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Did Press Go Overboard in Paying Tribute to Ronald Reagan?

Aired June 13, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Reagan's media moment. Is the press going overboard in paying tribute to the Gipper? Are the more controversial parts of his record being airbrushed away? And...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think that you have the rights to obey the laws that you pick and choose?

KURTZ: Why are journalists saying such nice things now when they had an often testy relationship with the 40th president?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the week's only story, the passing of Ronald Reagan.

From talking heads to pomp and pageantry, it was wall and to wall and inescapable -- in newspapers, in magazines and, of course, on television, and the tone was almost unrelentingly positive.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": What would the world be like had Ronald Wilson Reagan not served these eight important years in our history? I can't even imagine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The outpouring of love, admiration and respect for this man, seems to me, Chris, unparalleled.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC ANALYST: All right, what do you think is the indispensable quality or element of Ronald Reagan that made him so different from others?


KURTZ: Was the coverage excessive for a 93-year-old man whose death had long been expected? And why was there so little mention of the problems that marred Reagan's presidency? The huge budget deficits? The corruption convictions of some top officials? The painfully slow response to AIDS? The Iran-Contra scandal? And what happened to the feistiness of journalists who regularly sparred with President Reagan?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SAN DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: The polls show that a lot of American people just simply don't believe you. That the one thing that you've had going for you more than anything else in your presidency, your credibility, has been severely damaged. Can you repair it? What does it mean for the rest of your presidency?

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I imagine I'm the only one around who wants to repair it, and I didn't have anything to do with damaging it.


KURTZ: Joining us now, CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante, who's celebrating his 40th anniversary at the network. Elizabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for "The New York Times." "Washington Post" columnist E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of a new book, "Stand Up, Fight Back." And Donald Lambro, columnist and chief political correspondent for "The Washington Times." Welcome.

Bill Plante, the press called him the teflon president. Meaning that negative stories didn't stick, that he was praised for his media manipulation. Was it frustrating to cover Reagan and his White House?

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: It was a little bit frustration, but you play the cards you're dealt, always, with any president. Any president, Ronald Reagan included, George Bush included, Bill Clinton included, wants to get over the heads of the media, reach the public.

KURTZ: Neutralize people like you.

PLANTE: Exactly, and Reagan was very good at it. So it's a bit frustrating, but you play the game.

KURTZ: Elizabeth Bumiller, wasn't Reagan a far more controversial and in some ways divisive president than the current media frenzy would suggest?

ELIZABETH BUMILLER, NEW YORK TIMES: Absolutely. When I first started looking at these stories and watching television, I thought, did I miss something? You know, with maybe -- was I...

KURTZ: Where were you during those eight years?

BUMILLER: I know, I know. Well, before I was (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but the first four years I was here, and I remember it being much more partisan and there was much more criticism from the Democrats than what is being talked about today.

KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, did Ronald Reagan bamboozle the press, or did reporters, especially liberal reporters, underestimate him, his abilities as a leader?

E.J. DIONNE, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Probably both. And in fact, his being underestimated helped him, because, for example, when Iran- Contra came along and he was basically arguing, why, I didn't really know about this, there was a storyline that was already there that allowed him to do that.

In terms of the last week, I was struck with how much reaction built on the liberal side against the hagiography as the week went on. I wrote a column the day after Reagan died, and it was a fairly soft column, I mentioned Iran-Contra, the Lebanon, the budget deficits, but I basically wrote on the theme of what can liberals learn from Ronald Reagan, if Reagan could learn so much from Franklin Roosevelt. And I got a ton of e-mails from liberals who said, wait a minute, yeah, that's all very nice, but what about -- and they went through the whole list of Reagan sins.

And I must say, as the week went on, I felt more and more like that myself, because there were some news outlets that tried very hard to be balanced, but it was, in part, a tribute to a man in a political commercial.

KURTZ: A tidal wave of positive coverage. Don Lambro, you're a Reagan fan, but you have to admit that on AIDS, and on civil rights, on Nicaragua, he had plenty of detractors when he was in the White House.

DONALD LAMBRO, WASHINGTON TIMES: Well, he had a lot of detractors, and he had the media as his adversaries, and you know, would ridicule him. I covered him over many years, a lot of interviews, and I'm not talking out of school here to tell you that on the campaign trail he was ridiculed by the people who covered him and wondered whether he was smart enough. But he was someone who has -- who eventually triumphed, and this past week really was a distillation and a compression of all the great things that he did, and when you pack that into one week it's overwhelming, and to a large extent it subdued the press for one week, at least.

