Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine

Hedrick Smith’s book is a laundry bag trying to be a statue. The laundry bag is chock-full of good things, but attempts to impose shape on it keep collapsing. The entire book is based on a metaphor, and Hedrick Smith, the brilliant reporter for The New York Times, is not very good at metaphor. He is, to start with, always mixing them. “The second major incident that stepped on the Reagan parade in 1981, and nearly derailed it, was another self-inflicted wound.” Bitburg becomes an unguent-producing tree in Gilead when Reagan goes there to “heal the wound of Normandy and to nourish the balm of Verdun.” “Fragmentation often leaves our politicians wallowing in deadlock.” It is hard to describe the Washington game when one is constantly changing games in midsentence: “Access, especially the exclusive access that blindsides other players in the policy game, is a trump card.”

Senator Howard Baker, who emerges in this book as the principal font of wisdom about how Washington works, called Reaganomics a “riverboat gamble.” Taken with that notion, Smith sets out to show us how all the best gamblers work their cons at the various levels of Washington life—in the bureaucracy, the Congress, the lobbies, the consultancies, the White House. Unlike other students of power—Machiavelli with his emphasis on fortuna, Clausewitz with his Friktion—Smith thinks skill has much more to do with the way things work than does chance; and he lays out numbered rules for succeeding in each sphere of the city’s politics, citing examples of successful conformity with his rules or disastrous departure from them. His two great examples of success and failure—though the structure of his book partly disguises this fact—are the two terms of Ronald Reagan. The first succeeded, we are told, because it was concentrated on a few major achievements, the Reagan managers made peace among themselves (after extruding Haig and disciplining Stockman), and the image of Reagan was manipulated with great skill. In the second term, there was no clear agenda; the original Reagan managers turned the White House over to a blundering Donald Regan, and the Reagan image was blurred at Bitburg, at Reykjavík, and in the Iran-contra affair.

This main story is told disjointedly, to fit the various rules for players of different power games. We hear about Haig’s forced resignation several times, as it relates to the “game” in the Cabinet, among managers, and among image makers. The generalizations pointing toward rules are in constant conflict with the particular details Smith reports so well. Reagan is a unique phenomenon, his presidency like no other on record. To raise or reduce it to a continuity with other presidencies, submitting to uniform rules, is continually to distort it. If Smith had told his story straightforwardly, in chronological order, as Henry Adams recounted the administration of Thomas Jefferson, it would have been clear how often accident, not rules of the game, prevailed—and how often, as Adams put it, “the self-deception inherent in every struggle for personal power” made conscious rules irrelevant.

Yet if Smith fails in his attempt to write a “how-to” book on playing the Washington game, he succeeds wonderfully at telling the “inside story” of one transaction after another. His work is a masterpiece of the higher gossip, a fulfillment of King Lear’s desire to

hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

Lear hopes to make a prison his observatory. Smith does not choose that vantage point for spying on “the mystery of things,” but his best stories do come from people who are on their way out from the Reagan administration, comparatively free to talk about the ebb and flow of great ones. What was a trickle of departing revelations (from Al Haig, David Stockman, and Michael Deaver) is about to become a flood—and Smith has got there first to some of those willing to tell what went on in the White House (Richard Wirthlin, Ed Rollins, Richard Darman, advance man William Henkel, and, of course, Howard Baker).

Smith is obviously a very good interviewer, and he gets Deaver to say more interesting things than he told the ghostwriter of his own book. Informed that the President said South Africa had “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country,” Deaver blamed that on the people who let Reagan discuss a serious subject sitting down. “You know, it’s funny about Reagan. The way he thinks changes when he sits down…. He’s too relaxed when he’s sitting. He’s not careful.” Deaver’s rules for managing Reagan were to brief him extensively, expose him rarely, and keep him standing up.

Smith also gets new details from Stockman—e.g., that he could not make the President understand, despite repeated explanations, the difference between “constant dollars” (discounting for inflation) and inflated “current dollars.” William Henkel describes the expensive detail work that went into Reagan’s Cinerama tours abroad. To get Reagan out to the most forward guardpost along the DMZ in Korea, the Secret Service demanded that 30,000 yards of camouflage netting be strung along a specially built scaffold. Then the White House built a platform to put Reagan at just the right height for looking north from a nest of sandbags, and the Secret Service tried to cancel that camera angle by raising the sandbags. Henkel bargained inch by inch between those guarding the President’s life and those creating his legend, setting the sandbag level at a point exactly four inches above the President’s navel.


The podium for the national convention in 1984 was built without a single edge on any part of it—any chair, lectern, or chair leg. “Curves everywhere,” in the words of its creator, all colored “brown, beige, nothing jarring…. The eye comes to rest there. Earth tones and rounded shapes are peaceful.” The podium was a giant womb, into which the country would retreat along with Reagan.

There are eerie tales here of the manipulation and passivity of Reagan in office—forerunners of the many stories we shall be hearing when he finally leaves the White House and all the image makers take credit for this angle or that bit of lighting. To get the shot of Reagan on a wind-swept promontory of Normandy, according to Henkel, the White House had to risk normal ties with France, rebuffing Mitterrand’s demand that Reagan, like other foreign leaders, be received first at the diplomatic metropolis and then go to Utah Beach, the site of the official ceremony. So determined were Reagan’s people to use the gorgeous setting they had chosen that they invoked the legality that battleground graves of American soldiers are American territory, so Reagan was not actually entering France when he landed at Pointe du Hoc.

But none of the real scandals of the Reagan administration came from his plasticity in the hands of media technicians. He got into real trouble only when he stirred from his lethargy and took independent action. Smith supplies new evidence for the conclusion so many have already come to, that the Tower Commission got things entirely backward when it blamed the Iran ransom effort on a hands-off “management style.” In the ransom effort, as at Bitburg and Reykjavík, things fell apart precisely when his managers had to let Reagan be Reagan.

