In an episode already made famous by Lou Cannon’s brilliant new work, James Baker left a briefing book, laboriously calibrated to Reagan’s attention span, in the suite where Reagan was staying on the night before the 1983 economic meeting with world leaders in Williamsburg. Baker was worried about Reagan’s performance the next day, and was even more nervous when he saw the book had not been moved during the night. Reagan blithely explained that he did not have time to look at it since “The Sound of Music was on [television] last night.”

Cannon, the savvy journalist who has been covering Reagan’s political career for a quarter of a century and knows his man on an almost hour-by-hour basis, fits that episode into a larger pattern:

Reagan spent more time at the movies during his presidency than at anything else. He went to Camp David on 183 weekends, usually watching two films on each of these trips. He saw movies in the White House family theater, on television in the family quarters and in the villas and lavish guest quarters accorded presidents when they travel [as to Williamsburg].

After all the recent attention given to Reagan’s wife, a natural reaction to the Williamsburg story is to ask, “Where was Nancy?” We have been told, and not only by Kitty Kelley, that she worried obsessively about his standing in the long vistas of history. Wasn’t she worried about his performance, the next day, before world leaders? The answer is, yes, she did worry, and that is why Reagan was allowed to watch The Sound of Music.

Cannon knows some ugly things about Nancy Reagan, and reports on the ones that can be verified; but he also knows how important she was to her husband’s success. Above all she knew how to rest and pace and present a man who always needed relaxation, exercise, and distraction in order to perform well in his few hours “on.” Cannon, by sheer persistence over the years, by the odds that not even Nancy’s control was entirely fail-safe, saw, a few times, the dead man that could result from a daily routine not largely taken up with watching movies. The rest of us got a brief glimpse of that person at the Louisville debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, but it was not as sobering as Cannon’s interview with him after an earlier economic summit, the one in Ottawa. Reagan had been scheduled (like the other leaders) to give a post-summit briefing to the press followed by a private interview with Hedrick Smith of The New York Times and Cannon of The Washington Post, but “Reagan was in no condition for the briefing” and the interviews were combined to cut the time Reagan had to be exposed. Even so:

He was exhausted nearly to the point of incoherence throughout much of the interview and could not remember the substance of any subject that had been discussed apart from Mitterrand’s expression of anticommunism. He spoke haltingly, as if every word were an effort. I had not seen Reagan at such close range since the assassination attempt nearly four months earlier, and was shocked at his condition. That did not stop me from joining Smith in pressing Reagan, since both of us were soon acutely aware that an interview we had persevered to obtain was not providing much of a story. Our efforts were in vain. Reagan simply was unable to recall the content of the talks in which he had just participated….

The interview concluded ten minutes later at a signal from Deaver, who did not seem to find the president’s condition unusual. This is what happens all the time, I thought.

Cannon admits that Reagan may have been worse in this (long) period because of the assassination attempt; but that very event had imposed, on a calendar very sparsely filled to begin with, a pattern that would probably have lasted throughout Reagan’s presidency even if his successive surgeries and stays in the hospital had not indurated it.

Other presidents have been protected by a regimen that covered up their physical deficiencies—Woodrow Wilson, most notoriously, after his stroke, when his wife made him inaccessible with a ruthless dominance that Nancy Reagan never came near to replicating. But Franklin Roosevelt, too, was carefully hidden from the public as his health deteriorated in his last years, and the effects of Eisenhower’s stroke and heart attack were naturally minimized by his staff. Those periods of presidential incompetence were relatively brief, compared to Ronald Reagan’s eight years of only partial functioning after the assassination attempt. Even before that, he had lived all his life by a regimen intended to make him look good—tanned, rested, alert, dark-haired—when he went before the cameras. As a General Electric guide who traveled with him in the 1950s told me, Reagan “was never a nine-to-five guy.” This might not have become a major problem but for the assassination attempt, which, Cannon shrewdly argues, was a crucial influence on the entire Reagan time in the White House.


On the one hand, Reagan’s gallant behavior in pain prolonged the customary “honeymoon” given a president in his first months. On the other hand, the shooting came just as the budget battle was heating up. Reagan was taken out of that process, and spared other experiences that a president undergoes at this stage. He never made up that lost time. Others learned to get along without him, except for ceremonial purposes.

