The Tower Commission report deals rather gently with the President’s performance in the Iran-contra affair.1 It does not speculate about what he knew concerning the supply of weapons to the contras during the period when Congress had cut off military assistance—even though the appendixes suggest he realized that efforts were being made. In the case of Iran, the report notes that “in his obvious commitment” to securing the release of the hostages,
the President appears to have proceeded with a concept of the initiative that was not accurately reflected in the reality of the operation [IV, 10].
Yet the “reality” was known to the President. He authorized first Israel’s, then America’s shipments of arms, and was informed of what went on in meetings between Robert McFarlane, Oliver North, and Iranian intermediaries or negotiators. What the report and the documents appended to it show is, first, Ronald Reagan’s capacity for self-deception. He wanted to believe that it wasn’t an arms-for-hostages deal, and his statements since the scandal became public prove that he still can’t convince himself that it was. However, his aides always believed that this was precisely what he wanted, and he approved twice—on July 30 and September 9, 1986—plans to that effect (III, 17; B, 152–153). Secondly, the President’s ability or willingness to remember what he had said and ordered appears extremely limited. He didn’t remember a meeting with McFarlane in the hospital where he was recovering from a cancer operation in July 1985; he gave three different versions of another meeting, in August 1985 (III, 7). He “did not remember how the November  shipment came about” (III, 9). It was Donald Regan who told the commission that Reagan had authorized weapons deliveries twice in 1986 (III, 14, 19).
Self-deception and self-serving amnesia are two of the character traits described by Garry Wills in his book—another volume in the series of works he has devoted to early and contemporary American presidents. Wills provides us not with a biography of Ronald Reagan, but with a study that addresses three questions: Who is this man? How did he become what he is? What are his links with America, or rather, what American beliefs and myths does he embody? Even though Wills’s book was finished before the Iran-contra scandal, it is the best possible preparation for an understanding of the President’s behavior in it.
The portrait of the man that emerges from the detailed examination of his career up to his election as governor of California in 1966, and from the sketchier discussion of his political career since 1966, is sharp and deceptively complex—deceptively, because, as Wills rightly puts it, Reagan “is the opposite of a chameleon: environments adapt themselves to him.” He is “an actor, but with only one role…he acts himself.” Yet “he is capacious, surrounding contradictions.”
He is clearly a man of physical courage (as a lifeguard at Lowell Park, near Dixon, Illinois, during six summers when he was sixteen to twenty-one years old, he rescued seventy-seven people) and remarkable control under stress (as at the time of Hinckley’s assassination attempt). Wills tells the story of the broadcast of a baseball game, which young Ronald Reagan, sportscaster for a Des Moines radio station, was supposed to describe “in vivid detail” even though the game took place three hundred miles away, in Chicago—when the wire that was relaying the play-by-play account to Reagan went dead, he improvised with enthusiasm.
Another feature (which Wills does not stress sufficiently, but which becomes quickly obvious) is Reagan’s ambition. Successful as a radio announcer, he was attracted by Hollywood and in 1937 got his station to send him there—he soon applied for a screen test, and had a six-month contract. After several years of light comedy roles, he asked, but did not get, more dramatic ones. He became deeply involved in the Screen Actors Guild, and was its president twice. As his movie career faltered, he started, with the help of the MCA agency, a new and successful career as host of the General Electric television show. He visited 135 GE plants in eight years, giving the same speech with which he later launched his political career. When Reagan’s contract with GE was dropped in 1962, once more he moved to enlarge his audience: he was “in wide demand as a speaker,” and made a spectacular political debut at the 1964 Republican convention, supporting Goldwater. Then came the governorship of California. In order to succeed in getting the job Reagan finally overcame his dislike of flying. No sooner was he in office in Sacramento than he began to prepare his campaign for the presidency. His amiability should not obscure his will.
