“The other day,” Reagan confessed at an informal news conference, “I had in my possession a kind of scholarly-type magazine—I can’t give you the name of it,…one of those where there are a whole series of essays in the magazine on various national and international topics….”
Our presidents are rarely intellectuals, but no other president in modern times has seemed so deeply uninterested in intellectual matters as Reagan. The White House, ever attentive to the President’s image, doesn’t even try to pretend that Reagan reads anything besides the newspapers. (The newspapers are, after all, his notices; any performer reads them.) Instead of reading in his spare time—of which he seems to have a good deal—the President rides a horse, pumps iron, and watches television or a movie.
He also seems indifferent to intellectuals, aside from the few, such as Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who have provided him with good slogans. If he cares a hoot about what is written about him in “scholarly-type” magazines, he has hidden his concern masterfully. One wonders what some of his neo-conservative supporters, such as Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, or Eugene V. Rostow, who told us how much we needed him in 1980, feel about him now. How well have they liked the debacle in Lebanon and Reaganomics and James Watt? Even the intellectuals who will vote for Reagan again this year—and there will doubtless be many—will probably do so with a gulp. What else could you do when you support a president who returns from his first voyage to South America to announce, “Well, I learned a lot…. You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.”
Our descendants, if we’re lucky enough to have them, will probably find the sequence of events that led to Reagan’s presidency baffling. It is hard to imagine how the last twenty years will look from a distance: the assassination of Kennedy; the otherwise unimaginable ascension of Johnson; the resurrection of Nixon, made possible by Vietnam; the presidency of Gerald Ford, made possible by Watergate; the election of Jimmy Carter, inconceivable if not for both Vietnam and Watergate; then the election of Ronald Reagan. At the beginning we had the youngest president of the century; at the end we’d elected the oldest president in the history of the republic, and now find ourselves among a vast audience mesmerized by a masterful performer.
But just what kind of performance are we watching? It is a mistake to see Reagan as a faded B-movie star, although the “B” quality is important to his success. He comes across as so darn nice and so unintimidating that he disarms those critics who would have us be afraid of him. Chris Mathews, one of Speaker O’Neill’s aides, has called Reagan “the nation’s host,” our presiding master of ceremonies. Not just any old master of ceremonies, I’d suggest, but a particular model, a more genial and animated version of Ed Sullivan, whose program Reagan must have watched in the 1950s.
“We’ve got a really big show for you tonight”—Sullivan’s promise was the same, however dreary or distinguished the performers. Sunday night after Sunday night, Sullivan would cheer on his show, cheer every guest as though he were Houdini himself. What happened if the juggler dropped his pins? Nothing. “Give him a really big hand, folks, one of the world’s greatest jugglers,” and out on stage would burst a group of flamenco dancers. What if some controversial new act succeeded elsewhere—Elvis Presley, for example? Why, he’d quickly be put on the show, hugged and taken into the Sullivan show family. If one week’s program was a tawdry salute to mediocrity, did the folks out there watching get mad at Ed? No. Ed promised to be back next week with another really big show, and we trusted him; we gave him another chance.
Sullivan, like Reagan, was more than just an M.C. He was a fabulous salesman, a huckster, in America an entirely acceptable line of work. Why shouldn’t John Houseman try to stir up some business for the brokerage firm of Smith Barney? And if you took his advice and then Smith Barney sold you shares in a Florida land deal that collapsed, would you blame John Houseman? Certainly not. He was just doing a job. We absolve our likable television salesmen of responsibility for the products they sell.
Ronald Reagan took advantage of this national trait in 1970 when he ran for reelection as governor of California. Robert Dallek notes that Reagan’s record after four years was short on success in fulfilling his original campaign promises to cut back the size of state government and reduce taxes, but that didn’t faze him. As he had four years earlier against Pat Brown, Reagan ran against the mess (by then his own) in Sacramento, and he won. He will run against the “mess” in Washington this year. After all he’s just the M.C. on the Potomac. It’s not Reagan who drops the pins, it’s one of those jugglers on the program.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has called Reagan “the Teflon president,” because nothing sticks to him. But there’s more to it than that. Many Americans don’t want to hold Reagan responsible for the actions of his government, because in all other respects they find him such a satisfactory president. These are Americans who believe that what they hear on the evening news about monetary policy, gross national product, or diplomacy in the Middle East really makes no difference to their lives, so long as they are not losing their jobs and facing economic ruin. For them the President’s position as head of state and government is secondary to his performance as master of ceremonies and chief salesman, and they like the way he does it. Ronald Reagan understands this.
