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Fred Barnes: Covering the Gipper
The Weekly Standard ^ | February 5, 2001 | Fred Barnes

Posted on 06/05/2004 4:45:22 PM PDT by RWR8189

Editor's note: A look back at President Reagan, from the February 5, 2001 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Ronald Reagan, 1911 - 2004

One of his great advantages was that he didn't care for or about the press.

RONALD REAGAN had an unusual way of dealing with reporters and columnists: He transcended them. He didn't complain about what they wrote or said on TV. At least I never heard that he had. He didn't flatter them, as some politicians do, by pretending to admire their work, in hope they'd produce puff pieces about him. So far as I know, he didn't have friends in the Washington press corps and didn't want any. I think the press--with a few exceptions such as Bob Novak, Lou Cannon, and George Will--was a blur to him.

This was a gift, not a shortcoming. It drove journalists crazy, particularly the few conservative ones, because they crave recognition as individuals, distinct from the pack. But the chief effect of Reagan's obliviousness was to empower him. Since he didn't worry about the press, his presidency and his campaigns were not shaped by media coverage. He felt no need to pander to the press. His aides were often thrown into a tizzy by critical stories, especially in the Washington Post. But Reagan wasn't. He was free to pursue policies and say things the press was sure to loathe. He was free to be Reagan.

I mention Reagan's treatment of the press to help explain my own relationship with him. Actually, relationship overstates it. Except for a few fleeting interludes, I was part of the blur. Of course I thought I was different. Almost from the first time I covered Reagan in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries, I generally agreed with him. Few reporters did. Not that my stories in the Washington Star reflected any agreement. They contained little more than cold-blooded reporting, as they should have. In any case, if Reagan noticed a difference between me and the pack, he didn't let on.

Reagan in 1976 was the most exciting candidate I've ever seen. I covered him when he was denouncing the "giveaway" of the Panama Canal and racking up primary victories. Crowds would go berserk when he declared the United States had bought, built, and should keep the canal. I disagreed with him on this point. But looking back and knowing now how the Panamanians have trashed U.S. facilities in the Canal Zone, I suspect he was right.

Reagan didn't give a single bad speech in 1976, not one that I covered anyway. This was no accident. Jim Lake, his press secretary, told me years later he was chewed out by Reagan only once, and that was for interrupting while Reagan was going over the stump speech he was about to deliver for the umpteenth time. Reagan cared about his words. At the 1976 GOP convention, President Gerald Ford delivered the best speech of his career. But Reagan's against-the-grain concession speech about eliminating nuclear weapons was better. Over the years, I've been surprised at how few politicians have copied Reagan's style. He told compelling stories and twitted himself with self-deprecating humor, and people loved it. Maybe other politicians just have no self-deprecating thoughts.

As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun in 1980, I mostly covered Democrats. But I saw Reagan tell one of his most famous and mesmerizing stories (even if it doesn't bear fact-checking). It was at Liberty University in Virginia, and Reagan recounted the experience of a wounded tail-gunner pinned in a bomber as it hurtled to earth. The pilot stayed behind to comfort the young man and to die with him. Reagan ended the story something like this, speaking of the pilot: "Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously." The crowd went silent, and Reagan soon left the stage. It was a stunning moment, exceeded in the power of its patriotism only by Reagan's speech at Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1984. By the way, watching even a brief clip of the D-Day speech still makes grown men tear up.

I got closer to Reagan in 1984. I was invited with five other journalists for a late afternoon chat, off the record. I'm sure this wasn't Reagan's idea. And I don't know why I was invited. Maybe somebody on Reagan's staff had noticed I'd begun writing freelance pieces for the conservative American Spectator while still covering politics for the Sun. Reagan operated on the assumption that nothing is really off the record in Washington. So he said nothing newsworthy or even interesting. He wouldn't say what he thought of Walter Mondale, his Democratic opponent.

Later in 1984, I was part of the worst night of Reagan's career, the first presidential debate with Mondale. Reagan, in preparing, had overdosed on details and didn't play up the conservative themes that had always served him well. Mondale had the greatest night of his life. I was a panelist (along with Diane Sawyer of ABC and Jim Weighart of the New York Daily News), chosen after dozens of others were vetoed by the campaigns. My theory is that the best questions are ones you really want to hear the answer to. This ruled out the budget deficit and a lot of other tedious topics. My friend Tom DeFrank, now Washington bureau chief of the New York Daily News, suggested I ask Reagan why he didn't go to church. I asked exactly that.

The question, in my humble view, turned out to be better than the answer. The Reagan people in the audience didn't agree. They hissed when I asked it. I thought my question was airtight, mentioning the possibility of bringing a preacher to the White House or Camp David. Reagan ignored all that and said he didn't go to church for security reasons, to protect both him and the church (from being blown up by terrorists). Reagan was totally off his game. Afterwards, I approached him to shake hands. He knew he'd done poorly and looked stricken. I asked if he thought the questions were softballs. "No, not really," he said. Mondale, meanwhile, was grinning so broadly he couldn't talk. In the next debate, Reagan made that joke about Mondale's age, and won going away.

