Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader
The aides gave us the details, retold now like runes. Promptly at nine o’clock on most mornings of the eight years he spent as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan arrived in the Oval Office to find on his desk his personal schedule, printed on green stationery and embossed in gold with the presidential seal. Between nine and ten he was briefed, first by his chief of staff and the vice president and then by his national security adviser. At ten, in the absence of a pressing conflict, he was scheduled for downtime, an hour in which he answered selected letters from citizens and clipped items that caught his eye in Human Events and National Review. Other meetings followed, for example with the congressional leadership. “I soon learned that those meetings lasted just one hour, no more, no less,” Tony Coelho, at the time majority whip in the House, tells us in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan.1 “If the agenda—which he had written out on cards—wasn’t completed at the end of the hour, he would excuse himself and leave. If it was finished short of an hour, he would fill the rest of the time with jokes (and he tells a good one).” During some meetings, according to his press secretary, Larry Speakes, the President filled the time by reciting Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
When the entry on the schedule was not a meeting but an appearance or photo opportunity, the President was rehearsed. “You’ll go out the door and down the steps,” Michael Deaver or someone else would say, we were told by Donald Regan, secretary of the treasury from 1981 until 1985 and White House chief of staff from 1985 until 1987. “The podium is ten steps to the right and the audience will be in a semi-circle with the cameras at the right-hand end of the half-moon; when you finish speaking take two steps back, but don’t leave the podium, because they’re going to present you with a patchwork quilt….” It was Larry Speakes, in his 1988 Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House,2 who told us how, at the conclusion of each meeting or appearance, the President would draw on his schedule a vertical line downward and an arrow pointing to the next event. “It gives me a feeling that I am accomplishing something,” the President told Speakes. It was Donald Regan, in his 1988 For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,3 who told us how the schedule reminded the President when it was time to give a birthday present (“a funny hat or a tee shirt bearing a jocular message”) to one or another staff member: “These gifts were chosen by others, and sometimes Reagan barely knew the person to whom he was giving them, but his pleasure in these contacts was genuine…. On one occasion, when he was somehow given the wrong date for one man’s birthday and called to offer congratulations, nobody had the heart to tell him about the mistake.”
“I cannot remember a single case in which he changed a time or canceled an appointment or even complained about an item on his schedule,” Regan noted, betraying a certain queasy wonder at his initial encounter with this apparently cheerful lack of interest: Regan, still at Treasury, found himself slotted into the schedule, along with James Baker and Michael Deaver, to introduce to the President the novel and potentially disruptive notion that he and Baker, then chief of staff, switch jobs. “Reagan listened without any sign of surprise,” Regan recalled. “He seemed equable, relaxed—almost incurious. This seemed odd under the circumstances.”
Notwithstanding Regan’s efforts to hold open the possibility of further deliberation on so serious a move (“I appreciate that, Don, the President said with the bright courtesy that is typical of him. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t just go ahead with it”), the meeting lasted, including an exchange of Christmas-vacation pleasantries, fewer than its allotted thirty minutes. “I did not know what to make of his passivity,” Regan wrote. “He seemed to be absorbing a fait accompli rather than making a decision. One might have thought that the matter had already been settled by some absent party.” On reflection, Regan understood:
As President, Ronald Reagan acted on the work habits of a lifetime: he regarded his daily schedule as being something like a shooting script in which characters came and went, scenes were rehearsed and acted out, and the plot was advanced one day at a time, and not always in sequence. The Chief of Staff was a sort of producer, making certain that the star had what he needed to do his best; the staff was like the crew, invisible behind the lights, watching the performance their behind-the-scenes efforts had made possible…. Reagan’s performance was almost always flawless. If he was scheduled to receive a visitor at ten o’clock, he would finish whatever else he was doing at 9:58, clear off his desk, clear his mind of whatever had gone before, and prepare himself for the next scene.
Dinesh D’Souza, when he arrived at the Reagan White House as a senior domestic policy analyst in 1987, was twenty-six years old, a resident of the United States since only 1978 but already a name within what had come on the right to be called “the movement.” He was a native of India who seemed to have arrived in this country with preternatural pitch for the exact charged chords (affirmative action, multiculturalism, gender studies, the academy in general) that fueled its politics of resentment, and he played them, first as a founding editor of The Dartmouth Review, then as editor of the equally strident Princeton Prospect, managing editor of the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, and biographer of the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell.
