Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.
As soon as a conservative Republican emerges as a serious presidential frontrunner, liberals in the media suddenly yank out the microscopes they’ve been keeping away from Barack Obama since 2007. They could care less what Obama did in college, how he got into college, who paid for his college, who wrote his letters of recommendation, what his grades were, and on and on—but we already know everything about Scott Walker and college. Obama’s media protectors could give a rip that he had a mentor who was a literal card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the Stalin era. But as soon as someone like Scott Walker starts gaining ground, wow, “journalists” lunge for the magnifying glass and became real reporters again, profusely digging and questioning, looking for molehills to make into vast mountains of scandal.
On Walker, there will always be a new scandal as long as he remains viable. I don’t want to be regularly drawn into defending the man, but here are two recent episodes I’ve been asked to weigh in on, specifically because of their parallels to Ronald Reagan:
First, there was Walker’s comment at CPAC last week (I was there) on fighting ISIS and fighting government unions. Asked how he would handle a foe like ISIS as president, Walker said, “If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
The answer was immediately blasted. It shouldn’t be.
Obviously, the public-sector unions that Scott Walker faced in Wisconsin are not equivalent to ISIS. They’re not beheading anyone. They’re not killers. We know this, and we know that Scott Walker knows this. In fact, the day after his CPAC comments, he explained: “My point was just, if I could handle that kind of a pressure and kind of intensity [in Wisconsin], I think I’m up for the challenge for whatever might come, if I choose to run for president.”
It’s fully appropriate and necessary for Walker to clarify that he was not equating Wisconsin public employees with ISIS, and to apologize for any such ridiculous misunderstanding, and it’s also appropriate and necessary for his opponents not to abuse his point.
Abuse his point? Yes, because he made a good one. The truth is that it isn’t easy to do what Scott Walker did as governor in Wisconsin. That’s the main reason he so impresses conservatives. The enmity and utter hatred that he and his family and extended family (including his elderly parents) felt constantly, from union members and their militant “progressive” allies in his own backyard, at the state house, in the halls, at his office, in his neighborhood, at his church, at the grocery story, at Starbucks, at the car wash, on the street, at Boy Scouts meetings, at soccer games, at dance practice, at baseball games, at theaters and musicals, and on and on and on, is something awful that people can scarcely imagine enduring. Public-sector union thugs can be brutes and can make your life miserable. For Walker, it equated to a nasty pressure that was omnipresent. In a way, it really would be more personally distressing than a president dealing with ISIS because the president, fully protected, never gets anywhere near an ISIS killer. The president faces no personal harassment from ISIS members. That’s not true for Governor Walker.
That’s his point.
It’s a point that Ronald Reagan could have related to. Asked about dealing with the Soviets, or Brezhnev or Gorbachev, Reagan often told reporters that he could handle them because he still had “scars on my back” from fighting unions.
“I know it sounds kind of foolish maybe to link Hollywood, an experience there, to the world situation,” he said from the White House, “and yet, the tactics seemed to be pretty much the same.” When aide Lyn Nofziger cautioned him about the Soviets at Reykjavik, he responded: “Don’t worry. I still have the scars on my back from fighting the communists in Hollywood.” He judged this Hollywood experience “hand-to-hand combat.”
Was Reagan thereby insulting, say, the boys who invaded Normandy and fought at Iwo Jima he experienced true hand-to-hand combat? Of course not. We know that.
Consider another moment that Ronald Reagan never forgot: As an actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), he was on location in an isolated rural area when told by a crew member that he had a telephone call waiting at a nearby gas station. At the time, Reagan was preparing an important report for SAG relating to a major 1946 strike. Spearheading the strike was the Red-dominated Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), led by a thug named Herb Sorrell, who Reagan charitably described as “a large and muscular man with a most aggressive attitude.”
Reagan arrived at the gas station and answered the phone. “I was told,” he said later, “that if I made the report a squad was ready to take care of me and fix my face so that I would never be in pictures again.” Specifically, the caller threatened to splash acid upon Reagan’s unsuspecting million-dollar face—the source of his livelihood.
Such fears were nothing new for Reagan. Police began guarding Reagan’s home and children, and he began packing a Smith & Wesson revolver, which he took to bed each night.
I bet that Scott Walker had a gun for protection, or at least a security guard always near his side.
The vituperation and dripping, red-hot anger directed at Walker by unions in Wisconsin was a sight to behold. What he endured in Wisconsin was extremely distressing. But don’t expect Walker’s opponents to try to understand that.
Second, another Walker-Reagan comparison/clarification is in order. I tried to ignore it, but now Peggy Noonan has weighed in. I think I also need to step in.
