When U.S. President Barack Obama was informed last Thursday that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 had been, apparently, shot down over the Ukraine, killing all 298 on board, he faced the same tragic but politically explosive situation that confronted President Ronald Reagan 31 years earlier.
Since Thursday, numerous prominent conservative commentators, led by several on the Fox News channel, have compared Obama’s response to the MH17 shootdown to Reagan’s response when, on September 1, 1983, a Soviet Union fighter pilot shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 over the East Sea/Sea of Japan on its way from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, Korea.
The Soviet destruction of KAL 007 killed all 269 on board the Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
Almost unanimously, Fox News and other conservative commentators have cited Reagan’s response as the stringer one, characterizing Obama’s as weak and indecisive. But how well are they remembering what Reagan actually did after learning of the KAL 007 shootdown?
As a look at the historical record shows, not very well at all.
At least one prominent conservative admitted his mistake. Former Republican congressman, now MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough, initially blasted Obama for going through with previously scheduled plans to attend fundraisers in New York, not delivering an address on the shootdown for another 24 hours.
When Reagan learned about the KAL 007 shootdown, he was in the midst of a nearly month-long vacation in California. Scarborough, echoing many other commentators, said that Reagan immediately ended his vacation, “immediately went back to the White House. He immediately canceled fundraising events and campaign events.”
To the contrary, Reagan — while he sent aides to make a statement about KAL 007 — refused to end his vacation until his top aides persuaded him that it looked bad. He then delivered a speech from Washington on the incident not one day, but four days later.
Scarborough apologized for what he called his “boneheaded error,” but no apologies have yet come from other conservative political analysts.
Fox News said that Reagan “offered stern words and promised consequences” whereas Obama “mentioned the disaster briefly” during a speech about highways, an approach which several Fox News analysts described as “leading from behind.”
While Reagan did eventually offer those “stern words,” his initial instinct was to do nothing. And in an interesting twist, it was conservative pundits such as George Will — at a time when Fox News was more than a decade away from being born — who deemed Reagan’s response “pathetic.” Reagan himself found their attacks on him irresponsible.
“Short of going to war, what would they have us do?” Reagan later said in reply to Will and other conservatives. “I know that some of our critics have sounded off that somehow we haven’t exacted enough vengeance. Well, vengeance isn’t the name of the game in this.”
One Fox News commentator, Chris Wallace, dissented from his colleagues’ view, saying, “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.”
In other words, history shows that Reagan’s response was similar Obama’s, and in the view of Wallace, for one, Reagan responded correctly to the civilian airliner shootdown — just not in the way that conservative critics of Barack Obama think.