Ronald Reagan, we are told by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, spent his time off-camera answering some fifty letters a week, selected by the people in charge of his mail operation, from citizens. He put the family pictures these citizens sent him in his pockets and desk drawers. When he did not have the zip code he apologized to his secretary for not looking it up himself. He sharpened his own pencils, we are told by Helene von Damm, his secretary first in Sacramento and then in Washington, and he also got his own coffee.
In the recent rush to establish that we knew all along about this peculiarity in the Reagan White House, we forget the actual peculiarity of the place, which had to do less with the absence at the center than with the amount of centrifugal energy this absence left spinning free at the edges. The Reagan White House was one in which great expectations were allowed into play. Ardor, of a kind that only rarely survives a fully occupied Oval Office, flourished unchecked. “You’d be in someone’s home and on the way to the bathroom you’d pass the bedroom and see a big thick copy of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times lying half open on the table by the bed,” Peggy Noonan, who gave Ronald Reagan the boys of Pointe du Hoc and the Challenger crew slipping the surly bonds of earth, and who gave George Bush the thousand points of light and the kinder, gentler nation, tells us in What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. “Three months later you’d go back and it was still there,” she adds.
There were words. You had a notion instead of a thought and a dustup instead of a fight, you had a can do attitude and you were in touch with the zeitgeist. No one had intentions they had an agenda and no one was wrong they were fundamentally wrong and you didn’t work on something you broke your pick on it and it wasn’t an agreement it was a done deal. All politics is local but more to the point all economics is micro. There were phrases: personnel is policy and ideas have consequences and ideas drive politics and it’s a war of ideas…and to do nothing is to endorse the status quo and roll back the Brezhnev Doctrine and there’s no such thing as free lunch, especially if you’re dining with the press.
Peggy Noonan arrived in Washington in 1984, thirty-three years old, out of Brooklyn and Massapequa, Long Island, and then Fairleigh Dickinson and CBS radio, where she had written Dan Rather’s five-minute radio commentaries. A few years later, when Rather told her that in lieu of a Christmas present he wanted to make a donation to her favorite charity, the charity she specified was The William J. Casey Fund for the Nicaraguan Resistance. She did not immediately, or for some months later, meet the man for whose every public utterance she and the other staff writers were responsible; at the time she checked into the White House, no speech writer had spoken to Mr. Reagan in more than a year. “We wave to him,” one said.
In the absence of an actual president, this resourceful child of a large Irish Catholic family sat in her office in the Old Executive Office Building and invented an ideal one: she read Vachel Lindsay (particularly “I brag and chant of Bryan Bryan Bryan / Candidate for President who sketched a silver Zion”), and she read Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whom she pictured, again ideally, up in Duchess County “sitting at a great table with all the chicks, eating a big spring lunch of beefy red tomatoes and potato salad and mayonnaise and deviled eggs on the old china with the flowers almost rubbed off”) and she thought, “this is how Reagan should sound.”
What Miss Noonan had expected Washington to be, she tells us, was “Aaron Copland and ‘Appalachian Spring.”‘ What she found instead was a populist revolution trying to make itself, a crisis of raised expectations and lowered possibilities, the children of an expanded middle class determined to tear down the established order and what they saw as its repressive liberal orthodoxies.
There were libertarians whose girl-friends had just given birth to their sons, hoisting a Coors with social conservatives who walked into the party with a wife who bothered to be warm and a son who carried a Mason jar of something daddy grew in the back yard. There were Protestant fundamentalists hoping they wouldn’t be dismissed by neocon intellectuals from Queens and neocons talking to fundamentalists thinking: I wonder if when they look at me they see what Annie Hall’s grand-mother saw when she looked down the table at Woody Allen.
She stayed at the White House until the spring of 1986, when she was more or less forced out by the refusal of Donald Regan, at that time chief of staff, to approve her promotion to head speech-writer. Regan thought her, according to Larry Speakes, who did not have a famous feel for the romance of the revolution, too “hardline,” too “dogmatic,” too “right-wing,” too much “Buchanan’s protegee.” On the occasion of her resignation she received a form letter from the President, signed with the auto-pen. Donald Regan said that there was no need for her to have what was referred to as “a goodbye moment,” a farewell shake-hands with the President. On the day Donald Regan himself left the White House, Miss Noonan received this message, left on her answering machine by a friend at the White House: “Hey, Peggy, Don Regan didn’t get his goodbye moment.” By that time she was hearing the “true tone of Washington” less as “Appalachian Spring” than as something a little more raucous, “nearer,” she says, “to Jefferson Starship and ‘They Built This City on Rock and Roll.”‘
The White House she renders is in fact one of considerable febrility. Everyone, she tells us, could quote Richard John Neuhaus on what was called the collapse of the dogmas of the secular enlightenment. Everyone could quote Michael Novak on what was called the collapse of the assumption that education is or should be “value-free.” Everyone could quote George Gilder on what was called the humane nature of the free market. Everyone could quote Jean François Revel on how democracies perish, and everyone could quote Jeane Kirkpatrick on authoritarian versus totalitarian governments, and everyone spoke of “the movement,” as in “he’s movement from way back,” or “she’s good, she’s hard core.”