Like so many successful politicians, Reagan has all but completely hidden his private self from public view. “He isn’t stupid,” a distinguished writer who had spent an evening with Reagan once assured me. What was the writer’s evidence? “His eyes. You can see in his eyes that he is always calculating the effect of his words. They are shrewd eyes.”
Perhaps, but other successful politicians are calculating, deliberate, and hidden. Reagan’s character remains more mysterious than most, notwithstanding attempts such as Richard Dallek’s to explain it. In Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism, Dallek points out that Reagan is the second son of an alcoholic father. That might tell us a great deal about him if we had the close, day-to-day knowledge of his early life that no one including Dallek has as yet revealed. It may be generally true that boys, given a palpably inadequate model to copy, can be deeply affected by the experience. But just how? The central theory of Dallek’s book is that his father’s alcoholism drove Reagan to strive for personal independence.
Reagan’s childhood implanted in him powerful feelings about dependence and independence, loss of control, and self-possession. He finds great appeal in self-reliance, and he strongly dislikes dependency, partly, current psychological understanding suggests, out of unrecognized fears that he is like his father. Indeed, what is striking in the president’s life is his idealization of freedom, autonomy, and self-mastery and his antipathy toward, or belief in the need to overcome, totalitarianism, external control, and dependence on forces outside oneself.
One has to wonder how much this explains. Both the human condition generally and the cultural values of America in particular provide stimuli to the development of feelings such as those Dallek ascribes to Reagan and blames largely on his father.
Dallek acknowledges that most Americans “love freedom and independence,” but adds that “they do not share his [Reagan’s] exaggerated fears that only fundamental change at home and abroad will preserve liberty as an American way of life.” In other words, to understand the difference between Reagan and the rest of us, one has to take it on faith that Reagan really means what he says about freedom, big government, totalitarianism, the communist menace, and so on. But Reagan’s own behavior repeatedly raises the question of how much he cares about any of these. Spending on government programs other than defense has gone up under Reagan. The Red menace? Like the “so-called Communist China” (Reagan’s term) he embraced so warmly in May?
Like so many other Americans, Reagan appears to be fearful and insecure in the face of strange foreign forces, but what is interesting about him is how flexible he nevertheless proves to be in real life. For years he spoke in the most fearful way about Red China; then, confronted with the place itself, he reversed himself completely. He pulled out of Lebanon after claiming a pullout would be a disaster.
Surely the most important fact about Reagan is his decision, made as an adolescent, to seek his fortune in show business. Dallek observes that this choice contradicted the image of himself as the protector of old-fashioned values that Reagan later cultivated—he picked “the new ethos of entertainment and pleasure” over the values of small-town Illinois. Dallek quotes, from Reagan’s wonderfully titled memoir, Where is the Rest of Me?, Reagan’s description of his mother as “a frustrated actress” who “gave regular readings for ladies’ societies”—readings in which young Ronald joined her on the podium. This looks a lot like a second child finding a special way to win favor from a parent—in this case, the more important parent, in view of the father’s weakness.
As Dallek observes, show business allowed Reagan to succeed in life “largely through the manipulation of an image, rather than traditional productive enterprise.” But who ever asked Ed Sullivan to juggle? If this seems one of many contradictions in Reagan’s life between what he said and what he did, that’s show business—literally. He has always improvised or read from scripts.
Reagan himself seems genuinely to believe that he is a man of principle, and he has apparently conveyed this notion to the public, but I have found it hard to be convinced. James Reston has called him a sincere phony, but he seems both more and less than that—he’s a performer, always “on,” looking for the crowd’s approval. The show’s truly the thing—for him, and for us who are trying to understand him.
This preoccupation with appearances may help to explain Reagan’s problems with facts. When, as governor of California, Reagan was told that state spending was rising, he simply denied the unwelcome truth. Dallek quotes a letter Reagan wrote to his former Hollywood agent complaining that it was difficult “trying to play the ‘good guy’ ” as governor. As president, too, Reagan has often preferred to deny facts rather than confront their implications. This spring he was asked about a detailed study of the impact of Reaganomics that was conducted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The study found that families earning less than $10,000 a year had lost about $400 under the programs of the Reagan administration, while families earning more than $80,000 had gained $8,000. A reporter asked Reagan if that was fair.
