Blumenthal, Reagan, and the Big Lie

Ronald Reagan's memory is being defamed in an effort to defend a Democrat attorney general caught lying about his military service. The tactic has deep roots on the left.

On Thanksgiving in 2003, President Bush made a surprise visit to troops in Iraq. The initial wildly enthusiastic public response to Bush's visit was dampened by reports that the roast turkey the president held for photographers was fake. The stories turned out to be erroneous, and newspapers subsequently issued corrections. But the damage was done, and the "plastic turkey" story persisted for years. A potentially inspiring moment for Bush's presidency instead became a subject for ridicule.

Now a claim about President Ronald Reagan has resurfaced in connection with senate candidate Richard Blumenthal's misstatements about his military service. After the Blumenthal story broke, left-leaning pundits immediately began reminding us that Reagan had falsely claimed to have filmed the liberation of German concentration camps at the end of World War II. Alan Colmes, for example, writing about Blumenthal's problems, adds, "After all, it wasn't fatal when Ronald Reagan fudged his military service a bit," and quotes Al Hunt from the Wall Street Journal:

In 1983 the Gipper regaled Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal with his memories of photographing Nazi death camps at the end of the war. But Mr. Reagan never left the country during that war, period.

Like Bush's fake turkey, this story has been so frequently repeated that it is now widely accepted. But what is the evidence that Reagan made such a claim? As it turns out, the most that can be said is that on two occasions, Reagan told a genuinely revealing anecdote involving those death camp films, and two reporters (both clearly ignorant of Reagan's life story) incorrectly inferred that Reagan was the filmmaker. I have found nothing in the public record to show that the reporters' misunderstandings were based directly on a statement by Reagan himself.

The trail of this story inevitably leads back to Louis Cannon's 1991 biography President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Cannon has a well-deserved reputation for objectivity -- indeed, he has defended Reagan against other bogus accusations. Despite some initial skepticism, however, he accepts the claim that Reagan invented his participation in the filmmaking. Cannon first describes an article in Near East Report that summarizes a Ma'ariv account of the meeting with Shamir:

The article said that Reagan had told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during his November 29, 1983 visit to the White House, that the roots of his concern for Israel could be traced to World War II when he photographed the Nazi death camps.  Afterward, Reagan said, he had saved a copy of the death camp films for himself because he believed that the day would come when people would no longer believe that six million Jews had been exterminated.

Setting aside for a moment the accuracy of Cannon's description, the key element of Reagan's story is clearly the second part about saving a copy of the footage to show to future deniers. (According to James Baker, Reagan had been disturbed by reports of people who denied the horrors of World War I and did not want that repeated.) Surely it is this that Shamir would have found (in Cannon's words) "moving ... and had related it to the cabinet as evidence of the president's support of Israel."

Cannon's description of the Near East Report article is misleading, however. Here is the relevant section (dated February 10, 1984):

Ma'ariv reports that President Reagan told Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir -- during Shamir's November visit here -- that the roots of his concern for Israel can be traced to World War II. During the war, Reagan served as a photographer in a unit assigned to film the Nazi death camps. According to Ma'ariv, Reagan told Shamir that he saved one of the death camp films for himself. He believed the day would come when people would question whether the extermination of six million Jews had actually place.

The plain reading of that second sentence is that it is an interpolation by the reporter of background information, albeit factually inaccurate. It is the only sentence not clearly linked to the Ma'ariv article. This does not rule out the possibility that Reagan did say he filmed the camps, but the text fails to justify that assumption. For all we know, Reagan said nothing about making the film, and the reporter made an erroneous inference. Reporters occasionally get facts wrong, and in this case, the original reporter was an Israeli, presumably not a native English speaker and not familiar with the president's life story.

A similar confusion surrounds Cannon's account of a meeting among President Reagan, Simon Wiesenthal, and Rabbi Marvin Hier. Once again, there is an intermediary, a Washington Post reporter. There is no direct quote of Reagan claiming to have shot the footage, and again it is clear that it was Reagan's story about saving the footage and subsequently showing it to skeptics that profoundly impressed Wiesenthal and Hier. We are told that the reporter, Joanne Omang, asked Cannon when Reagan had photographed the death camps, but we are not told what prompted her question. She too may have just assumed Reagan shot the footage and then realized she was mistaken when Cannon explained that Reagan had never left the country during the war. Indeed, Omang's article on the meeting makes no mention of any such claim by Reagan.

Cannon acknowledges the flimsiness of the evidence, but he says that he became convinced when another reporter "confirm[ed] the accuracy of the original Ma'ariv report with Dan Meridor, the Israeli cabinet secretary." Surpisingly, Cannon -- perhaps because he is skeptical of all parts of the story -- is imprecise about what Meridor said. Did he confirm every detail of the Ma'ariv story (whatever those were), or just that Reagan told Shamir he saved a copy of the film and subsequently showed it to skeptics? 

Finally, regarding Cannon's skepticism about all the elements of Reagan's story, the president's youngest son Ron has a story of his own. As quoted by Bill Mann:

"When I was 12," Reagan recalled, "My father said he had something to show me. He said, "I think you're old enough to see the worst that humans can do to one another.'" Reagan said his Dad reached into a closet, found a dusty old film canister, and put the celluloid contents on the family film projector.  "It was raw, unedited newsreel film of the liberation of Auschwitz," Reagan Jr. said, recalling his shock and horror as a boy seeing for the first time the stacked-up bodies and the walking dead.

Unless Ron Reagan made this up, it appears that the essential part of his father's story was accurate. The unanswered question is whether the president fabricated his presence at the camps. While it may seem unlikely that two reporters would make a similar error, it is even harder to believe that had Reagan made such a claim; no journalist could have obtained direct confirmation from a participant at either meeting or at least produce a specific confirmation of Reagan's words.

The lie of Bush's plastic turkey gained traction because it detracted from the positive story of Bush's surprise visit to the troops in Iraq on Thanksgiving 2003. The story of Reagan inventing his role in the filming of the death camps is not as provably false, but its popularity despite the paucity of evidence seems to serve the same purpose: An anecdote that puts President Reagan in a positive light is pushed aside by a dubious story that makes him look foolish. Sadly, in both cases, the media has aided and abetted the misinformation.
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