All the Gipper’s Boo-boos

Ronald Reagan’s death last Saturday afternoon was perfectly timed for TV’s evening news, the press’s Sunday papers, and D-day. Journalism was ready for him to die, its prepackaged tributes in hand, but who’d have guessed he’d choose such a perfect date? Reagan’s speech in Normandy 20 years ago is remembered as a high point of his presidency, and the networks had a perfect excuse to show it over and over. Poor President Bush. Whatever he said Sunday in Normandy was sure to wilt by comparison.

But the press happily remembered Reagan’s low points too, at least the ones that made for good stories about him. For example, there was Iran-Contra, the Rube Goldbergian secret deal to sell arms to Iran in hopes that Iran would use its influence to help spring Americans held hostage in Lebanon. Meanwhile the money from Iran would finance a scuzzy bunch of rebels trying to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua. “This diversion was in direct violation of federal law,” Steve Neal explained in the Sun-Times. Reagan claimed he didn’t know where the money was going. “Polls indicated that most Americans didn’t believe Reagan,” Neal went on, “but thought he was well-intentioned.”

That was the wonderful thing about Reagan, and why the old stories went down so easily when he died–people believed he meant well and forgave the messes he made. Lucky for him, he didn’t get the country into a mess so big that meaning well wasn’t good enough. Sorry about that, George W. Bush.

Neal, though he died in February, had his byline on half the stories in the special section the Sun-Times wrapped around the Sunday paper. Neal liked Reagan a lot, but the truth exists to be told. “The trade deficit quadrupled during the Reagan years,” he wrote. “He never came close to delivering on his promise to balance the federal budget….U.S. taxpayers will be paying for the savings and loan bailout for another two decades. The total cost of the bailout was more than $150 billion.”

The collapse of the S and Ls followed Reagan’s deregulation of them, which made ideological sense but turned into a practical disaster. Reagan had a gift for believing what he wanted to believe, regardless of the facts. Sometimes the facts were right. Sometimes he was. “One of his favorite stories, one that he told over and over again to different audiences,” the New York Times recalled, “concerned a pilot in World War II who told his crew to bail out of their crippled B-17 bomber. When the tail gunner said he could not move because he was badly wounded, the pilot replied, ‘Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.’ When he told the story to a meeting of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society he added that the pilot was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In fact, no medal was ever awarded for such an incident and the story came, almost word for word, from the script of a movie starring Dana Andrews called ‘Wing and a Prayer.'”

The Tribune’s Michael Kilian told us that Reagan skipped his son Michael’s wedding in favor of Tricia Nixon’s. Reagan did attend Michael’s high school graduation, and a Scripps Howard piece carried in the Sun-Times said that after delivering the commencement speech, he stretched out his hand to the beaming son standing before him in cap and gown and said, “My name is Ronald Reagan. What’s yours?”

Then there was the time, recalled in the Times, when, to accommodate a cutback in the federal school-lunch program, Reagan’s Department of Agriculture proposed redefining ketchup as a vegetable.

The charm of Reagan eluded a lot of liberals, plunging them into a funk of denial they’ve never recovered from–the same sort of paralyzing funk that two generations earlier made it impossible for millions of conservatives to concede a single virtue to Roosevelt. If FDR had something to do with keeping communism and fascism at bay during the Depression and then whipping Germany and Japan, Reagan had something to do with ending the cold war. But good friends of mine would rather talk about ketchup. George W. Bush is probably wondering how he can cut himself the same deal, where nobody hates you but the usual suspects and the laugh’s on them. He needs to understand that Reagan was always seen as benignly deluded and possibly even in on the joke. He didn’t claim those were God’s lips at his ear. He quoted from old movies, not the Bible, and it was no secret he never went to church.

