Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has been put to the hundred-day test, so Ronald Reagan got measured by the same standard. Articles were duly written putting his first hundred days in the White House up against the fabled first one hundred days of the New Deal. Reagan regularly gets likened to FDR on other grounds also, for he too is now seen as a “watershed” president, a figure leading and signifying major and abiding changes in the currents and patterns of our politics.
We know the end of the Roosevelt story whereas we’re still living the plot of the Reagan movie, so comparisons can be very misleading. But there are obvious differences that subsequent events aren’t going to smudge over. The biggest of them is that Roosevelt didn’t have a clear or consistent idea about what he was going to do when he took the oath of office. Reagan did. The New Deal was concocted, invented, evolved by a company of ardent, worried, and energetic men (plus a few women) who didn’t share a common vision, who weren’t bound together by a creed. The Fast Shuffle or whatever name may be given to the Reagan administration is the opposite. Reagan’s people said that when they took office they would, to use their paramilitary-police expression “hit the ground running.” They did. They knew what they wanted to do beforehand and they’re doing it.
The group FDR brought into office with him was a self-contradictory mélange of socialists, traditional balanced-budget, big D Democrats, technocratic central planners, anti-trust free enterprisers, and bleeding-heart pragmatists of no fixed ideological persuasion who only wanted to make the economic oowie go away. They hit the ground splattering and bickering. To this hour, historians are unsure about how to categorize this zigzagging administration of inconsistent and lapsed policy, of broad-hearted empathy and bewildered understanding.
Contrast that with Reagan. Reagan enters office as the symbol and expositor of a bundle of tied-together doctrines, supported by a growing library of theoretical and polemical literature. Magazines like Human Events, Commentary, The Conservative Digest expand and expatiate on these ideas for every educational level. Nothing like this existed when Roosevelt took the oath if only because the New Deal was invented after the Democrats took over in 1933, and even then they spent much of their leisure time the next eight years arguing with each other.
So different from the Reaganauts. They know one another immediately. They have their orthodoxy and they have no trouble distinguishing those who are not of it. They are trained into their political economy in a way that the enthusiastic but confusedly heterodox academic Roosevelt recruited weren’t. The New Deal could not draw from alligator egg hatcheries like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Affairs. The multimillion-dollar reptile nurseries that have trained Reagan’s cadres were as unknown to the 1930s as are the new administration’s organizational auxiliaries, be they YAF or the Moral Majority.
Packing an administration with such appointees is not the way FDR did it. His patronage was handled by an oldline conservative Democrat who was serving as postmaster general and who gave out jobs to those who had worked in the campaign and brought in votes in the same manner that every administration from the Civil War filled the blank boxes in the organizational charts. It is because Reagan didn’t adhere to tradition that his first one hundred days has a purposefulness and targeted intensity that other administrations, reflecting broader and sloppier political amalgams, did not achieve.
None of the books listed above, whether or not they hail Reagan as the founder of a new epoch, sees him as an unusual, possibly unique political figure, different from the eclectic, favorswapping consensus builders we are accustomed to have living in the White House. One might have expected the five New York Times correspondents contributing to Reagan the Man, the President to take up this aspect of the administration. It would have been interesting to read how these experienced reporters would compare Reagan with Lyndon Johnson, a president with powerful convictions about civil rights and poverty but lacking the unifying overview Reagan enjoys. Instead, we are asked to pay $9.95 for a pedestrian collection that reads as though it had been knocked out for “The Week in Review” section.
Johnson and Reagan have one thing in common. They both began their administration putting domestic affairs first, a rarity in our presidents, who usually regard the nation they preside over as a nuisance necessary for foreign affairs. Foreign affairs are easier because the standards of success in conducting them are vague. When considering Angola a president doesn’t have to hold his breath month to month waiting for the consumer price index or the unemployment figures to be published. Home to the White House after one of those innumerable “economic summits,” a president can get the Brothers Kalb to declare it a victory, a win, or merely a significantly important step forward, and who cares enough to argue? It is a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s bad luck and ineptitude that he could be the only nonwartime president in our history to lose bunches of votes because of the way he handled foreign affairs. Before Carter one might have said such a thing was impossible.