They talked about subverting the pragmatists, who believed that an issue could not be won without the Washington Post and the networks, by “going over the heads of the media to the people.” They charged one another’s zeal by firing off endless letters, memos, clippings. “Many thanks for Macedo’s new monograph; his brand of judicial activism is more principled than Tribe’s,” such letters read. “If this gets into the hands of the Russians, it’s curtains for the free world!” was the tone to take on the yellow Post-it attached to a clipping. “Soldier on!” as the way to sign off. Those PROF memos we later saw from Robert McFarlane to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (“Roger Ollie. Well done—if the world only knew how many times you have kept a semblance of integrity and gumption to US policy, they would make you Secretary of State. But they can’t know and would complain if they did—such is the state of democracy in the late 20th century…. Bravo Zulu”) do not seem, in this context, quite so unusual.
“Bureaucrats with soft hands adopted the clipped laconic style of John Ford characters,” Miss Noonan notes. “A small man from NSC was asked at a meeting if he knew of someone who could work up a statement. Yes, he knew someone at State, a paid pen who’s pushed some good paper.” To be a moderate was to be a “squish,” or a “weenie,” or a “wuss.” “He got rolled,” they would say of someone who had lost the day, or “he took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.” They walked around the White House wearing ties (“slightly stained,” according to Miss Noonan, “from the mayonnaise that fell from the sandwich that was wolfed down at the working lunch on judicial reform”) embroidered with the code of the movement: eagles, flags, busts of Jefferson. Little gold Laffer curves identified the wearers as “free market purists.” Liberty bells stood for “judicial restraint.”
The favored style here, like the favored foreign policy, seems to have been less military than paramilitary, a matter of talking tough. “That’s not off my disk,” Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North would snap by way of indicating that an idea was not his. “The fellas,” as Miss Noonan calls them, the sharp, the smooth, the inner circle and those who aspired to it, made a point of not using seat belts on Air Force One. The less smooth flaunted souvenirs of action on the far borders of the Reagan doctrine. “Jack Wheeler came back from Afghanistan with a Russian officer’s belt slung over his shoulder,” Miss Noonan recalls. “Grover Norquist came back from Africa rubbing his eyes from taking notes in a tent with Savimbi.” Miss Noonan herself had lunch in the White House mess with a “Mujahadeen warrior” and his public relations man. “What is the condition of your troops in the field?” she asked. “We need help,” he said. The Filipino steward approached, pad and pencil in hand. The mujahadeen leader looked up. “I will have meat,” he said.
This is not a milieu in which one readily places Nancy Reagan, whose preferred style derived from the more structured, if equally rigorous, world from which she had come. The nature of this world was not very well understood. I recall being puzzled, on visits to Washington during the first year or two of the Reagan administration, by the tenacity of certain misapprehensions about the Reagans and the men generally regarded as their intimates, that small group of industrialists and entrepreneurs who had encouraged and financed, as a venture in risk capital, Ronald Reagan’s appearances in both Sacramento and Washington. The President was above all, I was told repeatedly, a Californian, a westerner, as were the acquaintances who made up his Kitchen Cabinet; it was the “westernness” of these men that explained not only their rather intransigent views about America’s mission in the world but also their apparent lack of interest in, or identification with, Americans for whom the trend was less reliably up. It was “westernness,” too, that could explain those affronts to the local style so discussed in Washington during the early years, the overwrought clothes and the borrowed jewelry and the Le Cirque hair and the wall-to-wall carpeting and the table settings. In style and substance alike, the Reagans and their friends were said to display what was first called “the California mentality,” and then, as the administration got more settled and the social demonology of the exotic landscape more specific, “the California Club mentality.”
