Reagan the Man
Ronnie became a loner.... He doesn't let anybody get too close. There's a wall around him. -Nancy Reagan, 1989
The best clue to understanding Ronald Reagan is Nancy Reagan. She is a graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts, a highly intelligent woman, an actress who met Ronald Reagan in Hollywood and married him in 1952. They were happily in love for more than fifty years. Nancy was also his closest friend, perhaps his only real friend, and she knew far more about him than anyone else in the world.
In 1989, just after they had left office, Nancy wrote a book about her life in which she told us more about Ronald Reagan than anyone. She knew the key to his self-assurance-he was a loner. Here is how she explained Reagan in her book:
It's hard to make close friends or to put down roots when you're always moving, and I think this-plus the fact that everybody knew his father was an alcoholic-explained why Ronnie became a loner. Although he loves people, he often seems remote, and he doesn't let anybody get too close.
There's a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier.
Ronnie's closest friends and advisers have often been disappointed that he keeps this distance....
Ronnie is an affable and gregarious man who enjoys other people, but unlike most of us, he doesn't need them for companionship or approval.
As he himself has told me, he seems to need only one other person-me.
Despite all appearances, then, Reagan was a very private man. His pollster, Richard Wirthlin, met with him one day in March 1983, to give him the latest results. It was good news; the national polls were showing that Reagan's policies were widely supported. While he was reporting the polls, Reagan interrupted in midsentence and said:
You know what I really want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as the President of the United States who brought a sense and reality of peace and security. I want to eliminate that awful fear that each of us feels sometimes when we get up in the morning knowing that the world could be destroyed through a nuclear holocaust.
As far as we know he only said that once, in private. His usual answer about his legacy was a response about restoring the American economy.
Another foundation for Reagan's actions, perhaps, was his high intelligence-and his ability to hide it. He was an extraordinarily bright pupil who even taught himself how to read a newspaper when he was five years old. But as time went on, he seemed to quickly learn something that most highly intelligent people learn as they grow older: a child who seems to know all the answers soon has few friends. So he spent more time playing ball and being a regular student.
Unlike many intelligent people, Reagan's self-confidence was also great enough that he never felt he had to demonstrate his knowledge or his quickness. Indeed, on the front of his desk in the White House was a small sign that carried the words "There's no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."
One of Reagan's key tactics while deep in long and arduous negotiations was to accept what his opponent had offered. He never crowed over what he was given; he just said thanks. As he explained it one day in Fortune magazine:
I've never understood people who want me to hang in there for a hundred percent or nothing. Why not take seventy percent or eighty percent, and then come back another day for the other twenty or thirty percent.
One of the few people who seemed to understand how Reagan managed the White House was Washington Post editor Meg Greenfield. In 1984 she wrote an essay for Newsweek titled "How Does Reagan Decide?" As a liberal Democrat, she observed something that even many of Reagan's closest conservative supporters failed to understand-that he made decisions like a labor negotiator for a workers' union. She summed up part of his decision-making style like this:
The long waiting out of the adversary, the immobility meanwhile, the refusal to give anything until the last moment, the willingness- nonetheless-finally to yield to superior pressure or force or particular circumstance on almost everything, but only with something to show in return, and only if the final deal can be interpreted as furthering the original Reagan objective.
Reagan was also an unusual boss. Those who worked for him liked him. They did not necessarily agree with all of his policies, but they still found him pleasant and friendly. He didn't criticize his advisers in front of others. He didn't chew people out. He didn't reprimand them, he didn't complain to them face-to-face-and he never yelled at them. Sometimes he might look a little disappointed when things went wrong, but you rarely felt a sense of failure or humiliation.
When people first met Reagan, they often thought he was too easygoing and friendly to be tough. The impression was like a soft down pillow. What people failed to see was the two-inch-thick rod of steel right down the inside of the pillow.
Perhaps the most important key to Reagan's success was the quality of his advisers and staff. Individually the men and women in his staff were very different, and they all had skills that matched the jobs they held. But the one thing they all shared was that they were all smart and sensible. Some presidents have felt uncomfortable with brilliant men and women; Reagan thrived on them.
Even his political opponents noted that the group of advisers and staff was unusual. Robert Strauss, perhaps the most savvy Democrat around when Reagan was elected, called Reagan's staff "simply spectacular. It's the best White House staff I've ever seen."
President Reagan's management philosophy was best summed up when a reporter asked: "Your friend Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors, says that you've done a great job of focusing on the big picture without getting bogged down in detail. How do you decide which problems to address personally, and which to leave to subordinates?" Reagan replied:
You surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the overall policy that you've decided upon is being carried out.
In the Cabinet meetings-and some members of the Cabinet who have been members of other Cabinets told me there have never been such meetings- I use a system in which I want to hear what everybody wants to say honestly. I want the decisions made on what is right or wrong, what is good or bad for the people of this country. I encourage all the input I can get....
And when I've heard all that I need to make a decision, I don't take a vote.
I make the decision.
Then I expect every one of them, whether their views have carried the day or not, to go forward together in carrying out the policy.