KURTZ: Well, let's take a look at what Ronald Reagan thought of the press. This was a 1991 interview with Larry King.


REAGAN: Well, I seem to be -- there seemed to be a hostility. I felt, and I think properly, that in every press conference there was an adversarial relationship. They weren't there to just get some news, they were there to trap me into some kind of boner.


KURTZ: He's talking about you, Bill Plante. You were in a lot of those news conferences. Why are journalists sort of swooning now over Reagan when there was this very testy relationship, particularly at these news conferences?

PLANTE: Well, look, he -- the president was absolutely right in that interview with Larry King. Reporters were trying to trap him in some kind of contradiction. Because everybody knew that he paid scant attention to detail, and figured, well, you know, if you ask him this and ask him this long list of qualifying clauses and, besides that, besides which, the reporter gets to do that on national television, and as George W. Bush says, preen for the editors... KURTZ: You plead guilty to preen?

PLANTE: I hope not. I mean, hell, I'm on television every day, so what.

KURTZ: But there was an effort to trap him.

PLANTE: There was an effort to trap him. He was right.

KURTZ: Elizabeth Bumiller, you wrote this week about the friction over the years between the Reagans and the Bushes. Why have there been so few pieces like that? Do you think there is a collective sense that we ought to be nice in remembering Reagan, since obviously he's just passed away?

BUMILLER: Well, I'll tell you what happened, as I was writing that piece I called a certain senior administration official from the Reagan administration, and this person said to me, oh, don't write this piece now. Why are you doing this to poor Mrs. Reagan? So there was, you know, of all times to write this piece, so there was, from former Reagan administration officials, you know, a real -- they were very...

KURTZ: Enclosing ranks.

BUMILLER: Yeah, they were upset that I was writing such a thing that would raise, you know, any kind of questions about reality.

KURTZ: Although one of your examples was in Nancy Reagan's own book.

E.J. Dionne, you watched television this week and you see President Bush the elder, you see Ed Meese, you see Michael Deaver, even "CROSSFIRE" has only Republican guests. Is there a fear that putting Democrats on television who might even mildly criticize Reagan would spark some kind of backlash?

DIONNE: I was worried about that. I mean, I think what you've had a sort of 30-year campaign on the conservative side to say that 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 of Ronald Reagan, it is very hard to say there is a liberal media anymore. And I was disappointed that they also didn't use a Democrat in the formal ceremony, which I think was not in their interest because it played into the argument that part of this is to honor a president, but part of this is to honor a political movement.

KURTZ: Don Lambro, Reagan granted you a number of interviews while he was president. I think we have a picture of one of them we can show, and he sometimes cited your book on government waste, quite favorably. Doesn't that kind of stroking, you know, tend to co-opt a reporter?

LAMBRO: No, I don't think so. I covered him on the campaign trail when I was with United Press International. And I tried to report everything he had to say straight. I think the other reporters, they were -- they were involved at his campaign, political reporters are, in gaffes and in controversy and less in policy. In fact, very -- they really are disinterested in policy. And I didn't focus so much on the gaffs, which I didn't think were important. People were more important, and what were the policies.

And I remember one time, it was the day before Reagan was going to fly into Columbus, Ohio, and he gave a big speech on wasteful government, and big government, and that day was the gaffe of the week they were looking at, and I thought it was inconsequential, and reported in your story somewhere, but I put out a story on the speech. And we flew in that night, and the next morning in "The Columbus Dispatch," across -- the headline across the front page was, you know, "Reagan Denounces Wasteful Spending." That's what Americans really said, he had the touch of the pulse of the American people there. Reporters didn't understand that.

KURTZ: Reporters are interested in gaffes I think no matter who is president. Now, Ronald Reagan had many accomplishments and great skills, Bill Plante, I mean, this is a guy who transformed American politics. But so, does it take away from that for journalists to talk about the scandals at HUD or EPA or Iran-Contra or his slowness on AIDS?

PLANTE: It certainly doesn't. And it was talked about during the week. Right out of the box on Monday, the beginning of the fulls news week for us, we did a piece -- I did a piece on Iran-Contra, and all during the week we and...

KURTZ: But there was a tidal of stories.

BUMILLER: I would like to say also that we wrote stories about his -- how slow he was to react to AIDS. Robin Toner had a story a few days in. And we talked about it in our Monday morning meeting, in our Washington bureau, about how, wait a minute, let talk about the other side. And so I would like to stand up for "The New York Times" and say we weren't, you know, completely bowled over by this ...


PLANTE: But the only question, Howie, is whether the attention to the negative was sufficient, isn't it, because it was there, and how does it not get lost in the tidal wave of approbation and reminiscence.

