Alter-ing the Truth (updated with response)

They say that fish are not aware of water because it is all they ever know. The same with long time Clinton sycophants.

Jonathan Alter, in a Newsweek
piece that faults Hillary Clinton for fibbing, employs equivalence:

"But there's a difference between telling your Aunt Mitzi that you caught a fish that was two feet long when it was actually 15 inches, and falsely claiming you wrote the Haitian Constitution (vice presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1920), or had helped liberate Nazi death camps (President Ronald Reagan to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and separately to Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in 1983)."

Did Ronald Reagan really say this, Mr. Alter? Or are you just repeating another Democratic wishful thinking fib?

First of all, President Reagan had not been laboring in obscurity in the 1930s and 1940s. He appeared in over nineteen Hollywood movies even before he played George Gipp in the 1940 "Knute Rockne, All American." Serving in the Army stateside,  AAF Public Relations and the First Motion Picture Unit, he made numerous wartime training films as well as "This is the Army" which showed in nationwide theaters. Although there was no widespread internet in the 1980s for people to fact check any exaggerations (there were libraries and government intelligence agencies), Mr. Reagan knew his personal history had literally been writ large on the American scene, in film and fan magazines -- a personal history that involved no overseas military assignments in World War II.

Jonathan Alter does not give us a reference for this claim of a Reagan exaggeration in his article. Maybe he looked it up in Wikipedia, whose online biography of Pres. Reagan states:

"In 1983, he told prominent Jews, notably Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel, Simon Wiesenthal, and Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles, of his personal experience vis-a -vis the Holocaust, saying ‘I was there,' and that he had assisted at the liberation of Nazi death camps. In reality, he was in a film unit in Hollywood that processed raw footage it received from Europe for newsreels, but was not in Europe during the war.[110]"

This footnote # 110 states that this "fact" appears on page 113 of Edmund Morris's 1999 biography, also noted in the Reference section of the article as:

"Morris, Edmund (1999). Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Random House.  (includes fictional material)"

Fictional material? Interesting. Mr. Morris's own Wikipedia biography states:

"After spending 14 years as President Reagan's authorized biographer, he published the national bestseller Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan in 1999 (edited by Robert Loomis, executive editor at Random House, Morris' publisher).[1]  This book generated controversy because, although Morris had access to Reagan's papers and correspondence, including his private diary, and he had been chosen as Reagan's official biographer, Morris wrote the book in a fiction-like fashion with a fictional version of himself as the narrator. Morris chose this course because, he admitted, he was never able to bring the president into focus. 'He was truly one of the strangest men who's ever lived,' Morris said. ‘Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, 'You know, I could never really figure him out.'[2]"

At this point, I was having some trouble figuring out Mr. Morris as well, except to say calling Mr. Reagan "strange" could easily be seen as a coded way of saying that he disapproved of Reagan and/or his politics. This book, when it first came out, was widely criticized for its' distorted picture of Ronald Reagan, a fact that a professional journalist like Mr. Alter should well be aware of.

In a 1999 American Historical Association online review of Mr. Morris's book, Kate Masur  states,

"Professional historians began lambasting Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan even before its September 30 release. Most have insisted that the book, which is populated by made-up characters and bolstered by fabricated documents, should have been marketed as fiction, not biography. According to John Demos (Yale Univ.) who has written on history and narrative form one of the cardinal rules of unconventional history writing is to ‘be as clear as possible to your reader about what you're doing.' Morris and his publisher, Random House, clearly flouted this rule.

"Morris played fast and loose with footnotes. The notes in Dutch refer readers willy-nilly to real archival materials as well as nonexistent documents. For historians, footnotes represent scholarly rigor, hours dedicated to dusty documents, creative links among archives, thoroughness, and depth. False footnotes cheapen the real work of writing history. As Kathryn Kish Sklar (SUNY-Binghamton) pointed out, ‘Historians work hard to recover evidence about the past. . . . If the rules governing their craft permitted them to invent evidence, then all their labor would be in vain.'"

So what do we have here? Jonathan Alter believes a president hated by the mainstream press -- and widely known to have made movies in the Army in World War II (thus not served overseas) -- willingly told a lie to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. And to add to that, Mr. Alter believes  President Reagan also lied to Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian-Jewish architect-engineer who, after World War II, studied piles of records and tracked down thousands of Nazis all over the world. These two don't seem like easy people to "get over on" with a lie or a self-delusion, to say the least. If Mr. Reagan did say something approximating this, perhaps he was claiming that his efforts to process the documentary films of the atrocities helped fight the reoccurrence of postwar Nazism. My conjecture here appears to be as good as Mr. Alter's.

Unless Mr. Alter comes up with another credible source for his claims about President Reagan saying he liberated Nazi death camps, it is fair and plausible to assume he is quoting Edmund Morris's book, a work that introduced questionable fictional accounts disputed by many historians. Conveniently for Mr. Alter, Pres. Reagan is not alive to dispute this claim. Neither is Simon Wiesenthal. And Yitzhak Shamir is now almost 95 years old, also lives overseas, and speaks a halting English. As for Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Mr. Alter chose not to mention him in his article, perhaps on advice of his publication's lawyers. Yet while Rabbi Heir is alive and available for comment, once again, President Reagan is not alive to defend himself. Such journalistic "bravery," picking a fight with a dead person, is all too typical in the mainstream media. I dare say that Mr. Alter can now outargue even Socrates himself.

In the 1991, the New York Times assigned the rising Maureen Dowd to write a book review on another biography, this one Kitty Kelly's trashing of Nancy Reagan. According to NYU journalism professor Edwin Diamond's Behind the Times (p. 17-18), Ms. Dowd was told to "write it out straight" -- without Dowd's interpretation. To further quote Mr. Diamond's book, pages 18-19,

"The Dowd story started out high-mindedly, then jumped to innuendo. Kelly's book described Nancy Reagan's and Sinatra's long, closed-door "lunches" in the White House private quarters, with quote marks around the word to imply what Kelly - and the publishers' lawyers - weren't willing to say directly: that Nancy Reagan and Sinatra were having an affair in the White House. Down's article brushed by Kelly's previous publishing history, as well as her habit of conflating rumor and fact. Mike Wallace, the CBS newsman (and Nancy Reagan friend), complained to the Boston Globe about Dowd's complaisant treatment of the Kelly methodology. "If you're going to be used the way the Times was, then you check your facts...or you take the five most scandalous stories and check them out.

Mike Wallace gives some good journalistic advice here that is as applicable to Mr. Alter's statements about Mr. Reagan's alleged actions as it was to Ms. Dowd's statements about Mrs. Reagan alleged actions. As things stand, Mr. Alter's attempt at a rough equivalence between questionable remarks made by FDR and Ronald Reagan does not stand up to scrutiny. Mr. Alter's article is proof of exactly the type of reporting that Mrs. Clinton was depending on to get away with her "Tuzla landing under fire" story. Although Mr. Clinton no longer can entertain a fantasy of saying in the future that Harlem was all white before he moved his office up there, I suspect many exaggerations will still slip by Mr. Alter and the mainstream/driveby media without challenge.

Jack Kemp is not the politician of the same name.


Contrary to Jack Kemp's thesis, the Reagan/Shamir story is pretty well documented. Shamir told the story to members of his cabinet when he returned to Israel from his visit to Washington. The story was all over the Israeli media at the time and Lou Cannon includes it in his highly regarded 1991 book on the Reagan presidency. Shamir -- or Reagan for that matter -- never refuted the contemporaneous accounts, which of course were widely circulated when both men were healthy and aware. 
Jason Maoz
Senior Editor
The Jewish Press