“It not only wouldn’t be fair,” Reagan replied, “but I don’t think it’s true. You know, as Disraeli once said, there are lies, blankety-blank lies, and statistics.” He offered a long explanation of why he thought the numbers were false, ignoring the social security tax increase and cuts in many government programs that were the basis for the study’s conclusions. Lebanon was another case where Reagan could never get his script and the facts to coincide. In speeches and press conferences he repeatedly tried to cast Amin Gemayel as the bulwark of the free world against communism in the Middle East. It never came out right, like the Lebanese adventure itself. When the Marines were finally withdrawn, the theater went dark for a weekend. The commander in chief stayed out of sight of television cameras, hidden from view on his ranch in California. The following week the performance could start again as if nothing had happened.
But if there is sometimes a clash between Reagan’s theatrical presence and reality, they can also have fine rapport. I lost patience with Dallek’s book—purportedly devoted to symbolic politics—when he relegates the great symbolic event of Reagan’s presidency to a phrase: “His courageous response to and recovery from the wounds he suffered in an assassination attempt…pushed his popularity ratings [up]….” What could explain Reagan’s special relationship with American voters better than his remarkable grace and cheerfulness on that dreadful day? That clearly gave us a glimpse of Reagan’s real character, and it was reassuring, even inspiring. Here was another victim of the dark curse of our time, the assassin, but this particular victim did not die. On the contrary, he joked about it. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he told his wife when she rushed to the hospital. A line, not surprisingly, from an old script—it was what Jack Dempsey told his wife after losing to Gene Tunney in 1926. Later that night Reagan borrowed another line, from W.C. Fields: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” he wrote on a pad after his operation. Here the actor and the hero were one. As Reagan told a group of students at Fudan University in China, “You’d be surprised how much being a good actor pays off.”
Certainly it has paid off with one of the large groups that claim him, the evangelical, fundamentalist Christians. Reagan Inside Out by Bob Slosser, the executive vice-president of the Christian Broadcasting Network, is a startling book. In it we learn that Reagan’s election was not a matter of politics or even chance, but was preordained by God Himself, fully ten years before Reagan’s election. In October 1970, Slosser recounts, Pat Boone (“Red Sails in the Sunset”), his wife Shirley, and several others, including “George Otis of High Adventure Ministries,” called on the Reagans at their official residence in Sacramento. As they left, one of the group proposed a prayer. They all held hands in a circle. Otis led the prayer, which began normally enough, but then something strange happened. Otis is speaking:
“Everything shifted from my head to the spirit—the Spirit…. The Holy Spirit came upon me and I knew it. In fact, I was embarrassed. There was this pulsing in my arm. And my hand—the one holding Gov. Reagan’s hand—was shaking. I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want this thing to be happening…. It wasn’t a wild swinging or anything like that. But it was a definite, pulsing shaking. And I made a great physical effort to stop it—but I couldn’t.”
As this was going on [Slosser continues], the content of Otis’s prayer changed completely. His voice remained essentially the same, although the words came much more steadily and intently. They spoke specifically to Ronald Reagan and referred to him as “My son.” They recognized his role as leader of the state that was indeed the size of many nations. His “labor” was described as “pleasing.”
The foyer was absolutely still and silent. The only sound was George’s voice. Everyone’s eyes were closed.
“If you walk uprightly before Me, you will reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
The words ended. The silence held for three or four seconds…. Reagan took a deep breath and turned and looked into Otis’ face. All he said was a very audible “Well!”…
“Well!” It isn’t every day we get a president picked in Heaven. Reagan handled that moment brilliantly. He didn’t turn to Mr. Otis and tell him he had a screw loose, nor did he fall to his knees speaking in tongues. He just did nothing to discourage Mr. Otis. Slosser, a former New York Times editor before he went to work for the Christian Broadcasting Network, takes the episode at face value. As far as he’s concerned, the Holy Spirit prophesied Reagan’s presidency. We don’t know what Reagan thinks.
