – for awhile – changed. But as I was working away, it struck me, whom else would I do this for? Whom else would so many of us have done so much for?
A year and a half into the first term, the word had gone around to prepare resumes because administrations always have had a mass exodus after the off-year elections. That’s when ticket punchers – those who were here for the credential – traditionally moved on. The mass exodus never occurred. A trickle did start around mid-1987. But in job after job, the Reagan people came and stayed, locking in changes they were in Washington to make.
Their inspiration and guidance came from the great philosophical clarity the president brought to his office. Ronald Reagan drew on all the many streams of the conservative intellectual critique of American government, leavened conservativsm’s often grim view of the past with his optimism about the future, and gave us an idiom that spoke to the ear of the entire nation – not just a small cognoscenti.
How many presidents have filled their administrations and country with so profound a sense of intellectual and moral purpose? George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt – no more.
And how many presidents have done so much of what they set out to do? Mr. Reagan said he would cut taxes and revive growth. He did and it worked. He said he would arm to negotiate arms reduction. He did and it worked. And Mr. Reagan said he wanted to reinvigorate freedom as a revolutionary idea – and now from Eastern Europe to Tianmmen Square, the idea of freedom once again rallies all people.
Some say he ignored the social issues. Not quite. Much of conservatism’s social agenda was a reaction to an overreaching judiciary. Mr. Reagan changed the judiciary. His adversaries tried to keep open the fourth Supreme Court seat that became vacant during his term. They failed, and that may prove the decisive victory of Mr. Reagan’s social agenda.
Not that you’ll find any of this remarkable record in Bob Schieffer’s and Gary Paul Gates’ book, “The Acting President.” As they tell it, everything the detached, befuddled Mr. Reagan touched turned to lead. They devote 81 pages to Iran-Contra, seven to Bitburg. They hardly notice the economic expansion, while the INF treaty becomes more the product of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s sagacity than Mr. Reagan’s diplomacy.
It doesn’t take Einstein to see what’s going on. Mr. Schieffer is CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent. Mr. Gates, co-author of a book with Dan Rather, helps CBS types concentrate on projects longer than a half-hour broadcast. You couldn’t find two more typical specimens of the national media mindset.
And this media never accepted Mr. Reagan or what he stood for. Now that he is gone, they are trying to paint him as one big mistake, the country’s love of him a delusion. We’ve heard it all before and probably will continue to hear it from this crowd for years to come.
Talk about familiar themes, the authors dwell on errors of fact in Mr. Reagan’s statements (which, by the way, were less often wrong than expressions of truths the press refused to acknowledge). Why then are they so careless with the facts? It can only be carelessness to compliment the Moscow State University address (the one good thing they have to say for Mr. Reagan in the book) and then, in showing why it was so impressive, quote a passage that appears nowhere in it.
But is it carelessness to suggest that Mr. Reagan’s popularity soared in the wake of the Moscow summit? In fact, it remained about where it had fallen during Iran-Contra. Not until after the president hit the road in the ’88 campaign, reasserting his core conservative message, did his popularity climb.
That error bears a strong family resemblance to others Mr. Schieffer and Mr. Gates make. Time after time their mistakes put Mr. Reagan and what he stood for in a worse light than would the truth. They build up his adversaries and people still holding power. They tear down his departed loyalists.
Messrs. Schieffer and Gates air the “sleaze factor,” of course, but their book offers a glimpse of Washington’s most enduring sleaze – the “you can be a source or a target, and if you’re a strong conservative, forget it” ethic of the national media. Power, corruption, intrigue – this book as it all, but it’s not in the story. In good Washington fashion, the writers reward their friends, punish their enemies, and don’t let the truth get in the way.
Meanwhile, the dumb-like-a-fox actor whom they so despise has retired to California, leaving behind him one of the most impressive records of leadership in the history of republic. Someday, perhaps, a book will come along that shows us how and why Mr. Reagan’s leadership worked, instead of doing handstands to prove that it didn’t.
Not yet, though. And not here.