I didn't normally attend presidential press conferences, since that was the job of full-time White House reporters. And Reagan didn't have many. When he did, there was a ritual that was fun to watch. Reagan would give the planned answer to a question, then continue talking. If you looked around at the White House staff lining the wall behind the reporters, you'd see a look of terror cross their faces as Reagan went into uncharted territory. Reagan usually emerged unscathed. What the press declared a gaffe often wasn't. Reporters thought calling Vietnam a "noble cause" was a gaffe. The public thought otherwise.

The truth is Reagan's aides worried too much. As candidate and president, Reagan was amazingly disciplined. I was thrilled in 1986 to be invited to lunch with Reagan in the small study next to the Oval Office. This wasn't Reagan's idea but Pat Buchanan's. Buchanan was communications czar at the White House, and I was writing the White House Watch column for the New Republic. The lunch was off the record, but I figured I'd pick up some fascinating tidbits I could leverage into pieces. I was sadly mistaken. Reagan told great Errol Flynn stories and one about director Ernst Lubitsch's subtle way of dealing with sex in movies, but not much else. The worst part was I'd heard him tell the same Lubitsch story at the afternoon session in 1984.

For some reason, I was granted an interview with Reagan in 1987, in the aftermath of Iran-Contra. I guess it was supposed to be part of Reagan's political recovery. Press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and Tom Griscom, Buchanan's replacement as communications director, sat in as Reagan's minders. Reagan was in fine fettle. I'd brought a photograph of him taken in 1937 in Monterey, California, with a group of extras--including my grandmother--from a movie he was making. I asked if Reagan remembered the film. He instantly named the movie, Sergeant Murphy, outlined the plot, and recalled being tricked into riding a wild horse one day after filming was done. I was impressed.

Fitzwater and Griscom weren't. Reagan had been cajoled by his aides into saying that the sale of weapons to Iran was, in effect, an arms-for-hostages deal. This line was supposed to satisfy the press and put an end to the scandal. The problem was Reagan didn't believe it. "It was not trading arms for hostages," he told me, contradicting what he'd said in a nationally televised speech six months earlier. He was merely trying to influence the government that would succeed the man he called "the Khomeini." I glanced at Fitzwater and Griscom as Reagan spoke. They had that look of terror I'd seen on the face of Reagan aides at press conferences. The White House often releases transcripts of private interviews, but not this time.

I last saw Reagan in 1988 at the White House Christmas party. I went through the receiving line with my wife Barbara and shook hands with Reagan and Nancy. He gave no indication of knowing who I was. I was part of the blur again. At that moment, I understood the feeling of unrequited love experienced by so many Reagan aides. They'd admired him, worked for him, expected to bond with him, but found him detached. And when they stopped working for him, they never heard from Reagan again.

I did hear from him again. In 1990, I wrote a piece for Reader's Digest on the collapse of communism. It gave Reagan some credit, but didn't say he'd personally won the Cold War. Several months later, I got a note from Reagan. He said he'd enjoyed the article and believed his policy had played a role. "I must admit that I was surprised by the speed with which things have been happening," he added, "but I never doubted communism would eventually fail. In fact, it never really worked." In closing, he invited me to drop by if I came to Los Angeles. I never did. Now, on the eve of Reagan's 90th birthday, I wish I had, just to distinguish myself from the blur.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

TOPICS: Front Page News; Government; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: fredbarnes; reagan; ronaldreagan; weeklystandard

1 posted on 06/05/2004 4:45:24 PM PDT by RWR8189
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To: RWR8189
Don't allow the media to spin the death of Reagan as they did his life. Go to the FR Reagan Vigil thread and pledge to attend/organize a vigil in your area now!

2 posted on 06/05/2004 4:46:20 PM PDT by Bob J ( them out!)
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To: RWR8189

Millions are free now who would be enslaved by godless tyranny were it not for Ronald Reagan and those of us who supported him.

3 posted on 06/05/2004 4:47:02 PM PDT by HowlinglyMind-BendingAbsurdity
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To: RWR8189

God bless Ronald Reagan.

4 posted on 06/05/2004 4:48:30 PM PDT by Senator Goldwater
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To: Bob J

I feel reagan was the greatest president of this century.

Reagan gave to the world, things most important to man.
freedom and security.

The threat of a nuclear holocaust is gone for us, the russians and the europeans.

The russians have been plagued with food shortages and a bad economy, but they finally have their freedom

and the fact of the mater is that they prefer all these hardships to a life of tyranny under communist rule.

5 posted on 06/05/2004 4:54:56 PM PDT by jerrydavenport
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To: Senator Goldwater

I don't when Fred found the time to write this. He's been on Fox w/Mort Kondrake, Brit Hume, and Wm. Kristol non-stop telling funny and poignant stories about President Reagan, accompanied w/smiles and outright laughter at the pleasure Reagan gave them.

6 posted on 06/05/2004 5:24:45 PM PDT by Carolinamom
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To: Carolinamom

Note...the date was Feb. 5, 2001.

7 posted on 06/05/2004 5:28:35 PM PDT by paulat
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To: paulat; Carolinamom; RWR8189
One of his great advantages was that he didn't care for or about the press.

He was wise...

8 posted on 06/05/2004 5:35:45 PM PDT by Libloather (VRWC - we know who we are...)
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To: paulat

Thanks. I didn't see the date. Fred has recounted some of the same anecdotes on Fox today. They're good any time.

9 posted on 06/05/2004 5:59:19 PM PDT by Carolinamom
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