In the case of Bitburg, all his advisers—including, most intensely, Nancy Reagan—told Reagan he should cancel his trip to the cemetery containing Waffen SS troops; but he felt he had given a personal pledge to Helmut Kohl, who requested with tears in his eyes some act of reconciliation with his country. “Anything you want,” Reagan answered, feeling gratitude at the time for Kohl’s support in putting Pershing missiles in Germany. When it became clear how much Reagan had surrendered to Kohl, Reagan called and spent forty minutes begging the Chancellor to let him out of his promise, but Kohl said his government might fall if Reagan backed down. Reagan took the position that only Kohl could release him from the pledge he had made—a likable code of loyalty, but not the view of a man who puts the national interest above personal favors. Reagan was hostage to Kohl even before he became hostage to his own hostages.

One of the benign roles filled by Reagan’s media managers has been to keep right-wing crackpots from getting to him, as happened in his campaign for governor in California. Once such a fanatic gives an item to Reagan—e.g., some phony quote from Lenin—prying it from Reagan’s grasp is like trying to make him break his word to Helmut Kohl. Smith gives us the most fateful example of a crackpot who slipped through the palace guard in his account of Reagan’s infatuation with SDI, the one subject on which Smith thinks he heard a genuine touch of nontheatrical emotion in all his interviews with Reagan. The crackpot in question is also a genius, Edward Teller, who was spirited in to see Reagan by Joseph Coors and Karl R. Bendetsen.

There is no subject on which Reagan combines more ignorance with more good will than that of nuclear arms. If he does not understand the difference between constant and current dollars, he has demonstrated repeatedly that the only distinction he recognizes in weapons systems is the simple (and false) one between purely offensive and purely defensive systems. Yet no leader would be more reluctant to use the weapons he funded so profligately in the first years of his presidency. He was frustrated by his own belief that treaties with the Russians are useless, a view taken from his lawyer-agent Larry Beilenson, who wrote a book on the subject, and repeated earnestly by Reagan for over a quarter of a century. Teller was the sorcerer who gave him the solution to his problem—a defense shield that, by making offensive weapons obsolete, would render treaties a mere formality. Reagan believed so firmly that SDI would be only defensive, and constitute a complete defense, that he made his sincere promise to share our system with the Russians. What is there to fear from an instrument that is only defensive?


William Clark, then national security aide to the President, and Reagan’s peer in technical expertise, shared his friend’s enthusiasm for this magic shield; but he knew that it would meet resistance from military experts in the bureaucracy, especially at the departments of State and Defense; so he told his subordinates, Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter, to develop the plan secretly. McFarlane suggested bringing in some bipartisan support from Congress, but that was overruled by Reagan and Clark; so he went to work through outside channels, despite his own misgivings—setting the pattern for his later dealings with Iran and the contras.

When Reagan sprang the surprise of SDI on his own administration as well as the world, Richard Perle tried to cancel the SDI portion of Reagan’s March 23, 1983, speech (written by McFarlane), and Secretary of State Shultz met twice with the President to beg him not to give the speech. Shultz was as unsuccessful that time as he would be later, when he argued against the arms-for-hostages trades. At one White House meeting Shultz shouted “You’re a lunatic” at one of the President’s advisers who was supporting the plan.

President Reagan’s devout belief in SDI explains his blithe attitude toward cutting offensive weapons at Reykjavík, and the disorder in his own ranks when he sprang that surprise. For him, the phasing out of aggressive weapons is inevitable as SDI is deployed. Who would waste money on absolutely useless things? Thus, for him, the way to demilitarize the globe, in nuclear terms, is to militarize space. That terrible simplism at the top—promoted, reluctantly or enthusiastically, by the naive or the scheming around Reagan for Reagan’s own fantastic ends, or for those of people with grimmer plans in mind—is the kind of thing for which there is no parallel in other presidencies. No other president has been so entirely convinced and so entirely cut off from reality. Here Smith’s reportage undercuts his own reduction of the reality to standard game rules. It is foolish to treat what Reagan’s NSC did as just another example (however extreme) of the normal tension between the State Department and the NSC.

The making of rules for different games also leads Smith to separate things that were interrelated. When Nicholas Daniloff was held captive in Moscow, Oliver North kept reporting that relatives of the “LebNaps,” as he called the captives in Lebanon, were protesting the foreseeable deal for his release; yet the administration was driven to complete that deal precisely because it knew similar trades were under way in Tehran, and Reagan was pushed toward Reykjavík as part of the overnight good relations meant to disguise the Daniloff ransom. Then, when he arrived in Iceland, Reagan threw his own delegation into disarray because of the commitment to SDI that had been secretly engineered by the same NSC officials who worked on the “LebNap” deal. All the administration’s schemes were entangled in complex patterns hard enough to trace in themselves and entirely oversimplified when cut up to provide illustrations of the way the game is played in Washington.

The Reagan administration was playing deadly games, and Smith unintentionally trivializes some of them. He treats Reagan’s first-term tax cut as a success—which it was, insofar as it “beat” Congress. After all, Smith’s own mentor in these matters, Howard Baker, went along with the “riverboat gamble.” But it was a gamble that made America a debtor nation. If that is success, what would failure look like? The NSC’s dirty tricks succeeded in fooling Congress for a while, but some of the slicker players of that game may be on their way to jail. McFarlane succeeded in getting SDI past Shultz and Weinberger; but if lasers generated by nuclear explosions are set at play in space, fulfilling Reagan’s innocent dream, we have created a nightmare. Some games are too deadly to be played at all. Not Washington games, but world games; metaphysical, not riverboat, gambles.

This Issue

April 28, 1988