Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism
Reagan Inside Out
Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation
The Russians and Reagan
“The other day,” Reagan confessed at an informal news conference, “I had in my possession a kind of scholarly-type magazine—I can’t give you the name of it,…one of those where there are a whole series of essays in the magazine on various national and international topics….”
Our presidents are rarely intellectuals, but no other president in modern times has seemed so deeply uninterested in intellectual matters as Reagan. The White House, ever attentive to the President’s image, doesn’t even try to pretend that Reagan reads anything besides the newspapers. (The newspapers are, after all, his notices; any performer reads them.) Instead of reading in his spare time—of which he seems to have a good deal—the President rides a horse, pumps iron, and watches television or a movie.
He also seems indifferent to intellectuals, aside from the few, such as Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who have provided him with good slogans. If he cares a hoot about what is written about him in “scholarly-type” magazines, he has hidden his concern masterfully. One wonders what some of his neo-conservative supporters, such as Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, or Eugene V. Rostow, who told us how much we needed him in 1980, feel about him now. How well have they liked the debacle in Lebanon and Reaganomics and James Watt? Even the intellectuals who will vote for Reagan again this year—and there will doubtless be many—will probably do so with a gulp. What else could you do when you support a president who returns from his first voyage to South America to announce, “Well, I learned a lot…. You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.”
Our descendants, if we’re lucky enough to have them, will probably find the sequence of events that led to Reagan’s presidency baffling. It is hard to imagine how the last twenty years will look from a distance: the assassination of Kennedy; the otherwise unimaginable ascension of Johnson; the resurrection of Nixon, made possible by Vietnam; the presidency of Gerald Ford, made possible by Watergate; the election of Jimmy Carter, inconceivable if not for both Vietnam and Watergate; then the election of Ronald Reagan. At the beginning we had the youngest president of the century; at the end we’d elected the oldest president in the history of the republic, and now find ourselves among a vast audience mesmerized by a masterful performer.
But just what kind of performance are we watching? It is a mistake to see Reagan as a faded B-movie star, although the “B” quality is important to his success. He comes across as so darn nice and so unintimidating that he disarms those critics who would have us be afraid of him. Chris Mathews, one of Speaker O’Neill’s aides, has called Reagan “the nation’s host,” our presiding master of ceremonies. Not just any old master of ceremonies, I’d suggest, but a particular model, a more genial and animated version of Ed …
Forthcoming Book November 8, 1984