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History and the Press

Discussion in 'Uncategorized Threads' started by RobertT, Jul 17, 2007.

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  1. RobertT

    RobertT Well-Known Member

    Jun 27, 2006
    It would seem that with the Bush bashing evident by many who entertain themselves on Trapshooters.com that perhaps a short visit with past history is in order. Ronald Reagan was a prime target of the liberal press, though a more charismatic and eloquent speaker than Bush. None the less, he was equally a victim of their vitriolic behavior. The attached article from Newsweek magazine is actually an empathetic example of the attacks leveled by the press against his presidency.


    By Larry Martz
    March 9, 1987 issue - The podium was shorter than usual, but even so, Ronald Reagan seemed diminished as he stood behind it -- "smaller and frailer," one friend thought, with lines of strain around the eyes and mouth. Sounding tentative, he stumbled twice over his lines as he thanked the three-man panel he had asked to pass judgment on his handling of the Iran scandal; whatever the commission found, he promised to "enact the proper reforms." Then, in a din of shouted questions, he was ushered protectively to the door of the briefing room on the arm of the diminutive chief judge, former Texas Sen. John Tower. Reagan's stricken look was fully justified: he had already heard the verdict.

    The Tower commission's report was devastating -- a calm, searing appraisal of Reagan's presidency that threatened to shrink him to irrelevance for the rest of his lame-duck term. The only good news was that Tower and his colleagues, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, believed the president's story that he genuinely wanted the truth to be told about the Iran-contra affair and that he hadn't intentionally misled the nation. For the rest, he emerged as a careless, remote and forgetful leader, too indifferent to supervise the reckless swashbuckling of his aides. His Iran policy was found to be foolish and counterproductive, and it was carried out unprofessionally and perhaps illegally. None of the officials involved in the dealings escaped criticism; in Tower's words, the president "was poorly advised and poorly served." But Reagan himself "clearly didn't understand" what was going on: he let his emotions rule him, never ordered a critical review and allowed his aides to manipulate him and make their own foreign policy as they lied, diverted arms profits and tried to cover up the scandal.

    The report had been billed as tough, but not that tough. It touched off a firestorm of criticism, much of it focused on White House chief of staff Donald Regan; the panel flatly blamed him for "the chaos that descended upon the White House" after the scandal erupted. Within a day Regan was gone; Nancy Reagan, who had been maneuvering to get rid of him for weeks, finally won her point. Adding insult to injury, her agents leaked the news of his successor to a TV news show before the president notified Regan. He stormed out of the White House, leaving a one-sentence letter of resignation.

    The successor was Howard Baker, the former Tennessee senator who had been preparing his own low-key run for the presidency. He gave up that notion (with some relief, friends said) to take on the rescue mission; the hope was that there remained a reservoir of affection for Reagan and that it would be enough to fuel a rally around the Gipper and preserve a measure of effectiveness in his last two years. Baker's appointment was greeted as a promising first step: a veteran of the Watergate inquiry, he is widely respected in both parties.

    Could Reagan really recover? The president promised to respond to the report in a speech this week, and most of his friends and aides hoped he would make a full, contrite apology -- "In so many words," said one of them, "he's got to say, 'I blew it"." But Reagan was righteously convinced that he hadn't been wrong, and as a principled man, said one counselor, "he is reluctant to say something he doesn't believe." He also wants no part of a cabinet shake-up. Beyond damage control, Reagan would have to demonstrate that he is really in command of his administration, come up with a substantive agenda and win a battle or two.

    And the fight would be uphill. The Tower commission had left dozens of unanswered questions: millions of dollars in profits from the Iranian arms deals were missing and still untraced -- they "sort of disappeared," said Tower, into "a black hole." Lt. Col. Oliver North's shadowy network of support for the Nicaraguan rebels was still to be fully explored. Reagan's nominee to replace William Casey as CIA director, Robert Gates, had been tarnished by his own links to the scandal, and there were signs the administration might withdraw his nomination. Reagan's old friend Mike Deaver, having demanded a special prosecutor to investigate whether he had violated the law as a lobbyist, found himself about to be indicted and joined North in challenging the constitutionality of the prosecutor. Two congressional committees and special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh seemed likely to spend the rest of this year probing the mess, with a drumbeat of indictments and downbeat headlines; when that finally fades, the 1988 campaign will be in full cry. A few seasoned politicians thought Reagan could still work his magic. More thought that at best, he might hope for a semblance of respect. The odds were long: in a new NEWSWEEK Poll, Reagan's job rating fell to 40 percent approval, the lowest since early 1983, when the country was in the throes of a recession. Most startling, nearly a third of the sampling said he should consider resigning.

