Reagan the Man, the President
The Real Reagan: What He Believes, What He Has Accomplished, What We Can Expect From Him
Ronald Reagan: A Political Biography
Reagan in Pursuit of the Presidency1980
Where’s the Rest of Me? The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan: His Life and Rise to the Presidency
The Future Under President Reagan
Reaganomics: Supply Side Economics in Action
Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has been put to the hundred-day test, so Ronald Reagan got measured by the same standard. Articles were duly written putting his first hundred days in the White House up against the fabled first one hundred days of the New Deal. Reagan regularly gets likened to FDR on other grounds also, for he too is now seen as a “watershed” president, a figure leading and signifying major and abiding changes in the currents and patterns of our politics.
We know the end of the Roosevelt story whereas we’re still living the plot of the Reagan movie, so comparisons can be very misleading. But there are obvious differences that subsequent events aren’t going to smudge over. The biggest of them is that Roosevelt didn’t have a clear or consistent idea about what he was going to do when he took the oath of office. Reagan did. The New Deal was concocted, invented, evolved by a company of ardent, worried, and energetic men (plus a few women) who didn’t share a common vision, who weren’t bound together by a creed. The Fast Shuffle or whatever name may be given to the Reagan administration is the opposite. Reagan’s people said that when they took office they would, to use their paramilitary-police expression “hit the ground running.” They did. They knew what they wanted to do beforehand and they’re doing it.
The group FDR brought into office with him was a self-contradictory mélange of socialists, traditional balanced-budget, big D Democrats, technocratic central planners, anti-trust free enterprisers, and bleeding-heart pragmatists of no fixed ideological persuasion who only wanted to make the economic oowie go away. They hit the ground splattering and bickering. To this hour, historians are unsure about how to categorize this zigzagging administration of inconsistent and lapsed policy, of broad-hearted empathy and bewildered understanding.
Contrast that with Reagan. Reagan enters office as the symbol and expositor of a bundle of tied-together doctrines, supported by a growing library of theoretical and polemical literature. Magazines like Human Events, Commentary, The Conservative Digest expand and expatiate on these ideas for every educational level. Nothing like this existed when Roosevelt took the oath if only because the New Deal was invented after the Democrats took over in 1933, and even then they spent much of their leisure time the next eight years arguing with each other.
So different from the Reaganauts. They know one another immediately. They have their orthodoxy and they have no trouble distinguishing those who are not of it. They are trained into their political economy in a way that the enthusiastic but confusedly heterodox academic Roosevelt recruited weren’t. The New Deal could not draw from alligator egg hatcheries like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Affairs. The multimillion-dollar reptile nurseries that have trained Reagan’s cadres were as unknown to the 1930s as are the new administration’s organizational auxiliaries, be they YAF or the Moral Majority.
Packing an administration with such appointees is not the way FDR did it. His patronage was handled by an oldline conservative Democrat who was serving as postmaster general and who gave out jobs to those who had worked in the campaign and brought in votes in the same manner that every administration from the Civil War filled the blank boxes in the organizational charts. It is because Reagan didn’t adhere to tradition that his first one hundred days has a purposefulness and targeted intensity that other administrations, reflecting broader and sloppier political amalgams, did not achieve.
None of the books listed above, whether or not they hail Reagan as the founder of a new epoch, sees him as an unusual, possibly unique political figure, different from the eclectic, favorswapping consensus builders we are accustomed to have living in the White House. One might have expected the five New York Times correspondents contributing to Reagan the Man, the President to take up this aspect of the administration. It would have been interesting to read how these experienced reporters would compare Reagan with Lyndon Johnson, a president with powerful convictions about civil rights and poverty but lacking the unifying overview Reagan enjoys. Instead, we are asked to pay $9.95 for a pedestrian collection that reads as though it had been knocked out for “The Week in Review” section.
Johnson and Reagan have one thing in common. They both began their administration putting domestic affairs first, a rarity in our presidents, who usually regard the nation they preside over as a nuisance necessary for foreign affairs. Foreign affairs are easier because the standards of success in conducting them are vague. When considering Angola a president doesn’t have to hold his breath month to month waiting for the consumer price index or the unemployment figures to be published. Home to the White House after one of those innumerable “economic summits,” a president can get the Brothers Kalb to declare it a victory, a win, or merely a significantly important step forward, and who cares enough to argue? It is a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s bad luck and ineptitude that he could be the only nonwartime president in our history to lose bunches of votes because of the way he handled foreign affairs. Before Carter one might have said such a thing was impossible.
