The funeral ceremony for ex-President Ronald Reagan had all the usual symbolic gestures that are now standard for departed presidents—the flag-draped casket with honor guard, the riderless horse with boots reversed, the later line of mourners underneath the Capitol Rotunda. Most of us have seen the ceremonies on television before. And there have always followed multi-page obituaries in the major newspapers recounting the political career and life story of the departed chief executive.
All that is stand ard and part of the national tradition. What is not in the national tradition of these obituaries, but what we read in the case of President Reagan, is fudging the facts. The missing or slighted elements for Ronald Reagan did not err in being incomplete a nd one-sided because they were done in haste. These long obituaries of the famous are done carefully and far in advance, even when the subject is not known to be gravely ill, though in Reagan’s case, he was known to be suffering for several years. It is s tandard on major papers to assign someone far in advance long before the famous person has reached “a certain age,” even in good health.
As a reporter, I remember being assigned to do a four-page life history-obituary of Winston Churchill while he was s till vigorous, writing, and established as a magnificent hero in American eyes for his World War II wartime insistence on combating Hitler. His oratory rallied the entire anti-Nazi world and that alone made him worthy of one of these massive obituaries. But along with that, there was no question that the obituary also detailed his dismal earlier mistakes: his pre-World War I plan for invasion of the Dardanelles that was a bloody disaster of death and disease for his soldiers; his going against all advice to revert to the gold standard that resulted in unemployment and national strikes in Britain; his tendency to approach anti-Nazi strategy in World War II gingerly and in piecemeal, that had to be overruled by Roosevelt and Eisenhower. All that, warts and all, was in all the major papers when Churchill finally died in 1965, his place as a hero established in 20th century history.
So there is nothing considered disrespectful or unnecessary when historically accurate major obituaries are done when famous fi gures die. But those for President Reagan departed from what most journalists expected to be the best history possible, while still honoring the dead man.
In Reagan’s case there was mostly his various acts approved by most of the country—like opening the contact with the Soviets that led to ending the Cold War, and the impact of his cheery, special personality that comforted an extraordinary number of Americans despite their own economic unhappiness. But blatantly missing was proper attention to the usual negative portions of major obituaries. You had to remember (or look closely) that it was Reagan who established what has become the cynical cover for reactionary program-cutting now masquerading under “compassionate conservatism”; the lasting damage of Reagan’s trillion-dollar national debt; that he, along with his cheery personality, also brought us Oliver North, John Poindexter, illegal acts in the Iran-Contra scandal, and official lies or silence about atrocities committed in our name in Central Amer ica.
I am particularly sensitive to the absence of any explanation of his invention of homelessness, because it’s major cause originated under Reagan but continues to be treated by our standard news media to this day as a mystery, or drug and alcohol add iction or mental illness—problems just as evidence in 1970 as today. But silence on the major cause has become commonplace in most United States journalism. To this day, homelessness, which began as a national phenomenon in the early 1980s under Reagan, i s treated as though the sudden appearance in the world’s richest nation (and in no other developed democracy) was, in the United States, an act of God. It was not an act of God. It was an act of Congress. Up until 1980, it had been standard national polic y to support low-cost affordable housing with subsidies that paid landlords the difference between charging rent that low-income individuals and families could afford, and what the landlord would have received if he or she charged the full market price fo r those rooms and apartments.
It was not a radical policy. No country has been able to create enough homes for all its citizens at every income level without subsidies because private landlords have always preferred building and renting dwellings for the middle-class and wealthy. But in the United States, the Reaganite (and present conservative) policy is opposed to all social programs and favor cutting back government to make Washington less able to support social programs for the middle-class and the poor.
Cheery personality and all, this, too, was part of the Reagan legacy that damages social justice policies to this day. But the voluminous obituaries of the 40th President of the United States skimmed over or remained silent about those less-than-heroic contributions of President Reagan. That 25-year silence still haunts contemporary politics.
Ben Bagdikian is the author of the recently issued book The New Media Monopoly.