The story in the New York Times was definitive.
Reagan Attacks Press Analyses Calling His Speeches Inaccurate
Mere days later, the Times struck back:
Challenges to Statements Putting Reagan on the Defensive
The second story, a continuation of the first story that questioned the accuracy of Reagan’s speeches, spun a new take on Ronald Reagan’s inability to get his act together as the Republican nominee in 1980, saying, in part, this:
LOS ANGELES: Campaigning through Texas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania before returning here yesterday for a long weekend at home, Ronald Reagan suddenly found himself on the defensive in his campaign for the Republican nomination.
His own camp agreed that his struggles arose not so much because he was doing anything different but because he did something he had done many times.
What he did was misstate a “fact” by declaring that Vietnam veterans “are not eligible for G.I. Bill of Rights benefits with regard to education or anything.”
Note well this part of the article:
He made the original erroneous statement Wednesday in Grand Island, Neb., and it developed into an incident as explanation succeeded explanation through Thursday in Pittsburgh. This closely followed a Time Magazine article and a CBS News report that took Mr. Reagan to task for alleged inaccuracies on the stump. A similar assessment appeared in a Washington Post article last week. The 69-year old candidate became testy.
“What we’re seeing, in what’s going on, is a little journalistic incest,” he said. Later he tried to explain that characterization: “One person reads another person’s story and then it is accepted as gospel — I guess that’s what I meant by the phrase.”
Notice that ever so-subtle marking of Reagan’s age? As in “The 69-year old candidate became testy.” Nowhere in this article was Jimmy Carter referred to as “the 56-year old president.” The bias, of course, designed to make Reagan seem too old for the job. As 1980 rolled on, there were repeated stories that remind of the media approach to Donald Trump today. As this one, again in the Times as Reagan prepared to accept the GOP nomination in Detroit. The headline:
Reagan Words Often Conflict With Strategy
The charge: the 1980 version of all these 2016 stories about Donald Trump getting “off message” and being in conflict with his own advisers. The Times had asked Reagan if he really still believed what he had said in the famous 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater that had thrust Reagan to prominence. Specifically (gasp!), did Reagan still believe that the progressive tax system in the U.S. “was a system spawned by Karl Marx”? Responded nominee Reagan “firmly” (another “gasp!”) and to the exasperation of his staff — “well, it was.” The Times story was immediately off on a riff that Reagan’s answer illustrated — yet again — “a recurrent conflict between Mr. Reagan’s statements and the campaign strategy…”
In other words? In other words the whole “Donald Trump isn’t staying on message” message from the media is in fact a media meme that mysteriously has recurred from the mists of the Reagan campaign in 1980. America has been here before — and for the same reason. Media bias.
Is there some merit to the argument? Yes. Candidates — Reagan or Trump in this case — needed and need to use message discipline so as not to detract from their message of the media cycle of the moment. But is the media only too eager to trip up a GOP nominee? Well, does the sun rise in the east?
Now comes the Wall Street Journal to play the role of the Times in 1980, saying this of Trump’s Reaganesque problem of diverting from strategy by not staying on message:
By now it should be obvious that none of this is working. It’s obvious to many of his advisers, who are the sources for the news stories about dysfunction. They may be covering for themselves, but this is what happens in failing campaigns. The difference is that the recriminations typically start in October, not mid-August.
The paper adds that if Trump does not conform to his critics’ expectations then he should “turn the nomination over to Mike Pence.” Well.
Actually, you know when those “recriminations” and mumblings began in the Reagan campaign of 1980? When suddenly there were grumblings about Reagan not sticking to the “strategy”? That would be April. That’s right. The grumblings about Ronald Reagan not sticking to the campaign’s strategy began a full five months before they have begun in August with Donald Trump. That’s one long stretch of “Reagan-is-blowing-it” stories.
There’s more here which should serve as a warning sign to all those Never Trumpers in and out of the media insisting the Trump campaign is dead in the water.
Here is longtime Reagan biographer Lou Cannon on the subject of a particularly notable “stumble” for the 1980 GOP nominee made almost exactly 36 years ago. Here is Cannon to describe it in a 2007 column in the New York Times, discussing Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair on August 3, 1980. Neshoba is the home county of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were notoriously murdered in 1964. In the day, President Jimmy Carter’s campaign jumped on Reagan for his appearance, accusing Reagan, as Trump is accused today, of being a bigot and a racist trying to dog-whistle his way to the presidency. Wrote Cannon (with bold print supplied by me):
In the wake of Neshoba, Mr. Reagan’s critics pounced. President Carter’s campaign operatives portrayed Mr. Reagan as a divisive racist. At a money-raising event in Chicago, Mr. Carter told his audience: “You’ll determine whether this America will be unified, or, if I lose this election, Americans might be separated black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban.”
The mythology of Neshoba is wrong in two distinct ways. First, Ronald Reagan was not a racist. Second, his Neshoba speech was not an effective symbolic appeal to white voters. Instead, it was a political misstep that cost him support.…
Far from being a masterstroke, the Neshoba speech was a mistake made by a candidate who had not yet become the skilled operator the nation would see as president. Surveys by Richard Wirthlin, his pollster, showed that Mr. Reagan had little hope of winning black support but was competitive among moderate white voters who wanted a president who would be sensitive to minority issues. The Neshoba appearance hurt Mr. Reagan with these voters in the target states of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania without bolstering his standing among conservative Southern whites.…
It was one of many blunders Mr. Reagan made in August 1980 when he was an undisciplined candidate who lacked an effective campaign manager. He sent his running mate, George H. W. Bush, on a mission of reassurance to China, then undermined Mr. Bush by praising Taiwan. He provoked an uproar at a veterans’ convention by calling the Vietnam War a “noble cause.” He gave a rambling answer to a reporter’s question that seemed to endorse creationism.
Hmmm. Reagan was blundering — repeatedly. He was being labeled a racist. He had hurt himself badly with “voters in the target states of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania…” Sound familiar?
How did it all work out? Reagan won a 44-state landslide.
In fairness, Cannon also says this about Reagan’s situation in 1980:
Mr. Reagan was rescued by his secret weapon: his wife, Nancy Reagan. She brought in his onetime California political manager, Stuart Spencer, who helped focus both the candidate and the campaign. Once Mr. Spencer arrived, Mr. Reagan talked no more of Taiwan, creationism or states’ rights. Instead, he focused on the failed leadership of Mr. Carter and his unpopular economic policies, borrowing from Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask Americans if they were better off than they had been four years ago.
In November, Mr. Reagan won the presidency in an electoral landslide. Neshoba had nothing to do with it.
And for the record? No one in the day, much less the WSJ editorial page, was suggesting that Reagan just abandon the race and hand over the nomination to his vice-presidential running mate, George H.W. Bush.
One can suspect that wherever Ronald Reagan is, the candidate of 1980 who once accused his media adversaries of being guilty of “journalistic incest” in reporting on his alleged campaign woes is watching Trump’s critics swarm — and is amazed if not amused that the more things have changed since 1980 the more they have stayed the same.
Jack Kemp didn’t call Ronald Reagan the “Oldest and Wisest” for nothing.