Ronald Reagan went golfing after the 1983 terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marines barrack in Beirut.
Memes claiming that former President Ronald Reagan continued his golf vacation after nearly 300 people were killed in an attack in Beirut in 1983 are frequently circulated on Facebook:
The above-displayed memes have been circulating for several years, but they regained popularity in March 2016 as President Obama was criticized for remaining in Cuba (where he was making a state visit) after 31 people were killed during terrorist bombings in Brussels, Belgium.
While these images correctly reflect that Ronald Reagan was on vacation when a suicide bomber crashed a truck full of explosives into an airport building that was being used as barracks for U.S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 October 1983 (killing 241 American servicemen), the former president did not continue his golf vacation after receiving the news. The first image showing Reagan on the golf course was taken the day before the bombing, not the day after:
President Reagan playing golf at the Augusta National Golf Club. 10/22/83.
An article published by the New York Times the day after the attack also noted that Reagan cut his vacation short to return to the White House:
“There are no words that can express our sorrow and grief over the loss of those splendid young men and the injury to so many others,” the President said gravely this morning, standing in the rain outside the White House after a hurried return from a golfing weekend in Augusta, Ga.
The second photo displayed above was also taken the day before the Beirut bombings:
President Ronald Reagan, clad in pajamas and bathrobe, talking on telephone to Robert McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz, re urgent request from five members of Eastern Carribbean States on the situation in Grenada.
However, the former president wasn’t always necessarily quick to react after deadly international incidents. After a Korean airliner was shot down by the Soviet Union on 1 September 1983, President Reagan remained at his ranch in Santa Barbara:
At this point, (White House spokesman Larry Speakes) Speakes was interrupted and asked if Reagan was going back to Washington. He ignored the question and read a statement on the Middle East. Asked again if Reagan was going back to Washington, Speakes answered, “There are no plans for the president to return to Washington earlier than anticipated.”
Speakes walked away from the podium and then came back to take questions. He announced, as he does every day in California, what Reagan intended to do that day: “The president, as usual, is planning at horseback ride this morning and will generally work around the ranch in the afternoon. The weather there is as it is here, sunny and warm.”
These memes are based on an assumption that a U.S. president has to react immediately to breaking news of a violent incident or crisis by returning to the nation’s capital, even when such an action does not facilitate the handling of the situation. When President Obama was criticized in 2014 for his reaction to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 being shot down (reportedly by pro-Russian insurgents), reporter Chris Wallace noted that sometimes, “the best thing presidents can do is nothing”:
I know there’s like an immediate reaction, that you want to say he should have run back to Washington and gone back to the Situation Room. I know that a lot of folks at Fox here are saying that. As somebody who covered the White House and saw for six years Ronald Reagan in various situations, sometimes the best thing presidents can do is nothing, to continue on. If he had gone back to Washington and gone to the situation room — first of all, there’s not much he can do, we’re not in control of the situation. And it would have dialed it up.
I was covering Ronald Reagan at that time [i.e., when the Korean airliner was shot down]. He was in Santa Barbara at his ranch when that happened, and quite frankly he didn’t want to leave. And his advisers realized how terrible this looked, and eventually persuaded him he had to fly back to Washington and had to give this speech to the nation, but it did take him four days.