The Gipper On Liberal Fascism–In 1981

Late last year, when I reviewed Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism for the New Individualist magazine, I wrote:

Goldberg does yeoman’s work researching and documenting material that the American left had consigned to the memory hole since 1945. By the 1970s, this pre-World War II past was considered hermetically sealed by liberals. As Goldberg writes, Ronald Reagan, a former FDR backer, was attacked in the Washington Post as late as 1981 for correctly pointing out the favorable lip service that he remembered being paid by FDR’s brain trust to Mussolini.

For this week’s edition of PJM Political on XM Satellite Radio’s POTUS ’08 channel, I interviewed Ben Wattenberg about his new book, Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism, due out next week. In it, amongst numerous other anecdotes of his life behind the scenes in Washington and in front of the cameras at PBS, Wattenberg mentions one example of the Gipper discussing–quite accurately–his recollections of one intersection of LF and the New Deal on his PBS series back in 1981.

Wattenberg writes:

I must offer here a word of sympathy for the oft-battered members of the press. I, too, have experienced the thrill of the chase. In 1981, my ex-AEI colleague Dave Gergen was on Ronald Reagan’s White House communications staff. I got a one-on-one interview with President Reagan for my weekly documentary program Ben Wattenberg at Large. I ran through many of his views and policies: his optimism, his conservatism, the federal budget, the role of the federal government in relation to the states, Cuba, El Salvador, the Soviet Union, the safety net, and more.

But not long into the interview I asked him about his support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression years. Here are some excerpts of what he said, and the reaction I had:

REAGAN: I have known [FDR’s] sons for years. I know their own conversations about what he believed. I think [FDR] always thought that the things that were being done were in the nature of medicine for a sick patient. But people attracted to government and to government positions in those years, in many instances, did not view the medicine as temporary. If you remember, I was assailed during the campaign for saying that many of the New Dealers actually espoused what today has become an epithet–fascism–in that they spoke of how Mussolini had made the trains run on time….

ME (in my head): Bing!

REAGAN: They saw in what he said he was doing–a planned economy. Harold lckes [FDR’s secretary of the interior] said that what we are striving for was a kind of modified form of communism.

Me (in my head): Bing! Bing!

REAGAN: I don’t really believe that was really in Roosevelt’s mind. I think that, had he lived, and with the war over, we would have seen him using government the other way.

What was I binging about? It was not about Reagan’s views of the New Deal or Harold Ickes. It was about a news story for our program. I knew that Mussolini and Communism would be newsworthy. If I hadn’t been wired for television I think I might have jumped out of my chair and given Reagan a big wet kiss.

Sure enough The Washington Post ran:

Reagan Still Sure Some in New Deal Espoused Fascism

President Reagan remains convinced that many New Deal advisors to President Franklin D. Roosevelt espoused fascism and spoke admiringly of Mussolini’s Italian Fascist regime…

It is an idea Reagan first voiced in 1976 and has repeated several times, most recently in an interview with Ben Wattenberg to be broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service Friday night.

Publicity for a television program in the competing print media is very hard to get. There are so many television programs…

And so many books, but Wattenberg’s Fighting Words is great read, as Wattenberg discusses his journey from writing speeches for LBJ to becoming a pioneering neoconservative. Click here to listen to the podcast edition of my interview with Wattenberg, where he discusses the above story, and other tales from his long career in DC.

(Originally posted at Ed

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