Keeping the Hagiography Alive
The Media Research Center aggressively pushes back against anyone who suggests Ronald Reagan may have had symptoms of Alzheimer's disease while president -- even the president's own son.
By Terry Krepel
As with most conservatives, faith in Ronald Reagan is a lodestone for the Media Research Center. The former president did no wrong, and anyone who suggests otherwise must be shouted down.
That extends to the idea that Reagan may have displayed symptoms of Alzheimer's disease -- he was diagnosed with the condition in 1994 -- while in office. When his son, Ron Reagan Jr., wrote a book in 2011 suggesting that he did have some early symptoms of Alzheimer's, the MRC fought back by trying to discredit him.
Brent Baker was upset that one interviewer "failed to identify Ron Jr. as a liberal" or note that "once hosted a show on MSNBC and is a regular guest on the left-wing channel where he reliably offers liberal commentary" -- though no evidence was offered that Ron Jr.'s observations had anything to do with politics. Baker then claimed that a old story about Reagan's exercise routine "something better to read."
Scott Whitlock grumbled that "ABC identified Michael Reagan as a "conservative," but failed to identify the left-wing ideology of Ron Reagan Jr." as Michael provided a kneejerk defense of his father and joined the MRC in attacking his half-brother. Like Baker, Whitlock provided no evidence that Ron Jr.'s observations were politically motivated.
Whitlock then complained that ABC "donated 24 minutes of coverage to Ron Reagan's new book and the allegations that his father had symptoms of Alzheimer's while being President," following that up with a post further complaining that the "very liberal" Ron Jr. was "encouraged ... to speak for his father" in one interview.
MRC chief Brent Bozell trashed Ron Jr. in a Fox News appearance: "Let me tell you something here, this is Ron Reagan Jr., pathetic, a pathetic human being. Saying look at me, look at me, on the 100th anniversary of my dad's [birth].... And the only way he can get on television is if he throws mud on the memory of his own father. He knew what he was doing." Bozell offered no proof that this was, in fact, the case.
That fierce defense has been a continuing theme over the years. In a 2016 post, Whitlock went after ABC "The View" co-host Joy Behar made the claim, declaring that "An October 5, 1997 New York Times piece explained, 'Mr. Reagan 'absolutely' did not 'show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's,’ said Dr. John E. Hutton Jr., who cared for him from 1984 until the end of his Presidency.'"
Call in the Reagan hagiographers
A 2015 MRC post by Tim Graham huffed that the Times was "fiddling around" on the issue by having a doctor examine Reagan's public words for possible signs of the condition. Graham knew who to call on for a response: "Craig Shirley, a longtime friend of the MRC, has written two historical books on Reagan and is finishing a third, titled Last Act: The Final Years and Enduring Legacy of Ronald Reagan. He wrote a letter to the editor strongly protesting this article and was refused."
Later that year, Graham and Bozell fawned over a newly released Reagan hagiography by Shirley, gushing that "Shirley is the Sherlock Holmes of Reagan historians. His research is exhaustive and he delivers great nuggets." They added that "A narrative is emerging suggesting Reagan’s disease presented itself while he was still in the White House. The author hotly disputes the notion."
In the middle of an August 2017 post complaining that CNN's Don Lemon had a "deranged reaction to President Trump's Arizona rally," the Media Research Center's Curtis Houck took a little time to complain that "Lemon falsely claimed that Ronald Reagan already had Alzheimer’s Disease while President," later restating that "Lemon promoted fake news about Reagan."
How does Houck know that this is "false" and "fake news"? The only evidence he cited is from conservative columnist George Will and a review of one of Shirley's books on Reagan done by "conservative scholar Lee Edwards." The view of Reagan's son Ron Jr. -- who likely had a closer, more realistic view of the situation than a couple of Reagan hagiographers -- was ignored.
It appears that, at best, the jury is out on the issue. Perhaps Houck shouldn't be making such a definitive claim without examining evidence from people not predisposed to default to polishing Reagan's legacy.
The MRC continued to be bizarrely sensitive about the issue, however. Curtis Houck put the word "disgusting" in the headline of his Jan. 8 post attacking a couple of people on MSNBC for talking about it:
Continuing the liberal media’s insistence that they can diagnose someone as mentally or physically ill, Monday’s Deadline: White House on MSNBC featured detestable liberal Republicans Nicolle Wallace and David Jolly asserting that Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer’s while president to the point that he may have been unfit for office.
Then, in a Jan. 12 post, Kyle Drennen attacked CBS' Dr. John LaPook for accurately stating that "there are questions about whether Ronald Reagan had symptoms of Alzheimer’s while in office." Drennen retorted: "The claim about Reagan has been repeatedly dispelled by experts of his presidency. George Will denounced the notion as 'slander' in a 2015 Washington Post column. Reagan biographer Craig Shirley called it 'total B.S.'" Like Houck, Drennen didn't admit that Will and Shirley are Reagan hagiographers.
That sensitivity migrated over to the MRC's "news" division, CNSNews.com, which published a Jan. 25 column by Shirley trying to hammer the denial home. Shirley was particularly put out that the White House's resident doctor, Ronny Jackson, made the claim while talking about President Trump's health:
It would be nice to dismiss Dr. Jackson’s ill-informed and without substance comments and move on, just as the White House would like to put the hearsay concerning Trump's mental health behind it. But he and Trump's tweets have now given new life to an old and most thought extinguished and ridiculous rumor. So once again, Reagan historians have to beat it down. Dr. Jackson's uninformed comments made news and even worse, they were uttered by a White House physician, giving the veneer of officialdom. Jackson’s comments were clumsy and the irony is, he could have availed himself of his office’s files at Bethesda Naval Hospital on Reagan and seen for himself what Reagan’s doctors said about the Gipper. The Trump White House could have easily cleaned up this mess, but so far … crickets. Some believe it serves their purpose to boost Trump by running down Reagan.
Finally, we arrive at the real reason Shirley is writing this:
To carelessly speculate about Reagan as Trump's doctor has now done results in the very same effect as the thinly-veiled attempts to simply delegitimize all his work, his Administration, his life. He did something conservative? Oh, it was the “Alzheimer’s.” This is the same man who successfully crafted the policies that drove the GDP rise from negative 0.3 in the last year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency to 4.1 percent in 1988. Inflation, which was 13.5 percent, dropped dramatically. The Soviet Union was on its knees, only to fall with the Wall (a very real wall) a couple years later. Relations restored with world leaders and the blight of communism was put in sight.
It's worth noting that in a December column for conservative website TownHall, Shirley declared that only conservatives should be allowed to write about conservative history: "This is what conservatives must jealously guard; the truth, our truth. And root out and eviscerate and disembowel liberals writing of our history."
Got that? Shirley is conflating "the truth" with "our truth." We would venture to guess that where the two conflict, "our truth" would likely win out in Shirley's eyes.
The MRC's sensitivity continued in an April 11 post by Brent Baker:
Last week’s episode of FX’s The Americans, set in 1987, imagined a U.S. arms control official telling an undercover Soviet KGB operative that he’d heard from a White House insider that President Ronald Reagan has “been forgetful, not focused, almost a different person lately. The man I talked to said he thinks that the President might be going senile.” In the next scene, the agent’s KGB handler worried: “Weinberger and his cronies are even more hard-line than Reagan.”
Again, Shirley is more of a Reagan hagiographer than a straight biographer, and he fears that questioning Reagan's health means delegitimizing his entire presidency.
It appears that the MRC feels the same way.