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Why Reagan Gets No Respect
Ronald Reagan did more than any other single man in the second half of the twentieth century to shape our world, yet his presidency and his character remain little understood and often grossly misunderstood. Any intelligent examination of Reagan must begin with the recognition that he was a mystery personally and politically. Most people find this difficult to believe, because during his two terms in office Reagan established an intimate television rapport with us. Whether we approve or disapprove of his policies, we think that we know him. Yet we forget that he was an actor.
Lou Cannon, who has covered Reagan journalistically since the 1960s and written three books about him, told me, "I regard Reagan as a puzzle. I am still trying to understand the man." Virtually everyone who knew Reagan well or observed him closely would agree. They are familiar with the public Reagan, but their efforts to discover the individual behind the mask have proved frustratingly elusive. Historian Edmund Morris, Reagan's official biographer, confesses that from a personal or human point of view, Reagan is the most incomprehensible figure he has ever encountered. Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan, who felt an Irish affinity with the president, writes that despite his best efforts, he couldn't figure out his boss at all.
Even Reagan's family found him enigmatic and impenetrable. His four children confess that, in many ways, he was a stranger to them. "I never knew who he was, I could never get through to him," remarked Patti Davis. "You get just so far, and then the curtain drops," Ron Reagan told a reporter. "He doesn't like to open himself up, even with us," Maureen Reagan wrote in her autobiography. Reagan's adopted son, Michael Reagan, revealingly titled his book about his relationship with his father, On the Outside Looking In. The conventional view is that Reagan had such a close relationship with his wife that even the children felt excluded. Yet Nancy Reagan also felt that there was a part of Reagan that was inaccessible to her. "There's a wall around him," she writes. "He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier."
Peggy Noonan, a shrewd observer of Reagan and one of his star speechwriters, told me that his life was "paradox all the way down." Here was a man who had the most important job in the world, yet he seemed relaxed, even casual, about the way he went about it. He seemed determined to transform the size and role of the federal government, but he seemed curiously detached from its everyday operations. Even though he was the most ideological man to occupy the White House in half a century, he was the furthest thing from an intellectual. Indeed, he provoked the derision of the intelligentsia and many in the press; even his own aides condescended to him; yet he laughed it all off and didn't seem to mind the scorn. He was comfortable consorting with aristocrats and playing golf with millionaires, who considered him one of them, yet he was equally at home with miners and construction workers, who were convinced that he shared their values and had their interests at heart. Few other presidents have enjoyed greater public accolades and affection, yet none of it appeared to satisfy a deep emotional need in him; he was far too self-contained for that. He was gregarious and liked people, yet he allowed virtually no one to get close to him. As president, he often spoke of God and championed a restoration of spiritual values in American life and politics, but he didn't go to church. He was an avid exponent of "family values," yet he was divorced, had strained relationships with his children, and rarely saw his grandchildren.
The political mystery surrounding Reagan was well expressed by his national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, in a conversation with Secretary of State George Shultz. "He knows so little," McFarlane said, "and accomplishes so much." Richard Nixon made the same point at the opening ceremonies for the Reagan Library in 1991. Earlier, Nixon had visited Reagan in the White House and tried to engage him in a discussion of Marxist ideas and Soviet strategy, but Reagan simply wasn't interested; instead, he regaled Nixon with jokes about Soviet farmers who had no incentive to produce under the communist system. Nixon was troubled to hear such flippancy from the leader of the Western world. He wrote books during the 1980s criticizing Reagan's lack of "realism" and warning that "the Soviet system will not collapse" so "the most we can do is learn to live with our differences" through a policy of "hard headed détente." Yet two and a half years after Reagan left office, Nixon admitted that he was wrong and Reagan was right: "Ronald Reagan has been justified by what has happened. History has justified his leadership."
The American electorate did not regard Reagan as an enigma. During his two terms in office, he was a beloved and popular man who was also seen as an effective leader. In evaluating Reagan's leadership, most people used a simple "before and after" rule that seems to apply to all presidents: What was the world like when he came to office? What was it like when he left? For better or worse, a president is held responsible for the things that happen during his tenure. Most people considered Reagan a successful president because the world seemed a better place in 1989 than it did in 1981. For practical people who don't follow politics closely, this fact was decisive. Reagan himself endorsed this crude standard when in 1980 he posed the question, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Reagan won the affection of the American people because he seemed like a "regular guy," and they identified with him. Young people thought of him as a national father figure. Even those who disagreed with his policies were quick to concede that he brought dignity and aplomb to the presidency and that he had a twinkle in his eye and laughed a lot. How could you dislike a man who was asked whether he was too old to run for reelection at the age of seventy-three and replied, "What the devil would a young fellow like me do if I quit the job?" People understood that Reagan wasn't an intellectual, but this only confirmed his identification with the average person. Sure, he made mistakes, but that showed he was normal.
Yet this public understanding of Reagan as a good-natured typical American, which predominated throughout the 1980s, solves neither the personal nor the political mystery of the man. Here was the son of the town drunk who grew up poor in the Midwest. Without any connections, he made his way to Hollywood and survived its cutthroat culture to become a major star. He ran as a right-wing conservative and was elected governor of California, the largest and one of the most progressive states in the country. He challenged the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, for the Republican nomination in 1976 and almost beat him. In 1980 he defeated Jimmy Carter to win the presidency in a landslide. He was reelected in 1984 by one of the largest margins in history, losing only his opponent's home state of Minnesota and winning 525 electoral votes to Walter Mondale's 13. For eight consecutive years, the Gallup Poll pronounced him the most admired man in the country. When he left office, his approval rating was around 70 percent, the highest of any president in the modern era higher than that of Eisenhower or Kennedy. He was one of the few presidents in this century to bequeath the office to a hand-picked successor, George Bush, who was elected president in 1988 largely on the strength of Reagan's success. With the election of many of Reagan's ideological offspring to a new Republican majority in both houses of Congress in 1994 one of the most stunning developments in modern political history one may say (as political pundit William Kristol put it) that Reagan won his fourth term. Television reporter Sam Donaldson, who sparred with Reagan throughout his presidency, recently told me that if not for constitutional limitations and his physical condition, Reagan could have been president for life. Moreover, Reagan was more than a mere occupant of the White House. Throughout the world, his name was identified with a coherent philosophy and outlook that people called "Reaganism." He thereby defined a whole era; the 1980s would be inconceivable without him. He changed both his country and the rest of the world, and his legacy continues to loom large over the landscape of contemporary politics, dwarfing politicians of both parties.
