Reagan: The Life

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Once upon a time, liberals snickered at the very idea of a subpar matinee idol pulling off the ultimate comeback by turning the White House into a soundstage. That sure doesn’t say much for their vision. Not many people today would dispute that Ronald Reagan, who left office just over a quarter century ago, was one of the two or three most consequential U.S. presidents of the past century.

He’s toe-to-toe with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose stature benefits inordinately — isn’t life unfair? — from FDR’s rakish stewardship of a little thing called World War Two. He’s far more with us than Lyndon Johnson, whose own game-changing prowess never recovered from that messy business in Vietnam. With the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, no chief executive in American history tops Reagan at rebooting the country’s priorities and character in peacetime. He’s that rare thing, a presidential success story — a fellow who turns up airily promising to accomplish X, Y, and Z and retires having pretty much done it.

Still, call Reagan a great president — let alone a great man, which isn’t necessarily the same thing at all — and you’re just asking for a fight. Plus an awful lot of confusion, since the GOP that swears by his godhood has nonetheless muddied his legacy into high-octane incoherence. Quite simply, there is no logic to Reaganism minus Communism, his lifelong nemesis. That’s leaving aside the spectacle of a bunch of hysterical and abrasive personalities all trying to lay claim to his unguent one.

Meanwhile, over on the left, he remains the smiling star of a flag-studded disaster movie — destructive of our own imaginary America, which plainly couldn’t match his at provoking rapture, at a level that reduces George W. Bush to an inept sorcerer’s apprentice — and impossible to appraise dispassionately. From the collapse of the labor movement foreshadowed when he broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981 to the callousness about capitalism’s collateral damage he sunnily institutionalized, we’re still reeling at how Reagan’s favorite chimeras have become national givens. All these years later, it isn’t just outrage that keeps his political opponents from managing or even trying to see him in perspective; it’s disbelief.

Since this unreconstructed non-fan — you’ve been warned — suspects that history’s final view of Reagan won’t do wonders for my blood pressure, I’m kind of glad I’ll be deader than all four original Ramones by the time it materializes. Yet his presidency is now as distant from us as Gone with the Winds premiere was from MLK’s Selma march, and a permanent case of incredulity will only get a guy so far. You can’t figure out the spell he cast when your prejudices are the only traffic cops around. So I came back from my first-ever visit to the Reagan Library — which I’m afraid was kind of a bust at sparking the fresh insights I craved — to dive willingly enough into H. W. Brands’s new Reagan: The Life, which aspires to judiciousness while treating admiration as its starting point.

With lives of Jackson, both Roosevelts, and Ulysses S. Grant already behind him, along with twenty-some other books, Brands is one of those industrious historians who can manhandle a president from womb to coffin in the time it takes Robert A. Caro to agonize over his next bathroom break. His work is hardly flimsy or shoddy, though. Among other strengths, he’s got a good grasp of how any presidency’s concentration on Goals X, Y, and Z is periodically swamped by contingency’s random alphabet soup.

Too bad his account of Reagan’s origins and rise ranges from workmanlike to sketchy. Brands doesn’t have much feel for or interest in Hollywood, even though it’s as crucial to understanding Reagan as a knowledge of Virginia’s planter class would be to understanding George Washington. But the main event, which is Ron’s White House years, is impressively detailed about the humdrum day-to-day lurches (staff squabbles and turf wars, minor press flaps, etc., etc.) along with the highlights. At the same time, Brands knows a highlight when he sees one — above all, Reagan’s 1986 face-off with Mikhail Gorbachev at their Reykjavik summit, which gets a protracted and riveting treatment that’s equally attuned to their dueling psychologies and the geopolitical stakes in play.

That said, to present the Gipper-his-own-self as just another president, albeit an important one — an approach Brands’s c.v. guarantees will be all but reflexive — is to seriously undersell Reagan’s uniqueness. In his way, the onetime fourth-billed star of Santa Fe Trail (he played Custer) and host of TV’s General Electric Theatre was every bit as much a break with precedent as Barack Obama when it comes to the talent pool we usually cull our rulers from. While Brands can’t ignore Reagan’s mold-breaking novelty, he does do his best to minimize it, conventionalizing our fortieth president by giving us a figure safely carved from more or less the same marble that middlebrow biographers have always used for political titans. If that turns out to be history’s view as well, all I can say is that history won’t know what it’s missing.

