Leno Reminds Brokaw That He Dissed Reagan in a 1983 issue of Mother Jones

When Tom Brokaw appeared on The Tonight Show Friday night to promote his new book, Boom!: Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the ’60s and Today, Jay Leno surprised him by asking him about a 1983 Mother Jones interview in which Brokaw offered a surprisingly blunt assessment of Ronald Reagan.

In the interview, conducted by Frank Browning and appearing in the April 1983 issue, Brokaw opined that Reagan’s values were “simplistic,” that he had no understanding of the challenges faced by the poor, and that supply-side economic theory was a “disaster.” In responding to Leno’s question about the response to his interview, Brokaw made it sound like Nancy Reagan was the only one who had a problem with it. In fact, the interview set off a wave of criticism, with Brokaw getting hammered hard by conservatives, and even some liberal columnists, for his harsh assessment of Reagan:

At an NBC annual meeting not long afterwards, Brokaw apologized, prompting Mother Jones‘s then-editor Deirdre English to call him up and prod him about backing down. Brokaw turned on the charm and did his best to sweet talk English, telling her, among other things, that he was very fond of the Hayes Street Grill, a San Francisco seafood restaurant, and that the next time he was in town he was going to take her to dinner there. (The promised dinner never took place.)

Here’s a quick sampling of what Brokaw had to say about Ronald Reagan in the 1983 interview:

On Reagan’s values: “Pretty simplistic. Pretty old-fashioned. And I don¹t think they have much application to what¹s currently wrong or troubling a lot of people. His values are kind of Norman Rockwell-ish, Reader’s Digest America, 1924… Nor do I think he really understands the enormous difficulty a lot of people have in just getting through life, because he¹s lived in this fantasy land for so long.”

On supply-side economics: “But I thought from the outset that his “supply side” [theory] was just a disaster. I knew of no one who felt that it was going to work, outside of a small collection of zealots in Washington and at USC—Arthur Laffer, Jack Kemp. What I thought quite outrageous was the business community, which for years carped and complained that it could never get a President sympathetic to its needs, finally got its champion, Ronald Reagan. Then, to its horror, it discovered that he was actually going to press ahead with supply side—a theory whose disastrous consequences businesspeople began desperately to prepare for, but did not publicly warn the rest of the country about. They knew it simply could not work. But what they did was look to their own little life raft and not to anyone else’s.”

On Reagan’s attitude toward big business: “I think this guy, however, is far more sympathetic than [other presidents] have been, far more willing to go to greater length to make sure big business gets what it wants. Big business has more direct access to him. There’s less to offset big business’influence on Ronald Reagan, from a political point of view, than there has been on any other president in the past.”

—By Richard Reynolds