Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine


In the Cabinet Room of the West Wing of the White House, where tall leather chairs, one slightly taller than the rest, surround an oval table, each president hangs portraits of three predecessors, implying similarities the incumbent finds appropriate or flattering. Lincoln and Jefferson are traditional choices; but in place of Harry Truman, whom Jimmy Carter had retrieved from the White House storeroom, Ronald Reagan selected Calvin Coolidge.

The choice of Coolidge is a reminder of how potent the supply-side ideology was at the start of Reagan’s term. The principal case to be made for Coolidge was that his secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, had overseen a reduction of the maximum income tax rate from 58 percent to 25. But everything else in Reagan’s campaign amounted to a promise to recapture Dwight Eisenhower’s 1950s, when the United States was at the zenith of its military and economic dominance, and when an American president last enjoyed a two-term reign.

Two-thirds of the way through his term, Ronald Reagan has proven more successful than Eisenhower at a comparable point in using the powers of office. With his repeated victories in the Congress, he has for the moment muted many theories about the impotent modern presidency. With his thorough vetting of political appointees, he has steered the permanent government more fully in his direction than most other recent presidents. He has been able to sound, as he chooses, either bipartisan and statesmanlike, as when arranging last year’s Social Security reforms, or ferociously partisan, as when defending his military plans. He has jettisoned appointees who proved troublesome, such as Ann Gorsuch Burford, yet stuck with others, such as Kenneth Adelman or William Casey, when he judged the opposition too weak to prevail. By replacing Richard Allen, his original national security adviser, with William Clark, and Alexander Haig with George Shultz, he offered an example “to future presidents…of the gains from changing a team that clearly was not working out,” I.M. Destler writes in The Reagan Presidency. “Kennedy reportedly worried that replacing Dean Rusk would be an admission of initial error; Carter never faced up to the incompatibility of Brzezinski and Vance. Reagan, by contrast, showed that a timely switch could bring benefits many times the short-run costs.”

Reagan has concentrated on a few tasks, instead of fighting fires. He is obviously ignorant of many of the details of government but unmistakably clear about his general intent. He has also enjoyed remarkable luck. More Americans died when the Soviet Union shot down the Korean passenger plane than would have been killed if the Iranian “students” had executed their American hostages one by one. But when it comes to the question of strategy, things are infinitely easier for a president once the blood has been shed and he need only choose the proper way of expressing outrage.

His adroitness to date does not necessarily mean that Reagan will be reelected or even that he will run. But it does suggest that his influence on the government must be assessed as the fruit of success, rather than as the consequence of frustration and failure, which was the case with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In the long-term effects of his skill in manipulating power, Ronald Reagan bears less resemblance to Eisenhower or Coolidge than to a man whose portrait will never hang in Reagan’s Cabinet Room, Lyndon Johnson.

The most consistent theme from Eisenhower’s term in office was his concern that the nation’s obligations not outstrip its resources. The federal deficit averaged only one half of 1 percent of the gross national product from 1955 to 1959, and this was mainly accounted for by a large recession-year deficit in 1959. At the very time when the United States was indisputably the world’s greatest military power, when it enjoyed an effective monopoly on nuclear weapons, Eisenhower declined to commit American forces at Dien Bien Phu, in Hungary, or at Suez. In those same years, of course, he approved covert American intervention in Iran and Central America. But his acquiescence to the CIA’s plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion was the only significant case in which he made commitments his successors would come to regret.

The caution of those years had many distasteful aspects. But in managing the government, Eisenhower’s determination that the nation be able to pay its way has much to commend it. The clearest contrast is with John Kennedy’s promise to “bear any burden” in the defense of liberty around the globe. As implemented by Lyndon Johnson, with his expansion of the American combat presence in 1965, this led to a commitment in Vietnam entirely out of proportion with the resources a comfortable liberal democracy could be expected to invest in a far-off guerrilla war.

It is impossible to know whether the Reagan administration’s commitments in Central America or, perhaps, Lebanon will ultimately be seen in the same light. But it is already clear that in its management of the nation’s finances, this administration, through all its legislative virtuosity, has gone further than its predecessors in making promises the nation cannot keep.