But Ronald Reagan isn’t rebounding in the other direction because he’s learned from what happened to Carter. These books, bad as they are, delineate a Reagan who is primarily interested in domestic affairs. It’s what happens in this country, in this city on the hill, man’s last best hope that absorbs him. He is as focused on the United States as Richard Nixon was fixed on foreign affairs. Indeed, other than a primitive anticommunism which is but the obverse sign of a verbally truculent hometown jingoism, he has no foreign policy. Keep the Canal, don’t sell Taiwan down the river, and spit in Brezhnev’s eye. That was all of his thinking on the subject until not many months ago.
Johnson was able to draw on a body of people who eventually won themselves not entirely complimentary names like poverty warrior and civil rights militant. They came to Washington unswervingly committed to doing things like abolishing hunger, but not to reorganize the government, to reorder the society. That would be left to the tunnel-visioned Reaganauts. The do-goodniks of the Johnson period would have been satisfied to have the objects of their mercy “mainstreamed,” to use the social-worky neologism coined in those years, into an America they thought was rather all right for middle-class whites. They had no intention of leaving the country a changed place in the way that the political Roundheads whom Reagan has installed are consecrated to doing.
None of the books on our list takes us into the angry orb wherein the Reaganauts dwell, although the ones by Edwards, van der Linden, and Wead are written by people who live in those ulcerous climes. Hagiography can be bad biography and still give the reader some knowledge, not of the saint, but of his followers. For the most part these three books don’t. Van der Linden, who has done more than cut and paste, went out, interviewed important people in the Reagan camp and returned to his desk to write a worshipful account of how Reagan’s campaigns were organized and run. Another work concentrating on the tactics and strategy of American politics interspersed with sectarian jibes and cock-a-doodle-doos thrown at Republicans against whom our authors seem to have been carrying not a few grudges for not a few years.
Edward’s work should be bound in while leather and sold to families who already have a white leather King James Bible. For those of us who never believed Ronald Reagan would be president, it gives nothing we want to know. Nor does the book by Wead, another work of political veneration. The best part of this work is the appendix containing a transcript of a conversation between Mr. George Otis of something calling itself High Adventure Ministries of Van Nuys, California, and our president. A tidbit for you:
Mr. Otis: We would like to know…what the Bible really means to you.
Our President: I have never had any doubt about it being of divine origin. And to those who…doubt it, I would like to have them point out to me any similar collection of writings that have lasted for as many thousands of years and is still the best seller worldwide. It had to be of divine origin.
There you have it. The free market is superior to carbon dating and authenticating old manuscripts. This ardent religionist isn’t visible, however, in Reagan’s autobiography, which is the most interesting and the most entertaining of the host of books under discussion. Where’s the Rest of Me?, which, by the way, appears to be the sole source for the other biographers’ accounts of Reagan’s early life, doesn’t reveal the amiably doctrinaire chap we get to see on television most any night. Ignoring the now oft-repeated stories of his Dixon, Illinois, boyhood, we do get to see a very hard-working, very tough guy.
His detractors’ description of him as a very lucky airhead taken up by a circle of rich, cynical men who use and manipulate him is at variance with the person in his autobiography. Of course, this is one of those “written with” books, but there are too many passages that seem to be there not because a commercial smoother-outer would have them, but because Reagan must have said, “I don’t care if it’s tedious, I want it in.” What other explanation can there be for the pages and pages about ancient Screen Actors’ Guild negotiations? In other hands, that stuff would have been condensed into ten swift pages, but obviously it was too big a part of Reagan’s life for him to skip.
One of the things that comes through these pages is that he wasn’t a figurehead president of that union. When he says, as he so often does, that he’s a union man, he’s making a meritorious claim, and as a union man he saw strikes, he saw picket lines, violence, and he saw the Reds. For thirty years, liberals have pounded on him for the part he played in the congressional investigations of communist penetration of Hollywood, where he won no Oscars for civil libertarian tolerance, but there is more than a simple melodic line to that tune. Younger people may find it overstated, but in truth the communist trade unionists of that period were the destructive, rule-or-ruin conniving saboteurs their enemies depicted them as.
