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 Sullivan, whose program Reagan must have watched in the 1950s.
“We’ve got a really big show for you tonight”—Sullivan’s promise was the same, however dreary or distinguished the performers. Sunday night after Sunday night, Sullivan would cheer on his show, cheer every guest as though he were Houdini himself. What happened if the juggler dropped his pins? Nothing. “Give him a really big hand, folks, one of the world’s greatest jugglers,” and out on stage would burst a group of flamenco dancers. What if some controversial new act succeeded elsewhere—Elvis Presley, for example? Why, he’d quickly be put on the show, hugged and taken into the Sullivan show family. If one week’s program was a tawdry salute to mediocrity, did the folks out there watching get mad at Ed? No. Ed promised to be back next week with another really big show, and we trusted him; we gave him another chance.
Sullivan, like Reagan, was more than just an M.C. He was a fabulous salesman, a huckster, in America an entirely acceptable line of work. Why shouldn’t John Houseman try to stir up some business for the brokerage firm of Smith Barney? And if you took his advice and then Smith Barney sold you shares in a Florida land deal that collapsed, would you blame John Houseman? Certainly not. He was just doing a job. We absolve our likable television salesmen of responsibility for the products they sell.
Ronald Reagan took advantage of this national trait in 1970 when he ran for reelection as governor of California. Robert Dallek notes that Reagan’s record after four years was short on success in fulfilling his original campaign promises to cut back the size of state government and reduce taxes, but that didn’t faze him. As he had four years earlier against Pat Brown, Reagan ran against the mess (by then his own) in Sacramento, and he won. He will run against the “mess” in Washington this year. After all he’s just the M.C. on the Potomac. It’s not Reagan who drops the pins, it’s one of those jugglers on the program.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has called Reagan “the Teflon president,” because nothing sticks to him. But there’s more to it than that. Many Americans don’t want to hold Reagan responsible for the actions of his government, because in all other respects they find him such a satisfactory president. These are Americans who believe that what they hear on the evening news about monetary policy, gross national product, or diplomacy in the Middle East really makes no difference to their lives, so long as they are not losing their jobs and facing economic ruin. For them the President’s position as head of state and government is secondary to his performance as master of ceremonies and chief salesman, and they like the way he does it. Ronald Reagan understands this.
Like so many successful politicians, Reagan has all but completely hidden his private self from public view. “He isn’t stupid,” a distinguished writer who had spent an evening with Reagan once assured me. What was the writer’s evidence? “His eyes. You can see in his eyes that he is always calculating the effect of his words. They are shrewd eyes.”
Perhaps, but other successful politicians are calculating, deliberate, and hidden. Reagan’s character remains more mysterious than most, notwithstanding attempts such as Richard Dallek’s to explain it. In Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism, Dallek points out that Reagan is the second son of an alcoholic father. That might tell us a great deal about him if we had the close, day-to-day knowledge of his early life that no one including Dallek has as yet revealed. It may be generally true that boys, given a palpably inadequate model to copy, can be deeply affected by the experience. But just how? The central theory of Dallek’s book is that his father’s alcoholism drove Reagan to strive for personal independence.
Reagan’s childhood implanted in him powerful feelings about dependence and independence, loss of control, and self-possession. He finds great appeal in self-reliance, and he strongly dislikes dependency, partly, current psychological understanding suggests, out of unrecognized fears that he is like his father. Indeed, what is striking in the president’s life is his idealization of freedom, autonomy, and self-mastery and his antipathy toward, or belief in the need to overcome, totalitarianism, external control, and dependence on forces outside oneself.
One has to wonder how much this explains. Both the human condition generally and the cultural values of America in particular provide stimuli to the development of feelings such as those Dallek ascribes to Reagan and blames largely on his father.
Dallek acknowledges that most Americans “love freedom and independence,” but adds that “they do not share his [Reagan’s] exaggerated fears that only fundamental change at home and abroad will preserve liberty as an American way of life.” In other words, to understand the difference between Reagan and the rest of us, one has to take it on faith that Reagan really means what he says about freedom, big government, totalitarianism, the communist menace, and so on. But Reagan’s own behavior repeatedly raises the question of how much he cares about any of these. Spending on government programs other than defense has gone up under Reagan. The Red menace? Like the “so-called Communist China” (Reagan’s term) he embraced so warmly in May?
Like so many other Americans, Reagan appears to be fearful and insecure in the face of strange foreign forces, but what is interesting about him is how flexible he nevertheless proves to be in real life. For years he spoke in the most fearful way about Red China; then, confronted with the place itself, he reversed himself completely. He pulled out of Lebanon after claiming a pullout would be a disaster.
Surely the most important fact about Reagan is his decision, made as an adolescent, to seek his fortune in show business. Dallek observes that this choice contradicted the image of himself as the protector of old-fashioned values that Reagan later cultivated—he picked “the new ethos of entertainment and pleasure” over the values of small-town Illinois. Dallek quotes, from Reagan’s wonderfully titled memoir, Where is the Rest of Me?, Reagan’s description of his mother as “a frustrated actress” who “gave regular readings for ladies’ societies”—readings in which young Ronald joined her on the podium. This looks a lot like a second child finding a special way to win favor from a parent—in this case, the more important parent, in view of the father’s weakness.
As Dallek observes, show business allowed Reagan to succeed in life “largely through the manipulation of an image, rather than traditional productive enterprise.” But who ever asked Ed Sullivan to juggle? If this seems one of many contradictions in Reagan’s life between what he said and what he did, that’s show business—literally. He has always improvised or read from scripts.
Reagan himself seems genuinely to believe that he is a man of principle, and he has apparently conveyed this notion to the public, but I have found it hard to be convinced. James Reston has called him a sincere phony, but he seems both more and less than that—he’s a performer, always “on,” looking for the crowd’s approval. The show’s truly the thing—for him, and for us who are trying to understand him.
This preoccupation with appearances may help to explain Reagan’s problems with facts. When, as governor of California, Reagan was told that state spending was rising, he simply denied the unwelcome truth. Dallek quotes a letter Reagan wrote to his former Hollywood agent complaining that it was difficult “trying to play the ‘good guy’ ” as governor. As president, too, Reagan has often preferred to deny facts rather than confront their implications. This spring he was asked about a detailed study of the impact of Reaganomics that was conducted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The study found that families earning less than $10,000 a year had lost about $400 under the programs of the Reagan administration, while families earning more than $80,000 had gained $8,000. A reporter asked Reagan if that was fair.