The pattern is clearest with military spending. As is well known, the administration is determined to devote more money to the military. The annual level of defense spending is supposed to rise by 40 percent (in real terms) between 1981 and 1985. At the beginning of that period, the military accounted for less than one quarter of the entire federal budget; by the end, it is expected to be more than one-third. Yet it is entirely possible that important parts of the military force will be smaller and less efficient at the end of this process than at the beginning, and it is inevitable that even these increases will prove inadequate to meet the goals the administration has set.

In his essay in The Reagan Presidency, Samuel Huntington points out that military spending proceeds in up-and-down cycles. During the “up” phase of the cycle, military and strategic doctrines change, indicating the need for an expanded force. Larger appropriations follow. During the “down” phase, there is concern about the pressure on the rest of the federal budget. The appropriations are scaled back, and so, eventually, is the doctrine.

Huntington says that the most recent “up” phase began during the last year of the Carter administration; indeed, he says that during its first year in office, the Reagan administration preferred to be criticized for having no strategy at all than to admit that it was merely moving more quickly along Carter’s path.1 The “down” stage is about to begin, as was predictable; but it will be devastating for the military because of deliberate choices built into the Reagan defense budgets.

The crucial decisions were made early in 1982, as the military budget for fiscal year 1983 was prepared. For the Pentagon budget there is often a sizable gap between “outlays,” the amount of money actually spent in a given year, and “total obligational authority,” which includes purchases authorized for future years. The more that large pieces of military equipment are authorized in a budget—ships, bomber fleets—the larger the gap, since the payments for equipment may not fall due for four or five years or more. Obligational authority does not count in calculating each year’s federal deficit; only the outlays actually made in that fiscal year do.

In the spring of 1982, this gap had great political significance. Since the administration and the Congress were mainly concerned about the size of the federal deficit in 1983, they concentrated on cutting commitments that would require immediate outlays. Caspar Weinberger and David Stockman struck a cynical deal. They reduced the outlays in the 1983 budget by $5.2 billion—but increased the obligational authority by $3.2 billion. This served Stockman’s ends, in helping to hold down the 1983 deficit, and Weinberger’s as well, in opening up room for several new weapons systems. Huntington drily remarks, “This could, of course, create great problems for Stockman or his successor in FY 1985 and FY 1986, but that was not Weinberger’s worry, and it did not seem to trouble Stockman either.”

We have already had a preview of what will happen to Stockman or his successor—really, to the military—when the contracts authorized in 1983 come due. A centerpiece of the military rebuilding plan is the “600-ship navy,” up from the 400-odd ships called for under the Carter administration’s final plans. Toward this end, the Navy’s ship-building budget has been increased by 80 percent since 1980.

As the editors of More Bucks, Less Bang, a collection of articles about military procurement,2 point out, the 1983 budget contained $4.2 billion for construction of six surface fighting vessels and ships to carry marines. They included three CG-47 guided missile cruisers, which will cost more than $1 billion each; two FFG-7 guided missile frigates, at $400 million each; and one LSD-41 Marine landing dock and cargo ship, also costing $400 million.

It might seem that, from the Navy’s perspective, more ships would always be to the good. But most of these new vessels, especially the billion-dollar guided-missile cruisers, exemplify the familiar modern preference for expensive but dubiously effective military systems. Some experts within the Navy contend that these ships would prove essentially useless in warfare, yet their views have been dismissed. More important, the way in which the “600-ship navy” is being financed almost guarantees that it will lead to a smaller force.

In the spring of 1982, as Congress was considering the budget that would authorize these ships, President Reagan, besieged by reports that deficits were out of control and by unexpected inflation in the budget, ordered the military to reduce some of its 1983 outlays. The Navy proposed a $249-million cut in its operating budget. But to do so, it had to remove from the fleet twenty-two ships, all of which had been scheduled for several more years of service and most of which had recently been refitted. Thirteen of the ships, for example, were destroyers, of which twelve had been overhauled (for $25 million apiece) within the previous three years. Five of the ships were LSD-28 landing dock ships that are externally almost identical to the one new LSD-41 being built for $400 million. Two-thirds of the cost of one new ship would have kept these twenty-two in service. Thus did this year’s progression toward a 600-ship navy actually result in a smaller fleet. (The Navy later restored operating funds for three of the ships.)