How many ordinary fellows have accomplished all of that?
To the intellectual elite the pundits, political scientists, and historians all of this speculation about the mystery of Reagan's success is sheer nonsense. To the degree that Reagan accomplished anything, the wise men attribute it to "incredible luck," in the words of economist and Nobel laureate James Tobin. Overall, however, the wise men do not believe they have to resort to blind fate to account for Reagan's success. Many of these professionals argue that, taken as a whole, Reagan's record is one of embarrassing failure. They contend that his short-term gains are greatly outweighed by the long-term liabilities with which he burdened the country. Even accomplishments directly attributable to his administration, they charge, are not his work but those of his aides, who handed him a script and stage-managed his performance.
In this view, Reagan was a thoroughly inadequate and inept chief executive. Like Peter Sellers's character Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There, Reagan was a cheerful simpleton who had no idea of what was really going on, but happened to be in the right place at the right time and somehow managed to convince everyone that he was in charge. But even his critics grant Reagan one skill: he was a master illusionist, the Great Communicator, whose theatrical and oratorical skills kept his countrymen spellbound and cheering through the 1980s, after which the curtain went down, the lights came on, and most of us, at least the smart ones, realized that it was all an act.
This view may seem unduly harsh, but the cognoscenti mean it to be duly harsh. Many intellectuals are convinced that future generations will remember Ronald Reagan in precisely this way. History, the editors of the New York Times Magazine declare, is the "ultimate approval rating." In December 1996 the magazine asked historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who served in the Kennedy administration and helped establish the Camelot myth, to recruit several of his colleagues for a collective verdict on how history is likely to judge American presidents. Schlesinger's list included historians who have apotheosized the New Deal, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and James MacGregor Burns; Robert Dallek, a Lyndon Johnson enthusiast; the Marxist scholar Eric Foner; and two liberal Democratic politicians, former New York governor Mario Cuomo and former Illinois senator Paul Simon. Not surprisingly, these historians ranked Reagan in the bottom half of the "average" category. They scored Reagan even below his successor, George Bush, and placed him in the undistinguished company of Jimmy Carter, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison. Other surveys of American social scientists have produced similar results.
"There they go again," Ronald Reagan might have said. It is easy to laugh off such surveys, which tell us more about the pundits being polled than they do about the subjects under consideration. Most adults have lived through the tenure of several presidents. They know and remember too much to have their views altered by scholarly evaluations that can hardly be termed objective or balanced. Yet we now have a new generation of young people with no alternative source of information about Reagan. All they hear is the perspective of their teachers and the media. It is hard for them to detect even transparent bias under those circumstances.
Here is another example of how young minds are being shaped. When Adam Meyerson, editor of Policy Review, consulted the 1992 edition of Bartlett's Quotations, he found thirty-five entries from Franklin Roosevelt, twenty-eight from John F. Kennedy, and only three from Reagan. Even Carter had twice as many as the man whom critics called the Great Communicator. Moreover, the quotations from Reagan were hardly memorable; indeed, they were selected to make him look inane. For example, Reagan is quoted as saying that there is no shortage of food in America. Meyerson contacted Justin Kaplan, the editor of Bartlett's, who said he had made his selections quite deliberately. He added, "I'm not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan."
Even with its excesses, the critique of Reagan is worth examining because it reveals such hostility on the part of the cognoscenti. The degree of animus requires an explanation. Why was this man whom so many people held in such high regard viewed by elites with such fierce derision? Moreover, stated in its most defensible form, the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the critique is based on facts that we know about Reagan; thus there is a ring of truth to it. Consequently the RSV has made its way into the body politic in one form or another. It is no longer just the enlightened people's view of Reagan, as it was in the 1980s. It seems to have sunk in more broadly. Even some people who like Reagan and voted for him now partly embrace the RSV, and many who don't are unsure how to resist it. So let us face, as candidly as possible, the critique of the Reagan era.
First: those awful Reagan deficits. The RSV blames Reagan for attempting the impossible cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget at the same time. Obviously, the critics said, that cannot be done; the numbers don't add up. So Reagan must be held responsible for what his budget director, David Stockman, termed "two hundred billion dollar deficits as far as the eye could see." The national debt tripled during his eight years in office. The Reagan years added $1.5 trillion (measured in 1990 dollars) to the national debt, more than was accumulated in the entire prior history of the United States. Our children and grandchildren, we are constantly reminded, are going to have to pay it off.
The RSV acknowledges that there was prosperity in the 1980s but insists all the good stuff was purchased on credit. "It was an age of illusions," writes Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post, "when America lived on borrowed time." Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich is ashamed of the selfishness unleashed during what she terms a "decade of greed." She titled her account of that period, The Worst Years of Our Lives. Who can deny in retrospect that the 1980s were a "me decade" in which many people went on a kind of national spending binge? This was the age of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, of junk bonds, corporate takeovers, and insider trading. The Reverend Jim Bakker installed gold-plated fixtures in his bathroom and an air-conditioned doghouse for his favorite pet. Dynasty was a top-rated television show, and Madonna made her reputation as the "material gift." Then there were those selfish yuppies in their BMWs, speaking animatedly into their car phones. These were all unattractive symbols of the Reagan era.