It wasn’t only Ronald Reagan, it was anybody who had to fight them inside an organization who came to hate them. Beyond that it was Reagan’s generation, perhaps more than any other, which was first drawn toward communism and then disillusioned by it. He was twenty-eight years old when Hitler and Stalin made their deal. He could have fought in Spain with Orwell. If he hadn’t been a movie star, he might have become a crusading anticommunist earlier than he did, when the first wave of artists and intellectuals looked at the Kremlin and saw the Light That Failed.
But what must have shaped Reagan is that he did hand-to-hand combat with the Reds, something almost sure to engender an animated animus, not a passive one but the sort that could write and truly mean it:
We have prominent American newspaper commentators like John Crosby declaring that “to go to war under any circumstances for anything at all in the world…is utter absurdity.” To this, such prominent English commentators as Kenneth Tynan add that “better Red than dead seems an obvious doctrine for anyone not consumed by a death-wish; I would rather live on my knees than die on my feet.”
The trouble with such men is that they have never lived either on their feet or their knees. They have lived on their fat fannies….
It is not warmongering to say that some things are worth dying for.
Know thy president.
Reagan’s book leaves off in 1965 with a picture of a man who’d made his midlife career switch from actor to politician over a period of years during which the fights in the union were more to his liking than the work of being a leading man. The guy who would be running for governor of California, whom his opponents thought would make the mistakes of the inexperienced, had already trained himself through union politics and by going about the country for years talking to General Electric’s factory workers. He had also learned when to be reticent and when to be forthcoming. His autobiography has no quotes like “Medical care for the aged is a foot in the door of a government takeover of all medicine.” Nor does he go into his ideas about making social security voluntary or doing something about the income tax, “this progressive system spawned by Karl Marx and declared by him to be the prime essential of a socialist state.”
Those quotes are to be found in Bill Boyarsky’s book, a detached piece of work that would be more useful if it had footnotes. It lays out the Reagan record without venom or vehemence as it sketches a hard right-wing politician who knows when to trim but who can also be had by his subordinates because he gives them too much latitude and too little supervision. Given Reagan’s ambiguous record as governor it may be all that can be safely said, but you could also surmise that the post-gubernatorial Reagan has traveled from being the conventional, conservative grouch, an ag’iner, to someone who shares a perhaps dangerous or perhaps daft vision of America with his hyperenergetic collaborators.
The Future Under President Reagan, a collection of soporific essays written by his political fellow travelers, sketches the vision in a dryish and general sort of way. The quality sometimes does get up above the term-paper level, but there are too many passages like this one taken from the essay on Latin American foreign policy:
Instead of coherent policies, Fidel Castro has instituted his own personal whim. The most inane and insane purpose of Castro’s flam-boyant, but actually tragic rule of Cuba has been his war on the city of Havana…. Castro’s concept of the revolution’s prime objective was to raise the level of the countryside and punish the “evil” of Havana.
So we are left to guess about what transmogrifications of head and heart took the standard-brand, balanced-budget conservative of the Sixties and made him into a supply-side daredevil, what changed the man who signed the bill legalizing abortion in California into a Moral Majority hot dog. Something made him different from what he was and what most candidates have been.
He was not the first man to win a nomination by using the intolerant enthusiasms of a narrow base. But during the campaign most candidates distance themselves from the earlier supporters, moving either rightward or leftward to the middle. The candidate who doesn’t gets killed like Goldwater, or so sayeth the practitioners of these arts; but not Reagan.
Somewhere along the line he came to believe he wasn’t the archetypal, irritable conservative with gas in his gut pressing to escape out of both ends. No, he would be the new FDR, the president he and his admirers seem to mention the most. He would make his party the party of the masses, and Democrats the party of the elite, a word these New Conservatives toss around with the same hauteur the New Left rowdies of a few years ago did. Van der Linden quotes Reagan saying, “The new Republican party I envision will not, and cannot, be limited to the country club–Big Business image that…it is burdened with…. It is going to have to have room for the men and women in the factories….”