If anything is certain about the defense budgets of the next few years, it is that the funds for current operations and maintenance (known as O&M) will come under even greater pressure, because of the locked-in future purchases. When deficits must be reduced, it is far more complicated and costly to delay or cancel purchases than to reduce O&M by mothballing ships, decreasing training time, or cutting back on spare parts and fuel. Huntington notes that the military purchases proposed in the 1983 budget were 63.5 percent higher, in real terms, than in 1981. The operations and maintenance accounts, however, increased by only 14.5 percent. He says that future “limits on defense spending are also likely to have their principal immediate impact on [operations and maintenance]…. Readiness programs, consequently, are likely to face a crunch.”

These “readiness programs,” and not the prospect of future procurement, prepare a force for action. During the late Seventies, there was widespread grumbling inside the military about O&M reductions that led to planes that couldn’t fly, ships that couldn’t be fully manned, soldiers who could not be adequately trained. By undertaking a build-up so much larger than the nation, in peacetime, will conceivably sustain, the administration has bequeathed the same legacy of irrationality and inefficiency to the military of the mid- and late-1980s.


The larger sign of a government’s inability to pay its way is, of course, the imbalance in federal accounts. The prospect of permanent budget deficits has by now become so familiar that it is easy to forget how novel the deficits really are, and to lose sight of the conditions necessary for their creation.

Through the president’s first year in office, when the stimulative power of a 23-percent cut in tax rates could not be disproved,3 the administration forecast a budget surplus before the next inauguration day. In fiscal year 1983, the administration’s economists predicted, the deficit would be down to $22.8 billion, and in the following year the federal government would show a small surplus, the first in decades.

In fact, the federal deficit was more than $200 billion in fiscal year 1983, which ended last September 30. That was, by nearly a factor of two, the largest deficit in American history; the next largest was the previous year’s deficit of $110 billion. Before the Reagan administration, the deficit had never exceeded $67 billion.

The historic change for the administration came in the early spring of 1982. That was after David Stockman had told William Greider about the genesis of the first year’s tax cuts,4 and after Congress had begun to examine economic forecasts with a more skeptical eye. In the economic arguments that accompanied the 1983 budget proposals, the Reagan administration did what none of its predecessors ever had. It predicted a smooth, robust economic recovery but said that even when unemployment was down and the gross national product was up, there would still be persistent deficits of nearly $100 billion. Since then, the forecasts have only grown worse. Before the Reagan administration, there had been three years since World War II in which the deficit had been as much as 3 percent of the gross national product. It was 4.0 percent in 1976, 3.1 percent in 1975, and 3.0 percent in 1968. According to Rudolph Penner, the new director of the Congressional Budget Office, and Hugh Heclo in an essay in The Reagan Presidency, the deficits are likely to average more than 5 percent through 1985. Long after the Reagan administration is gone, the price for its deficits will be paid: through a permanent increase in the share of the federal budget devoted to interest payments; through a permanent decrease in our ability to perform other public functions; through higher taxes; or probably through them all.

Part of the explanation for the deficits is the tax-reduction plan that was enacted in 1981 and is now estimated to decrease federal revenues by more than $700 billion over five years. Another important and obvious part is the military buildup. But a third and less familiar element is the striking failure to pare other federal obligations.

In those heady months early in its term, the administration’s economists projected that by 1985, federal outlays would have fallen from 23 percent of the gross national product to 19 percent, despite the increase for the military. Their reasoning was not so much that expenditures would be smaller as that the national product, stimulated by a tax cut, would suddenly expand.

When the expansion did not occur, the unshrinking expenditures took on new importance. As of the 1983 budget, three categories accounted, by themselves, for 80 percent of all federal spending. They were defense, slightly under 30 percent; “non means-tested entitlements,” most notably Social Security and Medicare, roughly 40 percent; and interest on the national debt, about 12 percent. Each of them was destined to grow: defense for reasons of policy, interest payments because the deficits to be financed were so large, and the entitlements because of rising medical costs and an aging population.