    In a sense, the Tower report's unflattering portrait of Reagan comes as no surprise. Reports of his inattention to detail and lack of interest in unfamiliar ideas have been appearing for years; as long ago as Sept. 7, 1981, NEWSWEEK drew protests from the White House with a story headlined "A Disengaged Presidency." "These are things you and I have known all along about Ronald Reagan," said one of his former aides last week. "The trouble is, now the public knows them." Worse, the public may no longer be willing to shrug off something that was half known all along. From across the Atlantic, West Germany's Die Zeit worried: "America is becoming aware of the fact that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. A kind of twilight of the gods is taking place."

    Private aye: Certainly, the report left very little mystery about what it delicately called Reagan's "management style." It has been widely reported that he hates confrontations -- a trait that made it all the harder for him to fire Donald Regan last week. But as former national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane described it to the Tower commission, this reluctance to face conflict went so far that in meetings, Reagan would reach a decision only if it was unanimous. If anyone disagreed, McFarlane said, Reagan would wait and disclose his intentions in private. So it was with the disputed decision in August 1985 to condone arms sales by Israel to Iran. "He called and said, 'I think we ought to get on with that. Let's go ahead with that"," McFarlane told the commission. "And that, frankly, was more the way the president dealt with an issue, as opposed to saying, 'Well, I like option 1, 2, 3 or 4"." To pin down the decision, McFarlane said, he spelled out details and reminded Reagan why Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger disagreed.

    'Option 1": That private signal made it harder to establish that any decision had been made, and easier for the president to forget what he had done. Regan still insists that the president did not approve the August 1985 Israeli shipment in advance. Reagan himself first told the Tower panel that he had approved it; then, after staff briefings, he said he hadn't. Finally, in a letter to the board, he said he might have allowed others to influence his recollection: "The simple truth is, I don't remember -- period." The flip-flop, his aides said, was humiliating to Reagan; if he couldn't remember when he made a decision to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages, his critics wondered, what could he remember?

    And as the Tower commission judged the case, that deal was precisely what Reagan had made. The talks with Iran may or may not have begun as a diplomatic initiative, as the White House has argued. But "whatever the intent, almost from the beginning the initiative became in fact a series of arms-for-hostages deals," the report concluded. Reagan's "intense compassion" for the hostages and their families was undenied, and McFarlane said it had been deepened when the president visited with relatives of the TWA hijacking victims in Arlington Cemetery in July. In a strained rationalization, the president persuaded himself that he was dealing not directly with the kidnappers but only with the people who were said to control them, and thus he was not trading arms for hostages. As he told McFarlane -- and as he keeps repeating to his advisers -- "I draw a difference between our dealing with people that are not terrorists and shipping arms to terrorists. And I'm willing to defend that."

    The central figure in the operation, Oliver North, had been a star of the scandal for weeks. But the Tower report was a rich new vein of North's indiscretions, from making up fantasies about the president to bragging about threatening heads of state. And if anything was lacking in the soap-opera flavor of the scandal, it was supplied when North's glamorous secretary, Fawn Hall, was granted immunity to testify that she had shredded documents and altered memos when the scandal broke.

    Reagan himself kept his hands so far off the operations that he asked hardly any questions. He said he didn't know that North, not the CIA, was in charge of the Iranian contacts; he had never read the finding that was the basis for beginning direct arms deals. And if he knew that North was helping the contras, he never realized it was with profits from Iran.

    'Genuinely shaken": But the system hadn't failed, the panel agreed; the problem, said Scowcroft, "was one of people, not of process." The president's men, knowing his style, had a special obligation to keep him posted: "There should have been bells ringing, lights flashing," said Scowcroft. As Muskie saw it, "The single most important factor here is the overobsession with secrecy" that cut dissenters out of the loop and let the operation run amok. The board left it to prosecutors to determine whether laws had been broken, and recommended a few minor changes in the system (a single congressional oversight committee rather than two, for instance, might discourage leaks and encourage timely reporting). But the most important safeguard had to be Reagan himself: "He should have followed up more and monitored this operation more closely," Tower said. The system wouldn't work, the report concluded, "unless the president makes it work."

