The power to depict history is entangled with the power to create it. George Orwell observed long ago: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." And so it is in 2001, as American media outlets draw conclusions about the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
For conservative pundits, the two are open-and-shut cases of virtue and depravity; honor and its absence. The Gipper's recent 90th birthday brought an outpouring of tributes from top Republican image-crafters and media commentators, often one and the same. Reagan is now "lauded and embraced not only by the country but by its opinion leaders, its media, its historians and elites," Peggy Noonan rejoiced.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial page was an apt place for the gushing from Noonan, a former Reagan speech writer, still enraptured, still spinning, more pleased than ever with the mega-media adulation of her hero: "All week in the Reagan specials they celebrated, without saying the word, his character. But that's what his political victories were about.... He swam against the tide, moved forward, made progress, and got, ultimately, to shore."
Liberal pundits show little interest in disputing President Reagan's greatness. Evidently, it's easier for columnists and editorial writers to forget or forgive than it is for, say, the thousands of people in Nicaragua or Angola whose grief was scarcely reported in the U.S. press during the 1980s, while the Reagan administration funneled large amounts of money and weaponry to "freedom fighters" who massacred their loved ones.
Now, bygones are pretty much bygones along the Potomac. A tacit understanding prevails: If you can't say something nice about Ronald Reagan, better not to say anything at all.
The present-day media verdict on Bill Clinton's legacy is a whole other matter -- polarized and contentious. His longtime foes are eager to define his presidency as eight disastrous years (mitigated by a strong economy). Meanwhile, lots of liberals take a completely different stand.
While acknowledging negative effects of his personal flaws and ethical shadiness, numerous boosters have given Clinton's presidency high marks. "Clinton has been a very effective president," CNN's liberal Bill Press wrote in mid-January with typical homage. "He can leave office proudly, having led the United States into the 21st century."
Farther leftward, some have also jumped at the chance to sum up the Clinton record in glowing terms. "Clinton's historical reputation will more than surmount the petty complaints of contemporary critics and leave him remembered as one of the hardest working, most competent, fundamentally decent and smartest men to ever serve in the office," syndicated columnist Robert Scheer concluded. "He was an excellent president."
To share in such a sweeping judgment requires us to downgrade the importance of certain subjects -- and certain people. For instance: As he led the charge for the "war on drugs," President Clinton was instrumental in filling the nation's prisons with more and more Americans -- most of them poor and dark-skinned -- to the point that 2 million are now behind bars. Just how important is that reality? If a president did so much to bring it about, how excellent could he have been?
Six months ago, on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, bright colored signs flashed all through the amphitheater, operating as enormous cue-cards for the assembled loyal delegates -- "Thank you Bill" -- while they dutifully chanted for maximum media impact. Such orchestration is a task of political advance teams. Journalists, hopefully, have different sorts of work to do.
In spite of their better insights, year after year, many liberal pundits functioned as de facto apologists for Clintonism, with the implicit rationale that his right-wing enemies were much worse. In the process, the main priority often seemed to be shilling more than truth-telling. But journalists -- whether reporters, news analysts or commentators -- should serve different purposes than partisan spinmeisters.
Assessments of the Clinton presidency are not only relevant to the past. At Clinton's insistence, his big-money pal Terry McAuliffe is enthroned as the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The people in charge of the party seem determined to keep pace with the Republicans in saturating their endeavors with corporate loot. If the overall politics and policies of the Clinton presidency were A-OK, then there's a lot more where that came from.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."
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