A bizarre incident took place during the “60 Minutes” interview with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) on New Year’s Day: When Leslie Stahl asked Rep. Cantor whether he would be willing to compromise with President Barack Obama to improve the legislative performance of the current Congress, Rep. Cantor responded: “Compromising principles, you don’t want to ask anybody to do that. That’s who they are as their core being.”
When Stahl replied that President Ronald Reagan, Rep. Cantor’s “idol,” had compromised, Rep. Cantor stuck to his guns, replying, “He never compromised his principles.”
Stahl, at the ready, answered, “Well, he raised taxes and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.”
Rep. Cantor, slightly flummoxed, came back with “Well, he—he also cut taxes.”
And here things got interesting.
Rep. Cantor’s press secretary, Brad Dayspring, began yelling from off screen, “That’s not true. And I don’t want to let that stand.”
Stahl, in a taped voice-over, later added in the mildest language imaginable, and without any personal aspersions cast—“There seemed to be some difficulty accepting the fact that even though Ronald Reagan cut taxes, he also pushed through several tax increases, including one in 1982 during a recession.”
President Reagan’s voice was then heard to say, “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise,” followed by Rep. Cantor, doubling down, “We as Republicans are not going to support tax increases.”
The interview has generated a great deal of attention in the blogosphere. ThinkProgress jumped on it immediately, noting that President Reagan did not “compromise” just this once, but actually increased taxes “in seven of his eight years in office, including one stretch of four tax increases in just two years.”
The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen pitched in with his observation that the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which was Reagan’s biggest tax hike, is today “generally considered the largest tax increase—as a percentage of the economy—in modern American history.”
Moreover, says Benen, “between 1982 and 1984, Reagan raised taxes four times, and as Bruce Bartlett has explained more than once, Reagan raised taxes 12 times during his eight years in office.”
Benen believes that President Reagan’s legacy makes contemporary conservatives “look ridiculous.”
On MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein took a stab at explaining why this must be the case, noting that the grand poobah behind the “Reagan Legacy Project,” and so much right-wing political thinking and organizing today, is Grover Norquist, who “has a vested interest in promoting the myth of ‘Saint Ronnie the Tax Slayer’ to justify his ‘no new taxes ever’ ideology.”
This is true, but it misses what is really strangest about this incident.
It is actually unheard of for a press secretary to attempt anything like Dayspring’s interruption, especially in so high profile a forum as “60 Minutes” and with a boss in as influential a position as Rep. Cantor. (It is especially crazy to do so in one in which the editing process allows the correspondent to have the last word.) To do so with a bald (and easily demonstrable) falsehood would be under almost any imaginable circumstances a firing offense, as it makes both men, politician and aide alike, appear uninformed, incompetent, and generally out to lunch.
Rep. Cantor’s office did attempt to “clarify” Mr. Dayspring’s outburst, insisting that it “referred to the cumulative effect of President Reagan’s various tax increases and cuts, when added together.”
Again, this is not the point. President Obama has lowered taxes more than he has raised them, and they are today lower than they were in President Reagan’s time. But you don’t hear conservatives crowing about that.
No, the real story here is the vehemence of the conservative movement’s commitment to ignoring all forms of evidence that it finds inconsistent with its ideological preconceptions, regardless of circumstances or even consequences.
Ironically, tendency to ignore inconvenient facts and unwelcome evidence is actually President Reagan’s true legacy, as I noted in The Nation back in 2000, before the current right-wing mania for President Reagan gained its full force. His worshipful, if fanciful, biographer Edmund Morris even called him an “apparent airhead.” The president’s famous cluelessness was so obvious during his years in office that his defenders would attempt to deploy it as a defense of his actions, as if he were a small child or a beloved, but retarded, uncle.
The president tended to “build these little worlds and live in them,” noted a senior advisor. “He makes things up and believes them,” explained one of his kids. President Reagan thought he’d liberated concentration camps. He invented what he called "a verbal message" from the pope in support of his Central America policies, news to everyone in Vatican City. In 1985 President Reagan one day announced that the vicious South African apartheid regime of P.W. Botha had already "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country." And note that I have not even mentioned the words “Iran Contra,” a scandal that was filled with more presidential lies than one can comfortably recount here.
President Reagan’s preference for fantasy over fact was evident from the first moments of his presidency. “In the early years of Reagan rule,” as the libertarian author Murray Rothbard notes, “the press busily checked out Reagan’s beloved anecdotes, and found that almost every one of them was full of holes. But Reagan never veered from his course.”
This strategy proved so successful that it became a template for the modern conservative movement, and hence underlies its leaders’ statements on virtually every topic from economics to the environment to the beliefs of this country’s founders.
This explains why Mr. Dayspring still has a job, as well as why his particular error was made in the service of protecting the phony public image of an alleged secular saint—insofar as contemporary conservatives would have it—who is actually an almost pathological liar. It is a shame for Americans, liberals, and conservatives both that increasingly our right wing does care to recognize the difference. And it is our media’s shame that such lies are rarely, if ever, identified as such. So one must conclude that in the isolated case of Leslie Stahl and “60 Minutes,” we must be grateful for small favors.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.