President Reagan, asked at his May 17 press conference if he believed in astrology, replied: “I’ve not tied my life to it, but I won’t answer the question the other way because I don’t know enough about it to say is there something to it or not.” In the unkind sense that there are few topics outside of show business about which Reagan knows enough to have sound opinions, his answer may have been truthful, but in any ordinary interpretation his reply was deceptive. There is ample documentation for the President’s long-standing enthusiasm for astrology.
Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, was published in 1965 when he was running for governor of California. “One of our good friends is Carroll Righter,” he declares in a passage on astrology, “who has a syndicated column on astrology. Every morning Nancy and I turn to see what he has to say about people of our respective birth signs.”
Reagan had just been offered a lucrative chance to do a nightclub act in Las Vegas. His horoscope read: “This is a day to listen to the advice of experts.” Reagan cut out the horoscope, took it to his studio bosses, and asked: “Are you guys experts?” They assured him they were. Reagan accepted their advice, and opened in Vegas at the Last Frontier.
I…put together several minutes of (hopefully) funny monologue…. [I got laughs talking] about type-casting, my yen to be a “ricky-tick” floor show fellow, and my background of benefits in which I always introduced other acts because I couldn’t sing or dance myself.
We had a wonderfully successful two weeks, with a sellout every night and offers from the Waldorf in New York and top clubs from Miami to Chicago.
Until his death last April 30, Righter was the nation’s most famous astrologer. Time put him on its cover (March 21, 1969) for a six-page feature on “Astrology and the New Cult of the Occult.” Formerly a Philadelphia lawyer, Righter moved to Los Angeles where for almost half a century he was the top astrologer for hundreds of Hollywood stars. Among his clients Time listed Marlene Dietrich, Susan Hayward, Robert Cummings, Tyrone Power, Van Johnson, Ronald Coleman, Peter Lawford, and Ronald Reagan. Asked if he used astrology to run California, Reagan gave one of his typically coy responses. He was no more interested in astrology, he said, than the “average man.”
The President has repeatedly denied that the stars had anything to do with his scheduling his 1967 inauguration as governor at the bizarre time of ten minutes past midnight,1 but both Righter and Sybil Leek, an astrologer who likes to call herself a “witch,” took credit for setting the time. Leek told an interviewer in 1982 that she was one of four astrologers Reagan had consulted for the most propitious moment to begin his term. “He really believes in astrology,” she added. “It guides his life.”
Henry Gris, a former UPI bureau chief in Hollywood and one of Righter’s best friends, told the National Enquirer (May 24 of this year) that Righter informed him in confidence that Reagan frequently called him from the White House. “Carroll told me before his death that the Reagans also conferred with him on recent personal crises in their lives, including checking with him before each of four operations on the President to make sure the surgery dates were favorable.”
Edward Helin, an instructor at the Carroll Righter Foundation, told the Enquirer he was present on several occasions when calls from the White House came in. Righter would initially answer by saying “Mr. Reagan” or “Mr. President” or “Mrs. Reagan.” As the conversation continued he would address them by their birth signs—“Mr. Aquarius” or “Mrs. Cancer.” When Reagan phoned to ask which of three dates, A, B, or C, was most favorable for making “a major political decision,” Gris says he overheard Carroll say: “The C choice will work best for you, Mr. President.”
Gris was quoted in the Enquirer as saying that while Reagan was still married to Jane Wyman he began seeking Righter’s advice, but when I telephoned Gris to check the accuracy of the Enquirer’s quotations he told me it was the other way around. It was Nancy who became “fanatical” about astrology before she and Ron were married, Righter had told him, and it was she who introduced Ron to Righter. Aside from this, Gris confirmed all the other statements the Enquirer attributed to him. When Ron and Nancy decided to marry, Righter selected their wedding date, according to Gris. After the President was shot, Gris said, Righter received a “panic call” from Nancy, seeking assurance that Ron would recover. Reagan became paranoid about personal contacts, according to Gris, “so Nancy began making all the calls.”
A few months before he was elected president, Reagan was interviewed by Angela Dunn for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Her article ran in numerous papers, including The Washington Post (July 13, 1980). “I believe you’ll find,” Reagan said, “that 80 percent of the people in New York’s Hall of Fame are Aquarians.” (Born February 6, 1911, Reagan is an Aquarian.) He cited Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and George Washington as Aquarians. He missed (Miss Dunn pointed out) on Washington—a Pisces.
