Larry Speakes
Larry Speakes; drawing by David Levine

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 leaves as White House chief of staff, and never hears from Reagan again.

In every case one can discern (though the teller of the story doesn’t) what Reagan’s excuse would be, but treating an assistant as, essentially, a valet inevitably creates a deep hurt that turns to anger and the desire for revenge. That Reagan appears from a distance, especially to men, to have a particular talent for healthy camaraderie (ranch weekends, dirty-but-not-filthy jokes, backslapping, hearty laughter) only makes the disappointment sharper, and it is particularly infuriating for tough guys like Regan to have their wings clipped not by the commander in chief himself but by his wife.

In truth Reagan has had unusually little experience with family life, which is one of the important generators of the ability to form warm friendships. Michael Reagan reports that Reagan’s father Jack was not only an itinerant drunk, but an orphan from the age of six. Reagan’s first wife, Jane Wyman (nee Sarah Jane Fulks), came from a background so unpleasant that she will not discuss it even with her own children, though Michael says she has hinted that she was left on someone’s doorstep as a newborn baby. Nancy Davis Reagan (nee Anne Francis Robbins) was abandoned by her father at birth and spent most of her early childhood away from her mother. A story Larry Speakes recounts suggests the level of storminess in Nancy’s family: the night before the memorial service for her stepfather, Nancy had a “loud argument” with her stepbrother Richard Davis, a neurosurgeon, that was so bitter that he flew home and skipped the service. The Reagan-Wyman children were sent to boarding schools at the age of six. The appearance of personability, not personability itself, is Reagan’s métier.

Michael Reagan represents one extreme of the human consequences of the gap between the President’s All-American-guy image and the chilly reality; his book is one long complaint, sometimes justified (he was molested in summer camp), sometimes not (the Secret Service won’t provide him with a limousine), and it leaves the impression that his childhood has left Michael mired in an unconquerable self-pity. The other extreme is represented by Larry Speakes. Speakes went to work for Reagan because it was a good career move, and he seems not to have been in the least disappointed that he didn’t get emotional fulfillment in the bargain. Of all the Reagan memoirists so far, he had the lowest expectation level: Deaver had made the Reagans his life’s work, David Stockman wanted to be the engineer of a dramatic turning point in American history, Regan and Alexander Haig wanted to be seen as great men, and Martin Anderson, a former disciple of Ayn Rand’s, saw himself as a participant in the final victory of capitalism over socialism. Speakes saw his job as the top position in the political public relations field.


The story of Speakes’s life, as he tells it, is one of a shrewd, practical man innocent of ideology or idealism. He comes from the Mississippi Delta, which is one of the many permanently nonbooming parts of the country where most people want to work for government because it pays better than business; his first job serving the public was as a deputy county director of civil defense. He switched from small-town journalism to public relations for all of the age-old reasons, but it took about ten years less for Speakes to rid himself of the romance of the presses than it takes most reporters. He went to Washington in 1969 to become press secretary to Senator James Eastland, apparently without worrying about whether Eastland had sufficiently repented his longstanding leadership of the segregationist cause in the Senate: it was his ticket out of the Delta. He left Eastland in 1974 after calculating that it would serve him well to go to the Nixon White House at the height of Watergate: “Nixon was clearly going down the tubes, but I said to myself, ‘Having the White House on my résumé will be worth whatever it costs.”‘ He stayed on through the end of the Ford administration, negotiated fruitlessly for jobs with four different Republican campaigns in 1980, and managed to hook up with the Reagan transition team after the election and to make himself indispensable enough to be named deputy press secretary under James Brady.

This kind of personal history is hardly a shocking or unusual one in politics. Washington is full of journeyman careerists like Speakes—reading his book is like overhearing the conversation at the next table at a restaurant like The Palm or Maison Blanche, where the customers all have thought bubbles over their heads that say, “I’m a player in this town.” Speaking Out is an unwitting anthropological study of the subculture to which Speakes belongs. He worships canniness (a typical Speakes encomium is “[Representative Richard] Cheney has seen both ends of the street and knows what the score is”), and, as his curriculum vitae demonstrates, he has an extremely high threshold of moral outrage. Even after the smoking gun tape came out, Speakes says, “for me there was no issue of principle involved” in Watergate. Jerald TerHorst shouldn’t have resigned as President Ford’s press secretary over the Nixon pardon. Bernard Kalb shouldn’t have resigned as the State Department spokesman over the disinformation campaign against Libya. George Shultz shouldn’t have publicly disagreed with selling arms to Iran. Ed Meese shouldn’t have pushed “flag-waving, beat-your-head-against-the-wall issues that gained us nothing,” and the same goes for Patrick Buchanan and Oliver North.