I recall hearing about this “California Club mentality” at a dinner table in Georgetown, and responding with a certain atavistic outrage (I was from California, my own brother then lived during the week at the California Club); what seems curious in retrospect is that many of the men in question, including the President, had only a convenient connection with California in particular and the West in general. William Wilson was actually born in Los Angeles, and Earle Jorgenson in San Francisco, but the late Justin Dart was born in Illinois, graduated from Northwestern, married a Walgreen heiress in Chicago, and did not move United Rexall, later Dart Industries, from Boston to Los Angeles until he was already its president. The late Alfred Bloomingdale was born in New York, graduated from Brown, and seeded the Diner’s Club with money from his family’s New York store. What these men represented was not “the West” but what was for this century a relatively new kind of monied class in America, a group devoid of social responsibilities precisely because their ties to any one place had been so attenuated.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan had in fact lived most of their adult lives in California, but as part of the entertainment community, the members of which do not belong to the California Club. In 1964, when I first went to live in Los Angeles, and for a few years after, life in the upper reaches of this community was, for women, quite rigidly organized. Women left the table after dessert, and had coffee upstairs, isolated in the bedroom or dressing room with demitasse cups and rock sugar ordered from London and cinnamon sticks in lieu of demitasse spoons. On the hostess’s dressing table there were always very large bottles of Fracas and Gardenia and Tuberose. The dessert that preceded this retreat (a souffle or mousse with raspberry sauce) was inflexibly served on Flora Danica plates, and was itself preceded by the ritual of the finger bowls and the doilies. I recall being repeatedly told a cautionary tale about what Joan Crawford had said to a contract actress who removed her finger bowl but left the doily. The details of exactly what Joan Crawford had said and to whom and at whose table she had said it differed with the teller, but it was always Joan Crawford, and it always involved the doily; one of the reasons Mrs. Reagan ordered the famous new china was that, she tells us, the Johnson china had no finger bowls.
These subtropical evenings were not designed to invigorate. Large arrangements of flowers, ordered from David Jones, discouraged attempts at general conversation, ensuring that the table was turned on schedule. Expensive “resort” dresses and pajamas were worn, Pucci silks to the floor. When the women rejoined the men downstairs, trays of white crème de menthe were passed. Large parties were held in tents, with pink lights and chili from Chasen’s. Lunch took place at the Bistro, and later at the Bistro Garden and at Jimmy’s, which was owned by Jimmy Murphy, whom everyone knew because he had worked for Kurt Niklas at the Bistro.
These forms were those of the local ancien régime, and as such had largely faded out by the late Sixties, but can be examined in detail in Jean Howard’s Hollywood photographs. Although neither Reagan appears in Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir (the people Miss Howard saw tended to be stars or powers or famously amusing, and the Reagans, who fell into hard times and television, were not locally thought to fill any of these slots), the photographs give us a sense of the rigors of the place. What one notices in a photograph of the Joseph Cottens’ 1955 Fourth of July lunch, the day Jennifer Jones led the conga line into the pool, is not the pool. There are people in the pool, yes, and even chairs, but most of the guests sit decorously on the lawn, wearing rep ties, silk dresses, high-heeled shoes. Mrs. Henry Hathaway, for a day in the sun at Anatole Litvak’s beach house, wears a strapless dress of embroidered and scalloped organdy, and pearl earrings. Natalie Wood, lunching on Minna Wallis’s lawn with Warren Beatty and George Cukor and the Hathaways and the Minnellis and the Axelrods, wears a black straw hat with a silk ribbon, a white dress, black and white beads, perfect full makeup, and her hair pinned back.
This was the world from which Nancy Reagan went in 1966 to Sacramento and in 1980 to Washington, and it is in many ways the world, although it was vanishing in situ even before Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, she never left. My Turn does not document a life radically altered by later experience. Eight years in Sacramento left so little imprint on Mrs. Reagan that she describes the house in which she lived there—a house located on 45th Street off M Street in a city laid out on a numerical and alphabetical grid running from 1st Street to 66th Street and from A Street to Y Street—as “an English-style country house in the suburbs.”
She did not find it unusual that this house should have been bought for and rented to her and her husband (they paid $1,250 a month) by the same group of men who gave the state of California eleven acres on which to build Mrs. Reagan the “governor’s mansion” she actually wanted and who later funded the million-dollar redecorations of the Reagan White House and who eventually bought the house in which the Reagans now live on St. Cloud Road in Bel Air (the street number of the St. Cloud house was 666, but the Reagans had it changed to 668, to avoid an association with the Beast in Revelations); she seemed to construe houses as part of her deal, like the housing provided to actors on location. Before the Kitchen Cabinet picked up Ronald Reagan’s deal, the Reagans had lived in a house in Pacific Palisades remodeled by his then sponsor, General Electric.
