Progressive Writers Bloc

Teflon vs. Velcro

By David Chandler

Ronald Reagan's has been called America's most popular president. He was so popular that despite anything he did or said, the American people would let it slide right off and he would come out smiling. Dirt wouldn't stick, so he became known as the Teflon president. That is the story we are told, but it's not exactly true. It is true that a portion of the electorate loved him, but it is also true that a significant proportion of the electorate despised him. The Teflon was purely a media phenomenon. It was the unwillingness of the media to hold him accountable for anything. The media told those of us who dissented that we were out of step with America.

And it worked. Despite persistant, organized, and vocal opposition, those of us who were sickened by someone who lied with an affable smile while his appointees destroyed the environment, subverted the expressed will of Congress, murdered peasants in Central America, ran guns to the Contras financed by cocaine brought back to our ghettos on return flights and weapons sold to our enemies in Iran (that's in "Axis of Evil"), emptied the mental hospitals onto the streets, made homelessness a common sight in our cities, rewrote the tax laws to shift the burden of financing government from the uber-rich to the poor and middle class, and created mind boggling deficits while preaching balanced budgets. ... those of us who were not impressed by the phony ah-shucks smile were systematically marginalized. We felt as though we were screaming in the dark, alone in a sea of insanity.

What could account for presidential Teflon? Apparently the media didn't dare hold Reagan accountable for his lies, cruelty, or downright stupidity because he was soooooo.... popular that the American people would forgive him anything. The media didn't want to fight the wisdom of the masses.

There is another recent president with media issues every bit as striking as Reagan's, but in reverse. If Reagan had Teflon, Clinton had Velcro. Clinton started to be hounded within a year of his taking office, and hounded was the word for it. Whitewater brought on the special "persecutor" Ken Starr, who, once he got his foot in the door, stopped at nothing to turn up malfeasance of one kind or another, and essentially turned up nothing...until sex came into the picture. This circus atmosphere which occupied seven of Clinton's eight years in office, resulted in nothing but a stained blue dress. But this crime was so horrific to the American people that the only solution was impeachment. And impeach they did.

I am a bit of a data freak. You may know that I'm into science and math. I find data interesting because it gets to the heart of issues and has a way of cutting through the fog of hype and hysteria. We have an objective measure of public satisfaction with presidential job performance. It's called the "Gallup Approval Rating," one of the most important benchmarks we have in assessing a president's standing with the public. It is a question slipped into surveys on an ongoing basis. "Do you approve of the way ________ is handling his job as President?" It gives a way of assessing long-term trends in the popularity levels of presidents because it is the same question, worded the same way, every time since it began in 1937.

So let's look at the data:

It's hard to tell how gray scales are going to show up in newsprint. I hope you can tell a difference in the darkness of the lines: gray for Clinton, black for Reagan. See our web site for a color version of the same graph.

The amazing thing about these graphs is that for two presidents at opposite extremes in their treatment by Congress and the press, their approval ratings track each other almost perfectly. Only in the final half of the final term do their ratings diverge. Approval for both dropped: for Clinton it was from about 70% down to about 60%. For Reagan it was from about 65% down to about 45%.

What does this tell us? The people, as the data shows, did in fact have greater wisdom than either the Congress or the press. Who, on their worst day, couldn't evaluate the relative national significance of, on the one hand, covering up a secret arms deal with avowed enemies of the United States as a means of financing an illegal war against a civilian population that had been explicitly disapproved by Congress, and on the other hand, attempting to cover up an affair with an aide? One of these was clearly worthy of impeachment. The other, although intemperate, was not an appropriate issue to be the subject of a multimillion dollar investigation by a special proscecutor. Both men lied, but their lies were worlds apart, as sensibile people could see, and as the polls show, they did see.

It is not in the best interest of the United States for any president to be deemed by the press to be Teflon coated. Velcro, and the obsession it implies, is similarly not healthy. The proper roll of the press is to dig out the dirt and hold the feet of the powerful to the fire. There is nothing patriotic, much less wise, about idolizing leaders or declaring them sacrosanct.

By the way, who were the most popular presidents since the approval ratings started in 1937? In term-long averages, Kennedy comes out on top with 70%, Roosevelt with 68%, and Eisenhower with 66%. (All three had sex scandals, by the way!) The least popular were Truman and Ford at 46%, Carter at 47% and Nixon at 48%, all sexually pure, as far as we know. Reagan's average was 52%, only 4 points higher than the failed Nixon presidency and 2 points lower than the failing Johnson presidency, who was so mired in Vietnam that he withdrew from running for a second full term. Teflon, indeed!! It didn't come from the voice of the people.

So what about George W. Bush? Now there is a very interesting story worthy of its own telling! More to come soon.

Visit us at and see the complete history of the Approval Ratings.


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