The end of the cold war? Well, okay. The RSV holds that Reagan deserves praise for signing an arms control treaty with an adversary he once called the "evil empire." But does it really make sense, his critics ask, to credit Reagan with bringing down the Soviet Union? No. The Soviet Union collapsed for internal reasons. There was an economic crisis, the RSV affirms, and finally the old men in the Kremlin had to face it. They appointed a younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev, and he dismantled the Soviet empire and ended communism. Gorbachev deserves the credit for ending the cold war. No wonder that Time in January 1990 named Gorbachev and not Reagan as Man of the Decade. Reagan's critics insist that it would be wrong to give him credit for events he merely witnessed but did not control. In this view, Reagan was like Peter Sellers once again: when the processes of glasnost and perestroika got under way, he just happened to be there.
So much for Reagan's record. What about the man? According to the RSV, Reagan cannot be regarded as an effective leader because, let's face it, he just wasn't that smart, and he had a penchant for kooky ideas. He was, in diplomat Clark Clifford's view, an "amiable dunce." Columnist Michael Kinsley charged that Reagan was "not terribly bright" and therefore "not up to the most important job in the world. Robert Wright of the New Republic pronounced him "virtually brain dead." Frances FitzGerald wrote that "he knew not much more than what was written on the three-by-five cards his advisers handed him." Writing in Harper's, Nicholas von Hoffman confessed that it was "humiliating to think of this unlettered, self-assured bumpkin being our president."
These observations will strike Reagan supporters as cruel, but it is not difficult to see how some could reach these judgments. Reagan graduated with a C average from Eureka College, which isn't exactly Harvard. At various points in his career, he was quoted as saying that trees cause pollution, and if you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all. Environmentalists were not amused. Later, when he was president, Reagan outraged scientists by confessing doubts about the theory of evolution. He expressed interest in the use of biblical prophecy as a guide to future events, especially the last days of the world, raising fears of what he might do to bring about Armageddon. He made a statement implying that intercontinental nuclear missiles, once fired from their silos, could be recalled. Tip O'Neill, Democratic Speaker of the House, who worked with Reagan, said "he knows less than any president I've ever known." Reagan's aides seemed to be constantly trying to protect him from gaffes or issuing "clarifications" correcting his misstatements. Indeed there is an entire book of such gaffes, titled Reagan's Reign of Error.
More broadly, it must be conceded that whatever Reagan's strengths, he was not an intellectual. He didn't have the historical learning of Woodrow Wilson or the encyclopedic knowledge of Teddy Roosevelt. He lacked the two characteristics of the liberally educated person: self-consciousness and open-mindedness. Even Reagan's defenders say this. Peggy Noonan writes that Reagan's life is proof that "the unexamined life is worth living." He had a famous stubbornness to him that is the hallmark of dogmatism. As governor, Reagan liked to quip that he considered all proposals for government action with an open mind before voting no. Ever since he first ran for political office, it is hard to think of a single major point on which he changed his mind.
A second major element of the critique of the RSV is that Reagan was too uninterested and detached from the process of government to function effectively. Reporter Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, charged that Reagan was "remote" and "disengaged" in the White House. Authors Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus dubbed Reagan's governing approach as a "no-hands presidency." Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, faulted Reagan for being "a president with a seven minute attention span." He was said to nap at cabinet meetings. Author Gaff Sheehy worried about the state of the nation while its chief executive went about his business "half asleep."
In a 1986 article on Reagan's preparation for the Iceland summit with Gorbachev, Time portrayed a president who spent most of his time on photo opportunities while aides made major decisions. Reagan was "less the originator of policy than the chief marketer of it." The critics' view of Reagan's disengagement was reinforced when he announced in November 1994 that he had Alzheimer's disease. The wise men winked at each other and exchanged meaningful looks. Publicly they were more reserved, but they knew that this latest medical information carried with it a subtle implication that, even as president, Reagan might not have been "all there."
There is no factual basis for the Alzheimer's accusation. Reagan was frequently examined by doctors during his presidency, and there were no traces of mental decline apart from the natural aging process. Aides who visited him in California during the early 1990s testify that he was in full possession of his faculties. When his illness was diagnosed, it was found to be in an early stage. Still, the broader point of the critique seems to be confirmed by Reagan's obvious lack of interest in the minutiae of government. He seems to have been outside the loop when major decisions were made. Nothing illustrates this better than the Iran-contra affair, which seems to have been transacted in the White House without Reagan's knowledge or approval. Reagan obviously didn't have Jimmy Carter's attention to the detail of administration or Bill Clinton's interest in policy implementation.
An incident at the very end of Carter's presidential term appears to illustrate Reagan's blithe indifference to the complexity of executive responsibility. Reagan had just been elected, and Carter felt it was important to brief him on some of the major issues that the new president would have to face. Carter went down his list, discussing various treaties and secret agreements the United States had with other countries. Reagan listened politely but did not write anything down or ask any questions. The information was "quite complex," Carter writes, "and I did not see how he could possibly retain all of it merely by listening." Yet when Carter asked him if he wanted to take notes, Reagan said no. Carter was understandably nervous about turning over presidential authority to a man like Reagan.
By all accounts, Reagan persisted with this approach while in office. At a meeting of big-city mayors early in his administration, Reagan didn't even recognize Sam Pierce, his secretary of housing; he addressed him as "Mr. Mayor." At the beginning of his second term, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and chief of staff James Baker decided to switch jobs. They made the decision to do this on their own. Reagan's attitude seemed to be that of the bored teenager: Whatever.
Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan remembers a meeting in the White House where a furious debate over the issue of grain exports erupted between budget director David Stockman and Secretary of Agriculture John Block. Others got into the fray, and tempers were heating up. Buchanan looked over at Reagan, who seemed to have removed himself from the argument. He reached toward the middle of the table and pulled over the jar of jelly beans. Then he fastidiously began to pick out his favorite colors. Buchanan was amazed. What in heaven's name was wrong with the guy?
Finally there is the issue that Reagan's critics could never get over: he was an actor. Reagan's Hollywood background was seen not only as an unworthy springboard for an American president, but, according to the RSV, Reagan could not distinguish the fictional universe of moviemaking from the real world of public policy. Lou Cannon writes that for Reagan, "the heroic world of make-believe and the real world coalesced....The man who lived in both of them could not always distinguish one from the other, and he came to believe in many things that weren't true."
When Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, his critics quickly nicknamed it "Star Wars" after the popular motion picture of that name. Some even suggested that, in a case of life imitating art, Reagan probably derived the very idea of missile defense from the 1940 film Murder in the Air, in which he played U.S. intelligence agent Brass Bancroft, whose mission was to recover a secret weapon developed by America that would paralyze the forces of the enemy. Critics traced a number of Reagan's presidential ideas to old movie plots.
The elites found in Reagan's movie background an important clue as to why he was so popular and why their disdain for the man was not shared by the American public during the 1980s. Many pundits argue that Reagan was an "acting president" who converted politics into show business. His was a celluloid presidency in which aide Michael Deaver supplied the lighting and stage directions. Reagan's critics allege that he used his acting skills to bedazzle the people. Columnist Anthony Lewis called the president a "master magician." Social critic Garry Wills wrote that Reagan "cast a spell" drawing Americans into a "vast communal exercise in make-believe."
The wise men do not take a benign view of Reagan's theatrics. Rather, they charge that he was able to deploy his rhetorical skills to mesmerize the voters, distracting them and preventing them from seeing the world as it really was. For some, Reagan's title of Great Communicator was not intended entirely as a compliment; it was a veiled insult, as one Democratic party strategist made clear when he observed that a more accurate description would be Great Manipulator. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, James Nathan Miller alleged that Reagan made "skillful use of the manipulative techniques of Hollywood" to con the American people into adopting his destructive policies.
Critics complained that Reagan had a peculiar knack for deflecting criticism; Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder dubbed him the Teflon president, because nothing negative seemed to stick to him. Revisionist critics believe the reason was that the country was enraptured by "Hollywood on the Potomac." Reagan is said to have played his part so well that he really had the people going, at least for a while. During the 1980s we were, in journalist Haynes Johnson's view, "sleepwalking through history." The Reagan era constituted, in author Sidney Blumenthal's phrase, a "long national daydream." Then we woke up.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the pundits and intellectuals were so critical of Reagan. They accused him of being outside the mainstream of enlightened thinking about issues and they were right. Reagan represented a challenge to their entire worldview. Moreover, accustomed as they were to calling the shots, they had come to see their perspective not as one view among many but as an objective account of reality itself. Thus they considered Reagan's challenge to their orthodoxy to be not only wrong but rude. Right when they were busy sorting out the world's problems, along came this corny Californian with no credentials or experience, armed with nothing but his own wacky ideas. He was able to oppose them successfully because he enjoyed a rapport with the American public that the elites never really understood.
Since many of these pundits disapproved of Reagan's views from the outset, regarding his policies as wrongheaded and destructive, we cannot expect them to applaud his success in enacting his agenda. It is human nature to judge the effectiveness of a leader based on whether we approve of what he put into effect. Incredible resources have been invested by Reagan's opponents since the 1980s to discredit his record, which in a way is a tribute to his legacy.
What is surprising is that since he left office, Reagan has not had more defenders from among his aides and from political conservatives in general. One might expect these former lieutenants and their ideological allies to mount a ferocious counteroffensive for the Gipper. No such luck. While his enemies have been excoriating him, his aides and allies have responded for the most part with a deafening silence. Their failure to defend Reagan naturally reinforces the liberal critique. Why the reticence? It turns out that many intellectuals and pundits on the right were, even during Reagan's tenure, ambivalent about the man and no less mystified than the liberal elite as to the source of his appeal. Even now, they cannot bring themselves to credit the remarkable events of the 1980s to a man of Reagan's unusual background, unscholarly intellect, and whimsical style. In truth, they do not rush to defend Reagan because they are a little embarrassed by him.
A reluctance to defend Reagan is one thing; outright hostility is another. No other president seems to have inspired less loyalty among his aides. There are a few exceptions Attorney General Edwin Meese and domestic adviser Martin Anderson come to mind but by and large, the memoirs penned by senior officials who served in his administration have been antagonistic and demeaning to Reagan. Even the legendary loyalist, George Bush, broke ranks with Reagan in his last year of office. How can Bush's 1988 promise of a "kinder, gentler America" be interpreted other than as an implicit criticism of Reagan? Bush was too much of a gentleman to put down Reagan himself, but officials in the Bush administration made no effort to defend the Reagan record, and sometimes they expressed undisguised scorn for the man. They seemed resolved to get beyond what they regarded as Reagan's amateur, simplistic approach and finally do things like true experienced professionals.
Reagan's other aides were no different. To judge them by their comments when he left the White House, Reagan was surrounded by ingrates and apostates. The memoirs of several Reagan aides are characterized by an almost defiant disloyalty. David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, presents his former boss as a tragically confused figure who "accepted but never grasped" the political consequences of his policies and who allowed himself to become the puppet of supply-side fanatics and hard-liners in the Defense Department. In his 1987 memoir, Michael Deaver, a senior White House aide, portrayed the president as a kind of detached figurehead, whose statements and actions had to be carefully managed so he didn't embarrass himself. Deaver also disclosed that Nancy Reagan played an active role in many aspects of personnel and policy, lobbying her husband on issues from the homeless to Star Wars. This portrait was reinforced by Donald Regan, Reagan's chief of staff, who confirmed the first lady's machinations and revealed that some of her actions on the president's behalf were based on her consultations with an astrologer. Regan depicted the administration as utterly lacking direction from the top and perennially prone to blunders. Indeed in 1986 he told the New York Times that "some of us are like a shovel brigade" following the circus elephant, cleaning up his droppings along the parade.