Warren Hinckle, in his San Francisco Chronicle column “Hinckle’s Journal” (July 19, 1980), reported his conversation with Alice Braemer, for many years an aide to Jeane Dixon, America’s best-known psychic. In the Sixties and Seventies, Braemer told Hinckle, Reagan consulted regularly with Dixon during his visits to Washington. The meetings were held secretly in the Mayflower Hotel and were carefully “covered up” so Democrats couldn’t poke fun at the governor. No picture of the two together was permitted. President Nixon, she said, was less prudent. Nixon allowed himself to be photographed several times with Dixon until his aide Haldeman forbade further pictures for fear of gossip about a “Nixon-Dixon” alliance. “She lost Nixon,” said Braemer, “but she’s got Reagan.”
Hinckle phoned Dixon. All she would admit was that Reagan “had been a very good friend…for ages and ages.” The seer added that she had seen Reagan often over the years to “read” for him, though she never charged a fee. “I’m not considered one of his advisers,” she said cryptically, “but I advise him.”
Joyce Jillson, a former Hollywood starlet turned syndicated astrologer for the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1980 that she had been paid $1,200 by Reagan aides to work up horoscopes on eight prospective candidates for vice-president. It was a rush order, she said, so Reagan could take the results with him to study during a vacation in Mexico. Her charts showed that George Bush, a Gemini, would be the best running mate. Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s communications director, called Jillson a liar. Jillson assured Hinckle it was true—“all $1,200 worth.”
We now know that the Reagans became disenchanted with Jeane Dixon. She claims that she told Reagan he would some day be president, but Reagan has a different memory. “Jeane Dixon…was all for me in one part of her mind,” he told the Los Angeles Times reporter Angela Dunn in 1980. “She was always gung-ho for me to be president—but in that foretelling part of her mind, she said back in ’68, ‘I don’t see you as president. I see you here at an official desk in California.”‘ Whether this failed prophecy (among hundreds of other wild misses by Dixon over the years) had anything to do with the Reagans’ break with Jeane is not known. We do know they shifted their allegiance to the San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley. One of her loyal clients, Merv Griffin (he and Nancy have the same birthdate, July 6), had introduced her to Nancy.
Astrology had an obscure origin several thousands of years ago in Babylonia. It spread to Greece during the Hellenistic period where it became popular with the masses, though not with leading thinkers except for those in the Stoic school. The astronomer Ptolemy (in those days astronomy was fused with astrology) wrote the first great book on the topic. Greek astrology became even more popular among the Romans. Before Rome fell, dozens of treatises on the “science” were written, and every rich family had its personal astrologer. As in Greece, it was ridiculed by many intellectuals. Cicero, in his debunking book On Divination, calls astrology “incredible lunacy,” adding that some mental aberrations called for stronger words than “stupidity.”
Astrology also spread from Babylonia into Egypt, China, and India. Chinese astrology, the basis of Japanese astrology, has little in common with Western stargazing, and Hindu astrology differs from both Chinese and Western versions. This is puzzling to believers. It is hard to argue that Western astrology must be true because it has such a long tradition behind it, because Chinese and Indian astrology have equally long traditions. If one is right, the others are wrong. In modern India astrology is practiced to a far greater extent than anywhere else.
Chinese astrology is based on a lunar cycle of sixty years, broken into five periods of twelve years each. To each year is assigned an animal, the cyclical order said to correspond with the order in which twelve animals bade farewell to the Buddha when he left Earth. One of the animals is also assigned to each month and to each two-hour period of the day. These signs are coordinated with five elements influenced by the five planets known to the ancients—Mercury–water, Venus–metal, Mars–fire, Jupiter–wood, and Saturn–earth—and with the male influence of the sun (yang) and the female influence of the moon (yin). Reagan is a metal pig, Jimmy Carter is a wood rat. Some years are especially dreaded such as the Fire Horse year of 1967 in which terrible things happened. Nineteen eighty-eight is the year of the Earth Dragon in which good things will occur.2
There are strong condemnations of astrology in the Old Testament, and it is easy to understand why Christian theologians, stressing both free will and God’s providence, would not look kindly on the fatalism implied by classical astrology. Saint Augustine set the precedent with a strong attack on astrology (The City of God, Book V) which reads as if it were written by a modern skeptic. Among numerous objections is one that Cicero had also cited—the fact that fraternal twins, born within seconds of each other, have widely different personalities and destinies. The time of conception would seem to be much more significant than the arbitrary moment of birth, and some ancient astrologers actually preferred it to the birth date, but because it is almost impossible to pin down, astrologers understandably ignore it. Even birth dates are seldom known precisely, and for that reason astrologers are content to accept them to the nearest hour. Here are Augustine’s words:
How comes it that they have never been able to assign any cause why, in the life of twins, in their actions, in the events which befall them, in their professions, arts, honours, and other things pertaining to human life, also in their very death, there is often so great a difference, that, as far as these things are concerned, many entire strangers are more like them than they are like each other, though separated at birth by the smallest interval of time, but at conception generated by the same act of copulation, and at the same moment?
