Reagan's has been called America's most popular president. He was
so popular that despite anything he did or said, the American people
would let it slide right off and he would come out smiling. Dirt
wouldn't stick, so he became known as the Teflon president. That
is the story we are told, but it's not exactly true. It is true
that a portion of the electorate loved him, but it is also true
that a significant proportion of the electorate despised him. The
Teflon was purely a media phenomenon. It was the unwillingness of
the media to hold him accountable for anything. The media told those
of us who dissented that we were out of step with America.
And it worked.
Despite persistant, organized, and vocal opposition, those of us
who were sickened by someone who lied with an affable smile while
his appointees destroyed the environment, subverted the expressed
will of Congress, murdered peasants in Central America, ran guns
to the Contras financed by cocaine brought back to our ghettos on
return flights and weapons sold to our enemies in Iran (that's Iran...as
in "Axis of Evil"), emptied the mental hospitals onto
the streets, made homelessness a common sight in our cities, rewrote
the tax laws to shift the burden of financing government from the
uber-rich to the poor and middle class, and created mind boggling
deficits while preaching balanced budgets. ... those of us who were
not impressed by the phony ah-shucks smile were systematically marginalized.
We felt as though we were screaming in the dark, alone in a sea
account for presidential Teflon? Apparently the media didn't dare
hold Reagan accountable for his lies, cruelty, or downright stupidity
because he was soooooo.... popular that the American people would
forgive him anything. The media didn't want to fight the wisdom
of the masses.
There is another recent president with media issues
every bit as striking as Reagan's, but in reverse. If Reagan had
Teflon, Clinton had Velcro. Clinton started to be hounded within
a year of his taking office, and hounded was the word for it. Whitewater
brought on the special "persecutor" Ken Starr, who, once
he got his foot in the door, stopped at nothing to turn up malfeasance
of one kind or another, and essentially turned up nothing...until
sex came into the picture. This circus atmosphere which occupied
seven of Clinton's eight years in office, resulted in nothing but
a stained blue dress. But this crime was so horrific to the American
people that the only solution was impeachment. And impeach they
I am a bit of a data freak. You may know that I'm
into science and math. I find data interesting because it gets to
the heart of issues and has a way of cutting through the fog of
hype and hysteria. We have an objective measure of public satisfaction
with presidential job performance. It's called the "Gallup
Approval Rating," one of the most important benchmarks we have
in assessing a president's standing with the public. It is a question
slipped into surveys on an ongoing basis. "Do you approve of
the way ________ is handling his job as President?" It gives
a way of assessing long-term trends in the popularity levels of
presidents because it is the same question, worded the same way,
every time since it began in 1937.
So let's look at the data:
It's hard to tell how gray scales are going to show
up in newsprint. I hope you can tell a difference in the darkness
of the lines: gray for Clinton, black for Reagan. See our web site
for a color version of the same graph.
The amazing thing about these graphs is that for
two presidents at opposite extremes in their treatment by Congress
and the press, their approval ratings track each other almost perfectly.
Only in the final half of the final term do their ratings diverge.
Approval for both dropped: for Clinton it was from about 70% down
to about 60%. For Reagan it was from about 65% down to about 45%.
What does this tell us? The people, as the data
shows, did in fact have greater wisdom than either the Congress
or the press. Who, on their worst day, couldn't evaluate the relative
national significance of, on the one hand, covering up a secret
arms deal with avowed enemies of the United States as a means of
financing an illegal war against a civilian population that had
been explicitly disapproved by Congress, and on the other
hand, attempting to cover up an affair with an aide? One of these
was clearly worthy of impeachment. The other, although intemperate,
was not an appropriate issue to be the subject of a multimillion
dollar investigation by a special proscecutor. Both men lied, but
their lies were worlds apart, as sensibile people could see, and
as the polls show, they did see.
It is not in the best interest of the United States
for any president to be deemed by the press to be Teflon coated.
Velcro, and the obsession it implies, is similarly not healthy.
The proper roll of the press is to dig out the dirt and hold the
feet of the powerful to the fire. There is nothing patriotic, much
less wise, about idolizing leaders or declaring them sacrosanct.
By the way, who were the most popular presidents
since the approval ratings started in 1937? In term-long averages,
Kennedy comes out on top with 70%, Roosevelt with 68%, and Eisenhower
with 66%. (All three had sex scandals, by the way!) The least popular
were Truman and Ford at 46%, Carter at 47% and Nixon at 48%, all
sexually pure, as far as we know. Reagan's average was 52%, only
4 points higher than the failed Nixon presidency and 2 points lower
than the failing Johnson presidency, who was so mired in Vietnam
that he withdrew from running for a second full term. Teflon, indeed!!
It didn't come from the voice of the people.
So what about George W. Bush? Now there is a very
interesting story worthy of its own telling! More to come soon.
Visit us at progressivewritersbloc.com
and see the complete history of the Approval Ratings.