On Friday, NBC’s First Read led with criticism of Ronald Reagan that bled into Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show, “The Daily Rundown.” Todd and company are obviously eager to remind voters that a minority of Republicans, including then-President Reagan, were “slow” to impose sanctions against South Africa. Missing from this crack reporting, though, is the fact that Democrats also weren’t always unified on this complicated issue. In fact, in 1986, 32 Democrats voted against releasing Nelson Mandela from prison.
This is not the first time members of the media have attempted to use selective reporting to single out Republicans on the issue of South African apartheid. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Democrats and the media demagogued (and the Huffington Post still is) a vote made by then-vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney as a congressman in 1986. At the time, Stephen Hayes reported on what you might call the inconvenient context of the Cheney vote:
“Now, all the big publicity is about, in the last few days, an amazing vote cast by their vice-presidential nominee when he was in Congress against letting Nelson Mandela out of jail,” [President Clinton] said. “That takes your breath away.”
If the Cheney vote took his breath away, Clinton might well be on his knees, red-faced, clutching his throat and gasping for air when he learns that 32 of his fellow Democrats voted with Cheney, against the resolution. …
The Nelson and Cheney votes are far from the radical position Democrats and the media have suggested. On its face, a vote to keep Nelson Mandela in jail is troubling, to say the least: Who — as Cheney has asked repeatedly in interviews — would want to keep Mandela imprisoned? As always, context is crucial in understanding congressional votes. Republicans, then in the minority, tried without success to attach conditions to Mandela’s release. Specifically, they wanted language requiring Mandela to renounce violence by his party, the African National Congress, and assuring that the Communist elements of the party, which were significant, be ousted from leadership.
That vote by 32 Democrats was an expression of the same exact fears Reagan, Thatcher, and numerous others shared at the time. And any fair reading of history says those fears were perfectly reasonable.
But if you choose to use a soda straw look back at history, as First Read and Todd chose to do in singling out Reagan, you can come to and report on any petty conclusion you want.
It would be very easy for someone to do the same with this story of 32 Democrats.
In the eighties I was a leftist who voted for Mondale in ’84 and Dukakis in ’88. Obviously, then as now, I considered Mandela a hero. But that doesn’t mean that at the time I was blinded to or not troubled by Mandela’s violent and Marxist past, or not leery of the Soviet-backed African National Congress (ANC).
After his release from prison and rise to political power, Mandela surprised everyone by throwing off his own history and the history of most successful left-wing freedom fighters. Mandela’s greatness stems as much from what he did not do as from what he did — which was to not become another Castro, Pol Pot, or — God forbid — Robert Mugabe.
It was not racist or insensitive to oppose the ANC. History in general, the ANC’s own history, and Mandela’s refusal to renounce violence as a revolutionary tactic was deeply unsettling, even to those of us who saw Mandela’s cause as righteous.
In their defense, First Read and Todd did report that at the time American domestic politics surrounding South Africa were complicated, but then added this silly melodrama:
…it’s also a lesson that sometimes a policy of the moment will end up being embarrassing; politicians today ought to think about what a policy decision in the moment will look like a generation later.
No one is more impressed with the clarity of hindsight among Todd and his fellow NBC News staffers than I am. But that blinding insight rings awfully partisan and political when it chooses to only tell only half the story.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC