On the Outside Looking In
Ronald Reagan is strangely lacking in apologists. Even Richard Nixon had die-hard defenders right up to the end, and after his resignation he was portrayed with admiration in the memoirs of establishment-approved aides like William Safire and Raymond Price. Jimmy Carter, though regarded in Washington as a failed president, didn’t attract any truly destructive memoirs. It won’t do to say that nobody wants to defend Reagan now simply because he’s past the peak of his popularity. In Washington, loyalty is perhaps the most prized of personal qualities, and no presidential assistant has ever hurt his career by excessively praising the boss. The most extreme modern example of the comically obsequious aide to an unpopular president is probably Jack Valenti, of Lyndon Johnson’s White House; he has held one of the most visible, prestigious, and high-paid lobbying jobs in town, the presidency of the Motion Picture Association, for nearly twenty years.
Except for Martin Anderson’s, every insider book about Reagan so far has been, if not hostile outright, at least calculatedly embarrassing to him. What is it about Reagan? In part, the reason he engenders so little loyalty is that he isn’t mean enough—he doesn’t convey the sense that there’s a price to be paid for crossing him, that he will follow a sinning assistant to the ends of the earth in order personally to ruin his career. The people around Reagan don’t seem to be afraid of him. He lacks the skills that most inspire the respect of coworkers; close up he’s not commanding, or knowledgeable, or intellectually curious, or excited about the daily work of the office.
Most of all, Reagan gives the impression to the people around him (except his wife) that they aren’t important to him. Apparently that crucial moment of politician-to-aide bonding when the boss kicks off his shoes, pours a couple of fingers of scotch, and bares his soul never happens with Reagan. In nearly every one of the Reagan books there’s a scene in which someone who thinks of himself as being close to the President gets a frosty blast of his distance. Michael Deaver, having just ended many years of devoted personal service, gives Reagan some advice and is curtly told that there are people on the staff who take care of these things—“It seems as if the twenty years I had worked for him had vanished in the blink of an eye,” Deaver says. Martin Anderson points out that things were never the same between Deaver and Reagan after Reagan, in a similar moment of nonfeeling, allowed a cadre of scheming aides to force Deaver out of the campaign for a few months in 1979. Michael Reagan gets his father to speak at his high school graduation, and finds he has to introduce himself when they shake hands in the receiving line. Donald Regan gets a form letter saying goodbye when he…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.