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The Man Who Wasn’t There

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

by Lou Cannon
Simon and Schuster, 948 pp., $24.95

In an episode already made famous by Lou Cannon’s brilliant new work, James Baker left a briefing book, laboriously calibrated to Reagan’s attention span, in the suite where Reagan was staying on the night before the 1983 economic meeting with world leaders in Williamsburg. Baker was worried about Reagan’s performance the next day, and was even more nervous when he saw the book had not been moved during the night. Reagan blithely explained that he did not have time to look at it since “The Sound of Music was on [television] last night.”

Cannon, the savvy journalist who has been covering Reagan’s political career for a quarter of a century and knows his man on an almost hour-by-hour basis, fits that episode into a larger pattern:

Reagan spent more time at the movies during his presidency than at anything else. He went to Camp David on 183 weekends, usually watching two films on each of these trips. He saw movies in the White House family theater, on television in the family quarters and in the villas and lavish guest quarters accorded presidents when they travel [as to Williamsburg].

After all the recent attention given to Reagan’s wife, a natural reaction to the Williamsburg story is to ask, “Where was Nancy?” We have been told, and not only by Kitty Kelley, that she worried obsessively about his standing in the long vistas of history. Wasn’t she worried about his performance, the next day, before world leaders? The answer is, yes, she did worry, and that is why Reagan was allowed to watch The Sound of Music.

Cannon knows some ugly things about Nancy Reagan, and reports on the ones that can be verified; but he also knows how important she was to her husband’s success. Above all she knew how to rest and pace and present a man who always needed relaxation, exercise, and distraction in order to perform well in his few hours “on.” Cannon, by sheer persistence over the years, by the odds that not even Nancy’s control was entirely fail-safe, saw, a few times, the dead man that could result from a daily routine not largely taken up with watching movies. The rest of us got a brief glimpse of that person at the Louisville debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, but it was not as sobering as Cannon’s interview with him after an earlier economic summit, the one in Ottawa. Reagan had been scheduled (like the other leaders) to give a post-summit briefing to the press followed by a private interview with Hedrick Smith of The New York Times and Cannon of The Washington Post, but “Reagan was in no condition for the briefing” and the interviews were combined to cut the time Reagan had to be exposed. Even so:

He was exhausted nearly to the point of incoherence throughout much of the interview and could not remember the substance of any subject that had been discussed apart from Mitterrand’s expression of anticommunism. He spoke haltingly, as if every word were an effort. I had not seen Reagan at such close range since the assassination attempt nearly four months earlier, and was shocked at his condition. That did not stop me from joining Smith in pressing Reagan, since both of us were soon acutely aware that an interview we had persevered to obtain was not providing much of a story. Our efforts were in vain. Reagan simply was unable to recall the content of the talks in which he had just participated….

The interview concluded ten minutes later at a signal from Deaver, who did not seem to find the president’s condition unusual. This is what happens all the time, I thought.

Cannon admits that Reagan may have been worse in this (long) period because of the assassination attempt; but that very event had imposed, on a calendar very sparsely filled to begin with, a pattern that would probably have lasted throughout Reagan’s presidency even if his successive surgeries and stays in the hospital had not indurated it.

Other presidents have been protected by a regimen that covered up their physical deficiencies—Woodrow Wilson, most notoriously, after his stroke, when his wife made him inaccessible with a ruthless dominance that Nancy Reagan never came near to replicating. But Franklin Roosevelt, too, was carefully hidden from the public as his health deteriorated in his last years, and the effects of Eisenhower’s stroke and heart attack were naturally minimized by his staff. Those periods of presidential incompetence were relatively brief, compared to Ronald Reagan’s eight years of only partial functioning after the assassination attempt. Even before that, he had lived all his life by a regimen intended to make him look good—tanned, rested, alert, dark-haired—when he went before the cameras. As a General Electric guide who traveled with him in the 1950s told me, Reagan “was never a nine-to-five guy.” This might not have become a major problem but for the assassination attempt, which, Cannon shrewdly argues, was a crucial influence on the entire Reagan time in the White House.

On the one hand, Reagan’s gallant behavior in pain prolonged the customary “honeymoon” given a president in his first months. On the other hand, the shooting came just as the budget battle was heating up. Reagan was taken out of that process, and spared other experiences that a president undergoes at this stage. He never made up that lost time. Others learned to get along without him, except for ceremonial purposes.

Compressing the discussion on issues became a necessity during Reagan’s recuperation from the wounds suffered in the March 31, 1981, assassination attempt. His working hours were strictly limited by doctor’s orders and the insistence of the first lady, and even his national security briefing had to be delivered to him in written form. Some aides came to believe that the assassination attempt had an unfortunate impact on the inner life of the Reagan presidency, even though its immediate political impact was beneficial…. Reagan’s wounds also took him out of commission for several weeks during what could have been a critical learning period of his presidency, and reduced the flow of briefing papers to a trickle.