The elitist Democrats are to be left with the more shiftless segments among the minorities, the artsy fartsies, and the new class, the contemptuous name given to the service society clerics, the counselors and consultants, the teachers and the members of professions that didn’t exist, weren’t even imagined when Ronald Reagan was playing football at Eureka College and some of the ladies and gentlemen who now style themselves Neo-Conservatives were playing footsie with the Trotskyists at CCNY. That is a reassembling of the Rooseveltian majority coalition all right, but with the entrepreneurial small businessmen and the professionals taking the place of the blacks. Nevertheless, does it conform to how America is put together? Or is it how America is remembered by men who grew up when Pittsburgh was a smog-shrouded forge, when St. Louis was a town big enough to call a city, and when that piece of Edwardian naval architecture, the Dreadnought, the very same battleship they yearn to recommission, dominated the oceans?
Emma Rothschild showed in these pages (NYR, February 5) how the lunch-pail occupations, the muscular producer jobs so beloved by the Reaganauts, have diminished in importance, how it is no longer the case that when they are prosperous the country prospers. Good times these days are more likely to obtain when it’s fat city for the service-economy people and the new-class people, the one; who are now in most economic peril thanks to the lessening of their kind of government jobs and to the pursuit of policies that may not throw them out of work but will certainly cut their paychecks.
What other outcome can there be to the combination of putting so many teachers and other members of the “caring” (ugh!) professions out on the street, weakening the minimum wage, letting welfare benefits drop so low all but the lame, the halt, and the blind will be smoked out on to the job market while, at the same time, social security is to be re-jiggered to make early, if sixty-two is early, retirement financially impossible for most workers? Join that with the industries like steel, auto, rubber, railroads, and construction, where workers are not only unable to stay abreast of inflation but are being forced to vote “give-backs” to some of their employers. The sum of these things may not be bread lines, which are perhaps too freely predicted, but a sort of full-employment poverty, a slow workaday pauperization, in which an economy that cannot achieve big jumps in productivity by buying new machines gets a rough equivalent by paying its workers less.
Not that any number of specific measures the Reaganauts are pursuing don’t have merit. Even such hallowed objects as the minimum wage are more debatable than liberals care to think—for a number of reasons including the fact that the minimum has been increasingly ignored. To some degree Reagan was elected by a sort of taxpayer Naderism, by angry people who really don’t think they pay too much in taxes if they or somebody is being served by the money. Nothing is more instructive than to talk to some of the old Jimmy Carter people still in Washington, still out of work, and currently on unemployment compensation. One’s ears crystallize, crack, and fall off when one hears them describe the churlish civil servant swine who lose their folders, make them wait for hours, and insult them.
Members of the new class itself know that changes had to come. Not long ago I interviewed the director of a legal aid program in a country of an industrialized state. The state headquarters had been sending out detailed instruction packets on how to mobilize people to put pressure on Congress to save this program, which was one that Reagan has been particularly gunning for. She said she wasn’t going to do it, that almost nobody in her community cared if the program lived or died including the clients, that 90 percent of the cases were the simplest kind of divorces that would need no legal work if the state legislatures hadn’t formulated procedures to ensure busywork for lawyers.
Whether it was the National Endowment for the Humanities or Conrail, only the beneficiaries who got the boodle, the bankers, the railroad clerks’ union, and academics, and the bond-holders, supported such operations, some of which were worthy while others were hardly distinguishable from rackets. The rest of the world largely scorned them or were ignorant of them, and that is why the administration has found it so easy to chop, cut, and kill so many programs. They existed by virtue of congressional logrolling that, over the years, had taken the form of pick-up sticks, an inchoate mountain of logs. Pull one and they all come tumbling.
But the Reaganauts didn’t assume office to prune and perfect. When the twice-born secretary of the interior drops to his knees on the office carpet to begin his official day with his zealot’s orisons he does not pray to God the builder, the shepherd, or the tender of the vines; he is communicating with God the abolisher, God the swinger of scythes. These people have not come to Washington to make it work and make it work better, but to stop it. From bad regulation we are to go to no regulation. The next time you see a picture postcard of Old Faithful, the geyser will be surrounded by oil derricks, thus showing that wilderness and natural resource development can too coexist if you leave both of them alone.
