President Reagan in a 1983 White House portrait.
When people talk about the deceased at a funeral, they stress the positive to the near exclusion of the negative. This is no less true for former presidents, whose media funerals go on for days. Even the political adversaries and commentators who have most often taken a national leader to task in life tend to soften their line. De mortuis nil nisi bonum: of the dead speak only the good.
We have seen this in the public treatment accorded the life and career of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Anyone would have expected the response to his death at 93 to be a respectful retrospective on a long and controversial career. Instead, it has become a series of amplified tributes that verge on hagiography.
There's no surprise in the encomiums offered by Reagan's many admirers, of course. For many key figures in the current administration, Congress and general Washington power structure, Reagan was a kind of sun king. But we have also heard days of extravagant praise from men and women who grappled with Reagan on virtually every issue of his presidency, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts or former House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington state.
We have also seen and heard virtually every print, broadcast and cable operation devote newsprint and airtime to the story as if Reagan were still president today — or as if he had been the only president ever. Most of this coverage has been warm, even affectionate. The man's virtues and triumphs have attained godlike status, with his flaws and failures largely forgotten.
It's as if 15 years out of office, most of them out of public view, have separated Reagan from his turbulent times and the salient role he played in them. Yet some longtime Reagan observers still remember his hard-edged conservatism of the 1960s. They find it hard to reconcile the affable, avuncular fellow in the eulogies with the man who, as governor of California, took an ultra-divisive attitude to the cultural struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. (After police had used deadly force suppressing a violent protest in Berkeley in 1970, Reagan famously remarked: "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with.")
Some of this is due to the passage of time, surely, and Reagan's own mellowing over the years. There is also the human feeling aroused by Reagan's long battle with Alzheimer's disease. But other factors may be at work here as well.
One dynamic is a reprise of Reagan's own jujitsu tactics. Reagan came to the White House as a man of the right who was going to get tough with Washington. So journalists in the East were continually surprised to find him easy-going and personally likeable. The contrast between his cartoon persona and his actual personality had an enormous leveraging effect.
Reporters found themselves pleased to find qualities they could admire about a man they had regarded with suspicion or fear. For some, writing positive things about Reagan became a way to disprove allegations of bias against Republicans or conservatives in general. Besides that, Reagan was fun to cover and usually produced good copy.
All these factors combined to promote the Reagan media mythos — The Gipper, the Great Communicator, the hugely popular leader — that persists to this day. The facts are more complex, the reality less clear-cut. But the mythic Reagan rules.
Much of this week's coverage has also been scented with nostalgia. In life, Ronald Reagan did well among voters who saw the past as preferable to the present. In death, he and his memory may be benefiting from something similar. In not a few of the remembrances published and broadcast this week, you can detect a suggestion that in Reagan's day, the presidency was larger than life, the White House was a better place to be and the world somehow made more sense. Nostalgia is a natural product of aging, of course, and many of us who are producing the coverage of this historical milestone have reached that age when recalling the past makes us wistful — whether our recollections are entirely accurate or not.