In his excellent The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and The Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein highlights one of the peculiar appeals about Ronald Reagan: that he either didn’t care or didn’t know if the homey anecdotes he spun to criticize the federal government or suggest that welfare recipients were driving Cadillacs were true; he just knew they were effective politics and used them throughout his career. Perlstein writes that Reagan wouldn’t have survived as a politician in this era, because fact checking through the Internet would have prevented this approach:
I say that Ronald Reagan could not have survived the age of Google. … He’s telling a story about out-of-control federal bureaucrats and how they even want a tourist paddle-wheeler that plies the Mississippi River to get the same kind of fire insurance that commercial ships have, even though this paddle-wheeler is this ancient — not a real ship, right? He says, “It has not even had a fire in its entire existence.” All I have to do is Google the name of it … and find out that it had a fire two years before he spoke.
While I agree with much of what Perlstein wrote in his book, I think he might have a bit too much faith in the power of the Internet to check facts, because I’m not sure that the watchmen are really watching, and Montana’s sole Congressman seems to be proving that facts, while they’re stubborn things, are easily ignored, if not completely invented.
Consider this admittedly minor anecdote. Congressman Zinke, eager to show off his disdain for the size of government, told ABC Fox News on January 6 that he was shocked to see two federal workers assigned to help him hang pictures in his office:
Zinke is still learning the ropes. There’s been at least one surprise so far for him. While he was hanging pictures in his office, he met two government workers assigned to help him do just that.
“I think it’s a small, but probably reflective of a larger problem: the bureaucracy is too big,” explained Zinke.
A great little anecdote to feed a little anti-government red meat to the conservative base, but Zinke must have felt some pressure to make the story a little bit better for his old colleagues in Helena, so when he told the story during his address to the Montana Legislature on Friday, Zinke remembered it a bit differently:
“And I want to hang a picture. And I’m quickly told “No, I can’t hang a picture.” I have a number I have to call. So I call the number and three people show up to hang my picture up. In that one small act, we’re hanging in bureaucracy.”
At this rate, by the end of his term, there will probably be a team of at least 40 breaking into his office to hang a photo.
This small story, an anecdote if you will, perfectly explains why Zinke seems to have been dishonest at least one more time during the speech when he spoke about public lands. During the speech, Zinke rambled a bit about bureaucracy and admirals (really!) making decisions about public lands, but offered little in the way of policy proposals or even guiding principles. Despite this, papers across the state ran this kind of silly AP story headlined Zinke: It’s Time to Take a Stand on Public Lands.
And this brings us back to those who are supposed to be watching Zinke—and the rest of our political leadership. None of the reporters covering Zinke’s speech that demanded a stand be taken had the courage or energy to report that he has been all over the map on public lands, in 2012 signing a pledge calling for the “transfer of public lands to state control,” in April 2014 writing an op-ed criticizing those who called for land transfers, noting it would cost the state millions of dollars, before in October of 2014, telling the AP in October that “federal land-management decisions must be approved by local government officials.”
And that’s why Perlstein is probably wrong about Reagan today. A Congressman who can’t even keep a transparently dishonest anecdote straight for four weeks, and one who can get headlines for calling for “taking a stand” on public lands, despite publicly having endorsed almost every policy proposal for public lands possible, doesn’t have to worry about Google at all—unless the people charged with covering him have the will to call out his disingenuous statements and deceptive positions. And nothing about the meteoric rise of Ryan Zinke suggests they’ll start now.