So it was that the effort to reduce spending was confined to the remaining budgetary categories, which happened to include most of the programs devised specifically to assist the poor. Although “means-tested entitlements,” such as Medicaid and food stamps, are about a fifth as large as the “non means-tested” programs, more than three times as much money was cut from them in fiscal year 1982 and 1983.

In holding down the federal deficit, such reductions were meaningless. Heclo and Penner say that the administration originally estimated that it would have to pay 8.9 percent interest on ninety-day Treasury bills in 1982, but the actual rates averaged 10.5 percent. The resulting increase in interest payments “will exceed a reasonable estimate of all the budget cuts legislated in the summer of 1981,” they say. But their effect on many of the programs has been far from trivial. Job-training programs were virtually eliminated; between 1981 and 1983, when Social Security costs were rising by 20 percent and Medicare by 30 percent, the budget for Aid to Families with Dependent Children was reduced by 25 percent. Within each program, the cuts were true to the administration’s principle of concentrating assistance on the “truly needy.” The first to lose their food stamps were the most well-off of the former recipients. But as a matter of overall balance, especially when combined with the tax cut, the changes amounted to a dramatic redirection of public resources away from the poor. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in a study released last August, 40 percent of all the reductions in federal benefits were made in programs affecting households in the bottom quarter of the income distribution (that is, those whose income in 1982 was below $10,000).

A novel defense of this emphasis has recently been advanced by Michael Novak.5 He argues that since the big entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—“actually benefit the poor even more significantly than they benefit others,” their continued growth rebuts the idea that the Reagan administration has “hurt the poor.”

It is true that Medicaid’s benefits are restricted to the poor, but they are less than one-tenth as great as Social Security plus Medicare. It is also true that Social Security payments reduce the range of economic inequality among older Americans, and that, because of Social Security and Medicare, the elderly are no longer impoverished as a class. By now, their income distribution is much like that of the rest of society.6 Still, as an instrument of economic redistribution, Social Security is extraordinarily blunt.

A group of economists reported last year on the incomes among the elderly before they pay taxes or receive government payments. Not counting government transfer payments—mainly Social Security—households headed by white males aged sixty-five or older had an average income about twice as large as those headed by white females, and more than three times as large as those headed by nonwhite males or females. After allowing for Social Security and other transfers of government money they received, and for taxes paid, the relative gap among the groups was slightly smaller, but the absolute difference was greater. The average income from Social Security and other transfers for households headed by white males aged sixty-five or older was $3,463, compared to $2,606 for nonwhite males, $2,423 for white females, and $1,835 for nonwhite females.7 Since the greatest benefit went to those who started out with most, it is difficult to see how Social Security “actually benefits the poor more significantly than it benefits others”—all the more so since the ceaseless rise of middle-class entitlements is being paid for by cuts in programs specifically for the poor.

Starting an unsustainable military buildup may be seen as the victory of Caspar Weinberger and John Lehman, Jr., the secretary of the navy and main proponent of the 600-ship fleet. The pattern of the administration’s budgets must be seen as the defeat of David Stockman.

In his famous article, “The Social Pork Barrel,”8 published in 1975, Stockman set out a vision of budgetary reform far different from what has become his legacy in office. He said that when programs such as “Impact Aid” or “Basic Opportunity Grants” were established, their intended clientele was small and narrowly defined; yet soon they were expanded so as to distribute benefits to almost everyone. “It is obvious…that even the $80 billion in annual social welfare spending outside of the regressive social security system does not go to the poor or near poor,” Stockman wrote. “If it did, the officially estimated poverty gap of $12 billion could be closed seven times over…. The truth of the matter is that these huge sums are diluted across nearly the entire range of the income spectrum, a factor which both explains their political staying power and also why we still have 25 million poor Americans.”

Providing benefits to those who need them and removing the subsidies for those who don’t can only be more urgent now than it was in 1975, since federal resources are more dramatically overcommitted. Yet if David Stockman were to judge the actions of the Reagan administration by his old, independent standards, he would now have to be much more harsh. More money is now sluicing through the system, but a smaller share of it makes its way to the bottom.