KURTZ: I think some of this has to do with television, particularly cable television, which tended to just interview who'd worked for Reagan, friends of Reagan, and it was just this incredible wave of nice reminiscence. There's no problem there. But also, I mean, the stories that even your newspaper ran and others tended not to run on the front page.

BUMILLER: That was true.

LAMBRO: You know, one thing about Reagan that the reporters didn't fully understand -- in this past week, the big focus was of course on winning the Cold War, and on the networks they kept saying, well, it is a question of whether he really did, whether he really did bring down communism. And there was no mention at all, and this has happened really since Reagan left the stage, and maybe the news media just didn't read this. But there's been studies on how a number of academic papers by top professors throughout universities who did not like Reagan, didn't vote for Reagan, didn't support him, give him credit in these papers for bringing down the communist empire, the evil empire, and winning the Cold War. And none of that was mentioned throughout this week.

KURTZ: But that's a good debate to have, and I wonder, E.J. Dionne, whether some people are saying, well, it's not really the role of journalism at this time to present a balanced portrait of a president who just died. The role is to unify the country and bring the country together. Is there any truth to that?

DIONNE: Well, I don't think when you're talking about the history of a presidency the job simply is to unify the country. First, the week was a triumph of Mike Deaverism. Deaver, of course, always believed that the picture trumps the words, and I think the pageantry of the funeral and those moments of Mrs. Reagan sort of feeling the casket, I mean, those pictures overwhelmed anything that was said. But also what overwhelmed this story was all this talk about foreign policy -- there were a lot of cutbacks in programs for the poor under Reagan. Somebody came up to me and said, wait a minute, why are they honoring this guy? He cut my student loans. There was a growth in inequality under Reagan. None of that got into the picture very much, because so much emphasis was on the triumphs in foreign policy.

KURTZ: Well, the pictures often dominated the stories, as you remember, from the 1980s.

We need to get a break. When we come back, the Reagan media farewell. How much is too much?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. These are just some of the special sections that have appeared in newspapers this week. ""Washington Post," "USA Today," I'm running out of space here, and "Newsweek" today has this cover on Nancy Reagan. The second straight cover on the Reagans.

Elizabeth Bumiller, the press overdoes everything, that's the way it is in 24-hour universe of news, but have we overdone Reagan's passing, as well?

BUMILLER: Well, I don't know, it's an awfully compelling story. And it was a great change for those of us who were writing about Iraq and the handover and George Tenet. And it was just -- it was almost like a little -- it was almost like a break from...

KURTZ: A nice respite, you're saying.

BUMILLER: Well, you know for those of us who were around at the time of Reagan, there were a lot of people in town that we used to deal with all the time. I don't know, it was -- I think a lot of the -- I mean, it was television that was constant.

KURTZ: A lot of special sections here.

PLANTE: But let me remind you of one thing here. What was given to the Reagans is available to any president. Not all will choose to have the grand state funeral, the lying in state, the funeral at the National Cathedral. Any president can have that.

KURTZ: But every president cannot necessarily have a week of wall to wall coverage. Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford dies -- and I hope that doesn't happen...


KURTZ: ... I doubt we'll see this. But let's talk about your week. You were in Normandy for the D-Day observances, you were at Sea Island, Georgia for the G-8 summit...

PLANTE: Right, right.

KURTZ: That was like a blip. I mean, don't the press have some responsibility to report on other news, as well?

PLANTE: Well, the second story on Wednesday was the G-8 story, and ironically people said, you know, will Reagan's funeral give George Bush a break or even pump up the campaign? Hell, the best story of the week for George Bush was the U.N. resolution and the forming of the new Iraqi government and the backing they got, and that got buried.

KURTZ: Washed away. E.J. Dionne, the -- speaking of the presidential campaign, I mean the Reagan remembrances pretty much shut down the campaign. I mean, Kerry made a decision that he couldn't fly into the face of this headline hurricane. He couldn't even buy a headline. Do you have any problem with that?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I think John Kerry, given what's been happening to President Bush up to now, does pretty well when he gets off the campaign trail, so I'm not sure he minded being off. I do think what happened -- there were other things that went on at the G-8 summit, for example, Chirac and the Turkish leader not wanting to use NATO. There were some downsides that also got washed out of the news. A lot of the Iraq news got washed out of the news. So, in that sense, I think it helped Ronald Reagan.

Could I just make one small point, which is it comes as a surprise to most of our readers that journalists, columnists are also human beings. And I think in the early part of the week, there was this normal, human, the guy just died, let's show a little respect. I think what pushed the backlash was the sheer breadth of it, as you've suggested. For a few days, it was natural, but then it began to look like a party political ad.

