Ronald Reagan was neither an intelligent nor a well-read man. When members of the Congress first met him in person, almost universally their first impression of him was that he was astoundingly ignorant. He knew nothing about how government actually operated, nothing about other countries, nothing about treaties, and little about the functions of his own agencies. In The Power Game (1989), Hedrick Smith draws a clear picture of a man who was extremely good at acting the role of a “president” yet lacked nearly all the knowledge and most of the governing skills one would consider minimum in the leader of the most powerful country on earth. Or any country, for that matter.
In other words, Ronald Reagan was pretty much a stooge/figurehead. He looked good on tv but the real work was being done by others. Reagan bragged about being a “delegator” and he was. He delegated virtually every responsibility of his office to others. On closer inspection his vaunted political skills, for instance, turn out to have been not his but Bush Family consiglieri James Baker’s, at least in the first term. Baker beat back his sillier ideas and protected him from his own political and intellectual stupidity. When Baker left in the second term to become Treas Sec his place was taken by a member of the California Mafia Reagan had brought with him to DC, Atty Gen Edwin Meese, who had been Reagan’s Chief of Staff when he was Gov of California. Meese was an ideologue, not a politician. Like most far-right ideologues, including Saint Ronnie, he looked down his nose at politicians and made no attempt to cultivate members of Congress. As a result of his arrogant naivete, Reagan’s so-called “political skills” deserted him in the second term and in pretty short order we had the public relations disasters and Constitutional crises of Bitburg, Reykjavik, and Iran/Contra. Among others.
But if his political skills actually belonged to someone else and his intellectual quotient was negligible, it’s undeniable that he looked good on television. He was the Grandad we never had, the old man whose pithy comments sounded like wisdom if you didn’t think about them for more than 12 seconds and who gave you quarters for ice cream cones when your parents wanted you to wait til after supper. He was sweet, he looked harmless, and if he said stupid stuff once in a while (OK, a lot), he was nevertheless kind and mostly harmless. We liked him. And we didn’t like it when the press kept picking on him, making fun of him for saying that trees pollute and debunking his funny stories, like the one about the welfare queen and her Cadillac. So what if it didn’t happen? So what if she didn’t even exist? So what if he heard it at a cocktail party for his rich corporate executive sponsors and believed it? What difference did that make? Leave the guy alone.
The reason for Reagan’s huge popularity has always escaped me. He struck me as an incompetent clown who had somehow escaped from the John Birch Society Circus. I could believe California could take a mental midget, raging right-wing fruitcake and professional corporate mouthpiece seriously – everybody in CA is nutz – but it never occurred to me that the country-at-large would do anything but tell him to shut up, go home, eat his porridge and quit bothering the grown-ups. I should have known better. We voted for Tricky Dick twice and he was a paranoid-schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur and a mean streak. But our feeling for Reagan went far beyond mere approval. It approached love, and that baffled me. Still does. But then as a director and actor I’m used to separating actors from the roles they play. The country clearly wasn’t. They fell for all of it, the whole childish performance, cowboy boots and all. In fact, they adored it. And him.
The depth of our fondness for him might have been a lot less important if it hadn’t turned out to be the key the VRWC was looking for. Nixon was appalling. Even people who liked him were afraid of him and Roger Ailes had gotten nowhere trying to rehabilitate Tricky Dick’s image after the Watergate mess got rolling. Sam Ervin’s homespun, down-to-earth directness was too much for him when it was up against Nixon’s misogynist glare, baleful jowls, and persistent air of something diseased festering just beneath his skin. Reagan, he discovered, was a different kettle of fish.
The details are murky, as you might expect, but it seems to have been Ailes who came up with the idea of using Vigurie’s direct mail technique to attack newspapers and specific reporters who persistently noted Reagan’s gaffes. Ailes was not a member of the president’s inner circle but he was a consultant to the campaign. He knew Richard Vigurie well and was a friend of Ed Rollins, Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager who in the first term ran the White House Office of Political Affairs. Roger was running Ailes Communications at the time, which included an arm that hired pollsters and analysed poll results. Ailes also appears to have been a member of the AEI working group that developed a strategy around infiltrating newspapers with conservatives and pushing them to spin their coverage more toward the Right.
Ailes read the polls and was one of the first to recognize how deeply affectionate people were toward Reagan. He saw that as a stake that could be driven into the heart of the so-called “liberal media” and supposedly suggested to Rollins at a meeting that took place either at AEI or the WHOPA that he use Vigurie to exploit that love at the media’s expense.