Political conservatives are more appreciative of Reagan and view him as a successful leader. Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, published an unapologetic defense of supply-side economics, and right-wing magazines like National Review and Policy Review have consistently defended Reagan against his liberal critics. A committee of conservative historians, recently assembled by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to counterbalance Arthur Schlesinger's liberal group, rated Reagan in the top tier of American presidents. Yet, although Reagan is fondly remembered at GOP conventions, his style and approach have had few self-conscious political imitators in the Republican leadership. Moreover, right-wing pundits like John O'Sullivan, editor of National Review, have expressed their doubts that the "Reagan model" is a useful one for conservatives to adopt now.
Speak to leading thinkers on the right, and here is what many of them will say: We like Ronald Reagan. We think he did an outstanding job, especially on foreign policy. His policies played an important role in bringing down the Soviet Union. His tax cuts ignited the economic recovery, but he should have worked harder to cut spending. His failure to shrink the size of government contributed to those large deficits. Reagan deserves credit for reviving patriotic sentiments after an era of national self-doubt, but he put off dealing with the social issues, with the result that he left American culture in worse shape. Still, let's not be too hard on Reagan. Yes, he was a simple man, but that helped him to communicate with the American people. He had only a few ideas, but they were the right ones. When you consider the performance of his successors, Reagan looks better all the time.
It does not take too much insight to see an element of condescension even in this generally favorable assessment. Yet the patronizing tone of some contemporary conservatives toward Reagan should not be entirely surprising, coming from people who were often dubious and in some cases dismissive of him even when he was in office. Toward the end of Reagan's first term, Policy Review, the flagship magazine of the Heritage Foundation, polled leading conservative politicians, intellectuals, and activists to ask them how the President was doing. Eight out of eleven were highly critical. The wise men of the right portrayed Reagan as a conventional Republican whose lackadaisical governing approach could not be expected to fulfill his promise to change fundamentally the landscape of American politics.
Throughout the 1980s, many right-wingers expressed suspicion of Reagan's governing strategy. Conservatives perceived that there was a battle for the president's mind between the ideological "true believers" and the more moderate "pragmatists." From the perspective of the right, most of Reagan's deviations from the straight path were attributable to the influence of pragmatists like James Baker and George Shultz. During Reagan's second term, some conservatives grimly joked, "None of this would have happened if Ronald Reagan were still president." The right kept demanding that Reagan fire those nefarious pragmatists, but he wouldn't do it. Many conservatives privately complained that Reagan was a kindly old bumbler. They saw him as a malleable figurehead who could be easily controlled by his wife and pragmatist advisers.
I was one of those conservatives. In early 1987, at the age of twenty-six, I joined the Reagan White House as a senior domestic policy analyst. What could be more exciting? We were a generation of young conservatives who came to Washington in the 1980s inspired by Reagan and the idea of America that he espoused and embodied. The world was changing, and we wanted to be instruments of that change. Reagan was a septuagenarian with a youthful heart. He hired people like me because he wanted fresh faces and new ideas in the White House. Full of vigor and determination, we rallied to his cause.
But on joining the Reagan team, I found an administration paralyzed by the Iran-contra scandal and torn by internecine conflict. Far from altering the course of history, we seemed to spend most of our time on political damage control. No one not even the president seemed to be in charge. Everyone was concerned about perks and titles, but it was hard to figure out who had real power. Like many other Americans, I liked Reagan as a person, but like many other conservatives, I worried that he lacked the intellectual temperament and administrative skills to give new direction to the country.
When Reagan left office and his critics resumed their attack on his record, many of us on the right fell awkwardly silent. Meanwhile, the grand old warrior was spending the last part of his life in California. Recall the melancholy lines from Robert Burns: "The white moon is setting behind the white wave, and Time is setting with me, O!" He came out of the wilderness and then he returned, in many ways as much an outsider as when he first arrived. He was the lion in winter. What did he make of all this unpleasantness? Most people would be upset if their supposed friends, no less than their critics, spoke of them in such a demeaning tone. What was Reagan's own view?
One of his former aides who understood Reagan's isolation, Jeffrey Bell, recalled for me a conversation he had with Reagan on the telephone in 1989, in which Bell commented about how lonely it must have been for Reagan in the White House, given the way that many of his own people regarded him. Reagan expressed surprise. He said he hadn't felt that way at all; he didn't know what Bell was talking about. In 1994, Peggy Noonan wrote Reagan a letter, asking how he felt about the attacks on his reputation. Reagan replied that he wasn't going to "lose sleep" over them. When biographer Edmund Morris was asked in a C-Span profile whether Reagan was happy to see him for interviews, Morris replied: yes, but he would have been equally happy to spend the time with anyone else. Here was a famous historian charged with establishing Reagan's place in history; yet, incredibly, Reagan showed no particular interest in Morris's final conclusions about him.
This book reevaluates the leadership of Ronald Reagan with the benefit of hindsight and greater detachment. It is customary for such accounts to begin with expectant idealism and end with mature disenchantment. When I look back at Reagan, however, I am struck by the degree to which I underestimated him. In rejecting the prejudices of the liberal elite, I adopted those of the conservative elite.
"No man is a hero to his valet," the old maxim goes. This is thought to be true because the valet is close enough to observe the defects of the master. Yet the deeper truth is that the valet's low opinion of his master arises mainly because he does not understand the ingredients of the master's success. The valet is the toughest guy to convince that there are good reasons that he is the valet and his master is in charge.
Even when Reagan proved us wrong and showed how effective a president he was, many of us in his ideological camp nevertheless failed to understand the secret of his success. We could not fathom how he conceived and realized his grand objectives, effortlessly overcame his powerful adversaries, and won the support of the American people. Many who worked closely with him are still bewildered. This study seeks to solve the mystery. In the process, I have turned my early impression of Reagan on its head. Previously I admired the man but had doubts about his leadership. Now I see that he had his faults as an individual but was an outstanding statesman and leader.