The saint has similar remarks about the “lying divinations and impious absurdities of the astrologers” in his Confessions (Book VIII, Chapter VII). Some “dotards” are so smitten by the constellations, he writes, that they even cast horoscopes for their household pets.3 He goes on to tell what first convinced him that astrology was “empty and ridiculous.” Ferminius, a well-to-do friend, had been born at precisely the same instant as one of his father’s slaves. Ferminius “ran his course through the prosperous paths of this world, was increased in wealth, and elevated to honors; whereas that slave, the yoke of his condition being unrelaxed, continued to serve his masters.”
That the sun influences weather (the seasons for instance), Augustine did not deny, and he knew that tides were correlated with phases of the moon. But when astrology is applied to human affairs, any accuracy must be ascribed, he argued, to demons—a view still held by conservative Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists. Although Church leaders throughout the Middle Ages condemned astrology, it was so enormously popular among the credulous that the Church tended to ignore it. Occasionally, when claims became extreme, the pope took action. A classic instance is provided by Cecco d’Ascoli, a famous Italian poet, philosopher, and stargazer. Cecco’s horoscopes correlated star patterns with the Deluge of Noah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and other biblical catastrophes. His horoscope for Jesus accounted for his birth in a stable, his poverty, and his wisdom. Libra, ascending in the tenth degree, made his crucifixion inevitable. Although Cecco’s following was enormous, the Inquisition burned him at the stake.
Astrology was the object of violent controversy during the Renaissance, but began to lose ground among the educated during the Age of Enlightenment. Modern astronomy demolished all claims that gravity, or any other known force from the sun, moon, and planets could influence human life. The prestige of astronomy was so strong that during the nineteenth century American astrology almost died. (The leading pseudoscience then was phrenology.) Divination by the stars began to rise again during the Depression, when Evangeline Adams was the nation’s top astrologer; then astrology revived as part of the occult revolution of the Sixties.
There are now more professional astrologers in America than astronomers, and it is hard to find a newspaper or women’s magazine without a horoscope column. A 1984 Gallup poll showed that the number of teen-agers who say they believe in astrology had risen from 40 percent in 1971 to 55 percent. Among teens who claim to believe in astrology, those from well-educated families outnumber those from the untutored classes, and whites outnumber blacks. The old stereotype of superstitious blacks is mocked by recent surveys. On all aspects of the paranormal, black teens are much more skeptical than whites. Several polls have shown that among adults, women who believe in astrology outnumber men by almost two to one.
The largest single group of professionals in the US today who believe in astrology are actors, with dancers and people in the fashion business close behind. Among recent writers, the true believers included William Butler Yeats, the British poet Louis MacNeice, and the leftist playwright Clifford Odets. Believers do not seem in the least interested in hearing about the dozens of careful empirical studies made during the last few years that have established a total lack of correlation between star patterns and anything that relates to a person’s character or future.4
Why do so many bright people insist that astrology “works” or have ambivalent feelings about it? The main reason is that horoscopes are so ambiguous that everyone can manage to apply them to himself. When predictions fail, a hundred excuses are at hand. The notion that physical forces radiate from heavenly bodies and influence human affairs has long ago been abandoned by leading astrologers. The correlations are now explained as patterns of what Jung called “synchronicity”—a paranormal harmony that links every part of the universe with every other part. Astrologers are not in the least disturbed by the fact that the wobbling of the earth’s axis causes its path to “precess” westward through the zodiac so that during the last two thousand years the earth’s path has shifted by one full constellation. Mrs. Reagan thinks she is a Cancer. Actually, the sun was in Gemini when she was born. Reagan is not really an Aquarian. He’s a Capricorn. A few radicals called “sidereal astrologers” have tried to revise their “science” to take into account this steady drift of the sun’s path, but no one has paid attention to them. Most astrologers now regard the zodiac’s sun signs as no more than symbols of a mysterious synchronicity that bears no relation to astronomical facts.