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Something Reagan does have in common with several other notable twentieth-century presidents — FDR, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, for starters — is that Mom was the rock and Dad was the shoals. In his case, Dad was shiftless, alcoholic Jack Reagan, whose inability to hold a job kept the family bouncing from one podunk Illinois town to the next throughout his younger son’s childhood. In Reagan’s own memoirs, which aren’t exactly given to darkness, insecurity is the word that keeps coming up; Brands is equally fond of anxiety. Interestingly, Jack Reagan was also Catholic, and jovially playing the Irish card while jettisoning the Catholicism was altogether typical of his beamish boy’s M.O.

Despite its run-amok authorial vanities, Edmund Morris’s Dutch remains the richest account of Reagan’s early years. Brands adds nothing new to the familiar tales of Ron the self-lionizing teenage lifeguard or Ron the failed football player and lackluster student at tiny Eureka College who thrived on campus theatricals while dabbling in campus politics.

Next comes Ron the Depression-era sports announcer at a Des Moines radio station — skilled at inventing colorful descriptions of baseball games he wasn’t on hand for, though plenty of his peers did the same — who wangled a screen test while on a West Coast trip with the Chicago Cubs and got signed to Warner Brothers’ stable of male ingénues in 1937. That launched his career as “the Errol Flynn of the Bs,” a famously wry self-assessment that Brands, for whatever reason, doesn’t quote.

Maybe he just figures that nobody out there in the heartland knows who Errol Flynn was anymore. (The Reagan Library apparently feels the same concern about actress Jane Wyman, Reagan’s first wife; my girlfriend had to ask a docent for proof she’d ever existed.) But granting that he’s no film scholar, this biographer doesn’t do too badly at explaining the nature — and the limits — of Reagan’s screen appeal. He was good at “light roles . . . that let him skate on the fragile surface of human existence. But the dark parts, those that required digging deep and conveying essential inner conflict, were too risky.” Brands is also onto something, albeit much too glancingly, when he quotes an unnamed Hollywood dame about the lack of libidinal heat in Reagan’s affect. An air of virility minus the sex describes a lot of people’s ideal president — or movie president, so to speak.

Mainly, Brands wants to get his hero’s almost thirty-year stint in showbiz before winning California’s governorship in 1966 done with as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, he perks up whenever the material has a political dimension, chiefly the two stints heading the Screen Actors Guild that brought Reagan into confrontation with Communist influences in the industry’s unions and made him his craft’s upbeat spokesman in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. His conversion to Republicanism made him a dinner-party bore right up until he ended up owning the restaurant.

As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, you go to war with the army you’ve got. Given the lack of cherry-tree moments, this sort of thing is as good as it gets for president-in-training stuff, even though it’s embarrassing when Brands somewhat desperately reminds us of Reagan’s SAG experience as a negotiator while his hero is locking horns with Gorbachev. But the author either loses sight — or perhaps would just as soon his readers lost sight — of the fact that politics was this actor’s hobby, not his day job. It got the upper hand only as a substitute for the screen glory that eluded him.

Brands also doesn’t grasp the extent to which industry politics — that nerve-wracking combo of power, fickle fashionability, ambition as a form of submission, and submission as an expression of ambition — were Reagan’s Harvard and Yale. During much of his showbiz career, his agent and patron — note that contradiction and you’ll understand Hollywood — was Lew Wasserman, the legendary head of MCA. Because Wasserman’s links to the Chicago Mob known as “the Outfit” are what makes a man endow hospital wings to burnish his image, whole books could be written about the dark side of Ron’s debt to Lew; indeed, one or two have been. But Wasserman’s name shows up in Reagan: The Lifes index just once, and the reference turns out to be anodyne.

