When Reagan came to the White House in 1981, Washington was heavily invested in the cold war. After nearly forty years, it had become part of the city’s daily existence. No one of consequence anticipated that it might end in a foreseeable lifetime. This seemed so improbable that there was not even a contingency plan suggesting what the government should do next if it did. It had come to seem eternal. Yes, it was an affliction to be sure, and damned dangerous sometimes too, but Washington had learned to live comfortably with other eternal afflictions—the national debt, the race problem, the persistence of poverty. Washington had now found comfort with the cold war. Huge industries and great careers were built on it. It provided muscle and money for successful political campaigns. Ronald Reagan was about to disturb that comfort.
The story of his personal relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and the adventurous summitry of both men at Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, and Moscow is well known, but there are many ways of telling it. In the Diggins narrative Reagan becomes a lone heroic figure determined to save the world from nuclear war. Freshly arrived from California far outside the Beltway, Reagan finds himself in charge of the thermonuclear button. Handed the power to devastate the planet, he is appalled. It is his passionate conviction that the thermonuclear standoff between Moscow and Washington is intolerable.
Though supporting the big military buildup already begun by Jimmy Carter, he concludes, as Diggins puts it, “that the only answer to the cold war was to call it off.” Doing so requires abandoning policies from which Washington has fashioned a way of life over the past four decades. This pits him against the most sophisticated minds of his own government, an elite group of “strategic thinkers” with a heavy intellectual investment in the cold war. These include Casper Weinberger, his secretary of defense, Richard Perle at the Pentagon, entrenched politicians at the Capitol, aides inside his own national security apparatus, and persons like Henry Kissinger, once Nixon’s foreign policy chamberlain but now a consultant to corporations in the US and abroad.
Listening to these strategic thinkers, Reagan hears a grotesque jargon about “mutual assured destruction,” “kill ratios,” “throw weights,” and “first-strike casualties” numbered in millions, and is horrified. He wonders how these marvelous intellects can think of nuclear war as a plausible eventuality which must be perpetuated for the sake of national security. Reagan thinks of it as an unendurable cataclysm which must be made impossible—for the sake of national security.
Strategic thinkers were naturally rattled to find this outsider fooling around with their work. They had been thinking strategically when Reagan was just another movie actor playing opposite a chimpanzee, for heaven’s sake. They think Reagan is too naive, too innocent, to grasp the intellectual complexities of cold war strategy. He becomes the lone champion of nuclear disarmament in a government dominated by people at ease with the possibility of doomsday. And of course it is Reagan, in league with Gorbachev and encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, who prevails. So begins the ending of the cold war.
Diggins dismisses suggestions from some historians that Reagan’s success was an accident of timing. He writes:
Reagan may be admired not only for what he did but also for who he was, a thoughtful, determined man of character and vision. No doubt some Americans, especially intellectuals, would laugh at such a description. Such skeptics share a widespread assumption that the cold war was inevitably coming to an end and that Reagan happened to be in the right place at the right time. Reagan, however, was not simply receptive to a historical situation; on the contrary, he helped to create it. In taking action that would force events, Reagan led rather than followed, often going against the counsel of his national security advisors and secretary of defense.
Those who remember Washington’s cold war culture in the 1980s will recall the shocked reactions to Reagan’s intervention. People interested in foreign policy were astonished when in 1985 he met alone at Geneva—alone, not a single strategic thinker at his elbow!—with the Soviet Communist master Gorbachev. Those who thought this was foolishly reckless included members of his own retinue. Democrats were not alone in underrating Reagan.
Diggins’s enthusiasm for Reagan is so overwhelming that his book loses sight of Mikhail Gorbachev, yet Gorbachev took risks at least as daring as Reagan’s. By reducing his nuclear arsenal, pulling his armies out of Afghanistan, and liberalizing Soviet society (glasnost and perestroika), he was certainly threatening the comfort of Moscow’s cold war establishment. These must have been high-risk gambits for a new young leader in a crumbling superpower, but he gets little applause here. Diggins comes to celebrate Reagan the Emersonian, not to praise Gorbachev.
His book is one of those presidential upgradings by history such as George W. Bush is now said to hope for in a kinder, gentler future. There is ample evidence that Reagan’s presidential reputation is indeed enjoying just such a refurbishment. Apparently Democrats and his old intellectual and liberal critics needed to experience the autocratic and bellicose Bush before they could see what a prize statesman the nation once had in Reagan. One hears people formerly contemptuous of him comment that, having seen Bush, they now rank Reagan with the immortals. It is easy to dismiss this as cynical joking, yet here is the eminently respectable Diggins discussing “the Gipper” in the same paragraph with Lincoln and anointing him as one of American history’s “three great liberators.” It is a sign of the rising esteem Reagan now enjoys that it suddenly seems disrespectful to refer to him as “the Gipper.” Such are the cultural upheavals that accompany history’s upward revisions of presidential reputations. Who now recalls that Harry Truman was once derided as a failed haberdasher?
Other historians are also writing about Reagan’s excellences. Robert M. Collins, professor of history at the University of Missouri, gives him high grades for leadership in Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years. In large matters that counted most, Collins writes,
Reagan was firmly in charge. It was he who ultimately called the shots that mattered, often over considerable opposition from within the White House circle, from Congress, and from the public at large.
Two salient features that stand out in retrospect for Collins were the optimism that was “his signal personality trait” and “his unusual combination of ideological fervor and moderating political pragmatism.” He quotes George Shultz’s observation: “He appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears, to their confidence rather than their doubts.” Perhaps Collins was tempted here to contrast Reagan and Bush but preferred not to belabor the obvious.
