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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.1 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, near Dixon, Illinois, during six summers when he was sixteen to twenty-one years old, he rescued seventy-seven people) and remarkable control under stress (as at the time of Hinckley’s assassination attempt). Wills tells the story of the broadcast of a baseball game, which young Ronald Reagan, sportscaster for a Des Moines radio station, was supposed to describe “in vivid detail” even though the game took place three hundred miles away, in Chicago—when the wire that was relaying the play-by-play account to Reagan went dead, he improvised with enthusiasm.

Another feature (which Wills does not stress sufficiently, but which becomes quickly obvious) is Reagan’s ambition. Successful as a radio announcer, he was attracted by Hollywood and in 1937 got his station to send him there—he soon applied for a screen test, and had a six-month contract. After several years of light comedy roles, he asked, but did not get, more dramatic ones. He became deeply involved in the Screen Actors Guild, and was its president twice. As his movie career faltered, he started, with the help of the MCA agency, a new and successful career as host of the General Electric television show. He visited 135 GE plants in eight years, giving the same speech with which he later launched his political career. When Reagan’s contract with GE was dropped in 1962, once more he moved to enlarge his audience: he was “in wide demand as a speaker,” and made a spectacular political debut at the 1964 Republican convention, supporting Goldwater. Then came the governorship of California. In order to succeed in getting the job Reagan finally overcame his dislike of flying. No sooner was he in office in Sacramento than he began to prepare his campaign for the presidency. His amiability should not obscure his will.

Wills notes Reagan’s self-confidence, which he sees as “not entirely dependent on his own achievements,” but as based on his faith “in the ordinary good person of his background.” But he also observes Reagan’s need to be cheered up, to be kept away from strains and doubts, to be “warmed up” as a performer, and not to be “brutalized” by excessively heavy briefings. It is this “stroking, hand holding and ego building” function that Wills describes Nancy Reagan as having performed vigilantly, at the expense of advisers who seemed to make him tense and to undermine his capacity to give good performances. Wills mentions the firing of his campaign manager John Sears in 1980 and her intervention in 1984 after the disastrous first debate with Walter Mondale; we can now add the sacking of Donald Regan.

Reagan, to be effective, has to be “spared all unnecessary stress.” During his campaign for the governorship of California in 1966, the team assembled by a corporation called BASICO saw to it that he would be “driven and sequestered to arrive in rested condition.” As a result, then as now, he “was on the bottom rung of responsibility for strategy and the shaping of issues,” but “on the top of the apparatus for visibility, good will, the ‘soft sell.’ ” This entailed, of course, a willingness to delegate authority. Reagan has always been willing “because he is so sure of his own appeal that he does not mind if others get credit for management, direction, administration.” For all his ambition, Reagan, “unlike many actors… never wanted to become a director.”

The price he had to pay for this willingness not to be in control of operations was already perceptible in California. “There are always power struggles in a Reagan administration,” which he cannot control because “he cannot bring himself to look at them.” The staffing of his first administration in Sacramento was chaotic and politically vulnerable—the chief of staff filled “a number of posts with homosexual friends”; several high officials had serious conflicts of interest—a pattern that continued in the White House. After the early scandals in California, “Clark and Meese brought order to the Reagan administration, which made it successful”—as a rigidly bureaucratic regime presided over by a fiery critic of bureaucracy.

The replacement of Donald Regan by Howard Baker seems to repeat the story of California. In both cases, Reagan’s own role, as “a company person,” was limited. In both cases, several features stand out. One is Reagan’s apparent indifference to his own contradictions. “The candidate who had run against big spenders quickly became the governor who asked for and got the biggest tax raise in the history of California.” His attacks on big government were never inhibited by the fact that during the Depression his family had been rescued by the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. His father had worked for Harry Hopkins and the most heavily “spending” part of the New Deal.

Later, when in his GE speech he attacked the Tennessee Valley Authority, the fact that the TVA was a major client of GE bothered him less than it bothered GE, which asked him to drop “the offending references.” In his days as head of the Screen Actors Guild, he had argued against any government interference in Hollywood, but he called for federal anti-communist legislation. His suspicion of Washington did not prevent him from naming suspects to the FBI. His determination to reduce the scope of government and his admiration for FDR’s style of leadership have coexisted, incongruously but quietly, throughout his political career.

If, as Wills puts it, he did not experience his contradictions, he didn’t seem any more troubled by another remarkable feature. Wills quotes several statements in which Reagan indicates that collective social action—by students, or by actors, or by workers—is justified only when it is altruistic: “for a group to act from economic motives is somehow sordid and unworthy.” On the other hand, businessmen—unlike bureaucrats—are always assumed to be “high-minded when they lend their services to government.” Hence the vulnerability of his administrations to conflicts of interest and financial scandals—Wills shows that Reagan himself has been more than ready “to accept…favors from his wealthy friends while in office,” and even before. His own triple position as a member of the Screen Actors Guild who, when he was its head, had granted exceptional favors to MCA, as a client-employee of MCA, and as a producer, was anything but straightforward.

When a grand jury investigating MCA in 1962 asked him about the waivers granted by the guild to MCA in 1952 and 1954, whatever he remembered was false; but above all he remembered little: “Reagan’s strategy was to retreat toward constantly expanding areas of forgetfulness.” Wills connects deliberate amnesia and Reagan’s dislike of acknowledging failure. (Wills’s discussion of the disaster in Lebanon, in 1983 and 1984, can now be reinforced by the story of Iran.)

Distortion is another lifelong pattern. In Wills’s story, it begins with Reagan’s interpretation (in the autobiography he wrote with Richard G. Hubler, Where’s the Rest of Me?) of a student strike in which he had participated at Eureka College in 1928—a protest against a consolidation plan presented by the president of the college: “Almost everything factual about the strike had been erased from Reagan’s mind” by the time he wrote about it: he oversimplified the story, combining “a skill for striking ‘historical’ attitudes” with “a striking lack of historical attentiveness.” Reagan’s account of his activities as the head of the Actors Guild, when he supported one union allied with management against a more democratic union, is similarly distorted. So is his conviction that the strike of the Conference of Studio Unions in 1946 was a communist plot.

Two other closely related patterns in Reagan’s character are confabulation and pretense. A nice example of the former is a story often repeated by Reagan, about a bomber pilot in World War II who refused to bail out because “the belly gunner was too badly wounded to move”; the pilot’s last words before the plane crashed were, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” When Reagan delivered this story “with quivering voice” during his 1980 campaign, “reporters noticed that, if the two men died together, no one could have reported their last words or actions.”

  1. 1

    See my previous article, “Reagan’s Underworld,” The New York Review, May 7, 1987.

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