Long before Ronald Reagan died on Saturday, you can bet that most major metropolitan daily newspapers had already written the former president's obituary. It's standard practice in the news biz to pre-write an obit for ailing public figures, and Reagan, on a death watch after ten years of battling Alzheimer's, would have to be one doozy of a package. Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, which included an eight-page Reagan pullout, sure looked like more than a weekend afternoon's reporting, and indeed it was. According to Chron managing editor Robert Rosenthal, nearly all of the material in Sunday's paper was prepared in advance. In all, the Chron ran ten stories on Reagan, totaling nearly fifteen thousand words. The stories were of course updated to reflect the latest circumstances, but otherwise most of the legwork had already been done, from the reporting to picking the photos, Rosenthal says.
One giveaway was that "now-retired" staff writer Larry D. Hatfield was listed as a contributor to the main story. Hatfield retired more than two years ago. Reached by phone, he recalled having gathered material for the Reagan obit at some point prior to his retirement, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly when. "I did a lot of obits ahead of time," he said, adding, "It helped to have the research done" when it came time to write the real thing on deadline.
The Contra Costa Times had two Reagan stories -- one on his dealings with UC Berkeley, another on his time as governor -- prepared in advance, says Times managing editor Chris Lopez. Ben Bagdikian, former dean of UC Berkeley's School of Journalism who spent many years working for dailies, says he wrote Winston Churchill's obit when word spread that he was ill. To put together a story or a package of stories on a major historical figure like Churchill or Reagan "is not something you do overnight," Bagdikian says. Death-watch reporting might sound insensitive to some, but Rosenthal says readers benefit from having more thorough and thoughtful stories on major figures such as Reagan. "I'm sure many major papers in the country have the pope's obit done already," Rosenthal says.
To Criticize or Not to Criticize?
Very few people like to speak ill of the dead, and most people probably don't want to hear the dead dissed -- except for unapologetic lefties who thought Reagan was the one Great Satan. The activist Web site Indybay.org, for instance, contains a eulogy listing "criminal acts in the life and times of the 40th U.S. president," including the Reagan administration's support of murderous right-wing regimes in Central America.
That's downright polite when compared with this documented response: According to activist Web site Indymedia, hundreds of demonstrators at Saturday's war protest in San Francisco cheered upon hearing that Reagan had passed away. (Feeder didn't notice that little nugget anywhere in the mainstream press; of course, their stories were written years in advance.)
Harsh reactions. Still, they're refreshing compared with the hollow platitudes coming from local congressional Democrats who built their careers bashing Reagan and his politics. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a well-known critic of Reaganomics, issued a statement saying, "Ronald Reagan served our country with dignity and he died with dignity. As an American, I appreciate Ronald Reagan's great leadership and service to our country. As a Californian, I admire the special grace and humor that endeared him to millions."
As a party leader, Pelosi had to say something nice. But what about Feeder's favorite cranky congressman, Fremont Demo Pete Stark? Surely Pete would find it within himself to say or do something inappropriate. This, after all, is the guy credited for: a) calling a female colleague a "whore for the insurance industry"; b) challenging a Republican, whom he called a "little wimp" and a "little fruitcake," to a fight; and, c) asking a National Guard sergeant who criticized a Stark vote why he's "such a great goddamn hero" on an angry voice-mail. Stark also refused to vote for a resolution wishing Reagan a happy birthday last year. So what did Stark say on the occasion of Reagan's death? "While I often disagreed with his politics," Stark said in a statement, "I always admired President Reagan's willingness to work with Democrats and the respect he showed those of us on the other side of the aisle."
Wow. That's almost classy. Well, Pete, you're learning. At the age of 72, you're finally learning.
Then Again, Maybe She Won't
With its petty politics and shaky finances, the Peralta Community College District -- which oversees Berkeley's Vista College, Oakland's Merritt and Laney colleges, and the College of Alameda -- is like a dysfunctional family. This past April, the district adopted former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris as its new chancellor. So guess who recently toyed with the idea of joining the Peralta family? Harris' estranged wife, Kathy Neal. It has all the makings of a juicy soap-opera story line: Ex-wife campaigns to become her former hubby's boss. Unfortunately for gossips like Feeder, Peralta insiders say the Elihu and Kathy show won't ever make it to Must-See TV or PCTV.
Neal's name recently surfaced as a possible candidate for the Berkeley and Oakland hills district seat now occupied by trustee Susan Duncan, who hasn't decided whether she's going to run for re-election. Neal's name took some insiders by surprise. Her pals in labor, specifically the Peralta Federation of Teachers PAC had already endorsed someone else, Cy Gulassa. Some folks wondered if Neal's rumored interest in running for trustee wasn't so much political as personal. After six years in married-yet-separated bliss -- apparently following Willie Brown's formula for successful nuptials -- Harris formally filed for divorce in December.
Neal, a former member of the state community college board of governors, told Feeder she'd been approached by some people about running. As for whether she'd actually do it, Neal wouldn't give a definitive answer for the record. But at press time, all indications were that her trial balloon had popped, and she probably won't run after all.
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