This expectation on the part of the Reagans that other people would care for their needs struck many people, right away, as remarkable, and was usually characterized as a habit of the rich. But of course it is not a habit of the rich, and in any case the Reagans were not rich: they, and this expectation, were the products of studio Hollywood, a system in which performers performed, and in return were cared for. “I preferred the studio system to the anxiety of looking for work in New York,” Mrs. Reagan tells us in My Turn. During eight years in Washington, she says, she “never once set foot in a supermarket or in almost any other kind of store, with the exception of a card shop at 17th and K, where I used to buy my birthday cards,” and carried money only when she went out for a manicure.
She was surprised to learn (“Nobody had told us”) that she and her husband were expected to pay for their own food, dry cleaning, and toothpaste while in the White House. She seems still not to understand why it was imprudent of her to have accepted clothes from their makers when so many of them encouraged her to do so. Only Geoffrey Beene, whose clothes for Patricia Nixon and whose wedding dress for Lynda Bird Johnson were purchased through stores at retail prices, seems to have resisted this impulse. “I don’t quite understand how clothes can be ‘on loan’ to a woman,” he told the Los Angeles Times in January of 1982, when the question of Mrs. Reagan’s clothes was first raised. “I also think they’ll run into a great deal of trouble deciding which of all these clothes are of museum quality…. They also claim she’s helping to ‘rescue’ the American fashion industry. I didn’t know that it was in such dire straits.”
The clothes were, as Mrs. Reagan seemed to construe it, “wardrobe”—a production expense, like the housing and the catering and the first-class travel and the furniture and paintings and cars that get taken home after the set is struck—and should rightly have gone on the studio budget. That the producers of this particular production—the men Mrs. Reagan calls their “wealthier friends,” their “very generous” friends—sometimes misunderstood their own role was understandable: Helene von Damm tells us that only after William Wilson was warned that anyone with White House credentials was subject to a fullscale FBI investigation (Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, told him this) did he relinquish Suite 180 of the Executive Office Building, which he had comandeered the day after the inauguration in order to vet the appointment of the nominal, as opposed to the kitchen, cabinet.
“So began my stewardship,” Edith Bolling Wilson wrote later about the stroke that paralyzed Woodrow Wilson in October of 1919, eighteen months before he left the White House. The stewardship Nancy Reagan shared first with James Baker and Ed Meese and Micheal Deaver and then less easily with Donald Regan was, perhaps because each of its principals was working a different scenario and only one, James Baker, had anything approaching a full script, considerably more byzantine than most. Baker, whose ultimate role in this White House was to conserve it for the established order, seems to have relied heavily on the tendency of opposing forces, let loose, to neutralize one another. “Usually in a big place there’s only one person or group to be afraid of,” Peggy Noonan observed. “But in the Reagan White House there were two, the chief of staff and his people and the First Lady and hers—a pincer formation that made everyone feel vulnerable.” Miss Noonan shows us Mrs. Reagan moving through the corridors with her East Wing entourage, the members of which were said in the West Wing to be “not serious,” readers of W and Vogue. Mrs. Reagan herself was variously referred to as “Evita,” “Mommy,” “The Missus,” “The Hairdo With Anxiety.” Miss Noonan dismisses her as not “a liberal or a leftist or a moderate or a detentist” but “a Galanoist, a wealthy well-dressed woman who followed the common wisdom of her class.”
In fact Nancy Reagan is more interesting than that. It was precisely “her class” in which she had trouble believing. She was not an experienced woman. Her social skills, like those of many women trained in the insular life of the motion picture community, were strikingly undeveloped. She and Raisa Gorbachev had “little in common,” and “completely different outlooks on the world.” She and Betty Ford “were different people who came from different worlds.” She seems to have been comfortable in the company of Michael Deaver, of Ted Graber (her decorator), and of only a few other people. She seems not to have had much sense about who goes with who. At a state dinner for José Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, she seated herself between Duarte and Ralph Lauren. She had limited experience and apparently unlimited social anxiety. Helene von Damm complains that Mrs. Reagan would not consent, during the first presidential campaign, to letting the fund-raisers call on “her New York friends”; trying to put together a list for the dinner in New York in November of 1979 at which Ronald Reagan was to announce his candidacy, Miss von Damm finally dispatched an emissary to extract a few names from Jerry Zipkin, who parted with them reluctantly, and then said, “Remember, don’t use my name.”
