Context matters, even with Reagan

CONTEXT MATTERS, EVEN WITH REAGAN…. During last year’s debate for the Vice Presidential candidates, Sarah Palin paraphrased a famous Reagan quote: “It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction…. We have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.”

The problem with the quote was that Reagan was, at the time, condemning the very idea of Medicare. In context, Reagan actually said, “[I]f you don’t [stop Medicare] and I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” The line wasn’t about “freedom,” it was about a program to provide seniors with health care.

Apparently, conservatives still love the Reagan speech in which the line was delivered, but overlook pesky details, such as context.

Media Matters noticed that a whole host of prominent conservatives quoted the Reagan recording on Friday.

On August 14, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, and O’Reilly Factor guest host Laura Ingraham featured a recording of Ronald Reagan speaking in 1961 against “socialized medicine” for the American Medical Association’s Operation Coffee Cup Campaign against Medicare. Neither Drudge, Limbaugh, nor Ingraham, however, noted that Reagan was speaking out against an early version of Medicare, which has become very popular since it was enacted 44 years ago, or that Reagan’s dire predictions of curtailments of freedom were never realized.

Limbaugh aired portions of the Reagan recording from 1961 and, with Republican-mandated reverence, told listeners, “I tell you, I get chills up my back. I feel like I’m listening to my dad. My dad said the same thing to me: ‘You boys are going to be slaves.'” After playing a clip from Reagan’s recording, Ingraham added, “I have to believe that Ronald Reagan is smiling down on these town hall forums.”

I realize for most of the right, Reagan is The Worshipped One Who Must Not Be Questioned, but they really ought to listen to the whole thing before praising it. Indeed, listening to the recording now, it’s kind of embarrassing to hear how very wrong Reagan’s attacks on Medicare were at the time.

According to Reagan, Medicare would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living. The Tea Baggers of the day no doubt found this persuasive, but we now know these crazy warnings were completely wrong.

As Jon Chait recently explained:

You’d think conservatives would be embarrassed about this sort of talk. After all, can there be anybody who doesn’t live in a militia compound who believes the passage of Medicare represented the death knell of that freedom in America? Does anybody think this business about the government dictating what city doctors live in has come true? Yet conservatives continue to trumpet it.

As for Reagan’s warnings against “socialized medicine,” which were demonstrably false, Reagan’s misguided diatribe from 48 years ago also serves as a reminder that we hear the same arguments from conservatives, over and over again, every time real reform is on the table. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it matters if Limbaugh and his followers “get chills” from the rhetoric.