LAMBRO: But you know, Howie, there was something cathartic and healing about this week, and I heard -- and I've talked to a number of Democrats in the aftermath who said the very same thing. In the last few months, so many bad things have happened, the prison abuse scandal, the problems in Iraq, the doubts about America and our economy, and then the back biting and the poisonous nature, and even Leon Panetta said there was something -- this is sort of like a timeout for the country. And it made us think back to a better time, of someone who was optimistic. And it was interesting to see all the quotes from Democrats who stood in line at the Capitol. I didn't vote for him, and I didn't really like him at first, but, boy, he did a lot of good things and I'm here to pay my respects. That says a lot about this country, and I think that's the week we needed it. Maybe that was what Reagan did best.

BUMILLER: You should check out the Bush campaign Web site right now and the White House Web site right now, because it is basically been turned over to Ronald Reagan. I mean the White House went all out with this, and it's sometimes hard to see on the White House Web site right now where Ronald Reagan begins and Bush ends, because...


KURTZ: Got to blow the whistle. E.J. clearly gave us the headline here. Journalists also human, sometimes feel nostalgia.


KURTZ: Just ahead, is the press trying to morph President Bush into Ronald Reagan? We'll talk about that more in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan have some things in common, Bill Plante. They both like ranches, they both like tax cuts. They both have had an aggressive military posture. Isn't everything else basically pop psychology by the press?

PLANTE: Absolutely. And we shouldn't indulge in it. They're not the same people. No way are they the same people. It's evident -- Ronald Reagan came to office bearing with an earlier career that made him a public figure already and with a set of fixed ideas, from which he never deviated. Bush came to office as a politician whose name was Bush. And I think the similarities end pretty much right there.

KURTZ: Would you agree, E.J. Dionne, that this has largely been a press exaggeration, this whole notion of Bush trying to remake himself or recast himself as the Gipper?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I was struck at the funeral by the contrast between President Bush the father and President Bush the son. President Bush the father was much more personal in his discussions of Ronald Reagan, whereas the son was much more ideological. He wants to grab this legacy. The paradox is that this President Bush speaks more moderate than Ronald Reagan did, but may be more ideological. Ronald Reagan spoke as a firm conservative, but was more flexible. LAMBRO: I think there's no doubt that Bush has patterned himself and modeled himself after Ronald Reagan. It's no secret that he sees Reagan as most favorite president, next to his father. But the important thing for Bush is, he wants to take the Reagan agenda, the conservative agenda, and take it to the next level, and that's what he's doing with SDI and tax cuts.

KURTZ: Don Lambro, if I could just jump in here. President Bush doesn't even seem to court even conservative columnists the way, for example, Reagan cultivated you.

LAMBRO: Well, I think he's kept in touch with them in a variety of ways, and, you know, he's someone I think who is so much in touch with the conservative base, no one questions that he doesn't have the base. And if you read what they're writing, they certainly are in tuned with what he's saying. But in the end, he wants to take it to another level. Privatizing Social Security, remaking the military for the space age. This is all part of the Reagan agenda. And reducing tax rates further.

KURTZ: OK, I want to come back to the press. Bush seems to enjoy news conferences even less than Reagan did, and holds a lot fewer of them. Isn't that a difference?

BUMILLER: Yes, he holds many, many -- I mean, I think he holds fewer than any other president. But let's not forget, Reagan was not that good as press conferences. He had a tough time with them, he made a lot of mistakes. He didn't like going into them. And I think...

KURTZ: But the public loved him, it didn't matter if reporters (UNINTELLIGIBLE) him up or not.

BUMILLER: That's true. And that's why they had him in prime- time, because they could just talk over the heads of the press. We didn't, you know...

KURTZ: Do you agree with that?

PLANTE: Absolutely. One of the primary objectives was to get President Reagan in touch with the American public, have them see him and let them make their own opinions, you know, unmediated by the likes of us.

KURTZ: People like you. All right, guys, got to hold it there. Got to hold it there. Bill Plante, Elizabeth Bumiller, E.J. Dionne, Don Lambro, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, hockey horror, Florida newspaper mistakenly brands the hometown champs as losers.


KURTZ: It was a great day for Florida when the Tampa Bay Lightning won hockey's Stanley Cup this week. But "The Tampa Tribune" fell smack on ice with an editorial consoling the team for losing the game. Turns out "The Tribune" had prepared two editorials, and the wrong one wound up in print. Ouch.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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