Compressing the discussion on issues became a necessity during Reagan’s recuperation from the wounds suffered in the March 31, 1981, assassination attempt. His working hours were strictly limited by doctor’s orders and the insistence of the first lady, and even his national security briefing had to be delivered to him in written form. Some aides came to believe that the assassination attempt had an unfortunate impact on the inner life of the Reagan presidency, even though its immediate political impact was beneficial…. Reagan’s wounds also took him out of commission for several weeks during what could have been a critical learning period of his presidency, and reduced the flow of briefing papers to a trickle.

Worse, Reagan’s political success in the months after the shooting reinforced the view of the Californians that Reagan could operate in Washington without changing his ways. It would have been difficult to force a change in any event, but Reagan had demonstrated during his second term in Sacramento that he was capable of dirtying his hands and becoming directly involved in the political process when such participation was necessary for achievement of his objectives. No such reason was apparent to him in Washington, nor was any presented to him by his aides. Reagan was so popular and so politically successful during the six months following the shooting that he had absolutely no motivation to alter his approach. His aides, blinded by the glare of early success, behaved as if Reagan were invulnerable. They saw no reason why he could not govern successfully by anecdote in Washington as he had in Sacramento.

Even attempts to educate Reagan were undertaken in so cautious a way as to encourage work patterns hard to distinguish from his relaxation. When William Clark, as national security adviser, “found that the president knew next to nothing about what was going on in many corners of the globe,” he tried to remedy the situation by showing him films. William Casey had the CIA make home movies for the President stressing the personal stories of foreign leaders. He acquired more anecdotes this way, and remembered foreign affairs, if at all, as he remembered other movies—the things that had always stuck best in his head.

For an adviser (who was not himself a movie) to engage the President was often a strange exercise. One could not be sure how much Reagan knew or was remembering (including, at times, the interlocutor’s name); or how much, given his erratic reliance on his hearing aids, was being received; or even how fully awake the man was. Characteristically, when Reagan stirred and showed animation in such meetings, it was often to tell a story, not necessarily related to the prior conversation. Energy and performance were always linked for him, and the rest of the time was spent storing vitality and resources for the next show.

The best record we have of such meetings—and even this is poor, since note taking was not encouraged—comes from the Iran-contra affairs. Participants forced to reconstruct meetings for the Tower Commission, or the Senate Committee, or deposition responses, or their own or someone else’s trial, give weirdly frustrating accounts of these sessions. It is one of the many virtues of Theodore Draper’s definitive book A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs that he assembles all the versions of each key meeting and shows what Rashomon affairs they were. It is no wonder that Weinberger, who knew Reagan better and over a longer period than most others present, could leave a meeting convinced that Reagan had “turned an operation off” while others were equally certain that he wanted it to go on, and most departed with hardly a guess about what, if anything, had been decided.

Reagan was often noncommittal even when he had in fact made a decision being kept from his highest advisers of the moment—as when he discussed arms for Iran with Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger immediately after signing a finding that seemed to settle the matter, though he did not tell them about the existence of that key document. Was he trying to fool them, or avoiding a wrangle, or just forgetting? It was often hard for Reagan’s intimates (so far as there was such a thing) to tell. In a famous incident, Dwight Eisenhower once told his press secretary, on the way out to discuss with journalists a touchy matter, that Jim (Hagerty) did not have to worry, “I’ll just confuse them.” But Reagan seemed to carry that attitude unawares into even the most private conferences with his cabinet.


Given this situation, Reagan’s aides came to feel he should be sheltered not only from outsiders, like the press, but from insiders as well, so that uncertain signals would not be scattered off from every meeting. Access had to be controlled, or subjects kept from arising. Clarity had to be imposed on muddled instructions before a competing interpretation (perhaps as warranted) was advanced by someone else. It was best, at times, to go in with a plan of confusing the Old Confuser—as David Stockman dazzled Reagan with a flurry of words, got a bemused nod, and went off to do what he wanted.

In cases like this, Nancy Reagan was her husband’s best champion, quick to spot it when people were using a fuzzy command to promote what she called “their own agenda.” As a traffic cop, she prevented some smashups and tried her best to prevent others (like Bitburg). When Donald Regan proved too absorbed in himself to realize how paralyzed Reagan was by the breaking of the Iran-contra scandals, Nancy Reagan brilliantly used her astrologer to keep Reagan safely sequestered for weeks of wound-licking and recovery. If she had tried to reason with Regan, the wrangling would never have stopped. By the arbitrary invocation of her seeress, she stopped the bullheaded Regan in his tracks. He concluded it was some silly “woman’s thing” he could not cope with. (This is not to say that Mrs. Reagan did not believe in her astrologer. Performers have many superstitions about the necessary luck to pull off a show—but that does not prevent them from rehearsing, getting on the camera-person’s good side, or taking other precautions that luck can only supplement.) Nancy Reagan did not have the iron authority of Edith Wilson; she had to resort to many tricks and wiles.