It began with a January 28 item in PolitiFact that stated:
As momentum builds for a possible 2016 presidential run, Gov. Scott Walker has spent more time speaking on foreign policy.
One of his talking points: Leadership trumps experience when it comes to managing affairs overseas. Look at Ronald Reagan.
That was Walker’s response Jan. 21, 2015 when he was asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about the importance of foreign policy experience. First, the governor criticized the secretary of state record of Hillary Clinton, the leading potential Democratic candidate for 2016.
Then he turned to Reagan, one of his political heroes, and one of the Republican president’s early acts in office — the mass firing of most of the nation’s air traffic controllers.
In his MSNBC interview, Walker asserted that the move was one of the most important foreign policy decisions “made in our lifetime,” showing allies and adversaries around the world “that we were serious.”
Then he added this:
“Years later, documents released from the Soviet Union showed that that exactly was the case. The Soviet Union started treating (Reagan) more seriously once he did something like that. Ideas have to have consequences. And I think (President Barack Obama) has failed mainly because he’s made threats and hasn’t followed through on them.”
So, Walker goes beyond stating an opinion about the foreign policy implications of Reagan’s move. He states as fact that there are Soviet documents showing the Soviets treated the Reagan more seriously because he fired American air traffic controllers.
That’s a bold claim.
A bold claim? Gee, those of us who have written about or followed Reagan have heard this account many times. What is PolitiFact so upset about? It explained its beef with Walker’s assertion:
When we asked for evidence to back the claim, both the governor’s office and Walker’s campaign cited statements from a variety of people. Each essentially said the firings showed Reagan meant what he said, and that he was to be taken seriously.
PolitiFact then listed the examples that immediately came to my mind, apparently getting them from Walker’s office and campaign. Here they are:
Reagan special assistant Peggy Noonan wrote in her White House memoir that George Shultz, who became Reagan’s secretary state a year after the firings, had called the firings the most important foreign policy decision Reagan ever made. Joseph McCartin, the author of a book on the strike, wrote that when House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, visited Moscow not long after the strike, “he learned that the Soviet leaders had been deeply impressed by Reagan’s actions.” And Reagan biographer Edmund Morris wrote: “Former Soviet apparatchiks will tell you that it was not his famous ‘evil empire’ speech in 1983 that convinced them he meant strategic business, so much as photographs of the leader of the air traffic controllers union being taken to jail in 1981.”
Precisely, PolitiFact. That’s exactly what I remember. I don’t get it? Why are we having this conversation? What’s wrong with what Scott Walker said? PolitiFact provided its answer:
Those are perceptions of Americans, however. [Actually, no, it was Americans reporting Soviet perceptions.] Walker’s claim was the Soviets treated Reagan more seriously after he fired the controllers, and that Soviet documents prove it.
But he did not provide us anything referencing Soviet documents.
And apparently there are no such documents that have been made public.
Ah, that’s the issue? The lack of “documents?” That’s the big deal? But why? Tip O’Neill apparently talked to “Soviet leaders” and Edmund Morris’s sources were “former Soviet apparatchiks.” And George Shultz dealt with the Soviets daily. Surely that’s a solid-enough measure of evidence.
But the issue, apparently, is “documents.” No documents. Frankly, I hadn’t even noticed in my initial read that Walker used the word “documents,” even when I first read his statement on MSNBC. It went right by me. And I specialize in dealing with Cold War documents.
Nonetheless, PolitiFact continued on that point, quoting experts adamantly and testily objecting to this apparent lack of “documents.”
Five experts told us they had never heard of such documents. Several were incredulous at the notion.
McCartin, a Georgetown University labor history expert who wrote the book about the strike that Walker cited, said: “I am not aware of any such documents. If they did exist, I would love to see them.”
Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russia programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told us she “had to listen to the Walker interview twice, so ridiculous is the statement about the air traffic controllers. There is absolutely no evidence of this. I would love to see the released Soviet documents on this subject that he has apparently seen.”
James Graham Wilson, a historian at the U.S. State Department, also told us he was not aware of any Soviet documents showing Moscow’s internal response to the controller firings. He speculated that there could be such records, given how some Soviet experts characterized the firings.
Wilson and other have noted the perspective of Richard Pipes, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Harvard University. Pipes said the firings showed the Soviets that Reagan was “a man who, when aroused, will go to the limit to back up his principles.”
In any case, the lack of Soviet records described by Walker is clear.
Reagan’s own ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, told us: “It’s utter nonsense. There is no evidence of that whatever.”
Nonsense? What is nonsense? Walker’s general point isn’t nonsense but apparently the lack of “documents” is being judged a gigantic faux paus by Walker. He apparently has really made a massive mistake here, I guess. PolitiFact thus concluded by applying a “rating” to Walker’s statement: “Walker cited no Soviet documents showing that the firings made the Soviets treat Reagan more seriously. And experts, several of whom felt Walker’s claim is outrageous, told us they are not aware that any such documents exist. For a statement that is false and ridiculous, our rating is Pants on Fire.”