All this does not mean that Reagan was some kind of superhuman who could not be riled or upset. In fact, one of the most unappreciated facets of Reagan's character was his temper; it flared rarely, but was memorable when it did. If Reagan was crossed-crossed badly-he exploded into what could be called a black Irish rage. His face darkened, his jaw muscles clenched and bulged, and his lips got thin and tight. In public he might show sporadic flashes of displeasure, but never real anger. It wasn't that he did not get angry, but rather that he usually covered it up.
During his presidential campaign, on one of those rare occasions of real fury-a well-justified one, we might add-we watched him lean back a bit, reach up and grab the right side of his eyeglasses, rip the glasses off, and fling them across the room into the wall closest to him. After he smashed his glasses into the wall, he calmed down quickly and carried on. No one who was there can remember what happened to the eyeglasses. That kind of outburst didn't happen often- but it did happen.
Once during the campaign in 1976 Reagan was holding an impromptu press conference outside a building with a narrow alley. Some of the reporters were asking questions that had an insulting tone. After Reagan finished answering the last question, he turned and headed through the alley into the building, with the Secret Service clearing the way. When he was about halfway down the alley, one of the reporters, a particularly provocative one, yelled: "What's the matter? Are you afraid to answer the question?"
Reagan stopped, his face turning red. Abruptly he turned and headed back out through the alley. His eyes were blazing, focused on the heckler waiting outside. As he moved through the alley, one of the advisers was standing in the way. Reagan, with one swift thrust of his arm, shoved him aside, slamming him against the wall. Outside he angrily answered the reporter's question, then turned back and went into the building. (The fellow he "moved" was fine.)
Another rare example of what could make Reagan upset was a rewritten draft of one of his speeches. One day, Peter Hannaford, one of his oldest and most valued speechwriters, handed him a new redraft of a major speech for him to read on the plane. Reagan smiled, slipped on his reading glasses, and started to read. After two or three pages, his eyebrows narrowed and his jaw tightened. Then, after reading the next page, he lifted it, raised it high in the air, and slammed it down hard onto the small pile he had just read. He continued to read, slamming each succeeding page down harder and harder. It was clear he didn't like the redraft of the speech.
After Reagan had been in office for nearly six months, very few people understood his foreign policy. It especially bothered some of the reporters writing about him. They feared that he was on a course that could be dangerous, even leading the United States to a nuclear war. It was true that Reagan had never spelled out a detailed picture of what he wished to do in foreign policy, but it did not seem to bother him. A letter he dictated to a friend, John O. Koehler, on July 9, 1981, explains his reluctance to do so-and serves as a perfect example of his quietly self-confident approach:
I know I'm being criticized for not having made a great speech outlining what would be the Reagan foreign policy. I have a foreign policy; I'm working on it.
I just don't happen to think that it's wise to always stand up and put in quotation marks in front of the world what your foreign policy is. I'm a believer in quiet diplomacy and so far we've had several quite triumphant experiences by using that method.
The problem is, you can't talk about it afterward or then you can't do it again.
the awesome power of a president
A man's wisdom is most conspicuous when he is able to distinguish among dangers and make choice of the least. -Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513
The first thing Ronald Reagan received after taking the oath of office as president of the United States was the "football." The first part of the football was a small, plastic-coated card he could hold in his hand, a card that he would have with him for as long as he was the president.
The card contained awesome power. It held the Top Secret codes that could activate a black leather satchel-the other half of the football. That fairly large briefcase could order the Pentagon to launch the nuclear missiles poised and aimed at U.S. enemies. The only person who could authorize a nuclear strike, the only man with the codes, was the president.
In 1981 the United States had an estimated stockpile of 23,464 nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union stockpile was considerably larger, with 32,049 warheads. However, when you considered the most threatening nuclear warheads, those deliverable on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Soviets had 5,977, and the United States had only 38 percent that number, 2,251. On the other hand, the United States had 5,090 warheads on sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), while the Soviets had only 1,956. The number of strategic warheads on U.S. bombers was more than ten times those on Soviet bombers-6,244 to 596.
Even a small number of the warheads on either side, properly aimed, was many times over what was necessary to destroy civilization. In the event of a first strike by either superpower, the other could be expected to strike back. It was power that weighed heavily on both.
Here is how Reagan described it:
As president, I carried no wallet, no money, no driver's license, no keys in my pocket-only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we knew it.
On inauguration day, after being briefed a few days earlier on what I was to do if ever it became necessary to unleash American nuclear weapons, I'd taken over the greatest responsibility of my life-of any human being's life.
This was his first understanding of the massive power that flows to every one of our presidents. For some of them there is no stark danger to cope with, no reason in the world why they would ever order nuclear missiles toward other countries, ripping apart millions of people far, far away. But Reagan and others faced a real and present danger-and every president who held that tiny card with the Top Secret numbers probably shivered a bit as he took possession.
The plastic-coated card, which I carried in a small pocket in my coat, listed the codes I would issue to the Pentagon confirming that it was actually the president of the United States who was ordering the unleashing of our nuclear weapons.
The decision to launch the weapons was mine alone to make.
We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis. The Russians sometimes kept submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles that could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes.
Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon!
How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?
There were some people in the Pentagon who thought in terms of fighting and winning a nuclear war. To me it was simple common sense: A nuclear war couldn't be won by either side. It must never be fought. But how do we go about trying to prevent it and pulling back from this hair- trigger existence?