Why dwell on what Brands gives short shrift? Because Hollywood stayed Reagan’s primary frame of reference even after he found the ultimate golden parachute, that’s why. When he was an actor facing the glue factory, he couldn’t shut up about politics. Once he was president, he had the definition of a captive audience while blathering away about his life in movies as the phone never rang.

Up to then, we’d never had a professional fantasist in the White House. Nixon needed to be awfully drunk to think gabbing at portraits on walls was a good idea, but Reagan could do it cold sober. His fabled remoteness was eerie enough to disconcert his own family — even wife Nancy confessed it sometimes unnerved her — and his most immovable mental furniture seems to have been fashioned with such disregard for most people’s notions of corroborating evidence that he and Michael Jackson, his ’80s pop-culture counterpart at flights of Peter Pan fancy, really could have been long-lost twins. But Brands doesn’t even quote the most celebrated blooper of his man’s career: the farewell speech to the 1988 Republican convention in which John Adams’s “Facts are stubborn things” came out as “Facts are stupid things — stubborn things, I should say.”

Brands is too responsible a historian to outright ignore how, for Reagan, the presidency was — as his earlier biographer Lou Cannon put it — the role of a lifetime. “Some people enter politics seeking power; Reagan wanted attention,” he writes, and the motif of “larger stages” — with none grander than the Oval Office — keeps recurring. But he doesn’t much want to explore the implications of Reagan’s fundamentally cinematic worldview, leaving the thesis just sort of sitting there. Whenever Brands tries to put a positive construction on his subject’s disengagement from nettlesome details — it kept him free to see the “big picture,” and so on — you may reflect that “big picture” has more than one meaning. The genuinely bold way to make a case for Reagan’s greatness would be to argue that America: The Movie was what we’d pined for all along and preferring fairy tales to realism was his and our ace in the hole in the geopolitical poker game he played.

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 It was certainly the key to his 1980 defeat of Jimmy Carter, who was about as lamentable an advertisement for an age of limits as anyone could dream up — sort of a Disney creature manqué, really, trotting along behind blither spirits with his jumpy eyes and irksome prescriptions. Typically, Brands’s sober-sided account of Reagan’s first inaugural leaves out the gala festivities whose extravagance sent an unmistakable — and intended — message that chic and glitz were back in the saddle. Goodbye, U.S. News and World Report; hello, Vanity Fair.

On the other hand, he doesn’t leave readers in much doubt that Reagan’s future CIA chief, William Casey, helped put Ron in the White House by finagling to delay the release of the U.S. Embassy hostages whose Teheran captivity was the major albatross around Carter’s neck leading up to Election Day. “Bill Casey got your husband elected, and he did a lot of other things too,” Nancy Reagan was told when she wanted him unceremoniously fired on his deathbed. If Reagan himself didn’t know, he didn’t want or need to.

Brands is at his best in reconstructing the labyrinthine antagonisms and power plays inside Reagan’s Cabinet and White House staff, which their untroubled boss didn’t want or need to know about either. One arch-intriguer turned scapegoat who comes off surprisingly sympathetically is Alexander Haig, Reagan’s first secretary of state. His replacement, George Schultz, seems to have been wilier about tacking with the wind while maintaining a façade of dispassionate integrity, always the Washington lifer’s mission brief.

The atrocious Cap Weinberger, who headed up Reagan’s Defense Department during the biggest splurge on military spending since World War Two, turns out to have been an even crummier public servant than we knew. But Don Regan — the top man at Treasury until he and White House Chief of Staff James Baker coolly arranged to swap jobs, a breathtaking testimonial to Reagan’s indifference — sounds astute about everything except the perils of getting the first lady annoyed. (He’s the one who lectured her about Casey.) Regan’s revenge was to reveal Nancy’s dependence on astrologer Joan Quigley to vet her husband’s schedule after Reagan’s near-fatal shooting by John Hinckley just two months into his first term, an episode that more or less sealed his status as destiny’s favorite child while leaving even veteran naysayers impressed at his gallantry. It’s not unkind to call his chipper conduct in the assassination attempt’s aftermath the best performance of his career; rather, it’s a recognition of what an actor’s instincts can be good for.