Whoa. Now is that fair? The minute that this PolitiFact item was released, I got an email from a fellow Reagan expert who was really steamed. “Paul, you’ve got to take this on!” he wrote.
I didn’t want to take it on. I instantly recognized what Walker was talking about, and was mystified by the harsh reaction. I recalled the PATCO material being published in Peggy Noonan’s and Edmund Morris’ books, and elsewhere.
Because a politician in an unscripted TV interview referred to documents rather than reports by biographers, he’s a liar with his pants on fire? Should we hold a governor to the standard that we do scholars because he used the word “documents” in an off-the-cuff remark to a TV guy? Do we expect our politicians to be archival experts in Cold War documents in order to make general points with the utmost academic-scholarly precision?
Clearly, Walker had indeed correctly read that the Soviets were impressed by Reagan’s actions, and just as clearly assumed (understandably) that the authors he remembered writing about the incident (being authors) probably had used some sort of “documents” for their research.
But because he used a work like “documents” instead of, say, “biographers” we’re going to denounce him, “Liar, liar, pants on fire?!”
Does anyone really think that Scott Walker lied here? Please, give me a break.
If I may dare say this, I guarantee you that I could start digging in archives, and especially the voluminous Soviet media archives that I’ve collected over the decades, and find you an example of Moscow officials communicating about Reagan and PATCO. It might take me hours or days or even weeks, but I can find them. I assure you I can. I have read hundreds of Soviet memoirs, and I could go back through and start checking those, too. If PolitiFact wants to pay me for my time (by the hour, please), I’ll start looking. But I warn them: Finding actual “documents” is never easy. It always takes a lot of time. So, this could cost them.
Another warning: Such “documents” probably will not be a big deal. They would likely simply offer a written communication of what we already knew, a mere hardcopy communication from one Soviet official to another. That’s all that “documents” often are.
So, I could dig a whole bunch for this stuff, but I doubt what I find would really add anything of value to this apparently scandalous episode.
And once I find them, should I then shout at PolitiFact, “Liar, liar, pants on fire?!”
For that matter, can PolitiFact fairly and fully judge Walker wrong without itself having dug deeper for these apparently amazingly crucial documents essential to buttressing a point that respected writers and public officials received regardless from Soviet officials? Was Tip O’Neill lying? Edmund Morris, too? Did George Shultz never hear any such thing from Anatoly Dobrynin or Andrei Gromyko or someone in the Soviet foreign ministry?
Peggy Noonan, at the end of her long piece on this, writes: “I have never heard of such documents. No one I spoke to for the book referred to them. If Walker got it wrong, he should say so. Though I’m not sure it matters in any deep way. Of course the Soviets saw and understood what had happened with Reagan and the union. Of course they would factor it in. They had eyes. They didn’t have to write it down.”
That’s right. I’ve shared thousands of perceptions from people in articles and books I’ve written. The vast majority, I’m sure, were never recorded in documents. Bill Clark, Reagan’s closest aide in the attack on the Soviet Union, had an explicit policy of not writing down sensitive information that he and Reagan feared could be leaked. Boy, if I could’ve had just one of the many napkins or paper scraps that Clark scribbled on after his meetings with Cardinal Pio Laghi, John Paul II’s apostolic nuncio in Washington, which Clark then took to Reagan to refer to while briefing the president. Unfortunately, Clark always dropped them in the trash.
The lack of those “documents” frustrated me as his biographer, but that was the way it was. It didn’t mean that those communications didn’t happen.
Here again, like the ISIS-union example, let’s focus on the point that Scott Walker was trying to make, the gist, the forest rather than the trees.
As Peggy Noonan details in her current piece, “So was Scott Walker right about the importance of Reagan and Patco? Yes.” It mattered big-time, including on the international stage and especially to Moscow. She noted George Shultz saying as much (and thus confirming Walker’s central point): “Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz said that the Patco decision was the most important foreign-policy decision Reagan ever made.”
Walker’s catastrophic mistake was to use the word “documents.”
Alas, a final Walker-Reagan comparison:
In all of this, Scott Walker has unintentionally identified with something else he evidently shares with Ronald Reagan: the media’s ability to place every inexact word of his under microscopic scrutiny and trounce him when he isn’t perfect to the letter of the word. This is something the media does not do to Barack Obama—never has and never will.
As Scott Walker moves on, he can expect to get much, much more. Ronald Reagan certainly did. Don’t let it bother you, governor, you’re in good company.