Perhaps Mrs. Reagan’s most endearing quality is this little girl’s fear of being left out, of not having the best friends and not going to the parties in the biggest houses. She collected slights. She took refuge in a kind of piss-elegance, a fanciness (the “English-style country house in the suburbs”), in using words like “inappropriate.” It was “inappropriate, to say the least” for Geraldine Ferraro and her husband to leave the dais and go “down on the floor, working the crowd” at a 1984 Italian-American Federation dinner at which the candidates on both tickets were speaking. It was “uncalled for—and mean” when, at the time John Koehler had been named to replace Patrick Buchanan as director of communications and it was learned that Koehler had been a member of Hitler Youth, Donald Regan said, “Blame it on the East Wing.”
Mrs. Gorbachev, as Mrs. Reagan saw it, “condescended” to her, and “expected to be deferred to.” Mrs. Gorbachev accepted an invitation from Pamela Harriman before she answered one from Mrs. Reagan. The reason Ben Bradlee called Iran-contra “the most fun he’d had since Watergate” was just possibly that, she explains in a frequently quoted passage, he resented her relationship with Katharine Graham. Betty Ford was given a box on the floor of the 1976 Republican National Convention, and Mrs. Reagan only a skybox. Mrs. Reagan is even-handed: Maureen Reagan “may have been right” when she called this slight deliberate. When, on the second night of the convention, the band struck up “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” during an ovation for Mrs. Reagan, Mrs. Ford started dancing with Tony Orlando. Mrs Reagan is magnanimous: “Some of our people saw this as a deliberate attempt to upstage me, but I never thought that was her intention.”
Michael Deaver, in Behind the Scenes, gave us an arresting account of taking the Reagans, during the 1980 campaign, to an Episcopal church near the farm on which they were staying outside Middleburg, Virginia. After advancing the church and negotiating the subject of the sermon with the minister (Ezekiel and the bones rather than what Deaver calls “reborn Christians,” presumably Christian rebirth), he finally agreed that the Reagans would attend an eleven o’clock Sunday service. “We were not told,” Deaver writes, “and I did not anticipate, that the eleven o’clock service would also be holy communion,” a ritual he describes as “very foreign to the Reagans.” He describes “nervous glances,” and “mildly frantic” whispers about what to do, since the Reagans’ experience was of Bel Air Presbyterian, “a proper Protestant church where trays are passed containing small glasses of grape juice and little squares of bread.” The moment arrived: “…halfway down the aisle I felt Nancy Reagan clutch my arm…. ‘Mike!’ she hissed. ‘Are those people drinking out of the same cup?“‘
Here the incident takes on elements of The Lucy Show. Deaver assures Mrs. Reagan that it will be acceptable to just dip the wafer in the chalice. Mrs. Reagan chances this, but manages somehow to drop the wafer in the wine. Ronald Reagan, cast here as Desi, is too deaf to hear Deaver’s whispered instructions and has been ordered by his wife to “just do exactly as I do.” He too drops the wafer in the wine, where it is left to float next to Mrs. Reagan’s. “Nancy was relieved to leave the church,” Deaver reports. “‘The president was chipper as he stepped into the sunlight, satisfied that the service had gone quite well.”
I had read this account several times before I realized what so attracted me to it: here we had a perfect model of the Reagan White House. There was the aide who located the correct setting (“I did some quick scouting and found a beautiful Episcopal church”), who anticipated every conceivable problem and handled it adroitly (he had “a discreet chat with the minister,” he “gently raised the question”), and yet who somehow missed, as in the visit to Bitburg, a key point. There was the wife, charged with protecting her husband’s face to the world, a task requiring, she hints in My Turn, considerable vigilance. This was a husband who could be “naive about the people around him.” He tended “only to think well of people,” for example David Stockman. He had “given his word” to Helmut Kohl, and so felt “duty-bound to honor his commitment” to visit Bitburg. He was, Mrs. Reagan disclosed during a recent Good Morning America interview, “the softest touch going” when it came to what she referred to as (another instance of somehow missing a key point) “the poor.” Mrs. Reagan understood all this. She handled all this. And yet there she was outside Middleburg, Virginia, once again the victim of bad advance, confronted by the “foreign” communion table and rendered stiff with apprehension that a finger bowl might get removed without its doily.
