Many of Ronald Reagan's ways were not only unusual, but seem to contradict his others. Some authors are so perplexed by his nature they are reluctant to even assign intelligence to his mentality. They suspect he operated on everything from instinct to hunches to gut feelings and guesses.
Lawrence Nesbitt's six years of extensive research has revealed a single psychological key that makes sense of the anomalies and contradictions. He has uncovered a powerful and nearly unique mindset that directed almost all of Reagan's conduct then and causes the confusion now. This unusual belief also explains how a man so old and riddled with flaws could accomplish so much and leave the presidency with an approval rating of nearly 70%, the highest of any two-term president in United States history.
Nesbitt shows the controlling role this mindset played in Reagan's youth, in his years as a Hollywood actor, during his tenure as California governor, through his two terms as president, and even later.
What Reagan Couldn't Tell Us offers a previously untold analysis of Reagan, one that will encourage discussion for years to come.
"I found Lawrence Nesbitt's explanation of what made Ronald Reagan tick very plausible, fascinating, and enlightening. His revolutionary conclusions about the former president seem well-founded on solid evidence. He gives us a new Reagan to appreciate."
--James D. Mallory, MD, author, former psychiatric director of Atlanta Counseling Center, and medical director of RAPHA
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What Reagan Couldn't Tell Us
By Lawrence Nesbitt
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Lawrence Nesbitt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBEFORE THE GLORY
"It is better to be making the news than taking it; to be an actor rather than a critic." Sir Winston Churchill
Since my book is not chronologically formatted after this chapter, the following concise review of Reagan's pre-presidential life will be useful in the subsequent exploration of the man's makeup, especially for those readers who are not already students of Reagan's life.
Many details of the man's early years are covered in chapter two when explaining the key to his paradoxical personality. Therefore, to avoid repetition, some details of that period are kept to a minimum in this chapter.
On February 6, 1911, on a lumpy bed in a cramped corner of a small room above a bank in a hamlet sixty miles west of Chicago, a plump baby boy was born to a Scots-English seamstress and an unemployed Irish shoe salesman. They named the baby Ronald, but the lad was such a porker his father said they should call him Dutch. The mother agreed, and so they did. History has yet to explain the reasoning behind that decision.
Both father Jack Reagan and mother Nelle were products of tiny Illinois farm towns where they had met around the turn of the century. Each was completely different from the other, except neither had graduated even grade school, which seemed enough in common to justify a marriage. Ronald was their second son, and his birth raised the population of Tampico, Illinois from 840 to 841. He and his brother Neil, two years older, had no sisters, and since Ronald was a difficult delivery, Nelle was advised to have no more children on lumpy beds.
Most psychiatrists believe ninety percent of our adult personalities are formed before we reach adolescence. That seems to have been the case with this boy. Young Ronald's unusual reaction to his family's embarrassing problems instilled in him a rare characteristic as he matured. His youthful efforts to cope formed a remarkable quality in Ronald that would empower him to succeed as a man far beyond what would be expected of a boy born to the household of an uneducated, unemployed, often drunken shoe salesman in the backwater of rural Illinois.
Ronald experienced that difficult childhood in spite of the positive spin he tried to put on it as a man. It was quite like him to portray this period of his life as more pleasant than it actually was. He sometimes had a problem with reality. To him, with few exceptions, everything and everybody was a little better than the facts indicated. Additionally, his loyalty to his parents was substantial, and admitting to a painful boyhood would be suggesting they had failed in some way in raising their sons. He would never do something like that.
One source of Reagan's childhood distress was the moving. Before he left home the family had changed residence an even dozen times. If they weren't moving to occupy a cheaper apartment or house, or to follow Jack's quest for a job, they were fleeing Jack's reputation from adventures with the bottle. Word of this travels quickly in rural communities, and their rootless existence set them down in such Illinois towns as Tampico (two different stays there), Galesburg, Monmouth, Dixon and one called Chicago, where, on baseball afternoons, Ronald and brother Neil were required to sell bags of popcorn at the amusement park and bring back to their father butter-greased pails of "backdoor beer." The boys' popcorn-selling enterprise was soon cut short when Jack was arrested for public drunkenness, and he lost his job at the Fair Store. After only eight months here, the Reagan family was on the road again seeking anonymity.
For even an easy-going boy like Ronald, both the boozing and the moving had to have been stressful. Later he would write of the harassment he sometimes received from students simply because he was a new kid in class. This is only part of the price paid for being an itinerant child. Close friendships cannot be formed, nor can studies be completed cohesively. But in spite of his disruptive schooling, amazingly, bright young Ronald's marks in grade school were outstanding enough to allow him to skip a grade. This is especially impressive when considering the domestic effects of Jack's drunken binges. The embarrassment alone would be a painful problem in the small towns they lived in.