Reagan was not merely a successful president who belongs in the impressive corner of Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan was truly a great president whose achievement rivals that of Franklin Roosevelt. Only the two nation builders, Washington and Lincoln, occupy a more elevated place in the presidential pantheon. Reagan dominates American politics in the second half of the twentieth century in much the way that FDR dominates the first. On the world stage, he was the supreme statesmen of his era, a leader of the caliber of Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill.
Clare Boothe Luce once said that history, which has no room for clutter, will remember each president by a single line: "Lincoln freed the slaves" for example, or "FDR won the war and brought the country out of the depression." Thomas Jefferson wanted his gravestone to record three achievements for posterity his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute on religious liberty, and his founding of the University of Virginia. But he is mostly remembered for just one: writing the Declaration. Margaret Thatcher came close to composing Reagan's epitaph when she said, "Ronald Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot." Yet he did more than that. Most likely, Reagan will be remembered in the following way: "He won the cold war, revived the American spirit, and made the world safe for capitalism and democracy." No American president other than Washington, Lincoln, and FDR can claim a legacy of comparable distinction.
The impressiveness of Reagan's achievement is obscured by an irony inherent in historical greatness: great leaders are not always appreciated in their time. The British people revered Churchill during World War II, but in 1945 they ungratefully voted him out of office. As Churchill's example reveals, truly great leaders are sometimes shortchanged by their contemporaries because they abolish the very problems that tested their greatness. Today we recall, but we cannot keenly feel, the scourge of inflation or the dangers of the cold war, because after Reagan, those problems disappeared.
A second obstacle to understanding great leaders is that we live in an era that is cynical about greatness. There are grounds for our suspicion. We have become accustomed to seeing the high and mighty routinely pulled down and discredited. Yet democratic societies, which have always been accused of elevating the mediocre, have shown that they are capable of producing outstanding leaders like Washington and Lincoln or, in our own era, FDR and Churchill. These men were great despite their all-too-human flaws, which historical scholarship has excavated.
A further problem in assessing greatness in leadership is that those who study the subject frequently apply biased, self-interested, or arbitrary criteria that render their evaluations incomplete or suspect. Intellectuals, for example, sometimes demand that a great leader be an intellectual, even though highly analytical men like Nixon and Carter failed miserably. Moreover, as strong supporters of the New Deal and the Great Society, many wise men have tended to judge presidents who expanded the role of government as vigorous and successful leaders, while they consider those who slowed this trend, like Coolidge and Reagan, as lethargic, do-nothing presidents.
Conservatives, by contrast, tend to place a greater emphasis on character. Some of their animus toward Bill Clinton, for example, is surely driven by outrage over his acknowledged personal weaknesses. But who says that these traits, any more than scholarship and book learning, are crucial for leadership? History records many examples of exemplary individuals, such as Jimmy Carter and George Bush, who were poor leaders, while presidents with obvious character flaws, like John Kennedy and Clinton, have clearly been more successful.
A final obstacle to a clear perception of greatness is that historians and others tend to apply anachronistic standards in their evaluation of a leader. They assume a posture of superior understanding toward their subjects that is usually based on nothing more than the clarity of hindsight. Yet even the finest statesman cannot be expected to make decisions relying on information that only comes into existence many years later. As Churchill noted in his panoramic history of World War II, his criticism of his country's leaders for appeasing Hitler was based solely on the knowledge that was available to them at the time. It is now possible to read columns by pundits who insist that because the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was obviously destined to do so, and therefore anyone who regarded the Soviet threat seriously was a paranoid alarmist. Let us try to rise above this kind of reasoning.
Reagan's legacy must be judged against the conditions that he faced at the time. By any measure, his record is astonishing. When he came to office in early 1981, America was on a downward spiral in economic well-being and global influence. The most serious domestic problem was inflation, which had been accelerating since the 1960s and reached double digits in the 1970s. At the 12 percent rate of 1979-1980, inflation promised in the space of a few years to double the prices of basic goods and cut in half the value of savings accounts and pension plans. Prices changed so fast that a single piece of merchandise often carried several price stickers, and in a grocery store it was a common sight to see an elderly shopper on a fixed income reaching to the back of the shelf to find items still marked with the price of three months ago. When the currency is debased in this way, it is discouraging to save, and very difficult to plan, for the future.
Another serious problem for the Carter administration was the energy crisis, symbolized by rising gasoline prices and fuel shortages. Gas prices had soared from around 35 cents a gallon in 1970 to more than $1.50 in 1980, and politicians like Senator Edward Kennedy called for a nationwide system of gasoline rationing. In the election year of 1980, interest rates peaked at 21 percent, the highest since the Civil War, making it difficult for many families to buy homes. Hardest hit were those who didn't have jobs at all. Unemployment and poverty rates were high. Productivity was down. Economic growth had ground to a halt. Consumer confidence was at a low ebb. It was the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
When Reagan left office, inflation was no longer a problem. The inflation rate plummeted during his first term, averaged 3 percent during his second term, and remained low under his successors. Interest rates fell to single digits. Housing starts were up. Gas prices dropped steeply, and the oil crisis ended. After the recession of 1982, the economy went into a seven-year period of growth, the largest expansion in American peacetime history. Nearly 20 million new jobs were created between 1983 and 1989. At a growth rate of 3.5 percent, the gross national product increased by nearly a third. The stock market more than doubled in value. Both poverty and unemployment rates declined. The United States reaffirmed its position as the world's preeminent economy. It became the vanguard of technology at a time of breathtaking progress.