And there, at the center of it all, was Ronald Reagan, insufficiently briefed (or, as they say in the White House, “badly served”) on the wafer issue but moving ahead, stepping “into the sunlight,” satisfied with his own and everyone else’s performance, apparently oblivious to (or inured to, or indifferent to) the crises being managed in his presence and for his benefit. What he had, and the aide and the wife did not have, was the story, the high concept, what Ed Meese used to call “the big picture,” as in “he’s a big-picture man.” The big picture here was of the candidate going to church on Sunday morning; the details obsessing the wife and the aide—what church, what to do with the wafer—remained outside the frame.
From the beginning in California, the principal in this administration was operating on what might have seemed distinctly special information. He had “feelings” about things, for example about the Vietnam War. “I have a feeling that we are doing better in the war than the people have been told,” he was quoted as having said in the Los Angeles Times on October 16, 1967. With the transforming power of the presidency, this special information which no one else understood—these big pictures, these high concepts—took on a magical quality, and some people in the White House came to believe that they had in their possession, sharpening his own pencils in the Oval Office, the Fisher King himself, the Keeper of the Grail, the source of that ineffable contact with the electorate that was in turn the source of the power.
There were times, we know now, when this White House had fairly well absented itself from the art of the possible. McFarlane flying to Teheran with the cake and the Bible and ten falsified Irish passports does not derive from our traditional executive tradition. The place was running instead on its own superstition, on the reading of bones, on the belief that a flicker of attention from the President during the presentation of a plan (the ideal presentation, Peggy Noonan explains, was one in which “the president was forced to look at a picture, read a short letter, or respond to a question”) ensured the transfer of the magic to whatever was that week exciting the ardor of the children who wanted to make the revolution—to SDI, to the mujahadeen, to Jonas Savimbi, to the contras.
Miss Noonan recalls what she calls “the contra meetings,” which turned on the magical notion that putting the president on display in the right setting (i.e., “going over the heads of the media to the people”) was all that was needed to “inspire a commitment on the part of the American people.” They sat in those meetings and discussed having the President speak at the Orange Bowl in Miami on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Orange Bowl speech after the Bay of Pigs, never mind that the Kennedy Orange Bowl speech had become over the years in Miami the symbol of American betrayal. They sat in those meetings and discussed having the President go over the heads of his congressional opponents by speaking in Jim Wright’s own district near the Alamo: “…something like ‘Blank miles to the north of here is the Alamo,”‘ Miss Noonan wrote in her notebook, sketching out the ritual in which the magic would be transferred, “…where brave heroes blank, and where the commander of the garrison wrote during those terrible last days blank….”
But the Fisher King was sketching another big picture, one he had had in mind since California. We have heard again and again that Mrs. Reagan turned the President away from the Evil Empire and toward the meetings with Gorbachev. (More recently, on NBC Nightly News, the San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley claimed a role in this, saying that she “changed their Evil Empire attitude by briefing them on Gorbachev’s horoscope.”) Mrs. Reagan herself allows that she “felt it was ridiculous for these two heavily armed superpowers to be sitting there and not talking to each other” and “did push Ronnie a little.”
But how much pushing was actually needed remains in question. The Soviet Union appeared to Ronald Reagan as an abstraction, a place where people were helpless to resist “communism,” the symbolic evil which, as he put it in a 1951 speech to a Kiwanis convention and would continue to put it for the next three and a half decades, had “tried to invade our industry” and had been “fought” and eventually “licked.” This was a construct in which the actual citizens of the Soviet Union could be seen to have been, like the motion picture industry, “invaded”—in need only of liberation. The liberating force might be the appearance of a Shane-like character, someone to “lick” the evil, or it might be just the sweet light of reason. “A people free to choose will always choose peace,” as he told students at Moscow State University in May of 1988.
In this sense he was dealing from an entirely abstract deck, and the opening to the East had been his card all along, his big picture, his story. And this is how it went: what he would like to do, he had told any number of people over the years (I recall first hearing it from George Will, who cautioned me not to tell it because conversations with presidents were privileged), was take the leader of the Soviet Union (who this leader would be was another of those details outside the frame) on a flight to Los Angeles. When the plane came in low over the middle-class subdivisions that stretch from the San Bernardino mountains to LAX, he would direct the leader of the Soviet Union to the window, and point out all the swimming pools below. “Those are the pools of the capitalists,” the leader of the Soviet Union would say. “No,” the leader of the free world would say. “Those are the pools of the workers.” Blank years further on, when brave heroes blanked, and when the leader of the free world blanked, the accidents and opportunities of history took their course. But we have yet to pay for the ardor.
December 21, 1989