But Ronald Reagan isn’t rebounding in the other direction because he’s learned from what happened to Carter. These books, bad as they are, delineate a Reagan who is primarily interested in domestic affairs. It’s what happens in this country, in this city on the hill, man’s last best hope that absorbs him. He is as focused on the United States as Richard Nixon was fixed on foreign affairs. Indeed, other than a primitive anticommunism which is but the obverse sign of a verbally truculent hometown jingoism, he has no foreign policy. Keep the Canal, don’t sell Taiwan down the river, and spit in Brezhnev’s eye. That was all of his thinking on the subject until not many months ago.
Johnson was able to draw on a body of people who eventually won themselves not entirely complimentary names like poverty warrior and civil rights militant. They came to Washington unswervingly committed to doing things like abolishing hunger, but not to reorganize the government, to reorder the society. That would be left to the tunnel-visioned Reaganauts. The do-goodniks of the Johnson period would have been satisfied to have the objects of their mercy “mainstreamed,” to use the social-worky neologism coined in those years, into an America they thought was rather all right for middle-class whites. They had no intention of leaving the country a changed place in the way that the political Roundheads whom Reagan has installed are consecrated to doing.
None of the books on our list takes us into the angry orb wherein the Reaganauts dwell, although the ones by Edwards, van der Linden, and Wead are written by people who live in those ulcerous climes. Hagiography can be bad biography and still give the reader some knowledge, not of the saint, but of his followers. For the most part these three books don’t. Van der Linden, who has done more than cut and paste, went out, interviewed important people in the Reagan camp and returned to his desk to write a worshipful account of how Reagan’s campaigns were organized and run. Another work concentrating on the tactics and strategy of American politics interspersed with sectarian jibes and cock-a-doodle-doos thrown at Republicans against whom our authors seem to have been carrying not a few grudges for not a few years.
Edward’s work should be bound in while leather and sold to families who already have a white leather King James Bible. For those of us who never believed Ronald Reagan would be president, it gives nothing we want to know. Nor does the book by Wead, another work of political veneration. The best part of this work is the appendix containing a transcript of a conversation between Mr. George Otis of something calling itself High Adventure Ministries of Van Nuys, California, and our president. A tidbit for you:
Mr. Otis: We would like to know…what the Bible really means to you.
Our President: I have never had any doubt about it being of divine origin. And to those who…doubt it, I would like to have them point out to me any similar collection of writings that have lasted for as many thousands of years and is still the best seller worldwide. It had to be of divine origin.
There you have it. The free market is superior to carbon dating and authenticating old manuscripts. This ardent religionist isn’t visible, however, in Reagan’s autobiography, which is the most interesting and the most entertaining of the host of books under discussion. Where’s the Rest of Me?, which, by the way, appears to be the sole source for the other biographers’ accounts of Reagan’s early life, doesn’t reveal the amiably doctrinaire chap we get to see on television most any night. Ignoring the now oft-repeated stories of his Dixon, Illinois, boyhood, we do get to see a very hard-working, very tough guy.
His detractors’ description of him as a very lucky airhead taken up by a circle of rich, cynical men who use and manipulate him is at variance with the person in his autobiography. Of course, this is one of those “written with” books, but there are too many passages that seem to be there not because a commercial smoother-outer would have them, but because Reagan must have said, “I don’t care if it’s tedious, I want it in.” What other explanation can there be for the pages and pages about ancient Screen Actors’ Guild negotiations? In other hands, that stuff would have been condensed into ten swift pages, but obviously it was too big a part of Reagan’s life for him to skip.
One of the things that comes through these pages is that he wasn’t a figurehead president of that union. When he says, as he so often does, that he’s a union man, he’s making a meritorious claim, and as a union man he saw strikes, he saw picket lines, violence, and he saw the Reds. For thirty years, liberals have pounded on him for the part he played in the congressional investigations of communist penetration of Hollywood, where he won no Oscars for civil libertarian tolerance, but there is more than a simple melodic line to that tune. Younger people may find it overstated, but in truth the communist trade unionists of that period were the destructive, rule-or-ruin conniving saboteurs their enemies depicted them as.
It wasn’t only Ronald Reagan, it was anybody who had to fight them inside an organization who came to hate them. Beyond that it was Reagan’s generation, perhaps more than any other, which was first drawn toward communism and then disillusioned by it. He was twenty-eight years old when Hitler and Stalin made their deal. He could have fought in Spain with Orwell. If he hadn’t been a movie star, he might have become a crusading anticommunist earlier than he did, when the first wave of artists and intellectuals looked at the Kremlin and saw the Light That Failed.