Commentary Magazine


Smearing Reagan Never Goes Out of Style

There is a longstanding tradition on the political left to attack contemporary conservatives by comparing them to the right’s leaders in the past. That means that Republicans who were reviled by liberals during their lifetimes are sometimes treated kindly in retrospect because it serves the political purpose of diminishing the reputations of their successors. But in some precincts of the left, bashing Ronald Reagan never goes out of style.

That’s the motivation for a thin hit piece published in the New York Times Sunday Review under the sensational headline, “Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine.” The conceit of this article is that Ronald Regan “spied” for the FBI against fellow actors in Hollywood and then used the FBI for personal spying on his family. The author’s intent is to shock a public that thinks well of the 40th president as well as to brand Reagan as a hypocrite since he was a proponent of limited government. But the problem here is that there is nothing especially shocking about any of it. Reagan’s principled anti-Communism is well known and is the foundation of his political reputation, not a skeleton in his closet. As for the FBI “spying” on Reagan’s family, this appears to be much ado about nothing and would not have attracted much criticism even if it had been aired when he was running for president.

Reagan’s cooperation with FBI investigations of Communist cells in Hollywood is something we know about because he spoke about it himself. Though author Seth Rosenfeld claims that newly released government files “flesh out what Reagan only hinted at,” there’s nothing new here. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan thought it was his duty as a citizen to cooperate with the government. He was right. The Communist Party was not, as it has often been portrayed by the left, a club of well-meaning liberals but a group under the orders of a foreign, totalitarian power actively pursuing subversion. The Soviet Union was at that time not merely a rival of the United States but a tyrannical, anti-Semitic dictatorship intent on smothering freedom. Those who aided its efforts on these shores deserved to be exposed.

That charge may stick with some of the Times’s left-wing readership but not on the rest of the country. Yet Rosenfeld really thinks he’s got the goods on Reagan with his revelations about the future president’s family. It seems that his daughter Maureen moved to Washington at the age of 19 and moved in with a married policeman in 1960. That may not seem like such a big deal to some people today but it shocked both Reagan and his ex-wife, actress Jane Wyman. Through a friend, Reagan reached out to friends in the FBI to find out about the man who was living with his daughter.

The FBI granted the request and did some minimal investigation of a situation that was clearly not a government matter and then reported their findings to the Reagans. As it turns out, Reagan was right to be concerned. Maureen Reagan did marry the cop but eventually revealed that during the brief marriage her spouse beat her. This was an improper use of government personnel and shouldn’t have happened. But the fault here lies not with a worried father desperate for help but with a government agency eager to help a celebrity (this was several years before the start of Reagan’s political career).

The other supposedly shocking tale concerns the other child Reagan adopted with Jane Wyman, his son Michael. It appears that as a young man, Michael Reagan was a friend of Joseph Bonanno Jr., the son of a mafia boss. Joe Junior wasn’t in the family business and Michael doesn’t appear to have done anything criminal either. But Bonanno was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney to testify about his father. In 1965, some in the FBI team investigating the mafia thought to interview Ronald Reagan about anything his son might have told him about his friend’s family. But, according to the files, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told his agents not to try and gather any hearsay from the actor but merely tell him that his son was in bad company.

While this is an interesting tale, again there is no evidence of wrongdoing here on Reagan’s part or even on Hoover’s, though perhaps the mere mention of that liberal boogeyman is supposed to horrify readers.

Rosenfeld concludes by saying that Reagan’s cozy relationship with the FBI was confirmed when he asked the agency for a briefing about campus radicals once he became governor of California later in the decade. As Rosenfeld put it, Reagan then used the government to spy on “other people’s children” by seeking FBI help in coping with violent demonstrations at the University of California. Hoover complied and shared the bureau’s domestic surveillance files:

Here was Ronald Reagan, avowed opponent of overdependence on government, again taking personal and political help from Hoover.

Perhaps now and then we all need a little help from Big Brother.

This piece of snark will, no doubt, elicit a chuckle from the left. The FBI’s practice of compiling files on anyone that piqued Hoover’s interest was wrong but there were some people who deserved scrutiny. Violent campus radicals were a threat to public safety as the victims of Weathermen bombings and shooting attacks would learn in subsequent years. In both the 1940s and the 1960s, Reagan was right to align himself against those who sought to tear down American democracy. Neither those incidents nor any concern about his family damages his reputation in the least.

If this is the best the Times can do to trash a conservative icon of the past, they should stick to their lame attempts to besmirch the reputations of his successors, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

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