The Great Pretender

Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home

by Garry Wills
Doubleday, 472 pp., $19.95

The Tower Commission report deals rather gently with the President’s performance in the Iran-contra affair. It does not speculate about what he knew concerning the supply of weapons to the contras during the period when Congress had cut off military assistance—even though the appendixes suggest he realized that efforts were being made. In the case of Iran, the report notes that “in his obvious commitment” to securing the release of the hostages,

the President appears to have proceeded with a concept of the initiative that was not accurately reflected in the reality of the operation [IV, 10].

Yet the “reality” was known to the President. He authorized first Israel’s, then America’s shipments of arms, and was informed of what went on in meetings between Robert McFarlane, Oliver North, and Iranian intermediaries or negotiators. What the report and the documents appended to it show is, first, Ronald Reagan’s capacity for self-deception. He wanted to believe that it wasn’t an arms-for-hostages deal, and his statements since the scandal became public prove that he still can’t convince himself that it was. However, his aides always believed that this was precisely what he wanted, and he approved twice—on July 30 and September 9, 1986—plans to that effect (III, 17; B, 152–153). Secondly, the President’s ability or willingness to remember what he had said and ordered appears extremely limited. He didn’t remember a meeting with McFarlane in the hospital where he was recovering from a cancer operation in July 1985; he gave three different versions of another meeting, in August 1985 (III, 7). He “did not remember how the November [1985] shipment came about” (III, 9). It was Donald Regan who told the commission that Reagan had authorized weapons deliveries twice in 1986 (III, 14, 19).

Self-deception and self-serving amnesia are two of the character traits described by Garry Wills in his book—another volume in the series of works he has devoted to early and contemporary American presidents. Wills provides us not with a biography of Ronald Reagan, but with a study that addresses three questions: Who is this man? How did he become what he is? What are his links with America, or rather, what American beliefs and myths does he embody? Even though Wills’s book was finished before the Iran-contra scandal, it is the best possible preparation for an understanding of the President’s behavior in it.

The portrait of the man that emerges from the detailed examination of his career up to his election as governor of California in 1966, and from the sketchier discussion of his political career since 1966, is sharp and deceptively complex—deceptively, because, as Wills rightly puts it, Reagan “is the opposite of a chameleon: environments adapt themselves to him.” He is “an actor, but with only one role…he acts himself.” Yet “he is capacious, surrounding contradictions.”

He is clearly a man of physical courage (as a lifeguard at Lowell Park …

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