His view of the Reagan administration is an unabashedly (if unwittingly) provincial one, the province being the press office. His chapter on Grenada is called “The Grenada Fiasco,” mostly because the press-relations aspect of the invasion was so badly bungled; the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos (which looks less momentous with the passing years) was the administration’s “finest hour,” and not coincidentally the foreign relations event in which Speakes played the largest part, because his press briefings were the channel the administration used to communicate with Marcos. The great mistake in selling arms to Iran was that nobody consulted Speakes “to find out how it would play if it did get into the press,” and the lesson of the diversion of the proceeds to the contras is that “Central America is not an issue you can sell to the American people.”

There is only one subject on which Speakes yields completely to sentimentality: the idea of working in the West Wing of the White House makes him all goose-pimply. This is also typical of Washington pros: one’s time in the White House is the high point of one’s career, and not just because of the résumé value. The allure of the White House is not captured accurately by the word usually used to convey the essence of upper-level Washington life, power. Speakes was not powerful, exactly. There is never a moment in the book where he makes a decision that changes the course of events. His was merely the kind of negative power that a catcher on a baseball team has: it’s only if he made a mistake that his actions would have had grave consequences. Fame comes closer than power to describing what Speakes loved about the White House (he mentions proudly that even Mikhail Gorbachev “knew me on sight”), and he also loved the sense of being at the center of things—the phone rings all day long, and whatever one is working on is of intense interest to hundreds of reporters who presumably reflect the raptness of tens of millions of readers, listeners, and viewers.


The advantage of Speakes’s narrow perspective is that it gives his book value as a document: because he isn’t trying to fit what happened into a grand theory, you feel you’re getting the truth. For example, he makes it clear that the administration secured the release of Nicholas Daniloff by releasing the spy Gennadi Zakharov, and the release of the passengers on TWA flight 847 by prevailing on the Israelis to free thirty-one Shi’ite prisoners. In both cases, as Speakes helpfully points out, the administration’s denials that it had negotiated with hostage-takers were untrue, and the feeling that both sides of this policy—the negotiations and the denials—were working must have been part of the reason Reagan approved the National Security Council’s request to begin bargaining with the Iranians for the release of the hostages in Lebanon.

On the other hand, Speakes’s inability to put anything in context is so severe that it has made him look quixotic, a quality he doesn’t admire in others and surely didn’t intend to have conferred on him. He meant to make news and thus produce a best seller, but he doesn’t seem to know which parts of his material are newsworthy. Donald Regan knew to make Mrs. Reagan’s astrologer the lead of his book, but Speakes begins with a boring anecdote about how his uncertainty about the chain of command on the day Reagan was shot set up Alexander Haig’s “I am in control here” remark. The two famous stories about making up presidential quotes are buried deep in the book and are hardly remarked on by Speakes, who must not have realized what a big deal they’d turn out to be, probably because what he did was no particular departure from the ordinary activities of veteran Washington press secretaries like himself. Getting fired by Merrill Lynch, his post–White House employer, was not in the script either; a certain amount of indiscretion to boost sales would have seemed just another sensible career move.

Speakes does not tell us much about the meaning of Reaganism. At the very end of the book he asserts that “I share Reagan’s conservatism,” but it’s unclear what this means since in every case during the foregoing three hundred pages he has sided with the pragmatists against the ideologues in the administration’s intramural battles. The events he’s proudest of, like Marcos’s departure and the signing of the INF treaty, all drew applause from the Democrats and boos from the right. He defines conservatism as personal loyalty to Reagan; George Will (his least favorite journalist) is a “pseudo-conservative” because he “tries to play the game both ways,” meaning he agrees with Reagan sometimes and sometimes he doesn’t.

The most obvious question raised by books like Speakes’s and Regan’s is how a man so unwilling to direct his administration, so subject to the manipulations of others, could have got so far. The picture of the President’s daily activities is consistent enough from book to book that it must be a true one, but surely there will have to be some revisionism on the question of his importance in the national life, if not of his competence as an administrator of the government. Reagan unseated a president in 1980 and was strong enough at the polls to bring in a Republican Senate with him, which nobody in Washington had expected. In 1984, after having presided over a severe recession, he was reelected by a landslide. If George Bush is elected president this fall, it will represent in effect the election of Reagan to a third term, since Bush’s main asset at the polls is Reagan’s popularity. The Eighties in national politics will without question go down in history as Reagan’s decade; no other president has dominated the politics of his time in office so thoroughly since Franklin Roosevelt.

Some politicians are remarkable only for their vote-getting ability, but it’s not fair to Reagan to say that this is all there is to him. He has moved the country to the right. It is true that the country was moving that way anyway, but it moved farther because of Reagan’s election and reelection as president. It is hard to imagine that any of the candidates for president in 1980 but Reagan would have cut income taxes by as much as Reagan did, or raised defense spending by as much, or cut discretionary social welfare spending by as much, or so insistently pressed for Star Wars, or been so ardent about the contras.