When Laurence Barrett, the White House correspondent for Time, challenged Stockman to explain the contrast between his earlier pronouncements and his performance in office, Stockman reminded him tartly that he was not the only person running the government. Quite so: apart from disagreements within the administration, the prospect of facing Congress kills enthusiasm for reforming Social Security or other entitlements. Even the modest repairs enacted earlier this year were something of a legislative miracle. But this administration has undertaken more daring assaults, against entrenched opposition, in order to cut taxes, rebuild the military, and shrink the “non means-tested entitlements.” How has it chosen which causes it will bleed for? Why have its successes led to results at such odds with its announced intentions?


The Reagan program reflects a desire to eat dessert first. There will be a stronger military without a draft or tax increase; there will be an MX missile (whose rationale for deterrence was largely demolished by the Scowcroft commission) but not where local residents don’t want it; there will be a confrontation with Russia but not a grain embargo. In Gambling with History, Barrett alludes to a possible explanation for this tendency. Ronald Reagan’s life has been a string of happy breaks—he was discovered in Hollywood during the Depression, his career in politics opened up as his opportunities on the screen were closing. Experience has taught him to expect a sunny outcome. In 1980, he made Jimmy Carter’s sermons about sacrifice and limits sound like quitter’s talk. When unemployment rose above 10 percent in 1982, he could not give the traditional Republican explanation that recessions were bitter but necessary tonics. “Reagan would not do that because he doesn’t believe it,” Barrett says. “He will not accept the strong link between his monetary and fiscal policy, tight money and the recession.” He simply acted as if all would be well.

Another possible explanation, popular in Washington, is that the president is so far out of touch with the details of government that he cannot understand the impact his decisions have had. Reagan is clearly a different kind of president from Jimmy Carter, who grasped vainly for themes to connect the many facts he knew. Simply because they have become so predictable, Reagan’s howlers at press conferences are no longer news. But hypotheses that he is “out of touch” implies that Reagan would behave differently if he knew the details: that if confronted with the full consequences of the “600-ship navy,” for example, he would promptly order John Lehman to change course.

Somehow we know it would not happen that way. “With Reagan, facts don’t determine the case,” Sidney Blumenthal wrote in The New Republic late this summer.9 “Facts don’t make his beliefs true…. When facts prove mistaken or policies have unexpected consequences, he can shift ground without making any fundamental change in his beliefs…. Criticism of his statements or policies never touches his central beliefs.” That is, the emphasis on his lucky life in California and the feebleness of his command of facts distract attention from the simpler explanation for his decisions.

Something in Reagan’s makeup prevents him from seeing that his actions have consequences. To put it more precisely, he seems incapable of imagining that his well-intentioned actions might have unforeseen and harmful consequences. This is the most familiar neo-conservative criticism of liberal domestic programs, and in that form it is often true. Ronald Reagan would instantly understand why Hubert Humphrey’s promise to end unemployment by passing the Humphrey-Hawkins bill was destined for frustration. But he shows no awareness that his tax cuts might be responsible for huge deficits, or that some kinds of military spending might lead to a weaker military force. The problem is not that he is confused about the details of government; rather, he refuses to see a connection between what he wants and what has occurred.

Reagan cannot see it because he is an ideologue, the first to sit in the White House since the early nineteenth century.

“No other president has come to office after a remotely comparable prior career of making public an ideologically consistent (if very general) commitment to a political philosophy,” Fred Greenstein writes in The Reagan Presidency. When he became the nominee, Reagan was dismissed by many politicians as heir to the loser’s mantle of Goldwater and McGovern. Let him come to town, it was said in Washington once he had been elected, and he will edge away from those embarrassing associates on the right wing. People believed this because Reagan had proven himself willing to compromise in the past—this was the same man, after all, who announced in 1976 that Senator Richard Schweiker, a pro-labor Republican liberal, would be his running mate if he won the nomination. More fundamentally, they believed it because in Washington people with causes and people with power are thought of as two different groups.

Ronald Reagan has proven, in Washington as in Sacramento, that he will finally choose half a loaf over none—a partial tax increase over a big legislative defeat. Nonetheless, his most important goals are still defined by the sometimes contradictory but firmly held ideological slogans he brought to Washington. Somehow the US military establishment must be able to overpower the Soviets. Somehow the poor must help themselves. That is why he has persisted, with no sign of doubt, on the military and budgetary course that has already earned him an unexpected distinction. If asked to guess in 1980 which of that year’s presidential candidates was most likely to match the deficits of all past administrations combined, few would have chosen Ronald Reagan.

