A Presidents’ Day weekend visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum here provokes 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 K. Bannon might have put it, 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 airbrushed 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 R. 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.”
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 it disagrees.
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 the following August: “My fellow Americans, I’ve thought long and often about how to explain to you what I intended to accomplish, but I respect you too much to make excuses. The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing I can say that will make the situation right. I was stubborn in my pursuit of a policy that went astray.”
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, or acceptance of responsibility from President Trump? It is not in his nature or his skill set. He knows only the counterpunch.
Finally, about Reagan and optimism, a theme that pervades the museum’s displays and is made manifest with the famous “Morning in America” reelection commercial playing on a monitor. It was possible to disagree with Reagan without finding him disagreeable. If Reagan was, in Democratic super-lawyer Clark Clifford’s memorable phrase, an “amiable dunce,” his strength was that very amiability and the way in which that genial optimism spilled over into his vision of America.
Now we have gone from Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” as he proclaimed in his farewell address in 1989, to Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural.
Reagan told a story in that address that encapsulates the fundamental difference between the 40th president and the 45th. He described the USS Midway, patrolling the South China Sea, when a sailor “spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America.”
The Midway sent a launch to pick them up, Reagan continued, and “as the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.’ ”
We left the Reagan library on a glorious California winter day, sunny and crisp. And we could not help but wonder: What will future generations think emerging from Trump’s presidential library? What will it celebrate?