By the time Ronald Reagan's body arrived on Capitol Hill last week, after 100,000 people paid respects in California and just before another 100,000 people honored him in Washington, the news media were already feeling the urgent need to balance the outpouring of love and nostalgia with a screed or two from Americans who hated Reagan.
Never mind that funerals aren't usually the time for nasty political debates. Never mind that balance is what the media lacked through the Reagan years. The new "balance" didn't even have to be true -- just anti-Reagan.
Start with the Reagan AIDS myth. A Los Angeles Times story suggested "many gay men like playwright Jon Bastian still feel Reagan 'did nothing, basically' about the AIDS epidemic that exploded during his eight years as president." Reporters like CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta also lied: "The first time President Reagan would utter the word AIDS in public would be well into his second term, six years after the virus was discovered."
Some AIDS activists in the 1980s never had anything but vicious blame for Reagan. Some still do. The Advocate magazine is touting its forthcoming essay by extremist playwright Larry Kramer titled "Adolf Reagan." It begins: "Our murderer is dead. The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world, is dead. More people than Hitler even."
The real Reagan record on AIDS is different. AIDS funding skyrocketed in the 1980s, almost doubling each year from 1983 -- when the media started blaring headlines -- from $44 million to $103 million, $205 million, $508 million, $922 million, and then $1.6 billion in 1988. Reagan's secretary of Health and Human Services in 1983, Margaret Heckler, declared AIDS her department's "number one priority." While the House of Representatives was Democrat-dominated throughout the 1980s, which Democrats would quickly explain was the source of that skyrocketing AIDS funding, Reagan clearly signed the spending bills that funded the war on AIDS.
It's also wrong that Reagan didn't utter the word "AIDS" until 1987. Any reporter who bothered to check facts would find that Reagan discussed AIDS funding in a 1985 press conference, just for starters. But let's turn that around on the rest of Washington. Does that mean no reporter asked Reagan about AIDS in the 1984 presidential debates? And that every interview President Reagan granted to a national or local media outlet failed to solicit Reagan's opinions on AIDS until 1985? Using this phony-baloney spin line -- that federal policy hinges exclusively on the presidential bully pulpit -- is an exercise in liberal hyperbole over hard data.
The second new myth about the Reagan years was about racism in the Gipper's 1980 campaign. The Washington Post explained Reagan "offended blacks when he kicked off his 1980 general election campaign by promoting 'states' rights' -- once southern code for segregation -- in Philadelphia, Miss., scene of the murder of three civil rights workers 16 years before." Suddenly, as Reagan was being mourned, liberals suddenly rediscovered a "states' rights" speech in Mississippi. Actually, most of the speech targeted the failures of Jimmy Carter, but Reagan said, "I believe in states' rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can at the private level."
The weird thing about this is that we've almost never seen this anecdote in all the liberal screeds of the 1980s and 1990s. You won't find it much in old TV news transcripts or news magazine stories. The main purveyor of this spin line over the last 20 years is ... Jesse Jackson.
But every reporter who recycled Jesse's old tale left out several crucial facts. First, Reagan wasn't speaking in code to the KKK. He was dead serious about granting federal powers back to the states, period. One of his primary initiatives was a "New Federalism" that would reverse the trend of centralizing all government power in Washington, returning it to states and localities with block grants.
Second, on the day after the supposedly racist-encouraging Mississippi speech, Reagan traveled to New York for a speech to the Urban League, where the Washington Post reported on August 5, 1980, that Reagan declared, "I am committed to the protection of the civil rights of black Americans. That commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose." Adviser Martin Anderson explained Reagan would uphold ongoing "affirmative action" programs. Do those sound like code words for Southern racists? That might explain why the story didn't become much of a left-wing legend back in the 1980s.
Liberals like to complain that balanced reporting allows lies to sit side by side with the truth. But lies were exactly what they lined up against President Reagan as his mourners were still saying their emotional goodbyes.