Another sample of the revised Reagan appears in The Reagan Imprint by John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. His Reagan has “great flexibility of mind,” an “ability to adapt and embrace change,” “intellectual nimbleness,” and a “willingness to step out in new directions.” Like Diggins, Arquilla makes a persuasive argument that but for Reagan’s inquiring mind and courage to disagree with conventional Washington wisdom the cold war might still be with us.
Arquilla’s portrait of Reagan as a strategic thinker is quite different from Diggins’s. Arquilla finds him already worrying about cold war strategy during his long career as a radio commentator in the 1960s and 1970s. Reading these broadcast editorials, Arquilla found Reagan already talking like “a strategic thinker, not just an ideologue.” They showed Reagan himself beginning to think the world should be made “less nuclear.”
“The idea of holding civilians hostage to nuclear attack as a means of keeping the peace appalled Reagan,” Arquilla writes, and from his early days as governor of California he thought about “finding a way out of the illogic of mutual assured destruction.” In short, when Reagan arrived in Washington surrounded by advisers who opposed arms control, he already had reservations about strategic policy, and he was equipped with long-considered ideas of his own; he ended as the most successful strategist of them all. Though Arquilla does not mention Lincoln, he clearly agrees with Diggins that Reagan belongs with the giants.
Collins and Arquilla both dwell on the political shrewdness with which Reagan pragmatically eased up on his conservative ideology to accommodate the necessities of governance. Collins calls him a “pragmatic ideologue.” Reagan’s amiability toward friend and rival alike, Arquilla says, “was designed in part to reduce discord” and his “flexibility of mind and civility in discourse led to good results.”
George W. Bush, by contrast, though he came to power despite losing the popular vote, proceeded as if he had won by a landslide, trying to undo a century of progressive domestic policy by restoring a nineteenth-century conservatism devoted to serving corporate wealth. The resulting discord was apparent even before Americans turned against the Iraq war. If victory and peace are to emerge from the protracted warfare now in progress, “political and ideological correctness must bow,” Arquilla writes. “And there can be no better example of how to put ideas before ideology than the life and work of Ronald Reagan.”
The historical makeover which Reagan is undergoing dwells heavily on his amiability as something more than a pleasant personal habit. Diggins, Collins, and Arquilla all treat it as part of his political armament that was essential to his success. Diggins, theorizing about a debt to Emerson, suggests that this amiability was the expression of an unorthodox Christian background quite alien to what usually passes for Christianity in the White House.
Reagan was not a “born-again” Christian “who had to be saved from a dissolute life by divine grace, embracing the Bible to rid himself of inner demons,” Diggins writes, thinking perhaps of George W. Bush. “His religion resided calmly in a mind that had been serene almost throughout his life.” The churches he knew through his mother were influenced by nineteenth-century trends toward rejection of external authority and toward democratized religion. In a century obsessed with religious ideas and doctrine, many rejected the old orthodoxies. Out of this turmoil emerged Unitarianism, intellectually shaped by William Ellery Channing, who was to become the mentor of young Emerson.
Diggins now seems to be saying: and out of Emerson came Ronald Reagan. Among other things, Emerson came to believe that God was not an external power administering cruel justice to humans who violated a stern code. “Reagan was an Emersonian, not only in temperament but sometimes even in thought,” Diggins writes. “Emerson held that we are born free and good but that everywhere we are regulated and corrupted, that ‘organization tyrannize[s] over character,’ and ‘all public ends look vague and quixotic beside private ones.’”
From this point in an extraordinary chapter titled “The Political Romantic,” Diggins offers a series of proposals about Reagan as an Emersonian which range from the controversial to the mischievous and suggest that Diggins is an entertaining thinker looking for a good debate. He would have us, for example, think of Reagan as a president who, like Emerson, wanted to rid Americans of the Puritanical tradition, of thinking about life in terms of sin, suffering, and sacrifice. Emerson made the self divine. One did not need to look up or outward to find God. God was within oneself, and so the self itself was sacred, and therefore incapable of sin. Nor could its desires be causes for guilt. Like Emerson, Diggins says, Reagan wanted to free America of an inhibiting fear of selfishness, and indeed to let selfishness flourish. Since Reagan held with Emerson that people please God by pleasing themselves, it followed that they had no need of compulsory authority and “if left to themselves they could run their own lives.”
Here Diggins is not so pleased with the Emersonian strain:
My personal reservation about Ronald Reagan is not that he was a conservative; on the contrary, he was a liberal romantic who opened up the American mind to the full blaze of Emersonian optimism… [but] left the American mind innocent, without knowledge of power and evil and the sins of human nature.
In this, Emerson put Reagan at intellectual odds with the Republic’s founders who believed that men were not angels and so needed strong government to preserve an orderly state. Suggesting that men are not angels—Madison’s observation—conflicts with Emerson’s thinking about the sacred self and so, Diggins says, would have made Reagan frown had he attended the Constitutional Convention.
Fond though he is of Reagan, Diggins comes down at the end on Madison’s side:
Reagan told the people what they wanted to hear, whereas the framers told them what they needed to know—a government that refuses to educate, lead, and guide, to elevate and “refine and enlarge” the “passions and interests” of the people, is a government that cannot control the governed and cannot control itself.
One would like to say to this Emersonian everyman, this prince of a president, stop watching old films, forget Errol Flynn, and read The Federalist Papers and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where the claims of commerce are not simply to be celebrated but “properly understood,” and the trail of the serpent is to be seen in the heart of society and not only in the halls of government.