There’s no question that Ronald Reagan considers Slosser and the people for whom he has written this book important parts of his constituency. He repeatedly speaks to their conventions, embraces their issues, gives them the winks they crave. Reagan’s own contribution to the list of books under review, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, is another example of his eagerness to please the Christian right. Reagan’s work—described on the dust jacket as “his first book written while President of the United States,” actually consists of a 3600-word article—that is, a piece about the length of the essay you are reading. It is a passionate denunciation of abortion and of those who would decide that some terribly deformed newborn infants should not live.
But what does Reagan himself really believe? That is mysterious. Pat Boone and Bob Slosser and Billy Graham may all consider him a good Christian, but he’s certainly different from them. Reagan’s friends are California country-club Republicans, not evangelical Christians. What did Alfred Bloomingdale have in common with evangelical Christians? Or Walter Annenberg?
Writing recently in The Washington Post, Ronnie Dugger assembled an eyebrow-raising collection of anecdotes about Reagan and the Biblical notion of Armageddon. On at least four recent occasions, Dugger found, Reagan had spoken about his belief that Armageddon—the end of the world, to be followed by the Second Coming and the Millennium—might be coming sometime soon. Dugger did considerable research on the evangelical view of Armageddon, and discovered that—among many others—the Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of Reagan’s strongest supporters, has predicted that his own children will see the end of the world. Dugger cautiously raised the question whether a president who believes in an imminent Armageddon might react in some unexpected way if a crisis erupted—particularly in the Middle East, where Armageddon is prophesied—that might involve nuclear weapons.
But what if Reagan’s comments on religious subjects, including Armageddon, are no more serious than his earlier statements on Red China? There is abundant evidence that this could be the case. Some of the most endearing passages in Slosser’s book are devoted to explaining why Reagan never goes to church himself; why he gives almost no money to church work or other charities; and why such a solid supporter of “family values” has apparently strained relations with his own children. Slosser earnestly suggests that Reagan may give away money for which he takes no charitable deduction.
It seems extremely unlikely that religion means much in Reagan’s life. Slosser has to admit that Reagan rarely sees the fundamentalists he consulted for his book, such as Boone and the Rev. Donn D. Moomaw, Reagan’s old minister from California (where he went to church more often). There are no religious ceremonies at the White House, and virtually no visits by the Reagans to church. Toward the end of his book Slosser pleads with the President to have a more active religious life, and to lead his staff and the nation in active prayer. The book has been available for some time, though, and Reagan hasn’t changed his ways.
And yet an important aspect of Ronald Reagan’s personality seems in perfect harmony with Slosser’s. Both believe that simple, sweeping answers can be found to enormously complicated problems. Slosser quotes Reagan speaking at a California governor’s prayer breakfast in 1972:
I think our nation and the world need a spiritual revival as it has never been needed before…a simple answer…a profound and complete solution to the trouble we face.
Reagan has made other such statements. I suspect they should be read not as theology, but as a reflection of the way his mind works. He is a highly gifted simplifier.
Part of his talent lies in reducing large, complex phenomena to the particular. His own economic advisers could have told Reagan that under his administration the number of poor people was growing dramatically, but economists’ statistics don’t seem to reach him. On the other hand, when Mother Theresa of Calcutta came to visit Reagan in the White House—according to Slosser, at least—and talked about the suffering of the poor, “both Reagans wept openly.” Slosser writes that Reagan asked the nun what he could do. “You could make some of the surplus food available to the poor,” she answered, and it was done! The government gave away some cheese. How often we have seen Reagan do something similar, seizing on an individual case as though solving that dealt with the general problem.
Excluding the complexity of events from his mind is one of the ways Ronald Reagan copes with the world. When Slosser interviewed Reagan, “I asked the President whether he was optimistic about dealing with the Soviet Union….” “I have optimism,” Reagan acknowledged in reply, “based on the fact, or the idea, that if we can show them—not appealing to them that this is a nice thing to do—[but] show them that they can actually be better off and that their own safety and their own living standards and all could be benefited by a different approach than they now have…they might turn….” Turn, apparently, into a Russia acceptable to Reagan.