In his 1976 campaign against President Ford, Jimmy Carter had developed a concept called the "misery index," the sum of the inflation and unemployment rate, to show the depth of economic hardship. The failure of the Carter presidency is encapsulated in a single statistic: the misery index rose from around 13 percent under Ford to more than 20 percent under Carter. By contrast, the misery index fell by more than half, to under 10 percent, during Reagan's tenure. In 1992, economist Robert Barro issued an economic report card for presidents, based on who did the most to boost economic growth and reduce inflation, unemployment, and interest rates. Of eleven presidents from Truman to Bush, Reagan ranked both first (for his first term) and second (for his second term). Objectively, Reagan's record on this score is the best of all the postwar presidents, including Clinton.
Abroad, the turnaround produced under Reagan is even more startling. When Reagan was elected, capitalism and democracy were on the retreat in much of the world, and the Soviet model appeared to be in the vanguard of history. Khrushchev's boast that the Soviets would bury the West seemed a real possibility. Most of the Third World seemed to be opting for some form of socialism or Marxism. In Latin America, the United States's own backyard, guerrilla revolutions fueled by popular discontent against the old dictatorships apparently presaged a socialist future for the region. For the first time, in the 1970s, the Soviet nuclear arsenal surpassed that of the United States. The Soviets deployed hundreds of long-range SS-18 missiles, each carrying multiple warheads targeted at the United States, as well as a new generation of intermediate-range missiles, the SS-20s, targeted at Western Europe. Between 1974 and 1980, while the United States wallowed in post-Vietnam angst, nine countries fell into the Soviet orbit South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Grenada, and Nicaragua topped off in 1979 by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
During the Reagan administration, all this changed. No more nations fell into the clutches of the Soviet bear. Capitalism and democracy began to advance around the world. On Reagan's watch, dictatorships collapsed in Chile, Haiti, and Panama, and nine more countries moved toward democracy: Bolivia (1982), Honduras (1982), Argentina (1983), Grenada (1983), El Salvador (1984), Uruguay (1984), Brazil (1985), Guatemala (1985), and the Philippines (1986). Fewer than one-third of the countries in Latin America were democratic in 1981; more than 90 percent of the region was democratic by 1989. In Nicaragua, shortly after Reagan's second term ended, free elections were held, and the Sandinista government was ousted from power. Apartheid ended in South Africa, and a black-majority government was elected. All these changes occurred relatively peacefully.
In addition, as part of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle and destroy its SS-20 missiles. A year later, Moscow agreed to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, the first time that the Soviet Union voluntarily withdrew from a puppet regime. The revolution soon penetrated into the Soviet bloc. Poland held free elections, and Lech Walesa became president. Suddenly all of Eastern and Central Europe was free, and the Berlin Wall came down.
There was more to come. In 1991 the Soviet Union abolished itself, and power passed into the hands of Boris Yeltsin, who became the first freely elected president of Russia. An era of friendship between the United States and Russia became possible as a consequence of the diminished nuclear rivalry between the two nations. So in the dawn of the twenty-first century the United States found itself the world's sole superpower, and its political traditions of democratic capitalism came to embody the aspirations of peoples everywhere. The century-old debate between capitalism and socialism was resolved.
These developments, both domestic and international, were no accident. Reagan was the prime mover; he brought them about. He was the architect of his own success. This is not to say that he transformed the world single-handedly. He had help from Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Václav Havel, and Lech Walesa. Though it is often exaggerated, Gorbachev also played a crucial role. Yet none of these things would have happened when they did, and in the way that they did, without Reagan. He was the decisive agent of change. This study explores how a seemingly ordinary man became an extraordinary leader.
Let me briefly summarize my conclusions. Reagan's greatness derives in large part from the fact that he was a visionary a conceptualizer who was able to see the world differently from the way it was. While others were obsessed and bewildered by the problems of the present, Reagan was focused on the future. This orientation gave Reagan an otherworldly quality that is often characteristic of great men.
The source of Reagan's vision was his possession of what Edmund Burke termed moral imagination. He saw the world through the clear lens of right and wrong. This kind of knowledge came not from books but from within himself. Moreover, Reagan firmly believed that however prolonged the struggle, good eventually would prevail over evil. He was an apostle not so much of blind optimism as of hope. His hope had a religious root. Reagan was not a conventionally religious man, but he had a providential understanding of destiny both his own and that of his country.
It wasn't Reagan's philosophy or his ideas that were novel. They were grand ideas, but they were not uniquely his own. He derived them from lived experience of the founding principles of freedom and self-government. Reagan valued ideas to the degree that they were anchored in the firm tether of experience. He understood the moral power of the American ideal and saw how it could be realized most effectively in his time.
To say, as even his allies do, that Reagan had "a few good ideas" is like calling Abraham Lincoln a single-issue politician. It is true that Lincoln focused both his presidential campaigns on one question, slavery, but great leaders view the entire landscape of events and detect which issues among many are absolutely decisive, and lay bare the fundamental question of what it means to be an American, which in every period of American history is always the most important question. Like Lincoln, Reagan had an unerring capacity to separate the things that mattered from the things that were peripheral.
Reagan understood Soviet communism with the same moral clarity that Lincoln had in understanding slavery. Both men were fundamentally motivated not by political calculation but by a basic sense of right and wrong. They approached evil with a pure childlike simplicity that sophisticated people take pride in having outgrown. Like Jimmy Stewart in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Reagan never lost his innocence or his capacity to be outraged. Although his country-boy style was often seen as revealing Reagan's naiveté, in fact he had a shrewd understanding of human nature, as well as a sharp political antenna, and he exploited the fact that he was consistently underrated by his adversaries.
Unlike Jimmy Carter, who forgot his priorities by immersing himself in a morass of detail, Reagan kept his sights on the road ahead. He understood the importance of the big picture and would not be distracted by petty detail. He was wrong not to recognize Sam Pierce, but the reason for his oversight was that he had no interest in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he saw as a rat hole of public policy. He knew that if he went in, he might never come out. By and large, he was right.