Worse, Reagan’s political success in the months after the shooting reinforced the view of the Californians that Reagan could operate in Washington without changing his ways. It would have been difficult to force a change in any event, but Reagan had demonstrated during his second term in Sacramento that he was capable of dirtying his hands and becoming directly involved in the political process when such participation was necessary for achievement of his objectives. No such reason was apparent to him in Washington, nor was any presented to him by his aides. Reagan was so popular and so politically successful during the six months following the shooting that he had absolutely no motivation to alter his approach. His aides, blinded by the glare of early success, behaved as if Reagan were invulnerable. They saw no reason why he could not govern successfully by anecdote in Washington as he had in Sacramento.

Even attempts to educate Reagan were undertaken in so cautious a way as to encourage work patterns hard to distinguish from his relaxation. When William Clark, as national security adviser, “found that the president knew next to nothing about what was going on in many corners of the globe,” he tried to remedy the situation by showing him films. William Casey had the CIA make home movies for the President stressing the personal stories of foreign leaders. He acquired more anecdotes this way, and remembered foreign affairs, if at all, as he remembered other movies—the things that had always stuck best in his head.

For an adviser (who was not himself a movie) to engage the President was often a strange exercise. One could not be sure how much Reagan knew or was remembering (including, at times, the interlocutor’s name); or how much, given his erratic reliance on his hearing aids, was being received; or even how fully awake the man was. Characteristically, when Reagan stirred and showed animation in such meetings, it was often to tell a story, not necessarily related to the prior conversation. Energy and performance were always linked for him, and the rest of the time was spent storing vitality and resources for the next show.

The best record we have of such meetings—and even this is poor, since note taking was not encouraged—comes from the Iran-contra affairs. Participants forced to reconstruct meetings for the Tower Commission, or the Senate Committee, or deposition responses, or their own or someone else’s trial, give weirdly frustrating accounts of these sessions. It is one of the many virtues of Theodore Draper’s definitive book A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs that he assembles all the versions of each key meeting and shows what Rashomon affairs they were. It is no wonder that Weinberger, who knew Reagan better and over a longer period than most others present, could leave a meeting convinced that Reagan had “turned an operation off” while others were equally certain that he wanted it to go on, and most departed with hardly a guess about what, if anything, had been decided.

Reagan was often noncommittal even when he had in fact made a decision being kept from his highest advisers of the moment—as when he discussed arms for Iran with Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger immediately after signing a finding that seemed to settle the matter, though he did not tell them about the existence of that key document. Was he trying to fool them, or avoiding a wrangle, or just forgetting? It was often hard for Reagan’s intimates (so far as there was such a thing) to tell. In a famous incident, Dwight Eisenhower once told his press secretary, on the way out to discuss with journalists a touchy matter, that Jim (Hagerty) did not have to worry, “I’ll just confuse them.” But Reagan seemed to carry that attitude unawares into even the most private conferences with his cabinet.

Given this situation, Reagan’s aides came to feel he should be sheltered not only from outsiders, like the press, but from insiders as well, so that uncertain signals would not be scattered off from every meeting. Access had to be controlled, or subjects kept from arising. Clarity had to be imposed on muddled instructions before a competing interpretation (perhaps as warranted) was advanced by someone else. It was best, at times, to go in with a plan of confusing the Old Confuser—as David Stockman dazzled Reagan with a flurry of words, got a bemused nod, and went off to do what he wanted.

In cases like this, Nancy Reagan was her husband’s best champion, quick to spot it when people were using a fuzzy command to promote what she called “their own agenda.” As a traffic cop, she prevented some smashups and tried her best to prevent others (like Bitburg). When Donald Regan proved too absorbed in himself to realize how paralyzed Reagan was by the breaking of the Iran-contra scandals, Nancy Reagan brilliantly used her astrologer to keep Reagan safely sequestered for weeks of wound-licking and recovery. If she had tried to reason with Regan, the wrangling would never have stopped. By the arbitrary invocation of her seeress, she stopped the bullheaded Regan in his tracks. He concluded it was some silly “woman’s thing” he could not cope with. (This is not to say that Mrs. Reagan did not believe in her astrologer. Performers have many superstitions about the necessary luck to pull off a show—but that does not prevent them from rehearsing, getting on the camera-person’s good side, or taking other precautions that luck can only supplement.) Nancy Reagan did not have the iron authority of Edith Wilson; she had to resort to many tricks and wiles.

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