What about Reagan and the Russians? Does the President have any of the necessary intellectual equipment for dealing with world affairs? Does he want to try? Strobe Talbott’s excellent short book demonstrates that the American relationship with the Soviet Union is several times as complicated as the Reagan administration is prepared to acknowledge, or to deal with.*
I wondered, reading it, how Reagan might react if he read it. And he could, too—it’s about the length of two or three articles in a “scholarly-type magazine.” My suspicion is that Reagan would genuinely not recognize a lot of the reality that Talbott describes, particularly in regard to the many Soviet-American negotiations that have gone on in varying degrees of seriousness and intensity under Reagan. He came to office with a theory that the Russians could be intimidated into negotiating seriously, a ridiculous theory now disproved by events. But by testing the theory, the Reagan administration, as Talbott shows, has complicated the chances for getting back to a point where serious negotiations could begin again. Reagan now seems to want such negotiations, but there is a good possibility that he’ll be unable to get them, even in a second term.
Foreign policy is the subject that has brought Reagan’s theory of how to be president to the point of collapse. Reagan has set back relations with virtually every important country and region in the world except perhaps Japan. In China, with a little kowtowing, he has apparently repaired the damage he himself inflicted. But in other regions the deterioration has been grave. We are in a serious position now in the Middle East, having been bamboozled by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. In Central America we may be headed toward a war. Our allies in Europe have become more cynical about us. Mitterrand has told a story about his initial determination to build a close relationship with Reagan. This was tempered when they met by the discovery that “there was nothing there to relate to.” And of course the relationship with Moscow is in shambles, though this cannot be blamed entirely on Reagan, who inherited a shambles in 1981. But he has added much new rubble.
To judge by all that we have seen, Reagan simply has not mastered foreign policy—he displays no intuitive feel for the issues, no sense of history or appreciation of cultural differences. I suspect, for example, that he doesn’t realize how hard it would be to get his administration to agree on a serious arms control agreement with the Russians. The negotiations among the interested bureaucracies in Washington are always as tough as those with the Soviet Union; but by making a series of unrealistic negotiating proposals, this administration has avoided facing the tough, divisive questions that must be settled before a serious proposal is put forward.
Reagan separates himself from the people who run his government and look after the details that hold no interest for him. One White House aide told Time magazine that he doubted Reagan knew how his principal deputies spent their time. Does the President realize that Richard Perle, the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, has been able almost single-handedly to prevent any serious movement toward real negotiations with the Russians on arms issues—and that he can continue to block such talks? I’d be surprised if the President recognized Perle’s name, let alone understood the part he plays in the Reagan administration.
Of course Reagan is not alone in his inability to master foreign policy. Other public figures and many American institutions share his problem. Look, for example, at network television, where foreign policy appears primarily as news flashes on wars and crises. Foreign countries get on the evening news only in time of catastrophe, or a visit from Ronald Reagan.
In 1982, according to a study by Hodding Carter III, the three network’s evening news programs each devoted about the same amount of time to reports from the Soviet Union. For all of them it added up to about one hour—sixty minutes—for the entire year. The Russians made it difficult for American networks to shoot interesting pictures in the Soviet Union, and without pictures, there can be no news for television. We know that Ronald Reagan is a great television president, but perhaps there’s more to be said: he may be the first president whose strengths and weaknesses coincide with those of television. Like television, Reagan provides what many find to be a colorful, engaging, satisfying, and clear version of reality. Alas, it is far from reality.
We cannot account for Reagan’s popularity if we judge him by traditional standards. He must be seen in the specific setting of our times. I suspect we understand them poorly. A French sociologist, Michel Crozier, has recently published a new edition of his standard work on America in which he suggests that Reagan should be seen as a modern-day version of Harding or Eisenhower—a president whose most important function is to restore a sense of normalcy and calm to the republic.
Crozier believes that America is in another postwar period, but adds an interesting twist. The traumatic experiences of Vietnam and Watergate, he observes, took place over more than a dozen years, making this latest “war” much longer—and much more painful to Americans—than either of the world wars or the Korean war. Then Jimmy Carter managed to extend the era of bad times, with the help of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
If this analysis is correct, then Reagan’s appeal makes more sense. People are drawn to this president not by his tax cuts or his proposals for limiting ICBM warheads, but by the way he makes them feel. He is obviously making a lot of us feel good—feel as though a simple, prosperous, unencumbered life, protected against simple evils, is still possible here in America, “the last, best hope of man.”
In time America will grow out of this mood. Americans will wonder why they were drawn to a man whose mastery of world events, as opposed to American television, was that of an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford once called him. Meanwhile, the show goes on. The M.C. is ready for the cameras, smiling.
June 28, 1984