Wills notes Reagan’s self-confidence, which he sees as “not entirely dependent on his own achievements,” but as based on his faith “in the ordinary good person of his background.” But he also observes Reagan’s need to be cheered up, to be kept away from strains and doubts, to be “warmed up” as a performer, and not to be “brutalized” by excessively heavy briefings. It is this “stroking, hand holding and ego building” function that Wills describes Nancy Reagan as having performed vigilantly, at the expense of advisers who seemed to make him tense and to undermine his capacity to give good performances. Wills mentions the firing of his campaign manager John Sears in 1980 and her intervention in 1984 after the disastrous first debate with Walter Mondale; we can now add the sacking of Donald Regan.
Reagan, to be effective, has to be “spared all unnecessary stress.” During his campaign for the governorship of California in 1966, the team assembled by a corporation called BASICO saw to it that he would be “driven and sequestered to arrive in rested condition.” As a result, then as now, he “was on the bottom rung of responsibility for strategy and the shaping of issues,” but “on the top of the apparatus for visibility, good will, the ‘soft sell.’ ” This entailed, of course, a willingness to delegate authority. Reagan has always been willing “because he is so sure of his own appeal that he does not mind if others get credit for management, direction, administration.” For all his ambition, Reagan, “unlike many actors… never wanted to become a director.”
The price he had to pay for this willingness not to be in control of operations was already perceptible in California. “There are always power struggles in a Reagan administration,” which he cannot control because “he cannot bring himself to look at them.” The staffing of his first administration in Sacramento was chaotic and politically vulnerable—the chief of staff filled “a number of posts with homosexual friends”; several high officials had serious conflicts of interest—a pattern that continued in the White House. After the early scandals in California, “Clark and Meese brought order to the Reagan administration, which made it successful”—as a rigidly bureaucratic regime presided over by a fiery critic of bureaucracy.
The replacement of Donald Regan by Howard Baker seems to repeat the story of California. In both cases, Reagan’s own role, as “a company person,” was limited. In both cases, several features stand out. One is Reagan’s apparent indifference to his own contradictions. “The candidate who had run against big spenders quickly became the governor who asked for and got the biggest tax raise in the history of California.” His attacks on big government were never inhibited by the fact that during the Depression his family had been rescued by the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. His father had worked for Harry Hopkins and the most heavily “spending” part of the New Deal.
Later, when in his GE speech he attacked the Tennessee Valley Authority, the fact that the TVA was a major client of GE bothered him less than it bothered GE, which asked him to drop “the offending references.” In his days as head of the Screen Actors Guild, he had argued against any government interference in Hollywood, but he called for federal anti-communist legislation. His suspicion of Washington did not prevent him from naming suspects to the FBI. His determination to reduce the scope of government and his admiration for FDR’s style of leadership have coexisted, incongruously but quietly, throughout his political career.
If, as Wills puts it, he did not experience his contradictions, he didn’t seem any more troubled by another remarkable feature. Wills quotes several statements in which Reagan indicates that collective social action—by students, or by actors, or by workers—is justified only when it is altruistic: “for a group to act from economic motives is somehow sordid and unworthy.” On the other hand, businessmen—unlike bureaucrats—are always assumed to be “high-minded when they lend their services to government.” Hence the vulnerability of his administrations to conflicts of interest and financial scandals—Wills shows that Reagan himself has been more than ready “to accept…favors from his wealthy friends while in office,” and even before. His own triple position as a member of the Screen Actors Guild who, when he was its head, had granted exceptional favors to MCA, as a client-employee of MCA, and as a producer, was anything but straightforward.
When a grand jury investigating MCA in 1962 asked him about the waivers granted by the guild to MCA in 1952 and 1954, whatever he remembered was false; but above all he remembered little: “Reagan’s strategy was to retreat toward constantly expanding areas of forgetfulness.” Wills connects deliberate amnesia and Reagan’s dislike of acknowledging failure. (Wills’s discussion of the disaster in Lebanon, in 1983 and 1984, can now be reinforced by the story of Iran.)
Distortion is another lifelong pattern. In Wills’s story, it begins with Reagan’s interpretation (in the autobiography he wrote with Richard G. Hubler, Where’s the Rest of Me?) of a student strike in which he had participated at Eureka College in 1928—a protest against a consolidation plan presented by the president of the college: “Almost everything factual about the strike had been erased from Reagan’s mind” by the time he wrote about it: he oversimplified the story, combining “a skill for striking ‘historical’ attitudes” with “a striking lack of historical attentiveness.” Reagan’s account of his activities as the head of the Actors Guild, when he supported one union allied with management against a more democratic union, is similarly distorted. So is his conviction that the strike of the Conference of Studio Unions in 1946 was a communist plot.
Two other closely related patterns in Reagan’s character are confabulation and pretense. A nice example of the former is a story often repeated by Reagan, about a bomber pilot in World War II who refused to bail out because “the belly gunner was too badly wounded to move”; the pilot’s last words before the plane crashed were, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” When Reagan delivered this story “with quivering voice” during his 1980 campaign, “reporters noticed that, if the two men died together, no one could have reported their last words or actions.”
As for pretense, it runs throughout Wills’s narrative. In Reagan’s account of the way in which, in 1934, he had saved a young nurse from an attempted mugging, he pretended that both the mugger and he had guns. During the war, assigned by the Air Force to Los Angeles to make propaganda films (his poor eyesight kept him from the front), he did not mind the press reporting that he was occasionally returning to his wife from the war “on a short leave.” In 1983 and 1984 he told Jewish leaders—the Israeli prime minister and Simon Wiesenthal—that during the war “he had been assigned as part of his war duties to the filming of Nazi death camps”—a story that Wills believes may explain why his aides, in 1985, were determined to keep him from (finally) visiting a death camp—and sent him to the Bitburg cemetery instead.
Wills notes the discrepancy between the actual performance and the pretended one in many phases of Reagan’s career (particularly in his governorship of California), and tries to explain it. He does not see Reagan as another Eisenhower, practicing “hidden-hand leadership” while deliberately giving the appearance of being remote and uninvolved. But Reagan is not a mere figurehead either, or simply like “the advertising manager of a large corporation.” Wills sees him as “a passionate believer in his own cause, and one who works hard to present it well.” What matters to him is not image, but what has been called the Unique Selling Proposition—concentrating on the strongest claim for the product, i.e., presenting the policy in the simplest, but also most effective way. “He is making a public argument, not merely a grand appearance.”
This helps to explain why Reagan has had so much trouble with foreign policy, which lends itself badly to USP. His domestic program precluded activism abroad, as Haig discovered with dismay.2 Foreign policy was to be just a matter of armed deterrence (“Weinberger was buying arms from all directions and discouraging their use in any sector”), occasional swift and easy coups (Grenada), and verbal thrusts at the evil empire.
Alas, the world proved itself too complex for this design, and the result, Wills says, has been an even greater number of policy failures than under Carter. The public, he writes, hardly noticed, because of “Reagan’s easy way of avoiding accountability for mere facts, for accuracy or consistency,” and also because of his “refusal to become obsessed—or even involved—with the niceties of foreign policy.” The Iran-contra scandal both confirmed Wills’s analysis, and put an end to public indifference.
Wills is, thus, remarkably good at analyzing Reagan’s behavior, at outlining the main features of the man’s character. He is, I believe, less successful in explaining their roots. He is not interested in psychological origins; he does not try to interpret the relations between Ronald, his father, and his mother, and he does not argue that Reagan found his true identity in the roles he played in his Hollywood films.3 Nevertheless, he provides us with interesting elements for further speculation.
Reagan’s father was an Irish Catholic, born in Fulton, Illinois, and an orphan when he was six; he became an unsuccessful traveling salesman. Reagan’s mother, of Scotch-Presbyterian ancestry, became a Disciple of Christ, and Ronald’s early life (unlike that of his older brother, a Catholic) “would also be centered in the Christian Church.” His mother’s influence appears to have been powerful. Nelle Reagan wrote, and acted in, her own morality plays, and Ronald “acted in his mother’s skits.” The man who later liked to draw simple, traditional moral lessons for Americans was clearly “moralized at” as a child. The Disciples of Christ were devoted to education, and even though Ronald changed schools often, he must have been a good student, since he skipped a grade. The Disciples disapproved of liquor—unlike Reagan’s father. Eureka College was a Disciples’ school, and dry. Reagan’s respect for law and order, his craving for “discipline, obedience and dedication” (which led him to join the cavalry’s reserves in Des Moines) may well have come from his mother’s example and preachings, and partly in reaction to his father’s failings.
At Eureka, Reagan took a course in journalism. When he graduated in 1932, at a time when finding jobs was very difficult, he chose to become a radio announcer, and succeeded. Wills doesn’t tell us much about this decision. His way of interrupting the narrative with often fascinating digressions provides the reader with many insights about the surrounding circumstances of Reagan’s life—Mark Twain’s America, small towns in the Middle West, the significance of T.F. Tweed’s novel Gabriel over the White House (and the movie based on it in 1933), sexuality in the films of Hitchcock and Scorsese—but Reagan’s own development becomes blurred during these excursions.
Wills does not speculate much about Reagan’s movies. He remarks that the decent son of Nelle Reagan neither liked to play heavies nor succeeded when he did. But he notes that he played “a government man”—a secret service agent fighting “crime, spies, and the under-world” in several films and that the war propaganda movies he made after he was drafted “specialized in uplifting, even devotional, tales about young martyrs serving a perfect cause, tales that entered his permanent repertory.” He compares Reagan’s presentation of himself, in 1966, as an (inexperienced) “citizens’ candidate” with similar figures in Frank Capra’s movies. And he points out that SDI not only “fits Reagan’s foreign-policy pattern of aggressive withdrawal” but resembles a device that appeared in a 1940 Reagan movie, Murder in the Air: “an ‘inertia projector’ that would bring down enemy airplanes by knocking out their electrical systems.”
Did the roles he played shape his beliefs, or was there a convergence between the two? Wills, referring to many of Reagan’s war movies, says that they express Reagan’s ideology: the decisive role of the individual, grappling with a crisis—“a single hero (or hero-nation)” saving “the day by a decisive act.” This unfettered, lone hero did not, he points out, correspond to Reagan’s experiences in his youth (law and order in small midwestern towns were preserved by small armies of law enforcers, not by a lone marshal). Was Reagan’s faith a kind of denial of and compensation for his own life patterns? He always served in institutions, such as a chiropractor’s radio station in Davenport, and one in Des Moines, and later in Hollywood studios, or else worked for corporate business.
We find little in Wills’s account on the origins of his visceral anticommunism, which does not emerge before 1946 or 1947. Was it a direct descendant of his wartime patriotism? The evolution of Reagan’s politics—from his Democratic days to his joining the Republican party in 1962; from his rather vague political beliefs of the 1930s to his “conservative, business-oriented and actively anti-Communist views from 1947 on”—is not clarified in this book. Wills compares Reagan’s course with that of the neoconservatives—Democrats who became gradually more conservative on domestic issues, and whose anticommunism in foreign policy was exacerbated by the move to the left of some of their erst-while associates. It is an intriguing parallel, but one wishes that Wills had dealt more with Reagan’s mind and emotions than with his tactics as an interest-group official, during the crucial years between 1945 and 1949, when his first marriage collapsed, his movie career faded, and his views changed and crystallized.
