op-ed

Chris Matthews Needs A Brush-Up On His Reagan History

Ronald Reagan Getty Images/The White House/Michael Evans

Scott Mauer and Craig Shirley Craig Shirley is an author on Ronald Reagan. Scott Mauer is a researcher.
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It’s late October, 1980, exactly one week before the presidential election. You are sitting in front of your color television set — the latest in technology — watching and listening to two men engaged in debate. But this isn’t just a simple, ordinary, everyday debate. It’s the only debate between two presidential nominees, President Jimmy Carter and former governor of California Ronald Reagan. Nothing less than the presidency is at stake.

The previous four years have not been easy. Inflation has climbed to an unprecedented level, and will continue to climb up to 11.8 percent by the end of President Carter’s first term.  The GDP is actually in negative growth. Iran has held over 50 American embassy staff hostage, for over a year, with no hint of when they will be – or if they’ll ever be – released. The Soviet Union barreled into Afghanistan the year before and is tightening its grip beyond the Iron Curtain. Gas prices have increased dramatically. Home heating oil is expensive. Interest rates have cracked 20 percent. The economy is a wreck, the worst since the Great Depression.

It is all around a bad time. You might even call it “malaise.”

Now, here you are, watching the debate with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. You, and nearly 81 million other Americans. And while you watch, you start to realize: hey, this Californian is giving a message of hope; a message of American optimism and American exceptionalism. Carter had said the opposite not too long ago, during his infamous “malaise” speech, putting the failures of America squarely on Americans, and not the bloated government. This two-time governor – this former actor, actually – is not doing that. You’ve seen his campaign slogan around town a bit; “Let’s Make America Great Again,” it says, in red, white and blue. Here he is now, he’s blaming D.C., that far-off government on the Potomac that seems less American every day. He’s blaming the bloated-ness of government. He’s blaming every bad choice of the government but not Americans. In fact, Americans are the real victims of the previous four years, he says.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” asks Ronald Reagan at the end of the debate, looking into the camera. This question was going through your mind all year. The question was meant for you. “Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.”

The next week, you go to the polls, cast your vote, and wait for the results.

It’s a landslide.

Ronald Wilson Reagan, former governor of California, former president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, and a man with many more accolades, who has been the champion against “big government” since his political debut in 1964, has beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter of Georgia with 489 electoral votes and over 50 percent of the popular vote. He has won 44 of 50 states. He is to be the next president of the United States.

Forty years later, that optimism and hope that 44 million people felt is being delegitimized by an old myth and actual fake news. What is it? Well, that Reagan cheated. That’s right, Reagan won a landslide because he supposedly cheated, during that same debate that he won you over.

How would that make the typical American, disenfranchised with the economy and the government, feel?

Probably peeved off – how could he manipulate me this way! He was speaking in such a positive and heartfelt manner, as if he was sitting next to me!

In truth, the controversy is a lie told by partisans who want to create a wedge between Americans and their votes for Reagan.

The so-called “Debategate” proffers that Jimmy Carter’s briefing book, which had been stolen sometime prior, ended up in Reagan’s hands. With these mundane notes, Reagan used that to his advantage to counter Carter’s points. That’s how he won.

Who stole it? How did Reagan get it?

Don’t blame Reagan. Or conservatives for that matter. It was a former aide to failed Democratic presidential candidate Ted Kennedy. Paul Corbin, a fierce loyalist to the Kennedy family, was similarly disenfranchised by the victorious Carter campaign, and set out for revenge by stealing the books just days before the debate. It was given to the Reagan campaign, and about a dozen aides saw it.

But it wasn’t used. It was simply a compilation of Reagan’s old speeches, radio commentaries and interview clips. Reagan never saw it nor was he aware of its theft until three years later.

Matthews recently interviewed Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter’s former Domestic Policy Adviser. In the course of the interview, Matthews asserted—with no evidence—that Reagan defeated Carter in 1980 not because of the miserable economy, not because we were losing the Cold War, not because the Ayatollah was holding over 50 Americans hostage, not because of the manifest failures of Carter—but because of the stolen briefing books.

Chris Matthews fancies himself a historian by hobby—but rarely deals with the facts with which most good historians work. Matthews believes that was what enabled Reagan to win. But little may Matthews realize that Reagan’s points were not new. He had railed against big-government from Day One. The man who endorsed Barry Goldwater nearly two decades earlier was the same man who debated President Carter. Reagan’s philosophy of hope reverberated through the country – even House Speaker Tip O’Neill had said Reagan would have won whether he used the books or not, his message was so powerful.

Go up to Chris Matthews, or call in, or email or tweet him, and ask him this: “Mr. Matthews, was it not the economy that caused Carter to lose? Was it not his pessimism, his hardline doomsday preaching about America, his handling of the government or the Soviet Union or Iran or any number of things that caused him to lose? Was it not Reagan’s optimistic hope for the future that prevailed in a landslide victory?”

If Matthews was an historian, he would have known had Reagan been informed of the purloined briefing books, had an aide said, “Hey governor, we stole this briefing book from the Carter White House and you can use them to illegitimately win the presidency,” Reagan would have angrily said, “Get rid of them! Send them back to Carter with a note of apology!” There are such things as moral impossibilities. It would have been morally impossible for Reagan to even contemplate cheating.

Just because cable commentators like Matthews and Co. need an outlet for sensationalism, ratings and anything other than the same tired old cliches about Reagan, you cannot revise history. And just because some think cheating is okay, it doesn’t mean everyone else does.

Certainly not Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Craig Shirley is an author on Ronald Reagan. Scott Mauer is a researcher.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.