Rollins loved the idea. They had been looking for a way to pressure the newspapers into backing off. Reagan’s lack of understanding about anything except acting and “the Communist Menace” had become a perpetual and daily embarrassment. He kept making things up as he went along and repeating stories he heard from his right-wing friends to the press as if they were factual. The press was having a field day and the President’s image was being turned from The Wise Old Man into The Geriatric Idiot. People inside the Beltway had begin laughing at him, and although outside DC people remained indulgent, if the barrage of bad stories didn’t stop they’d eventually turn on him, too.
On top of that, the first couple of years weren’t going so well. Reagan’s phony-baloney economic policy – the infamous “trickle-down” scam – was creating huge budget deficits (Reagan would be the first president in our history to make America a debtor nation) and losing millions of jobs. The Beltway Elite, pundits included, still seem to remember the 80’s as the Bonanza Years, but down in the trenches it was hard times and stayed that way. When the economy “recovered” around 1985 after Reagan was forced to raise taxes 3 times, it only recovered at the top and the upper-middle. The rest of us were hanging on by our fingernails.
That all had to be covered up and papered over and the easiest way to do it was to put the onus on the press. Rollins turned the job over to Vigurie and his databanks and message servers. But he didn’t want the effort – for obvious reasons – to be seen to be coming out of the WH, so he and Vigurie tapped their right-wing money resources and funneled the cash for the program through an AEI affiliate organization. Vigurie put together a coalition of groups through AEI and HF who passed along their mailing lists with their money and hit them with one of his patented ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION !!! IN BOLD letters only this time he wasn’t just demanding money, he was demanding their participation. He told them to sign the attached complaint and mail it to their local papers. The complaint, boiled down to its essence, was that the newspaper should stop making Reagan look like a fool, and/or that the paper never printed any Good News. There were the usual “The liberal media hates America” and “All you guys care about is Bad News and making people Look Bad” tropes that became so familiar in later years but in those days it was brand new. Worse as far as editors and advertising depts were concerned, these things came in by the truckload and every single one of them threatened to stop purchasing anything from anyone who advertised in the paper.
At the time I was on the mailing lists of a number of right-wing crackpot groups, religious and political (they hadn’t yet become the same thing), so a bunch of these things showed up in my mailbox. They were hysterical, they were self-righteous, and they played shamelessly toward love of country, identifying Reagan with the Nation and the Press with the Nation’s Enemies. There was nothing subtle about the pitch to the recipient but the pitch laid out in the letter you were directed to sign and send was carefully phrased. Vigurie didn’t want his “writers” to be ignored and he knew they would be if they sounded like crackpots. The letters were reasonable even if the arguments they made were silly, moderate but firm in tone. There was one brilliantly written one in which a newspaper “reader of long standing” who had been taking (fill in the name of the newspaper HERE) for many years really really really hated to have to say it but had become so saddened by the disrespect shown to the President that s/he just didn’t think s/he could continue taking the paper and though it would hurt terribly, if the paper didn’t change its policy of liberal disrespect to the President of the United States, s/he would just have to stop her subscription and refuse to buy at the stores that supported such disrespect by placing ads there.
Now, the editors of newspapers aren’t idiots (or they weren’t then) and they saw quite clearly, especially when they began to talk to each other after seeing the exact same letter show up over different signatures from Oregon to Maine, that they were being inundated with a managed letter campaign, probably by a pol op. In pretty short order they were dismissing the attacks as “astroturf”. But publishers, goaded by frightened ad reps, believed that the letters represented a genuine threat, that people really did feel those things – which some of them assuredly did – and that there was a real danger of a boycott of their advertisers if they didn’t take account of these complaints, manufactured or not – which there wasn’t. The threat aspect was pure theater. There was never a snowball’s chance in hell that any genuine boycotts would gather steam against any one paper let alone every paper in the country. But just try to tell an ad rep or a publisher that. They knew perfectly well just how angry people were over the dissing of Reagan and they had no trouble translating that into trouble for them if their reporters kept “going after the president” by, you know, repeating what he actually said. (How dare they?)
That was how it began, the wedge that opened the door wider and wider. Publishers began listening when conservatives claimed they weren’t represented, that their POV was slighted, that there weren’t enough conservative reporters/columnists on the paper. They listened because our irrational adoration of an old faker, a guy who wasn’t even close to but could act the part of our perfect presidential ideal (which was a pretty juvenile ideal I may say), allowed well-financed right-wing troglodytes to manufacture and then manipulate a major realignment of journalistic ethics so the faker’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. Not that they would have been.
It all grew from there.