Editor’s Note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
LZ: Some in GOP slam Obama over MH17 reaction, say Reagan did better with 1983 Korea crash
LZ: Reagan went horseback riding, took 4 days to comment. It's all part of Reagan revisionism
Obama's record constantly set against airbrushed version of poor Reagan record, he says
LZ: Reagan had high jobless rate, scandals, hiked taxes. We don't learn from faked history
Kudos to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough for owning up to “my boneheaded error” (his words) when last week he claimed—in a slam of President Obama—that President Reagan cut his vacation short and “immediately went back to the White House” after the Soviet Union mistakenly shot down a Korean Air flight in 1983.
The facts, of course, are nothing like that, and we will get to that in a moment.
Scarborough is not the only Republican figurehead using a rewrite of Reagan history to attack the President, who opted not to cancel fundraising events the day Malaysia Airlilnes Flight 17 was shot down by the Ukrainian rebels. Hosts on Fox News also did some editing to the Reagan narrative. And this past weekend on CNN’s State of the Union, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul said Reagan “rallied the world community” with his remarks on the 1983 disaster, without mentioning that half a week had gone by before he delivered them.
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It is true that, given Putin’s involvement with supplying the rebels with weapons and the United States’ frosty relationship with Russia, the post-crash optics were not good for President Obama. And Obama supporters may blame all his administration’s troubles on Republican obstructionism and some veiled racism, but the White House’s inability to get ahead of the message has also contributed to his dismal 42% job approval rating. (P.S. Obama, next time, just visit the border.)
But Reagan as a role model? Not if you look at the facts: Not only did President Reagan not rush back to Washington after the Korean Air disaster, but, according to his press secretary, he went horseback riding later that same day. In fact, Reagan had to be coerced by his inner circle to cut short what had already been a 25-day vacation in California. He did not deliver his much talked about speech in which he condemned the Soviet Union for its actions until four days later.
The fact is that Scarborough’s error is no error at all; it emerged from an airbrushed history that reflects a persistent viewpoint: For many Republicans, President Reagan did no wrong.
As a result, Obama’s missteps, real or not, are magnified, distorted. It’s like comparing an attractive woman to a Photoshopped image of a model. In this case, the model who has been nipped, tucked and repackaged is the Gipper.
Consider for example, in 1982, two years after Reagan took office, the unemployment rate soared to 9.7%, the highest since the Great Depression. It was 9.6% in 1983, the year of his 25-day vacation. In January of that year, his approval rating was 35%. In case you were wondering, Obama’s lowest was 40%.
Considering how often Obama is criticized for his more than 140 rounds of golf, I don’t think I need to tell you what would be said about him if he had taken a month off while the country was dealing with the highest unemployment rate in more than 40 years. Or if he was approaching anywhere near the 436 vacation days Reagan tallied in his two terms.
In fact, Reagan once joked, “It’s true hard work never killed anyone, but I figure why take the chance?” I can’t imagine President Obama, who Republicans openly call lazy, getting away with that.
I don’t love President Reagan, but I don’t hate him either.
As with everyone else who has held that office, there are things you can point to that Reagan did exceptionally well and things I’m sure he would have liked to have done over. There were blemishes: Iran-Contra and a HUD scandal in which millions of federal dollars were criminally funneled to big contributors to Republican campaigns, including Reagan’s. And Reagan failed to publicly address the AIDS crisis until May 1987, six years after the first cases had appeared. Thousands died on his watch.
Reagan never balanced the budget. He raised taxes. In fact, he signed the biggest peacetime tax increase in history. We can debate why and compare his rationale with that of Obama’s, but to pretend he didn’t do it is ludicrous.
We become better by learning from mistakes. But first we must acknowledge they exist, which is why the continual lionization of Reagan does the country a disservice. Rewriting and sugarcoating his history may provide this current brand of Republicans with a feel-good narrative, and regular, ready-made ways to slam the current President, but it doesn’t help us learn from the past.
This week President Obama is scheduled to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. Some may be surprised, but Reagan himself denounced employment discrimination against gays and lesbians more than 30 years ago while governor of California.
This is all part of his legacy as well.
Scarborough made a boneheaded error. But the biggest error many Republicans like him make is scrubbing away Reagan’s errors just so they can throw mud at Obama. It turns their admiration for the Gipper’s “character” into worship of a caricature.
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