Nor are astrology buffs troubled by sharp disagreements among astrologers over the best way to prepare charts. No two newspaper horoscopes published on the same day are alike, and if you ask ten astrologers to prepare a chart based on the day, time, and place of your birth you’ll get ten different readings. Every astrologer is convinced that he or she has the true technique, and that most competitors are either incompetent or outright charlatans. Many believe they have psychic powers that augment their readings. Jeane Dixon, for example, has stated that when she prepares a horoscope she meditates, using her “psi” abilities to absorb the influence of a tenth planet that astronomers haven’t yet discovered. The ancients, of course, knew nothing about Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto, but that hasn’t bothered astrologers in the least. As new planets were found, they simply added their influences to charts that became increasingly complex.
About the books by Joan Quigley herself, there is almost nothing to say except that they resemble tens of thousands of astrology books that have been published around the world in the last few decades. At the moment, about a thousand such books are in print in the US alone. Miss Quigley’s books are out of print, deservedly so because there is not a fresh idea or a memorable paragraph in any of them. A typical sentence: “The adolescent girl with Moon in Libra loves clothes and has a wonderful sense of style.” The only passage of interest I encountered was in the introduction to Astrology for Parents of Children and Teenagers:
Many astrologers believe in reincarnation—that your child comes to you with a character that has developed over a series of past lives. This doctrine helps explain why some children are born more advanced than others. For instance, consider Mozart….
That was written in 1971. Today, when the doctrine of reincarnation has become so pervasive among New Agers such as Shirley MacLaine and her followers, I suspect a poll would find that “almost all” astrologers and their most dedicated followers believe in reincarnation.
This suggests an interesting question to ask the President. Does he or Mrs. Reagan, or both, believe in reincarnation? If so, it would conflict with his professed Protestant evangelical faith, but no more so than astrology does, and we all know that contradictory notions of all sorts can bounce around harmlessly inside Reagan’s head.
The question I most eagerly await hearing is one directed to the vice-president. What does he think of astrology? Bush once called Reaganomics “voodoo economics,” but as soon as he became vice-president he changed his mind. George Will, a staunch friend of both Reagans, recently called astrology “rubbish.” Will Mr. Bush have the courage to express an equally forthright opinion? My guess is that he will say something like: “Personally I have no interest in astrology, but I respect the right of anyone to blah blah….”
June 30, 1988
It is possible that when an astrologer recommends a date or time to Reagan he immediately thinks of good political reasons for it, or that he has a date in mind and astrology seems to confirm it. This would persuade him that astrology was not the primary basis for his decision, allowing him to say, as he did recently, that he has never based any policy decision “in my mind” on astrological forecasts. ↩
Those who want to learn Chinese astrology can consult Suzanne White’s Book of Chinese Chance, a Literary Guild alternate when M. Evans published it in 1976, and now a Crest paperback. She followed it in 1986 with her (684 pages) New Astrology (St. Martin’s) subtitled “A Unique Synthesis of the World’s Two Great Astrological Systems: The Chinese and the Western.” We can look forward to an even weightier tome in which she harmonizes Western and Chinese stargazing with Hindu and Muslim traditions. ↩
Cat Astrology, by Mary Daniels, was published in 1976 by Morrow, and is still available as an Avon paperback. “If your cat is an Aries she’s power-hungry and likely to chase bulldogs,” reads an advertisement. “Gemini cats are just plain hungry and enjoy relaxing. Now you can discover your cat’s sign and help make both your lives happier.” Morrow was not directing this ad at ignoramuses. It appeared in The New York Times Book Review (June 13, 1976). ↩
For a recent impeccably controlled experiment that refutes astrology see “A Double-Blind Test of Astrology,” by Shawn Carlson, in Nature, Vol. 318 (December 5, 1985), pp 419–425. Carlson is a research physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. For an excellent overview of similar disconfirmations, see Geoffrey Dean’s two-part report, “Does Astrology Need to Be True?” in The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 11 (Winter 1986–1987), pp. 166–184, and (Spring 1987) pp. 257–273. ↩