The Reagan Myth, Redux

Krugman goes cherry-picking

Broken-record request of the day: Context. Please.

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman weighs in on what he calls the “Reagan Myth”—and, in particular, Barack Obama’s supposed subscription to it in last week’s much-discussed interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal’s editorial board. The Times’s denizen partisan praises Bill Clinton’s 1991 claim that the Reagan-Bush years “ushered in a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness, of irresponsibility and excess, and of neglect,” and compares Clinton’s words to the Obama interview’s Gipper-bite: Reagan, Krugman quotes Obama as saying, offered a “sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.” And with that, Krugman claims, the Illinois senator seemed “to be saying that Reagan had it right.”

Interesting. Except Obama, in the interview, wasn’t saying that Reagan was “right”; he was saying that Reagan was right for his times. There’s a big difference. Nor was Obama praising Reagan so much as he was highlighting the thirst for transformative politics that preceded Reagan’s presidency. To wit, here’s what Obama actually said in the Gazette-Journal interview:

“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

Accurate, yes; Obama’s words are correctly transcribed. But totally misleading. In forcing a false dichotomy between Clinton’s and Obama’s lines about Reagan, Krugman takes Obama’s nuanced thought (call it pondering or pandering or what you will, but nuanced it is) and reduces it to a deceptive sound bite; his quote-trimming bolsters his own rhetoric by distorting Obama’s. You could say that space limitations necessitate the perspective-pruning—Obama’s quote is a lengthy one, after all, and for the columnist to cite it in full would be to cede his woolly pulpit, momentarily, to the candidate. You could also say that this kind of sound-bite cherry-picking happens all the time. And you’d be right; it does. But it also undermines the argument it’s meant to serve—not to mention the entire conversation it’s meant to advance. Out-of-context, as we’re reminded again and again, can quickly devolve into out-of-control.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.