As a teenager in Dixon, Ronald nearly lost his high school sweetheart because of his father's drinking. Embarrassment for a kid doesn't get much worse than that, or on the day Jack arrived home "with a severe list to port," and Ronald found Jack's car in the middle of the street with the door open and the engine running. Neighbors have a field day with scenes like that. But the most traumatic for the boy was the scene on the Reagans' front porch on a cold winter's day. Returning from the YMCA when he was eleven, the boy found his father flat on his back, sprawled out in the snow near the front door. "I leaned over to see what was wrong and smelled whiskey," Reagan wrote later. "He had found his way home from a speakeasy and had just passed out right there." Unable to wake him, Ronald dragged Jack in the house and put him to bed.
Jack's best binges would keep him away from home for several days at a time. Then, once back, "fiery arguments" would erupt in the parents' bedroom. In the heat of the moment, parents often overlook the emotional impact this has on their children, who almost always hear. Ronald did, and so noted in his autobiographies.
As a youth, Ronald developed a tendency to mentally shape certain events into what they should be rather than what they really were. This characteristic remained with him as a man. He had help in this regard when it came to his father's drinking. His mother saw to it that young Ronald viewed this as a sickness, brought on through no fault of Jack's. To a dreamer such as Ronald, this was easy to accept so thoroughly that later in life he seemed to see it the same way. Biographer Lou Cannon believes "... he (Reagan) attempts to portray Jack Reagan favorably in his autobiography. Reagan describes a charming, but weak man, who failed to realize the potential of his life because of alcoholism." Reagan had come to apply the word alcoholism to his father, but after being critical of Jack's drinking in his first autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, in his second, An American Life, he leaves one wondering if he thought the drinking was Jack's fault, or simply "a sickness," as Nelle had taught him. As a man, surely he knew how one catches this "sickness," and that one doesn't come down with it after just one or two good toots. But a parent's alcoholism, whether a sickness or a self-inflicted addiction, assails a child's psyche like few other calamities, and often dooms the child to one or another type of socio-psycho problem as an adult. Ronald Reagan seems to have escaped this particular effect, but there is no question that Jack's drinking made young Ronald's life difficult and indirectly imparted psychological characteristics that would stay with the boy for the rest of his life.
It also made his family poor. Heavy drinking costs big bucks and hurts even more when the family wage earner is often unemployed and regularly chasing either a dream or anonymity about the state. As he did with many other things, Reagan tried to put a favorable spin on his boyhood family's economic status, ever mindful that weakness in this area would be a bad reflection of Jack as a provider. Moreover, Reagan was not one to poor-mouth his situations, past or present, whether his family was involved or not. As an adult he liked to say that they were not from the wrong side of the tracks, but they were so close they could hear the trains go by. He also liked to say that he and his family didn't go hungry, but this does not mean they could always afford the food they needed. At least one neighbor, Helen Lawton, reported that she often sent plates of food to the Reagan household. She and her family sent so much that her father installed a hinge on the Reagan's kitchen window for easier access. Other neighbors also noticed the Reagans' financial problems. Cenie Straw said they were very poor.
Another factor helping to feed the Reagan family was the amazing Nelle. She could do only so much, but that included making a soup bone or butcher's scraps last longer than most family's Thanksgiving turkey. And she was known to create amazing things with oatmeal. Her repertoire of gruels was quite impressive. Hand-me-down clothes was another staple for young Reagan, who, as a youngster, never lived in a home that they owned. Hungry or not, Ronald Reagan was wrought from a youth of meager provisions.
Nelle was the hero in this family. Besides her desperate culinary creations, she found time to work as a seamstress when she could get the employment. She was strong enough to hold the chaotic family together, physically and spiritually in spite of Jack's binges and frequent unemployment. She protected her husband from scorn from their sons, and she dutifully picked up and moved from town to town as Jack lost job after job selling shoes. Nelle read Ronald to sleep when he was small, and watching the text as she read, the quick-learning boy was reading adult text by age five. She introduced him to the religion of her church, the Disciples of Christ (known today as the Christian Church), which he joined when an adolescent. She found an after-school job at the church for her son and got him performing in church entertainment programs as she often did.
Nelle was also a great and gentle teacher, always promoting her belief in the goodness of one's fellowman, while instilling wholesome, honorable values in her sons Ronald and Neil. Nancy Reagan wrote that "Jack Reagan could be cynical, but Nelle believed that people are basically good. Nelle never saw anything evil in another human being, and Ronnie is the same way." Nelle's little speeches on morality and helping one's neighbor seemed to penetrate Ronald's character. Later he virtually became his parents and his brother's keeper, coaxing his older brother from his job at Dixon's cement factory into college after Ronald had already put himself there, then later finding Neil a job in the midst of the Great Depression. He was as generous in helping Nelle and Jack, bringing them to California right after he moved there, buying them their first house (near his), and landing Jack a job at Warner Bros., Reagan's movie studio.
Nelle was no doubt proud of her younger son before he was old enough to do all that for the family. According to Neil, his brother was a quiet boy who liked to read or play alone for hours, while Neil ran with a gang of boys his age. This made Ronald pretty much a loner until near adolescence when Nelle brought him out of his shell and into the world of performing. He was a thoughtful, sensitive boy, who pulled out of a project initiated by Neil to sell rabbits and poultry for meat. Ronald had helped raise the rabbits and did not want to see them killed.
