The age of Trump induces Reagan nostalgia
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- A Presidents' Day weekend visit to the Ronald Reagan presidential library here provoked an unfamiliar and unexpected emotion: Reagan nostalgia.
Seriously. I was a young reporter in Washington, fresh out of college, when Reagan was elected. It felt like nothing less than a hostile takeover of the government. The Reagan people swept in for the inauguration with their furs and their limousines and their Heritage Foundation briefing books and proceeded, as Stephen Bannon would say years later, to deconstruct the regulatory state.
I covered some of Reagan's finest moments -- his nomination of the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, for one -- but also some of his least attractive -- for me, as a Justice Department reporter, the undermining of the Civil Rights Division.
So while every presidential library presents an air-brushed portrait of the president it celebrates, I did not expect to emerge with something of a Reagan glow -- certainly not with my dyed-in-the-wool-Democrat husband dragged along. And yet, glow there was.
First, about Reagan and the media. The Reagan administration saw the full flowering of the presidency in the television age, with its focus on message management and staged events and more worry over perfect lighting than precise facts. The president himself was often sheltered from reporters' pestering questions.
But pick up the handset at the museum and listen to Reagan, back in 1976, talking about the traveling press corps that covered his losing primary challenge to President Gerald Ford. "I knew many of them had written pre-campaign commentaries about me questioning ... whether I was for real," Reagan recounted during one of his weekly radio commentaries. But in the course of the campaign -- "on tour together," Reagan said -- "I saw ... the long hours when the day was done for me but they were still filing stories. I have to say their treatment of me was fair. They were objective, they did their job. ... We parted friends."
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That was, no doubt, a glossy view of a relationship with built-in strains. Yet it is impossible to listen to Reagan's words and not hear Donald Trump's thuggish campaign trail assault on reporters as "lying, disgusting" "absolute scum" or, more alarming, the Trump administration's "fake news" effort to delegitimize any reporting with which they disagree.
Second, about Reagan and the art of the apology. Admitting error does not come easily to any of us, and it is fraught with peril for any politician and any president. Indeed, it did not come easily to Reagan -- hence the famous "mistakes were made" formulation about the Iran-contra affair during his 1987 State of the Union address.
Yet stop at the exhibit on Iran-contra and listen to the speech Reagan gave that March: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true; but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
Again, to hear this in the age of Trump is to wonder: Will we ever, could we ever, hear such self-reflection, even such pretend self-reflection, from Trump -- an acceptance of responsibility? It is not in his nature or skillset. He knows only the counterpunch.