The Showtime documentary series, “The Reagans,” makes the preposterous suggestion that media bosses, deep in the hypnotic thrall of White House spin doctors, either worshipped Ronald Reagan or ordered their minions to cover him favorably.
Some of us who spent time in Reagan’s White House and Reagan political organizations have very different memories. While President Reagan was popular for much of his presidency, it had nothing to do with the media’s affection for him, but it didn’t hurt that Reagan’s team, unlike President Trump’s, deliberately avoided attacking the press.
The general attitude of Reagan’s communications team was that Washington and New York-based media disliked him intensely. Nevertheless, young staffers who groused about media bias, including the authors, were told that attacking the press was rarely if ever a viable tactic. We were told, “You don’t fight with people who buy their paper by the roll and ink by the barrel.” Despite their biases, journalists were viewed as professionals who would try whenever possible to at least foster the pretense of objectivity. Sometimes, this ethic might even benefit the White House, so why make unnecessary enemies?
The premise of the media’s antipathy toward Reagan, in fact, was held so deeply that the centerpiece of the White House’s strategy was to place Reagan in situations where he could speak over the press and straight to the American people such as Oval Office speeches and weekly radio broadcasts. “The Reagans” argues that leveraging the boss’ strengths and avoiding his weaknesses was a novel and diabolically clever device successfully deployed to hoodwink the public.
Mr. Trump has taken a very different path, believing that ceaseless attacks on the Fourth Estate would serve him well. And they have, to a point. Bashing the press has been the linchpin of Mr. Trump’s consistently rewarding efforts to rally his base. When Mr. Trump declared journalists “enemies of the people,” the press kept covering everything he said and did. So he said it again, which led to more base-rallying free advertising.
Reagan wasn’t based-obsessed. He and his team wanted Democratic voters and this crossover campaign won him the presidency in two electoral landslides. This could only be accomplished through a concerted effort to win over those who were disinclined to support him. Hence, the Reagan Democrat.
Reagan and his team had to choke down the impulse to rant about media bias and work with journalists to achieve incremental successes. In fact, some of the most successful administration officials — Chief of Staff James Baker, Deputy Chief Michael Deaver and adviser Lyn Nofziger — succeeded in part because of how hard they worked to make a hostile press a little less hostile. This included strategically leaking information that sometimes infuriated hard line Reaganites.
There were entire teams in Reagan’s White House staffed by dozens of people with the mandate of helping the press with their news coverage. This didn’t include the press operations at the various cabinet departments and agencies. Of course, there were tensions, but the broader cooperation strategy was anchored in the understanding that leadership is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don’t. Mr. Trump is not constitutionally capable of this ethic. Mr. Trump views the slightest gap between what he wants and what he gets as a declaration of war.
To be sure, Reagan and Mr. Trump operated in very different times. In the 1980s, journalists could at least fake balance. Not anymore. In Reagan’s day, speaking directly to the public meant televised appearances with thematic backdrops showing the president in action. Mr. Trump had his rallies and Twitter, the ultimate method of speaking unfiltered to the public, which won him plenty of followers.
Media bashing can pay dividends — to a point. In polls across the board, they show intense hostility toward the national media. But if a leader’s objective is to win over unexpected converts with staying power, total war has its limitations.
George H.W. Bush learned this the hard way. His attacks on the press in the 1992 campaign, which included his musing over a trendy bumper sticker reading “Annoy the Media: Elect Bush,” came across as being desperate and even a little unbalanced. Mr. Bush lost decisively to Bill Clinton in the wake of a recession.
“The Reagans” conflates its creator’s dislike of the 40th president with his political success as being due to trickery beyond the conscious knowledge of the public. Love him or hate him, there are more banal explanations, including contagious optimism, an economic recovery, winning a cold war, and the ability to differentiate between enemies of the people and tactical adversaries.
• Eric Dezenhall is the author of 11 books, including the forthcoming novel, “False Light.” He worked in the Reagan White House offices of Communications and Presidential Personnel. Craig Shirley is the author of four books about Ronald Reagan including “Rendezvous with Destiny” and “December, 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.” He also is the Visiting Reagan Fellow at Eureka College.
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