The flow of ideology down from the top is much of the story of Barrett’s book, a report sufficiently rich and full of detail to command admiration despite its often graceless presentation.10 Among Reagan’s immediate assistants in the White House, he finds a distinct cleavage between the “doers” and the “believers.” Barrett suggests that members of the former group, notably James Baker, the chief of staff, and Richard Darman, an assistant from the second tier who has steadily risen in influence, account for much of the administration’s legislative success. Members of the latter, such as Edwin Meese, the president’s “counselor,” and William Clark, the national security adviser, sustain the ideological drive.

The difference between these groups is, of course, a matter of fine degree. Contrary to the implication of most newspaper reports, “moderates” like Darman and Baker are not holdover Democrats or neutral civil servants. They seem entirely at home with the administration’s assumptions and its conservative businessmen. The principal difference is that they are more flexible when dealing with those outside the fold.

At crucial points, Barrett emphasizes, the purely ideological view has prevailed. In the aftermath of the tax-cut bill of 1981, Barrett says that subsequent proposals turned on the “fundamental question: could the government really function properly by reducting the revenue base as much as Reaganomics dictated? Even to harbor the inquiry was heresy, of course…. In the dozens of confidential budget documents and…memoranda which I was able to examine, that point was never advanced with vigor.”

Through the rest of the administration, there are local concentrations of believers, scattered among government offices full of doers and job-holders. Certainly the most frustrated of the ideologues are those dedicated to the “social issues.” They provoke the most intense opposition from the Congress and the public lobbies and they have seen the fewest of their causes put into effect. The administration has given symbolic succor but no practical relief to those who oppose abortion and desire prayer in the public schools. With his every blunder, James Watt has further undermined the anti-environmentalist cause. Now that the supply-side theorists have been buffeted, the most powerful ideologues are in the Pentagon: Weinberger, Lehman, and the man widely said to have the greatest influence over American nuclear policy, Richard Perle.

Perle and Lehman in office are consistent projections of their previous selves, but the mystery of Caspar Weinberger deepens day by day. Since January 20, 1981, he has been the nation’s most unyielding tribune of a military buildup at any cost (except a tax increase or the draft). He has compared himself directly and indirectly to Winston Churchill during the interwar years warning an unwilling world of the darkness ahead. Yet before his appointment, he had given no public sign of such sentiments. In fact, as we learn from the authors of Reagan’s Ruling Class, he spoke very differently in 1972. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he said:

The identification of a threat to security does not automatically require an expenditure in the defense budget to neutralize it…. The defense budget, in short, must be seen not only in terms of what we must defend ourselves against but what we have to defend. The more we take from the common wealth for its defense the smaller it becomes.

The insiders who speak to Barrett intimate that Weinberger’s influence is fading. Except for the president, they say, everyone considers him too shrill. It matters little, by this point; whatever the reasons for his conversion, its effects, like those of Stockman’s backsliding, will be felt for many years. They will be seen in too-expensive weapons, but it may also have an effect more dangerous than that. Certain technical advances, once made, are irreversible. We cannot undo the invention of the Bomb or, without a miracle of diplomacy, the deployment of multiple-warhead missiles. At the moment, it is still possible to forestall the expansion of nuclear weapons into space. By stepping up the quest for baroque space weapons, the administration has chosen a course whose technical and diplomatic implications no one can be sure of, and that may leave the world a more dangerous place than it was said to be when the “window of vulnerability” stood open.


Another kind of belief that helps explain Reagan’s record is more evident in Reagan’s Ruling Class. The book is a dense biographical encyclopedia covering the administration’s most prominent appointees. Its authors, Nina Easton and Ronald Brownstein, prepared the book as staff writers for Ralph Nader, and the analytic sections show political sympathies reflective of his own. Nonetheless, this is an extraordinarily informative compendium. It documents, among other things, the phenomenal privilege that many of the administration’s members have enjoyed.

