An American Life
Ronald Reagan is a lethally nice man. Pursuit of him takes one up above the Ike line of mere amiability into a rarefied atmosphere that is too sweet for his enemies to breathe. He is so courtly, in a quaint and old-world way, that he still cannot bring himself to use all the four letters of a four-letter word like h—l. He likes to be liked, and cannot conceive that anyone might dislike him. His own virtue is self-evident. Merely to proclaim it is to prove it. There is no doubting his sincerity:
In 1987, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall gave a television interview in which he implied I was a racist…. A meeting was arranged between the two of us.
We spoke for an hour or so upstairs in the family quarters, and I literally told him my life story—how Jack and Nelle had raised me from the time I was a child to believe racial and religious discrimination was the worst sin in the world…. That night, I think I made a friend.
The power of the reconteur is the theme of this book. At the Williamsburg economic summit,
Someone—I believe it was Helmut Kohl, who had replaced [Helmut] Schmidt as chancellor of West Germany—spoke up: “Tell us about the American miracle….” I launched into what I guess was a variation of the speech I’d been making for years…. Everyone around the table just listened in silence as I spoke. It wasn’t long after that that I began reading about a wave of tax cutting in several of their countries.
When the rare auditor does not believe Reagan as he tells his miracle stories, he thinks there is something perverse in that person’s makeup. His anger at Reykjavík came over Gorbachev’s unwillingness to believe that Reagan meant SDI only as a peaceful development he would share with the world:
Privately, I had made a decision: I was going to offer to share SDI technology with the Soviets. This, I thought, should convince them it would never be a threat to them…. No country would do that, he [Gorbachev] insisted, judging others by his own country.
That others could doubt his country’s virtue was as puzzling as any doubts about his own luminous rectitude:
I’d always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were a moral people who starting at the birth of our nation had always used our power only as a force of good in the world.
This is a thought to which Reagan repeatedly returns:
The United States, when it could have dominated the world with no risk to itself, made no effort whatsoever to do so,…the United States followed a different course—one unique in all the history of mankind. We used our power and wealth to rebuild the war-ravaged economies of the world, including those nations who had been our enemies.
This altruistic action was splendid in …