On Heels Of Tragic Plane Crash, Fox Rewrites Reagan's Legacy In Effort To Jab Obama

Ronald Reagan

In the wake of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner crash, Fox News has rushed to conveniently rewrite history to disparage President Obama by drawing false comparisons to former President Ronald Reagan's response to a 1983 attack on a Korean airliner. The reactions of many Fox figures praising Reagan stood in stark contrast with that of Fox's Chris Wallace, who accurately noted Reagan's apparent reluctance to cut short his vacation in order to address the issue.

A Malaysia Airlines jetliner exploded and crashed on July 17, carrying 298 people. The New York Times reported the plane was allegedly shot down by what “American officials described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile,” adding that the crash elevated tensions between Ukraine and Russia over the insurgency in eastern Ukraine “into a new international crisis.” Obama addressed the event on July 18, calling the deaths of innocent people an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” 

On the heels of the plane explosion, Fox News has rushed to disparage Obama for continuing his planned fundraising trip in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, drawing comparisons to Reagan's initial response to a Korean Air passenger jet downed by the Soviet Union in 1983.

In fact, Reagan initially sent aides to respond to the attack on the airliner, waiting four days before delivering the speech condemning the Soviet Union that is now being lauded by many pundits at Fox News.

Fox's Wallace pushed back against his network peers, noting that “sometimes the best thing presidents can do is nothing, to continue on.” He continued, noting that Reagan had to be persuaded to leave his ranch and return to Washington for a speech that came four days after the attack (emphasis added):

WALLACE: I know there's like an immediate reaction, that you want to say he should have run back to Washington and gone back to the Situation Room. I know that a lot of folks at Fox here are saying that. As somebody who covered the White House and saw for six years Ronald Reagan in various situations, sometimes the best thing presidents can do is nothing, to continue on. If he had gone back to Washington and gone to the situation room -- first of all, there's not much he can do, we're not in control of the situation. And it would have dialed it up.


WALLACE: I was covering Ronald Reagan at that time. He was in Santa Barbara at his ranch when that happened, and quite frankly he didn't want to leave. And his advisers realized how terrible this looked, and eventually persuaded him he had to fly back to Washington and had to give this speech to the nation, but it did take him four days. 

Nevertheless, his colleagues praised Reagan's response as an example of ideal leadership in contrast with Obama's. On the July 17 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File, host Megyn Kelly connected the July 17 tragedy to the 1983 Korean airliner crash, highlighting Reagan's speech in response and noting in comparison that Obama has “been accused of 'leading from behind.' ” Fox contributor Chris Stirewalt compared Reagan's response to Obama's, saying Reagan's response made Americans feel “reassured and resolute,” and Kelly echoed that Obama's response “makes him look unconnected and makes a lot of Americans feel unrepresented.”

Fox contributor Kate Obenshain drew a similar connection on The O'Reilly Factorcriticizing Obama for dedicating a mere 40 seconds in a pre-planned speech to the crash compared to “31 years ago when President Reagan rushed home from Santa Barbara vacation, from the Reagan ranch when the Korean jetliner was shot out of the air by the Russians, calling it a crime against humanity, very serious about the implications of this.”

Fox's Sean Hannity lauded Reagan's response to comparatively insult Obama's reaction, saying “unlike our current commander-in-chief who called today's horrific event 'a tragedy' before headlining a few fundraisers in New York. Well, President Ronald Reagan, he responded with much stronger words just over three decades ago.” He also called Reagan's reaction “a good reminder for the White House,” while Fox correspondent K.T. MacFarland agreed that “that's leadership.”

Such comparisons applauding Reagan's 1983 response to attack Obama have reverberated throughout Fox News. Andrew Napolitano invoked Reagan's response to insist Obama should “get on national television and call Vladimir Putin a killer.” Fox correspondent Peter Johnson Jr. said of Obama, “I think the president needs to take a page out of Ronald Reagan,” while Fox strategic analyst Ralph Peters suggested Obama's strategy should reflect “clear speech, a la Ronald Reagan, backed up by firm action and with follow-through.”

The Associated Press reported on September 2, 1983, that when the Korean airliner was shot down, Reagan had been on a scheduled 25-day vacation, intending to return to Washington on a Monday but, in light of the incident, cut the vacation short -- first bumping up his return date to Saturday and finally to Friday. The AP reported (accessed via Nexis) that the speedup may have been intended to “protect Reagan from criticism that he was riding horses and doing ranch chores” on the heels of tragedy.

The Washington Post published a full timeline on September 4, 1983, detailing Reagan's response, which revealed that Reagan had no intention to return early to Washington from his vacation, even with various news organizations reporting that the Korean airliner had been shot down by the Soviets, and instead planned to “horseback ride.” Reagan read a brief statement in response to the situation the day following the attack but didn't deliver his first major address until several days later, after he'd returned to Washington. From The Washington Post (accessed 7/18/14 via Nexis):

Reagan was told at 7:10 a.m. in California that the Korean Air Lines plane definitely had been shot down.

Shortly after 10 a.m. EDT, with the nation's news organizations already quoting sources saying the plane had been shot down, Shultz held the news conference in which he detailed for the first time the intercepted radio traffic that led U.S. officials inexorably to the conclusion that Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had been shot down by the Soviets.


At 10:05 a.m. California time, Speakes stepped to the podium at the press center in the Santa Barbara Sheraton.

“I have two statements, the first on the Korean Air Lines incident,” he said. “The president is very concerned and deeply disturbed about the loss of life aboard the Korean Air Lines flight overnight. There are no circumstances that can justify the unprecedented attack on an unarmed civilian aircraft. The Soviet Union owes an explanation to the world about how and why this tragedy has occurred. At the direction of the president, the secretary of State is demanding an immediate and full account of this tragic incident from the Soviet Union . . . . Reagan is being kept abreast and will be kept advised throughout the day as the assessments proceed by officials in Washington.”

At this point, Speakes was interrupted and asked if Reagan was going back to Washington. He ignored the question and read a statement on the Middle East. Asked again if Reagan was going back to Washington, Speakes answered, “There are no plans for the president to return to Washington earlier than anticipated.”

Speakes walked away from the podium and then came back to take questions. He announced, as he does every day in California, what Reagan intended to do that day: “The president, as usual, is planning at horseback ride this morning and will generally work around the ranch in the afternoon. The weather there is as it is here, sunny and warm.”


But Thursday wasn't over, even though reporters and White House staff were getting punchy. At 6:15 p.m. California time, Speakes called reporters back to the briefing room to announce that Reagan had decided to return to Washington Friday instead of Saturday, because, he said, it would be easier to get the National Security Council together then. Asked if the switch was a public relations effort, Speakes said, “No.”


Meanwhile Friday, Reagan flew by helicopter from his ranch to Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station near Oxnard, Calif. and landed at 9:35 a.m. California time. With his wife, Nancy, at his side, Reagan walked to a podium in front of Air Force One and read a statement:

“What can be said about Soviet credibility when they so flagrantly lie about such a heinous act? What can be the scope of legitimate mutual discourse with a state whose values permit such atrocities, and what are we to make of a regime which establishes one set of standards for itself and another for the rest of humankind?”