He was an intensely ambitious and even opportunistic man, but he was ambitious mainly for the triumph of his ideas. He didn't care about power for its own sake. Unlike many who seek the highest office in the land, he wanted to be president for one reason only: to realize his principles and improve his country and the rest of the world. He had a Churchillian tenacity about his moral and political beliefs; no matter what anybody said, he would never give in. On the fundamental questions, no pollster in the world could have changed his mind. In this sense, he was closed-minded.
He was extremely strange among politicians in that he was incorruptible and cared nothing for personal glory. Reagan had a sign on his desk at the White House: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." He courted the affection of the American people, in part so he could build support for his policies. But when it came to a point of principle, he was impervious to personal attacks. People in the elite media, the universities, and even his own party sneered at him and called him the most hurtful things imaginable. He laughed it all off. He didn't care what the soi-disant intellectuals at the Aspen Institute or the New York Times editorial page thought of him. He was truly rare in this respect.
Although Reagan was resolute in principle, he was creative and flexible about putting his ideas into practice. Those who called him an extremist and a dogmatist never understood that he was an intensely practical man, which is odd for a visionary. Yet Reagan's attachment to ideas was not purely theoretical; he wanted to see them implemented. He was patient and willing to compromise; if he could not get 100 percent, he would accept half. Yet he was a superb negotiator who usually got 75 percent: he drove an extremely hard bargain.
Like most other successful leaders, Reagan used his rhetoric and his acting skills as part of his governing strategy. If you think he was effective because he was a "mere actor," just try to imagine whether the same results could be obtained by, say, Susan Sarandon or Ed Asner in the White House. Reagan understood that leaders in a democratic society have to play a variety of public roles. He used his theatrical talents to establish has public persona and had a keen sense of how people expect their president to act. Although he never served in combat, as commander in chief Reagan proved more popular with the armed forces than his successor, George Bush, who was an authentic war hero.
Reagan was not an orator in the conventional sense. An ancient writer commented that when people heard Cicero speak, they said, "What a clever man is Cicero." But when Demosthenes spoke, the people said, "Let us march against Philip." Reagan was more like Demosthenes; he deployed his famous skills not to display his own eloquence but to generate support for his ideas. Once Reagan had won people over to his side, he would urge them to pressure their congressional representatives; then he would cut a deal that was very favorable to his policy priorities. His strategy in this respect was the classical one: he spoke in poetry and governed in prose.
Yet he rarely talked to the American people about the specific details of policy; instead, he talked about principles. He knew that a democratic leader must embody the aspirations of the people. Reagan did not merely follow the path of public opinion, however. Like a true leader, he worked hard to shape it, so that he could point out the best way for his country to achieve its ideals. He was a Great Communicator because he forcefully articulated the principles of liberty and equality that are at the core of what it means to be an American.
Good leaders understand that they often have to work with people who don't share their vision. Unlike his conservative critics, Reagan recognized the value of pragmatists in the White House; despite their disagreements with him, they helped him get his agenda through. He could not have done it without them. But while he valued the talent of his aides, they did not always value his. They thought they could do better. Yet, without Reagan's vision to guide their pragmatic skills most of them have done very little since he left and they went out on their own. More than one who served in the Bush administration had an undistinguished subsequent record.
Reagan was uniformly fair-minded and pleasant with aides but did not get close to them personally. He saw them as instruments to achieve his goals. People would work for him for a decade; then they would leave, and he would not associate with them not even a phone call. Thus the conventional wisdom must be turned on its head: he wasn't their pawn; they were his. Eventually many of them came to recognize this, and it angered and frustrated them. His aides all wanted to be part of the inner circle, and they fought their way up the ranks until they finally realized that there was no inner circle just Reagan.
Eventually his aides came to see how dispensable they were. They were not the source of Reagan's ideas, from the Strategic Defense Initiative to the Reagan doctrine of aid to anticommunist guerrillas. On the issues that he cared about, they didn't make any of the major decisions; he did, and often over their strong objections. Reagan went through four White House chiefs of staff, six national security advisers, and numerous cabinet members, but he forged on with his agenda. Speech-writers came and left, yet Reagan's message remained the same. He won his elections no matter who his campaign managers or political consultants were.
Reagan had lots of acquaintances but no real friends. This fact was hard for most people to recognize because Reagan had such a genial public exterior. He did like people in general but was indifferent to Tom, Dick, and Harry. People who wanted to be his close pal, like Donald Regan, found themselves gently but firmly rebuffed. It is in his relationships, not in his decision making, that Reagan can rightly be said to be detached. This must be recognized as a flaw in his character, but it may have helped him as a leader to endure vicious attacks with equanimity.
The problem of detachment extended even to Reagan's family. He seemed incapable of genuine intimacy. His first wife, Jane Wyman, realized this and left him. Reagan grieved but moved on. He was always helpful and decent with family members, yet even his children felt the icy blast of his emotional withdrawal. If he was close to anyone in his life, it was to his mother, Nelle, and his second wife, Nancy.
This is not to say that Nancy Reagan ran the White House. On the contrary, she was a socialite who didn't care about politics. She cared deeply about her husband. He usually listened to her on personnel matters. Reagan hated to deal with the low and conniving side of people, but he knew it existed. He trusted Nancy because she had lower expectations than he did, and she was willing to take tough measures to protect him from those who she felt were undermining him. When she wanted to get rid of someone, that person usually was gone. But when she attempted to change his position on substantive issues like strategic defense or support for the contras, he generally ignored her advice and maintained his course.
The portrait of Reagan that emerges from this book is one of a highly complex man, hardly the transparent or one-dimensional figure that both his admirers and critics are used to. He was a distinctive personality, not without flaws, but nevertheless larger than life. There is much about leadership that we can learn from him today. Our world is the one that he made, and our challenge now is to fulfill his vision for America. Whatever we do, the effects of his revolution are enduring. As he put it, "We meant to change a nation, and instead we changed the world."
Copyright © 1997 by Dinesh D'Souza