What probably distracted Wills from saying more about the formation of Reagan’s “philosophy” is his concern for the fit between Reagan’s views and American myths, expectations, and self-images. On the first page of his book, Wills announces that Reagan is “the great synecdoche…a large part of our multiple pasts” (synecdoche, he tells us kindly, is “just the Greek word for a ‘sampling”‘). Reagan as the carrier of “the American legend” is what interests Wills most.
Undoubtedly, the purpose of the book is to show and denounce the congruence of Reagan’s beliefs and an American vision that Wills deems “beyond or below ideology.” It is a vision that comes from America’s past, but doesn’t reflect reality at all: parts of it never did, other parts no longer do. Wills’s task is to unmask it both in Reagan and in America: his work is a sly jeremiad. The myth he debunks is the idea of innocence, the resistance to the notion of original sin, the belief that every sickness can be cured—even the sicknesses of the soul—and that the treatment need not be painful.
So in Wills’s book we are in familiar territory, a territory where Augustinian Catholics and Niebuhrian Protestants commune in deploring America’s misguided optimism and blindness to tragedy. What according to Wills is false and has always been false, is the idea that our nature is benevolent. He contrasts “the doctrine of the Fall” and “the doctrine of the Market.” The market “produces a happy outcome from endless miseries,” thanks to the invisible hand. Wills does not believe that “individual greeds add up to general gain.” General gain is probably impossible to achieve; but if one wants miseries at least to recede, it will take deliberate, human action; to pretend that a retreat of state power will ensure happiness is a lie. “A dutiful innocence and optimism” are behind supply-side economics and SDI, those equivalents of the free lunch (except, of course, that SDI does not come free, and contributes to the deficit, which proves that the denial of pain only leads to ever-worsening troubles). Reagan, says Wills,
is so energetic a believer in the counter-myth to the fall that, when he was asked to discuss his religious experiences as President, every instance he could think of was a matter of seeing the bright side to death or disaster.
What may have been true once, but is no more, is the peculiarly American form of the idea of innocence: the cult of the individual acting without any “need for historical process, social transaction, political pressure, the play of interests,” the myth of the small town as the locus of purity and simplicity, the celebration of sports “as a moral paradigm for the young,” where “innocence and aspiration verge on the religious,” the conviction that evil can only come from outside (“Americanism is anti-Communism”), and that the stables in Washington can be cleaned by a brave outsider. All these myths Wills sees as defenses against reality—the reality of a capitalism and a technology that render the individual powerless, except if he is a thief or a terrorist, and endlessly arrange and overhaul life.
Reagan and the American public are accomplices in pretense and self-deception. He acts out, and they pretend to accept, the conservative, sentimental messages of Hollywood’s movies—the audience, while knowing it wasn’t so, wanted to believe that the radio announcer was actually watching the baseball game or that Mary Pickford, who kept having to put on curls, had been “frozen in time.”
Thus, for Wills, Reagan’s popularity comes from his “giving us the past as present.” The Americans have entered into a “tacit bargain with each other not to challenge Reagan’s version,” any more than Reagan ever bothered to reconcile his real life (which entailed an escape from small towns, and a constant willingness to let himself be programmed) with his mythology.
This is a powerful indictment, and much of it rings true. And yet there are two other possible explanations for Reagan’s success. One partly complements, partly modifies, Wills’s thesis, and he himself resorts to it in many places. The other one is a less damning and gloomy substitute for his main hypothesis.
Wills rightly says that Reagan has been selling substance, not just image. But the nature of the performance may be as important as the message. Even Americans aware of the false or mythical content of the latter may have been attracted by Reagan’s personality: the fit between the performer and the public’s needs may be as much worth exploring as that between his and their delusions. Two qualities are particularly evident. One is his buoyancy and charm: ease, a powerful physique, quick wit, even the reluctance to concede failure, which also means (as in 1976) the capacity to recover quickly, from setbacks—all these features are eminently likable, and he displayed them in his debate with Carter in 1980. Wills contrasts Carter’s “religion of man’s fall, of the need for repentance, of humility,” his Calvinism, with what William James called “‘healthy mindedness,’ which replaces sin with sadness as the real enemy of human nature,” and which Reagan exemplifies. But the contrast between the two personalities was even more immediately obvious.