He was a remarkably quick learner. Before starting school, his father arrived home one day to find Ronald on the floor in front of a newspaper. He asked his son what he was doing. When the boy replied that he was reading the paper, Jack laughed in disbelief and challenged his son to prove it, which he did. "The next thing I knew," Reagan wrote later, "he was flying out the front door and from the porch, inviting all our neighbors to come over and hear his five-year-old son read." The boy's skill becomes more impressive when considering that he had taught himself, watching his mother's finger follow the printed words on the page as she read to him at bedtime. It was the first sign of a mind equipped with a photographic memory.
Nelle could not have known the passion for books she had unleashed in her son as she read. Once he caught on, there was no stopping him. Still before entering school, he devoured whatever he could get hold of that told of improbable heroes. He stated later that by the time he entered first grade he was already hooked. As a youngster he learned the many, many verses to the Robert Service ballad, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, which later, in his seventies, he would be cajoled into reciting from memory for a queen at a dinner in Buckingham Palace. At the age of twelve he found a dusty, all-but-forgotten novel, That Printer of Udell's, particularly moving. It told of a young Christian printer attending night school and improving himself until he became a public leader and married a beautiful young woman, saving her from a career in the world's oldest profession. The book, Reagan wrote, "... made such an impression on me I decided to join my mother's church, the Disciples of Christ."
Nelle took her religion seriously, and strove to impart that faith to her sons. She succeeded with at least the younger one. Reagan was not an avid churchgoer as an adult, but he firmly believed throughout his life one of Nelle's most emphatic points that God has his reasons for everything that happens on earth. One of many examples of his application of this belief can be seen in his reasoning after one of the worst experiences of his life, his painful, unwanted divorce from actress Jane Wyman. He told his second wife, Nancy, that finding her after the divorce showed the goodness of God's plan.
Reagan's compulsive boyhood reading (by adolescence he was going through two and three books per week) represented more to the lad than cheap entertainment. To him it provided an escape from the unpleasantness of his difficult home life. Nelle could not insulate him from the distress of Jack's embarrassing benders, the constant moving, the financial worries, his parents' squabbles over Jack's drinking and different schools nearly every year with their strange new teachers, rules and bullies. We all escape into books at times, but not at the age and extent to which Ronald did.
Prodigious reading turned out to be only one of three means of escape that Ronald practiced in his youth. The second was performing. Nelle managed her church's entertainment activities and often performed in their plays and "readings." She pestered Ronald until he gave in and agreed to recite a short humorous speech. From the audience's response, he considered his performance a hit. "For a kid suffering childhood pangs of insecurity," he wrote, "the applause was music." He was immediately hooked, and proceeded to perform in any show that would have him at his church or grade school, and later in high school and college. In addition to the thrill he apparently experienced from pleasing an audience, taking on the identity of an imaginary, often admirable character onstage in an imaginary situation put him in an emotional fantasyland far removed from his unpleasant home life conditions, just as his extraordinary reading did.
Ronald's third means of escape from stressful realities at home may seem at first glance insignificant, and with most boys it would be, but Ronald intentionally made it important. It was daydreaming, an activity that, again, put him in the realm of fantasy. In his autobiography Reagan makes it clear how important dreaming was to him, and the considerable amount of time he devoted to it. Writing of his boyhood, he stated that "I learned.... how to have dreams and believe I could make them come true." This is significant, and we will look more closely at this and young Reagan's other two consistent escapes into fantasy in the next chapter. The extensive time he spent in these make-believe activities goes far in explaining the amazing imagination that would impact his entire life, both for better and for worse, and would one day give America a visionary president.
Besides the family difficulties in Ronald's youth, other more personal problems also contributed to send the boy scurrying for relief in fantasy. Terrible eyesight, undiagnosed until a teenager, undermined his confidence and stifled his personality. When he scrambled for a seat in the front row of a classroom he had no idea the kids in the back could read the blackboard just fine. But this hurt him most in sports, where it rendered him virtually impotent. Those who were not athletic in school may underestimate the impact from this on a boy's emotional foundation. Reagan writes of it causing him a great deal of unhappiness. His scrawny frame didn't help either, and his problem with size was exacerbated by the grade he had skipped, putting him with children who were, on average, a year older.
Excerpted from What Reagan Couldn't Tell Us by Lawrence Nesbitt Copyright © 2011 by Lawrence Nesbitt. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One—Before The Glory....................17
Chapter Two—Personality Or Paradox?....................58
Chapter Three—Great Character Or Good Acting?....................101
Chapter Four—Intelligence Or Intuition?....................115
Chapter Five—Leadership By Stealth....................143
Chapter Six—Philosophy Of A Revolutionary....................157
Chapter Seven—Reaganomics 101....................165
Chapter Eight—Damn The Deficits, Full Speed Ahead (National Defense)....................197
Chapter Nine—Summits, Soviets And Little Green Men....................206
Chapter Ten—The Words....................257
Chapter Eleven—Failures And Foul-Ups....................273
Chapter Twelve—Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch....................292