When I say benign I don’t mean there were no victims. The Times recalled that to shrink federal spending, Reagan cut off social security benefits to half a million people and slashed the budgets of the Civil Rights Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These agencies were diminished not with regret but with an air of gleeful malice. The Chicago papers might have conveyed that glee by recalling how in 1987 the Justice Department actually sued Chicago’s Atrium Village. It seemed the church-built housing development on Division Street wouldn’t rule out a quota system to maintain a racial and economic balance among its tenants. The suit was settled out of court in 1990, under a different president, and the Tribune editorial page commented, “Since the Reagan Justice Department was not noted for its zeal in enforcing [the federal Fair Housing Act], there were suspicions that some of the conservative firebrands in the administration wanted to create some mischief over the issue of racial quotas.”

There was at least one chapter of the Reagan era written by Reagan and his firebrands that the eulogizing papers I read didn’t look back on at all. Maybe it was too unendearing for the misty occasion, or maybe the papers simply forgot. Americans began dying of AIDS in 1981, and by the time Reagan finally mentioned the disease publicly in 1987 some 27,000 were dead. At an AIDS symposium in 2001 Reagan’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, talked about the government’s failure to respond. “Domestic policy folks in the White House isolated Ronald Reagan from the whole subject of AIDS,” he said, “and because transmission of AIDS was understood [to be] primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisers to the president took the stand they are only getting what they justly deserve.” Even in Koop’s eyes, it wasn’t Reagan but the true believers around him who were to blame.

Koop began writing a report on AIDS in 1986. “I called for sex education at the earliest possible moment….And that simple statement was responsible for more threats on my life than everything else I said put together over eight years. So be careful when you get into sex education.”

In May 1987 Koop presented the AIDS report to the president and his cabinet. He’d printed up a million copies on cheap stock, but he gave the cabinet members a deluxe edition printed “on very glossy paper, the royal blue cover of the Public Health Service, and a beautiful silver seal on the cover.” He told them each copy was numbered. The language in the report was blunt and graphic, and he wanted them to be so intimidated they wouldn’t dare order him to throw out the report and start over. “I had to skate on rather thin ice and do it fast,” Koop explained, “because I had to get by political appointees who placed conservative ideology above saving lives.”

Conservative ideology is stronger than ever, and Reagan’s its patron saint. And no one talked about AIDS in the Sunday papers.

The Tribune Regrets the Errors (but Not the Omissions)

The Tribune ran a correction on June 4 that copped to a couple of mistakes. It could have said more. It could have pointed out that it hadn’t made the mistakes–the Washington Post had made them, and the Tribune merely repeated them when it picked up the Post’s story. But then the Tribune would have had to explain why it picked up the Post’s flawed story and stuck with it while the Post was fixing its errors and producing an updated and better story.

On Tuesday, June 1, the Department of Homeland Security announced that a Virginia-based company, Accenture LLP, had been awarded a contract to run and expand US-VISIT. This is the new program that fingerprints and photographs foreigners who want to enter the U.S.

A preliminary story about this contract, which could be worth as much as $10 billion, went out on the Washington Post’s wire at about 4:30 that afternoon. This was the story full of errors and omissions. For one, the Post misnamed Accenture LLP, calling it Accenture LLC. For another, it reported that Accenture LLC had split off from Arthur Andersen “after an accounting scandal involving Enron Corp. in 2002.” Actually, it was the parent company, Accenture Ltd., that split from Andersen–and in 2000, before the Enron scandal.

Finally, the story mentioned only as an afterthought that Accenture Ltd. is incorporated in Bermuda. Yet this key detail was certain to make the huge contract controversial. Sure enough, controversy flared up immediately.

The story ran in the Tribune the next morning with all its flaws intact. Actually, the Tribune’s national desk made the story worse by cutting the Post’s fleeting reference to the incorporation–the Bermuda angle didn’t figure in the Tribune account at all.

After putting its early draft of the Accenture story on the wire, the Post kept reporting. The article carried in the Wednesday morning Post correctly named Accenture LLP, dropped the reference to Enron, and added the comments of Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who slammed the contract on the grounds that Accenture had moved to Bermuda to escape American taxes. “Accenture isn’t contributing its fair share to the costs of the very contract that it’s now been given,” said Doggett, who’d already written a bill that would eliminate the tax advantages that come from moving corporate headquarters offshore.