Indeed, Carter lacked above all Reagan’s other quality: his ability to cheer up, to reassure and make people feel good, to supply “entertainment, comfort, distraction, and healing symbols,” an ability Wills associates with a lifelong career in show business. Wills shrewdly comments on Reagan’s use of his voice. Hollywood movies in the 1930s had an overstated, underlined, crackling style and sound, but Reagan’s were underplayed, relaxed, and soothing.
Again, there is a congruence between an optimistic ideology and this cheerful style, but Reagan’s ideology also had a less reassuring and Manichaean or paranoid side: the repudiation of the recent past, the attack on social welfare, the appeal to military strength, the militant anti-Soviet preaching. Watching Reagan on TV, or hearing him on the radio, seemed to remove the sting from all this. Wills has found the perfect formula: “He is the demagogue as rabble-soother, at a time when people do not need to be stirred up but assuaged.” He is also right in saying that “the one thing a performer must always deliver is the performance.” If Reagan has for so long been judged on this rather than on his information or his competence, it was because he appeared to the public above all as a communicator, and he was shrewd enough to suggest and to have his PR men stress that this was indeed his function—this, even more than the message that was being communicated, and that was much more controversial.
This emphasis on personality and performance leads to an alternative to Wills’s main thesis: a “pragmatic” rather than a “mythological” interpretation. Political commentators have often noted this paradox: the public, when asked whether it endorsed Reagan’s views on a variety of issues, largely rejected them—and yet it voted for him twice. This suggests an explanation based on personality (especially in 1980), but also on what might be called pragmatic rationality. In 1980, Carter’s foreign policy had turned around by 180 degrees, and his economic policy was a disaster—inflation, a new and devastating threat for Americans, was high, and, to deal with it, a recession had been, so to speak, concocted just in time for the election. A (small) majority of Americans were, I believe, less seduced by Reagan’s views than willing to give him a chance, given their frustration and disappointment with Carter, and Carter’s inability to reassure them, to convince them that he could master external and internal storms. (Hadn’t he blamed the electorate for America’s “malaise”?) Some of the public also knew that Reagan in California had not behaved as a radical reactionary but as a good manager with “excellent records in areas where his rhetoric would not have prompted confidence.”
In 1984, the large majority that re-elected Reagan hadn’t become any more converted to his public philosophy than it had become enamored of Nixon’s in 1972. The public voted for a Democratic House of Representatives—and backed a man who had kept America at peace (even though, in Lebanon, an inglorious retreat had been necessary for this), licked inflation, and produced an economic recovery just before the vote. In 1980, the public had punished failure; in 1984, it ratified success.
No doubt parts of the electorate have been attracted by what Wills calls the Disneyland aspects of his message: the dream of a perfect defense, the nirvana of unraisable taxes, unquestionably have their attractions. But there is also considerable skepticism about both, an awareness of merely postponed perils—the arms race, the deficit, the trade imbalance—that cannot be blamed entirely on the evil machinations of foreigners. And there was in 1984 another awareness—of the degree to which events (and a reluctant Congress) had actually forced Reagan to depart from his original script, both with respect to social services and to arms control.
If this less metaphysical interpretation is correct, then the remarkable immunity Reagan enjoyed until last autumn is over: he will now be judged on his performance as president, not on his performance as performer. Maybe his natural optimism, and his new team, like his second team in California, will pull him through; maybe further revelations, in coming congressional hearings, will pull him further down, and his age make him less resilient than before. In any case, the performance no longer works as it once did. How much will its audience learn from seeing it had been taken in?
This is the second of two articles on the President.
May 28, 1987