Public discourse has moved further to the right in this decade than was foreordained, and the main reason is Reagan. If Jimmy Carter had been reelected in 1980, or if it had been Bush who beat Carter, surely labor would not have lost as much power as it has, and the opposition to the civil rights movement wouldn’t be as open, and entrepreneurial wealth wouldn’t be as celebrated. Even liberals take more conservative positions now than they did in the Seventies—in 1988 Jesse Jackson takes a far more conservative line on many issues than George McGovern in 1972, and Michael Dukakis than Carter in 1976. Issues that have been mainstays of the liberal agenda since the late Forties, like national health insurance and full employment, have been virtually invisible in the Eighties, even though the Democrats have controlled the House for all of the decade and the Senate for some of it. For that matter, Bush in 1988 is a far more right-wing version of himself in 1980 and of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon when they last ran for president.

To make the case for Reagan as an ideological president does require a certain amount of hedging. People who work closely with Reagan, and experienced Reagan observers like Lou Cannon of The Washington Post, tend to dismiss the idea that Reagan is best understood as fundamentally a conservative, because they have seen the right lose virtually every White House battle. Right-wing aides like Richard Allen, Buchanan, and Meese have consistently been pushed out of the inner circle of influence in favor of non-ideologues like Shultz and James Baker. Reagan raised taxes when he was governor of California, rebuffed the right’s attempts in the Seventies to get him to leave the then moderate Republican party, raised taxes after his first year as president, left Social Security alone, signed an arms control agreement, and made no attempt to enact conservative legislation on social issues like abortion. The conservative movement, which has continually felt betrayed by Reagan, has become pyrotechnically bitter ever since he has made arms control his main cause; the message he has sent the right is that even in what will surely be the historic high-water mark of its influence, he can afford to ignore it entirely.

Martin Anderson is unusual among conservatives, and among alumni of the Reagan administration, for measuring Reagan against other presidents rather than expectations. As a result, his is the only book of the current crop that takes Reagan seriously as a conservative. Anderson’s argument is that Reagan’s ascension was part of a worldwide counterrevolution against liberalism; he portrays Reagan as essentially a libertarian (which is what Anderson is himself), whose departures from purity can be explained simply as the result of a negotiator’s conviction that it’s always best to settle for 80 percent. During the administration’s first few months, Reagan’s opposition was so intimidated and disorganized that on budget issues his initial bargaining positions, from which he expected to back off considerably, went through Congress virtually intact. Thus, as Anderson points out, Reagan cut domestic spending and increased defense spending by much more than he said he would when he was running against Carter. This makes him one of the few politicians actually to have exceeded his campaign promises.

Anderson’s version won’t do, though, as the complete explanation of why Reagan’s conservatism doesn’t parse intellectually. Anderson does a much better job than Speakes at defining Reagan’s accomplishments. (Speakes says that Reagan “showed us that there are limits to what the federal government can do,” but, measured in dollars spent, and in the scope of its ambition in every sphere except social welfare and race relations, the government has grown steadily under Reagan.) But Anderson doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the Reagan revolution tailed off so rapidly. Actually Reagan began to shy away from the conservative policy agenda as soon as it got to the point where it would have begun to cause personal inconvenience for the average voter. As far as sacrifice goes, Reagan is no Margaret Thatcher. It’s this divorce of conservatism from austerity that explains why Reagan and not Robert Taft was the first conservative to be elected president in modern America. Reagan attacked big government but not the middle-class entitlement programs, made us “strong again” without sending more than a handful of young men into battle, embraced the right-to-lifers without making it necessary for anyone’s pregnant fifteen-year-old daughter actually to have the baby.

It is going way too far to call Reagan a pure conservative. Even so, there is no question what his overall impact on the country has been. He staked out a basic position that was outside the consensus of the national leadership on practically every issue from relations with the Soviets to affirmative action to environmentalism. By proving that his position would not seem eccentric—that in fact it would win elections—he caused the consensus to move in his direction. By the mid-Eighties ideas were being discussed in respectable Washington that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the decade. Groups of intellectuals and interest groups who had been on the fringe in the Seventies were now “part of the process,” as Larry Speakes would say—it seemed actually to matter, for the first time ever in government, what the editor of Human Events, or rogue businessmen like Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife, thought. The constant pressure from the Republican right, combined with the disappearance of the Republican left, had the effect of making even the much despised Republican pragmatists more conservative than they used to be. The panoply of conservative interest groups became bolder, spent more money, and in several cases underwent internal revolutions in which the right-wingers unseated the moderates. For a while there seemed to be a direct line from the hothouse conservative policy world to the White House, although this feeling has disappeared in the final, peacemaking phase of Reagan’s presidency.

American politics is usually described by experts as essentially centrist, but Reagan moved the location of the center. This is a far more important achievement than staying awake in meetings or remembering the names of Cabinet members. In the play of interests and ideas, the Reagan years were not one long snooze, and the insider books that portray them as such are very soon going to seem dated.

This Issue

June 30, 1988