That morning’s New York Times also focused on the Bermuda angle. “If they want a slice of the American pie, they had better help bake it,” Doggett said in the Times. And Democratic congressman Richard Neal of Massachusetts, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, called the contract “outrageous.” He said, “The Bush administration has awarded the largest homeland security contract in history to a company that has given up its U.S. citizenship.” (An Accenture spokesman told the Times his company did pay American taxes.)

The indignant reader who pointed out to me that the Tribune failed to mention Bermuda blamed the wrong paper. “Did they merely not know,” he wondered, referring to the two Post reporters who shared the byline, “and like most reporters just repeated the government press release? Did they know and not understand the significance? Or is it policy at the Washington Post to misrepresent? Stranger things have happened.”

What makes the Tribune’s failure even stranger is that the name Accenture should have rung a bell. On May 14 the paper’s lead editorial ripped Governor Blagojevich’s attitude toward business and made this digression: “State Comptroller Dan Hynes got into the bash-business act last week by blocking payments of $2 million the state owes to Accenture Corp.–solely because it is based in Bermuda. This is payment for work the company has already performed.” (The italics are the Tribune’s.) And on May 24 the letters space carried Hynes’s reply: “The company’s reduced tax burden as a Bermuda-based corporation gives it an unfair advantage over corporations that are not incorporated off-shore when competing for contracts with the State of Illinois. As a result, the entire competitive bidding process is undermined.”

One week later Tribune editors were oblivious to this quarrel. “I think we on the national desk did not recognize the company as one in a dispute with Illinois government,” Joycelyn Winnecke, the associate managing editor for national news, told me by e-mail. But, she went on, “we were interested in the story and thought it important,” saying nothing about why the Tribune handled it so sloppily.

News Bites

Another indignant reader called my attention to page two of the June 4 Hoy, the Tribune Company’s Spanish-language daily. The page was dominated by a photograph from Santiago, Chile, of what looks like a spectral little E.T. scooting across a riding trail in a local park. The photographer, an engineer who said he’d been taking pictures of mounted policemen, swore in the accompanying story that the photo hadn’t been doctored.

The page’s impressive X-files package was rounded out by a report from Lisbon of a luminous unidentified object several people had seen flashing across the Portuguese sky, trailing smoke. The air force had been put on alert, and a local professor had ruled out the possibility of a meteorite.

These stories were far too credulous for the skeptical reader, who complained that neither carried a quote from someone “questioning the sanity of this.” (Actually, the Agence France-Presse story from Lisbon ended with an astronomer’s speculation that the light might have been sun reflecting off a telecommunications satellite, but Hoy cut that part out.)

My complaint is that the Tribune Company must think that only Spanish-speaking readers deserve the good stuff. Aliens and UFOs–yet not even RedEye picked up the stories. Shows what they think of Anglos.

Most inspirational columnist of the year: Kathleen Parker, appearing in the Tribune June 2: “It’s easy to blame President Bush or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for what happened at Abu Ghraib, but we’re all to blame for insisting that nothing matters as much as advancing the myth of gender equality.”

Proving that if there’s a conclusion you’re determined to come to, you can start with any topic and get there.

Editorial cartoonist Ted Rall writes a column for Yahoo. In “A Selfish Memorial Day,” which I spotted last weekend, he argued that “the military and pro-war conservatives have tried to minimize the magnitude of sacrifice” in Iraq, and he observed that when Ted Koppel–“who is, it’s safe to guess, a Democrat”–read the names of dead American soldiers on Nightline, he was attacked for politicizing the dead. Had Koppel done the same thing in 1969, Rall surmised, “supporters of the Vietnam War would have praised him for his patriotism. Hippies would have derided him for pandering to the right.”

First of all, it isn’t safe to guess Koppel’s a Democrat. More important, Rall’s wrong about Vietnam. Hippies and pacifists and other war protesters understood then, just as prowar conservatives do now, that a powerful way to protest a war is to read the names of the countrymen and countrywomen who died in it. Back in the late 60s those vigils went on for hours.