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A Critic's View of Reagan's Tussles with the Truth

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The Iran-contra affair became public last November with President Reagan vowing that he would never trade arms for hostages. Now it appears that he did exactly that. The unfolding tale of White House covert operations raises doubts about Ronald Reagan. Was he deceived by his staff, as his backers suggest, or does he, intentionally or unintentionally, mislead Americans? Duke University’s James David Barber, a political science professor whose study The Presidential Character is required reading at many colleges, takes a critic’s view. A registered Democrat, he gave this assessment of Reagan’s performance in office to Assistant Editor David Grogan.

How has the Iran-contra affair changed the President’s image?

Like the emperor whom everybody perceived as clothed until a child suddenly shouted out the naked truth, President Reagan has a long history of mesmerizing the public despite his chronic disregard for the facts. By promising that he would never negotiate with terrorists, he sent a clear signal to the American public of moral fiber, of standing tall for the right principle when his heart was telling him to try to help the hostages. But that image of strength was severely damaged when people realized he had involved the United States government in a web of deceit.

Are you suggesting Reagan is a liar?

Lying is a term that implies a moral judgment. I’m not comfortable with that. I’ll leave that to St. Peter. But Reagan has been guilty of misleading people. A President is supposed to lead, not mislead.

In what other instances has Reagan misled the American public?

His gaffes are legendary. Did you know that there is more oil in Alaska than in Saudi Arabia? Or that trees cause dangerous air pollution? Or that missiles launched from submarines are recallable? These are just a few of the claims made by Reagan that are patently false. And these are not just itsy-bitsy slips of the tongue, but rather an indication of Reagan’s indifference to the facts in significant areas of public policy. More insidiously, Reagan repeatedly has announced one policy in public while pursuing an opposite one in private. He calls for a nationwide war on drugs, then later quietly asks for a drastic cut in funding for state and local drug enforcement agencies. He comes home from Reykjavik heralding a new era of hope in U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations, even though the summit collapsed in failure. Reagan’s rhetoric is far removed from reality.

Don’t other politicians do the same thing?

Politicians are not noted for their precision. They have to cultivate a certain ambiguity in their public statements in order to remain flexible and responsive to change. For example, before John Kennedy took office in 1961 he said he could end discrimination in federal housing for black people with a stroke of the pen. When he waited two years to act on his promise, a lot of people felt deceived. But few Presidents in history have played as fast and loose with facts as Reagan, particularly in international pronouncements. By misleading both the American public and our European allies with a blatant set of misstatements in the Iran-contra affair, Reagan has not only undercut trust in the Presidency at home but cast doubt on the word of the United States in the world.

Are there any occasions when presidential lying is justified?

Perhaps in a tactical wartime situation in which people might be killed if the President told the complete truth. But those occasions are rare and the potential for abuse enormous, as we discovered during the Vietnam War.

Does Reagan know the truth?

Reagan’s criterion of validity is theatrical, not empirical. Truth is a scene that goes over well. This is clear from a story Reagan told often during the 1976 primaries about how segregation ended in the Armed Services. He claimed the military changed its policy after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when a black sailor with kitchen duties “cradled a machine gun in his arms…and stood on the end of a pier blazing away at Japanese airplanes.” After a reporter informed him that segregation in fact lasted until three years after the war, Reagan replied, “I remember the scene…It was very powerful.”

What does this suggest about Reagan’s character?

Long before Reagan became a professional actor, he was trained in pretending. As a young boy he was extremely nearsighted and had to bluff his way through lessons in school because he couldn’t see the blackboard. More pretending was necessary to hush up and conjure away from reality his father Jack’s drinking. He got his first radio job as a sports announcer in an era when live broadcasts were faked by embellishing reports coming over the telegraph. The few facts set a framework, and the rules of the game a boundary within which he could spin fantasized variations. Given Reagan’s flair for the dramatic, it became quite natural for him to begin making up stories about himself—little mythlets he seems to believe. For example he has claimed he was in Europe during the war photographing the liberation of concentration camps, when in fact he was back in Hollywood making movies.

Is there any harm in Reagan’s love of yarn spinning?

Unfortunately the biggest untruth about Reagan is the untruth about himself. As President he comes across as independent and in charge. That image, communicated with remarkable effectiveness through rehearsed television appearances, collapses in the face of his confusion about what his National Security Council was doing regarding the most sensitive areas of U.S. foreign policy. In terms of pretending to be something he is not, Reagan is much like Warren G. Harding. A big, florid character, Harding won by a landslide in 1920. He looked very presidential and portrayed himself as everybody’s good buddy, but in office proved incapable of making decisions and delegated authority to a bunch of crooks.

Why do Americans believe Ronald Reagan, if, as you say, he disregards facts?

Americans look for a President to draw us together, and Reagan symbolically has done that. He floated into the Presidency on a recurrent political tide that swells with remarkable regularity—the tide of reaction against too long and hard a time of troubles, too much worry and too much tension. The fact is most people have many other things to worry about in their lives than politics, and Reagan realizes that. He speaks in a manner that is easy to understand and shrugs off mistakes as if they were just blown lines. And Reagan is very likeable. He’s the kind of guy you might like to have over to watch Little House on the Prairie and tell stories. But he ran for President, not for best friend.