Of the more than one hundred whose profiles are included in the book, at least twenty had incomes of more than $200,000 in the year before taking office.11 I say “at least” because information is missing on a few, such as William Casey. If the threshold is lowered to $100,000, it includes almost half the appointees listed here.

There is nothing wrong—far from it—with such financial success. It is hardly surprising that many of those chosen to lead large public institutions should have previously succeeded in business or the law. But the collective portrait is unsettling; it matches too closely the pattern of the administration’s crusades. Ralph Nader, in his introduction to Reagan’s Ruling Class, says that “the nouveau riche status [of the appointees] may help to explain the absence of noblesse oblige which has characterized the paternalism of the Old Rich who entered politics.” This strikes a strange note of old-money snobbery from Nader; “nouveau riche,” after all, is only another name for that much admired American title, “self-made man.” But Nader has a point. In theory, at least, the aristocratic education of the older American elites was supposed to include reminders that other stations of life existed, and that they must be respected. With privilege comes responsibility. The man who has built his fortune on his own may be less well prepared to resist the normal human tendency to see a very narrow slice of the world.

The world of these appointees is narrow indeed. After thumbing through their biographies, one finds oneself thinking “Poor girl!” on finding that Jeane Kirkpatrick earned a salary of $35,125 from the American Enterprise Institute plus $39,135 from Georgetown, or “Too bad!” when the authors report that Lawrence Eagleburger lived on his government salary. If the comparisons have such power in print, how much more potent must they be in life?

Much behavior in Washington is explained by the difference between issues that seem real and those that are abstract. Most politicians are provincial to some degree, but the administration seems to have built in no protection against the provincialism of lofty economic station. The best thing that can be said about the standard Democratic interest-group approach is that it guarantees some representation of different walks of life. The Reagan administration has no comparable internal balance. To its members, the half of all American families who make less than $23,000 a year may not quite seem to be losers, but their lives are abstractions. The secretary of the Treasury, Donald Regan, recently attacked a Democratic plan that would have increased taxes only for those with incomes over $50,000, who make up less than one-tenth of the population. The plan was unfair, Regan told a congressional committee, because it would penalize the “middle class.”

Why was there such passion for the tax cut, and such clinical coolness about reductions in food stamps and AFDC? It would be too simple to see this as a question of self-interest; as a practical matter one assumes that Donald Regan and William Casey had already devised ways to minimize their taxes. Rather, it is a matter of world view. In the light of supply-side ideology, Reagan and his officials might have genuinely believed that they were helping struggling, “middle class” people such as Kirkpatrick and Eagleburger. The tax cuts were a way of giving the less fortunate a chance.

For the administration, the haziest abstraction is not “the poor,” but “the blacks.” In addition to Samuel Pierce, who earned $280,000 the year before he became secretary of Housing and Urban Development, there is one other black among the appointees in Reagan’s Ruling Class. He is Arthur Teele, the administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration. For the president, the universe of real black people seems to include these two, plus William Franklin “Burgie” Burghardt, that member of his college football team whom the young Reagan admirably, even bravely, took into his house when he was turned away from a hotel. “Burgie” often comes up when the president discusses his awareness of the black predicament. “Burgie” was a black man who, in the middle of the Depression, was enrolled in college.

Once in the 800 pages of this book a different note sounds. Its absence in all other places defines what is missing from this privileged group. It comes from Malcolm Baldridge, the secretary of Commerce, who is one of the richest men in the Cabinet but still rides as a rodeo cowboy. He told Easton and Brownstein:

It used to be…some great friend of yours was married, had two kids and was trying to make a living on the rodeo circuit. He’d start off the year, he’d take maybe $2,500, $3,000 with him. I’ve been in campers with those guys, they’d invited me to go from Amarillo to Denver to the rodeo, and so we went up. And it was my turn to fix supper—and this is a true story—there’d be half a loaf of bread and some peanut butter in there. Period. And the guy’d say, “Well, I got to win something in Denver.” Then you’d go home and see a vice-president arguing because he didn’t have a key to the washroom…or because his office wasn’t in quite the right place or something, and it kind of puts the world in perspective. It really does.

This Issue

October 27, 1983