The core of Reaganaut social theology is to leave everything alone, for God so made the world that it will be a horn of plenty unto all of us as long as you don’t let the bureaucrats urinate in the Garden of Eden. So Darwin is yanked out of biology and put back into sociology. Leave it alone, leave people alone so that the best can make it through to become producer-heroes, and the rest shall perish quietly offstage in the local branch of a national nursing home chain whose shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
It is the market manumitted and restored to its pre-Adamite condition that serves as the foundation for Bruce Bartlett’s Reaganomics. Within limits there’s much to be said in favor of his argument. Experience shows taxes can be too high, although too high appears to be a relative number that varies from society to society and from time to time. Even the Reaganauts who take the wildest walks on the supply side have not suggested returning to the income tax rates of even the 1930s. All other things being equal, going ahead with the Reagan/Kemp-Roth bill is a prudent risk. It may give the stimulative burst that’s claimed for it, although Lester Thurow (New York Review, May 14) has shown how such tax-cutting plans wind up stimulating things no one had in mind when they were enacted. Will we get a new steel mill or ten new gambling casinos along the Boardwalk?
Bartlett does convincingly answer fears that the tax cuts necessarily will bring more inflation. He says no, not if the money supply is held in check. But if the government isn’t going to print money to cover its deficits it must borrow already existing money, and that means pushing up interest rates yet higher. If the Reagan tax cut doesn’t generate more tax revenue, if there is no rising tide to raise all boats—a favorite Reagan metaphor—then we shall see 30 percent interest rates. We know what that means for the hopes of younger people who want to buy a house, but think of what it means for older people who want to sell one, who, during the inflationary years, have been trying to preserve their savings by putting them in real estate instead of the bank. When they try to convert their property into retirement money, when they come to sell the house, they’re going to find there isn’t enough to move to Arizona.
Bartlett’s Reaganomics predicates a vastly different planet than the one spinning through the 1980s. He writes of Andrew Mellon’s successful tax cut during the Harding administration but that secretary of the treasury wasn’t looking at a trillion-dollar increase in military expenditures. Harding, whatever his faults, negotiated the only disarmament—not arms control but a disarmament treaty—we’ve ever signed. They took the warships out into the Atlantic and pulled the plug in their tummies. Or there was the Kennedy tax cut in the heyday of American economic supremacy back when oil was two dollars a barrel. Maybe then we could do guns and butter, although large as Kennedy’s increases in arms spending were, they did not approximate the stupefying sums the Reagan administration is talking about.
In the end the Reagonian war policy cancels out the benefits, and there are many, of the Reagonian cuts on the civilian side. Beyond that, neither the president nor any of these books is able to answer or even articulate the central dilemma of the administration’s kind of conservatism—reconciling laissez-faire with a state of perpetual mobilization. War not only kicks up the taxes, as Mr. Bartlett correctly observes, it centralizes government power. We have seen the president pardon the two FBI officials convicted of authorizing official burglaries into the homes of the friends and relatives of the New Left loonies of ten years ago. Even in theory that doesn’t bother a true Reaganaut who isn’t tinged with the libertarianism of some segments of the American right. A Reaganaut has no problem with social coercion and regulation; it’s economic regulation that sends him flying across moats and up over the parapets to win victories and make changes that those of us who knew too much about American politics said could not be done.
The Reaganauts must come acropper because they have left themselves no way to ease out of their condition of permanent red alert. With their 1950s-ish view that all trouble is communist trouble they must have the arms and the men to fight everywhere at anytime and all the time. As long as our chief diplomat regards diplomacy as if not a treasonable activity at least one of sissified weakness, it is difficult to see how the administration can cut a deal that will lead to cutting war expenditures.
With such an amorphously bellicose foreign nonpolicy, this president and this administration, inward-looking and domestically centered as they are, are going to block themselves. The first administration in twenty years in a position to have its way with Congress will not have given its own program a fair chance.
June 25, 1981