It’s not exactly news that The New York Times editorial page detested Ronald Reagan. But who would have thought that seventeen years after the end of his presidency and nearly two years after his death the Times would still seek to denigrate Reagan’s legacy, on its news pages, in a manner that can only be described as petty and inappropriate?
Of course, no one ever expected the Times’s leftist editorialists to endorse Reagan for president in 1980 and 1984. The last Republican presidential candidate endorsed by the Times had been Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 – a partisan run the Times has maintained since Reagan left office, making it a neat half-century that the paper has now been firmly in the Democratic camp.
And few were surprised at the relentless invective aimed Reagan’s way by Times editorialists throughout his two terms in Washington. In January 1983, barely two years into his presidency, a Times editorial declared that "The stench of failure hangs over Ronald Reagan’s White House" and warned that unless he came up with "better ideas" the country was doomed "to two more years of destructive confusion." (Reagan sagely ignored the Times’s advice and was reelected 22 months later, winning 49 of 50 states in a historic landslide.)
Even as Reagan’s stature steadily rose among historians in the years after he returned to private life, the Times continued to view him as essentially a mediocrity whose successes, the paper insisted in a churlish editorial on the occasion of his passing, were due largely to "good timing and good luck."
What’s that, you say? A newspaper has every right in its editorial commentary to assess a public figure as harshly, even insultingly, as it cares to? No argument there, but what about when a paper like the Times takes a potshot at a deceased president not in an editorial but in a news story?
When longtime Reagan adviser Lyn Nofziger died last week, John M. Broder, the Times’s Los Angeles bureau chief, included the following paragraph in his article:
Mr. Nofziger was at the hospital with Reagan after he was shot in March 1981 and relayed to the press the president’s memorable, if perhaps apocryphal, line to Mrs. Reagan at the hospital: "Honey, I forgot to duck." (Emphasis added.)
Reagan’s display of calmness and grace on the day he was very nearly killed cemented a bond between him and the American people that remained strong even through the darkest days of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 and 1987. His quips – in addition to "Honey, I forgot to duck," he asked a nurse who was holding his hand, "Does Nancy know about us?" and said to operating room personnel, "Please tell me you’re all Republicans" – have been told and retold in hundreds of books and articles on the Reagan presidency, with nary a hint that they were, in Broder’s words, "perhaps apocryphal."
But leave aside all those books and articles. Let’s look at how the Times itself reported Reagan’s remarks in the days following the assassination attempt. In the Times’s lead article of March 31, 1981, the day after John Hinckley Jr. fired his shots, then-reporter Howell Raines wrote: " ‘Honey, I forgot to duck,’ Mr. Reagan was quoted as telling his wife."
In the same edition, the Times’s Lynn Rosellini began her article, "Shortly before he was wheeled into the operating room, President Reagan looked up at his wife, Nancy, and told her: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’." The article, by the way, was headlined "'Honey, I Forgot to Duck,' Injured Reagan Tells Wife."
For good measure, reporter B. Drummond Ayres Jr. repeated the "I forgot to duck" quip in a sidebar piece that ran in the Times two days after the shooting. Titled "Amid the Darkest Moments, a Leaven of Presidential Wit," the article described Reagan’s jocular statements as "good medicine, leavening the crisis, buoying an anxious nation and showing the wounded leader to be a man of genuine good humor and sunny disposition, even in deep adversity."
Where, then, did John M. Broder get the idea that the "Honey, I forgot to duck" quip was "perhaps apocryphal"? Not, apparently, from his own newspaper. But doesn’t he, as every good Timesman should, consider the Times the nation’s "paper of record"?