    In Tower's view, the Iran-contra affair was "an aberration" in an otherwise successful presidency. Reagan clearly saw it that way, too; he was described as "flustered" and "genuinely shaken" by his own session with the panel. "He was listening . . . as though he was hearing things he hadn't heard before," said Muskie. But around the country, politicians, political scientists and journalists alike tended to see the report as documenting a consistent pattern in the Reagan administration. The usually circumspect Los Angeles times called it "a relentless indictment of executive failure in the conduct of foreign policy." It was this flawed decision-making process, many critics argued, that produced the near fiasco at the Reykjavik summit, and Reagan's one-time budget director David Stockman has documented similar lapses in economic decisions. "The underlying problem in all this is a lack of respect for dissent," said Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. "People in the administration who challenge policy are just shunted aside."

    Even the president's defenders conceded he had been badly damaged. "Americans came to believe he was larger than life. He isn't. He's a human being. He blew it," said GOP conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia. And on the hustings, Democratic presidential hopefuls were polishing their lines. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt said in New Hampshire that Reagan "sounds a little like the piano player in the bordello who says he didn't know what was going on upstairs."

    By most accounts, Reagan hasn't changed in either talent or alertness since he took office: when fully briefed and fired up, he gets full marks from visitors as a keen and informed chief executive. "He's not a doddering old fool with senility setting in," says one of his outside advisers. "But he's managed to look that way." Inevitably, the report led to speculation that Reagan might resign before the end of his term, but virtually no one in Washington took the notion seriously. "Nancy is concerned about his place in history," said a House Democratic aide. "You don't have a great place in history if you quit."

    The challenge now is to re-establish the perception that Reagan is back in the saddle again, firmly in charge. To that end, his friends and foes alike agree that this week's speech will be crucial. "It all depends on how much spirit he has left in him," said Harvard government Prof. Richard Neustadt. "If he's overwhelmed and can't rally, well, there's a narrow line between the revered grandfather and 'Let's get the old son-of-a-bitch to the nursing home"."

    Hard line? Some of Reagan's advisers want him to take a hard line, making no apologies and swinging to the offense on such issues as Star Wars and the budget. Political scientist James MacGregor Burns of Williams College thinks this would work, and Vice President George Bush tried out the position when he said last week that if the Tower panel members really believed Reagan was trading arms for hostages, they were simply wrong. But Bush backed down the next day, accepting the Tower conclusions and saying the policy "failed the American people." Initially, Reagan himself greeted the advice to apologize with stubborn silence. At the weekend he was said to be at least part of the way along the road to Bush's contrition. He was relieved at closing the books with his old friend Regan -- one friend who spent two hours with the president on Friday said Reagan never once mentioned his former chief of staff. The president clearly thought Baker's appointment was a coup, and he was looking forward to a road trip or two to renew his roots. "He is a man who is simply not meant to be on the defensive," an aide said. "If he can get back on offense, you'll see the old buoyancy." But nobody could predict which line he would take in the speech. Only one decision was firm: there would be no press conference. Nancy Reagan was insisting on that -- a sign, along with the shove she gave Regan, that the First Lady may play an even larger role in the next two years than she has in the past.

    No one could be sure whether Reagan had learned anything from the whole sorry episode. In his favor, he had indeed given the Tower commission its head and let a good deal of the story be told. Perhaps most to the point, he had finally chosen men who understood that public service involves a search for hard truth, restraint and wisdom, and does not consist of stifling dissent, trading with enemies, running covert operations to thwart the democratic process and going along in silence with whatever policy the boss approves. This week's speech would indeed be critical. Meanwhile, the contrast between the panel's work and the Reagan staff record spoke eloquently for itself.

    With THOMAS M. DEFRANK, MARGARET GARRARD WARNER and ELEANOR CLIFT in Washington and bureau reports
  2. MX3SBOY

    MX3SBOY TS Member

    Jan 9, 2007
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