The 1980s were years in Washington when careers were made on undergraduate bliss. One of D’Souza’s colleagues on The Dartmouth Review became a speechwriter for Reagan, another for George Bush. Another, Keeney Jones, the author of the notorious “Dis Sho’ Ain’t No Jive Bro,” a puerile but predictably inflammatory Dartmouth Review parody of black students (“Dese boys be sayin’ that we be comin’ here to Dartmut an’ not takin’ the classics. You know, Homa, Shakesphere; but I hea’ dey all be co’d in da ground, six feet unda, and whatchu be askin’ us to learn from dem?”), became a speechwriter for Secretary of Education William Bennett. “What could be more exciting?” D’Souza, who had been editor of The Dartmouth Review at the time “Dis Sho’ Ain’t No Jive Bro” was published, writes of those years in Washington when to be young and movement was very heaven. “We were a generation of young conservatives who came to Washington in the 1980s inspired by Reagan and the idea of America that he espoused and embodied. The world was changing, and we wanted to be instruments of that change. Reagan was a septuagenarian with a youthful heart. He hired people like me because he wanted fresh faces and new ideas in the White House. Full of vigor and determination, we rallied to his cause.”
“He hired people like me” may seem to suggest excessive executive volition on the part of a President who by all accounts expressed no interest in who his secretary of the treasury or chief of staff was to be, but the choice of the active tense is key here. D’Souza’s intention in Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, which, like his 1991 Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus and his 1995 The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society, was written within the nurturing grant framework of the American Enterprise Institute, was to offer what he presents as a “revisionist” view of the Reagan years, a correction of the record for “a new generation of young people” who, because they have had “no alternative source of information,” have been unable to detect the “transparent bias” of their teachers and the media.
It is D’Souza’s thesis, honed by his useful and apparently inexhaustible ability to present himself as one of a besieged minority, that Reagan has been systematically misread, not only by his “liberal critics” (further identified as “the pundits, political scientists, and historians,” “the wise men,” “the intellectual elite,” and “the cognoscenti”) and not only by his own more pragmatic aides (the “prags,” or “ingrates and apostates”), whose remarkably similar descriptions of the detachment at the center of the administration in which they served seem to D’Souza to be “characterized by an almost defiant disloyalty,” but even by his “hard-core” admirers, or “true believers,” those movement conservatives who considered the President a “malleable figurehead” too often controlled by his pragmatist advisers. “I was one of those conservatives,” D’Souza allows:
Even when Reagan proved us wrong and showed how effective a president he was, many of us in his ideological camp nevertheless failed to understand the secret of his success. We could not fathom how he conceived and realized his grand objectives, effortlessly overcame his powerful adversaries, and won the support of the American people. Many who worked with him are still bewildered. This study seeks to solve the mystery.
In his casuistical pursuit of the elusive frame in which Reagan can be seen as the “prime mover,” the “decisive agent of change” and the “architect of his own success,” D’Souza is not actually breaking new ground. Such attempts to “solve the mystery” date back at least to the 1980 transition, during which it became apparent to some that the president-elect, without benefit of constructive interpretation, could appear less than fully engaged. During a president-to-president-elect briefing on secret international agreements and commitments, according to Jimmy Carter, he listened politely but asked no questions and took no notes. Two hours before his 1981 inauguration, according to Michael Deaver, he was still sleeping. Deaver did not actually find this extraordinary, nor would anyone else who had witnessed Reagan’s performance as governor of California: “I remember sitting there in the governor’s office with him, a couple of days after I had been elected to succeed him,” Jerry Brown recalls in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan:
We didn’t have a nuts-and-bolts conversation about the transition that day. I didn’t see Ronald Reagan as a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy…. He was definitely performing his ceremonial role as governor, and doing it quite well.
I think a great deal of the job is ceremonial. The way I look at it now, most politicians holding office think they are doing things, but it’s all staffed-out…. Most of the day-to-day stuff is very symbolic. That was one of the frustrations I found in being governor. At first, I took literally the nature of the material being presented at meetings, but I soon found that visiting delegations often were satisfied just being in the same room as the governor. There is something illusory about it, like a play. Then again, if that satisfies people, it has some value. Reagan seemed to understand all of that.