Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker deserves an “F” in labor relations. And he clearly has an inflated view of his own significance. But when it comes to rudimentary history, he scores higher marks than some of his critics.
In the now infamous prank phone call in which blogger Ian Murphy posed as billionaire conservative bankroller David Koch, Walker offered a not-so-subtle comparison between his actions and those of the fortieth president, conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
Reagan “had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air-traffic controllers,” Walker told the Koch impersonator. “...that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism because from that point forward, the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn’t a pushover.”
Walker’s version of history, according to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, is just plain silly.
“It takes some creativity to liken the air controllers to Wisconsin’s public workers, who are not on strike and have offered concessions,” says Milbank in a February 27 column. “It takes even more creativity to credit the firing of the controllers (rather then, say, Reagan’s military buildup) for the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Closer to home, the Wisconsin State Journal’s Paul Fanlund shares Milbank’s disdain for the governor-as-historian.
Walker “equates stomping on public worker bargaining rights with the air traffic controllers' strike and then draws a direct line to the fall of communism,” writes Fanlund. “I don't know about you, but if I'm at that dinner [at which the statement was first made], I'm clearing my throat and looking at my shoes.”
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Walker may be guilty of egotism -- equating his own bullheadedness with Reagan’s approach to the 11,000 air traffic controllers hardly qualifies as courageous when in conversation with (or so he thought) a well-heeled supporter of union busting. But Walker’s reading of history is closer to reality than either Milbank, Fanlund or others who have so opined.
There were many “first cracks” in the Berlin Wall: the rise of John Paul II as a world player, the doomed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the failure of the Soviet government to provide basic consumer goods to its citizens among them. Still, firing the US air traffic controllers clearly makes the list. It was a dramatic, significant, and unexpected action taken by a dynamic president less than a year in office.
It was seen that way during the early Reagan era and in many subsequent reviews of the Reagan presidency.
“It was interesting that the way the air controllers’ strike was handled impressed the Russians,” Soviet expert Daniel Pipes said in a September 1982 interview as he left a job advising Reagan.
Pipes is quoted in Richard Reeves first-rate history of Reagan’s tenure (President Reagan, Simon & Schuster, 2005): “Seeing a union leader taken away in chains -- that surprised [the Soviets] and gave them respect for Reagan. It showed them a man who, when aroused, will go to the limit to back up his principles.”
“The world learned when Ronald Reagan faced down the air-traffic controllers in 1981 that he could dig in and fight to win,” former Secretary of State George Shultz noted in his 1993 memoir.
More recently, and just prior to the phony phone call brouhaha, former White House correspondent Sam Donaldson wrote in USA Today that when Reagan fired the strikers “I understood (as did the Soviets) that he knew how to ‘work’ the country and the system better than most.”
That the Soviets would draw lessons from the major actions of a new president is hardly surprising. They read the newspapers too.
Today, Walker’s wrong-headed actions and statements offer plenty to criticize. That some columnists and pundits go beyond that record to take a shot at a governor whose policies they loathe is, like Reagan’s union quashing, a sign of the times in which we live.