Reagan’s historical reputation stands or falls on his role in hastening the Soviet Union’s demise, something only a churl would deny him any credit for. But even when Brands is trying to put the best face on things, he can’t help reminding readers how blinkered and ugly a lot of the rest of Reagan’s foreign policy record was, from the farcical “liberation” of Grenada — he was so eager to flex American muscle that we almost invaded Suriname instead — to the Lebanon misadventure that left 241 Marines dead. At times, the biographer’s “Nothing to see here” routine is almost comical, as when the administration’s stubborn (and disgraceful) support for South African apartheid rates only a dim paragraph.

For some of us, Reagan’s most bloodstained legacy will always be the proxy wars he conducted in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Considering our long history of meddling in the region, it’s hard to know whether Brands is disingenuous or ignorant when he writes that “the Cold War reached Latin America after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959” — a claim likely to come as news to Guatemalans, since the CIA-instigated coup that deposed left-leaning, democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz with the usual right-wing junta took place in 1954. But Reagan managed to outdo his predecessors at licensing brutality in the Pax Americana’s name.

All the same, history is often at its cruelest in what it demotes to trivia. Provoking vast passions at the time, Reagan’s Central American hang-up is remembered today, if at all, only for its sidebar role in the most damaging scandal of his presidency. The revelation that we’d been covertly selling arms to Iran through Israel in exchange for hostages held by Hezbollah would have sullied him plenty, even if it hadn’t then come out that NSC factotum Oliver North — the most unspeakable figure in an administration stuffed with them — had enterprisingly diverted some of the proceeds to bankroll the Nicaraguan contras despite a congressional ban on aid.

Not a happy camper, Brands keeps calling Iran-Contra a “blunder” — but flouting the legislative branch’s legally binding will was an impeachable offense, pure and simple. Reagan didn’t get impeached only because there was no political will to do so. Besides being virtually the only public admission of wrongdoing in his career, his eventual mea culpa provided a fascinating window into his brand of poetry’s adversarial relationship to reality: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me thats true [emphasis added], but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

His success in pushing the Cold War into its adios-USSR endgame may just go to show what a determined fantasist can accomplish. Unlike some right-wing panegyrists, Brands recognizes that Reagan couldn’t have done it without the opening provided by Gorbachev, whose own stupefaction as he realizes his shrewdness can’t outmaneuver his counterpart’s monomania has its Wile E. Coyote side. He’s a lousy pitchman for illusions who’s up against a genius at it. Yet Reagan did have — and act on — the crucial perception that Gorbachev represented something new, despite others’ skepticism: “I’d finally met a Soviet leader I could talk to,” he later said. Of course, he’d never met one before at all — but you can’t have everything.

What you’d hardly guess from reading Reagan: The Life is that the United States went from being the world’s No. 1 creditor to its No. 1 debtor nation during his tenure. His zest for replacing red tape with red ink ended any pretense that the GOP was the party of fiscal prudence, but when Brands mentions toward the end that the Reagan era’s hemorrhaging deficits had tripled the public debt from $700 billion to $2 trillion by 1988, it’s the first time the subject has come up several hundred pages — and it’s virtually the last one, too. Poetry doesn’t come cheap, people. If Reagan had been the director of America: The Movie, he’d have handed his walking papers as the budget spun out of control. But everybody knew he was only the star.

Fittingly, the glittering showpiece of the Reagan Library’s otherwise mediocre attractions is a tourable Air Force One — i.e., an exhibit with pure theme park appeal, divorced from history’s niggling particularities. You may say he was a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. Sending our national hankering for transcendence into overdrive, he turned his compatriots into the illusion-addicted cast of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and no president since has wanted to break the spell (even if Obama sometimes does flirt with it). Back when he was just another matinee idol on the skids, Reagan himself said it best, with “uncharacteristic reflectiveness” — no kidding — in a letter to an old Illinois friend who’d lost her husband and didn’t think she’d ever love again: “I have learned painfully that some ‘idealism’ is in effect a flight from reality.”