It would be easy to say the Iran-contra affair was just a case of Ollie North bamboozling the boss in foreign affairs as David Stockman did in domestic affairs. But Draper, in a close reading of the voluminous record, including North’s notebooks and thousands of pages of depositions taken by congressional investigators, proves that Reagan was actually more assertive on the contra and Iran matters than on most other things close to his heart. He could be tricked into raising taxes at home (by some nomenclatural sleight-of-hand); but not all the effort of Weinberger or Shultz could keep him from going after the hostages; any more than the Congress could stop him from supporting the “freedom fighters.”

Besides, a great deal more was at stake here than Reagan’s foibles or quirks. That is why Cannon’s excellent short account of the Iran-contra matter should be supplemented by Draper’s exhaustive but marvelously clear sorting out of that messy complex of operations. Tangled as those actions became, there was a certain logic, almost an inevitability, to the way they ramified. They were going down ways prepared for them by our recent history—by the shaping of the modern presidency, by the cold war, and by the security systems of a nuclear great power. Draper says the story makes sense only within the context established by the following developments.

  1. President Truman, in 1947, asked Congress for the cold war machinery of secrecy (the classification system), the CIA, and the National Security Council. The latter body consists of the president, the vice-president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense (with advisory memberships for the director of the CIA and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). The CIA reported to the NSC. The NSC was given a staff with a chief aide considered so little important that Congress does not even confirm his (or her) appointment. The office was so obscure that, as Draper points out, few people even remember who was Truman’s security aide (Sidney W. Souers).
  2. President Eisenhower incorporated the NSC staff into his executive office, making it more an adjunct to the president than to the NSC whose name it would continue to bear—a point Vice-President Bush used to distinguish his own acts as a member of the NSC from those of Oliver North on the “NSC staff.”
  3. President Kennedy used his NSC staff aide, McGeorge Bundy, to oppose “the bureaucracy,” including the State Department (and, therefore, the NSC itself).
  4. As “NSC staff” aide to Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger ran foreign affairs in competition with Secretary of State William Rogers. Kissinger’s staff grew to 155 members (as against thirty-five in Lyndon Johnson’s time), and now kept secrets from the NSC whose name it still, irrelevantly, bore.

  5. Kissinger became the model toward which other security aides aspired—Zbigniew Brzezinski treating Cyrus Vance as Kissinger had treated Rogers. To prevent this, Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s first secretary of state, took preemptive measures that looked needlessly self-aggrandizing against Reagan’s first security aide, Richard Allen—though George Shultz, Haig’s successor, would be lied to by a succession of Reagan’s later security aides.

  6. A strong office, that of “NSC aide,” was filled by a string of weak or muddled or overstretched men under the confused Ronald Reagan—William Clark, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Colin Powell. The staff had grown to 245. McFarlane, especially, had Kissingerian aspirations, but was also intimidated by ideologues. Asked why he did not present his views on a matter, he said he was afraid William Casey or Jeane Kirkpatrick would call him a Commie. Given a president who was clear in what he liked (contra freedom fighters) and wanted (hostages rescued), but whose grasp of how things worked was intermittent when it existed at all, and a director of the CIA who was ideological and activist, McFarlane and Poindexter thrashed about on their own, using underlings who were no challenge to their own bizarre sense of things. More and more of the staff was becoming military, with a code of serving the Commander-in-Chief, but outside the chain of command. The President had a pretorian guard even when that guard could not be sure, during naps and lapses of the hearing aid, whether it had a president. The odds were that this group, under this President, would do illegal things. Henry Kissinger doubtless had no idea he was creating a monster office—how could bovine followers aspire to his Jovian stature? (Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi.) But the scale of the stupidity involved is breathtaking, it beggars belief. Draper’s account of McFarlane’s and North’s Keystone Kapers makes Our Man in Havana look like the soberest of histories. In fact, that Greene novel is to the Iranian affair what The Quiet American is to the Vietnam War. What chance has a vacuum cleaner to compete with North’s cake and Bible?

The story of Oliver North’s cake diplomacy—that he meant to attack the Arab mind through its sweet tooth—would be funny enough even if it had not been the Ramadan fast period when he took the cake to Teheran. The story of his Bible diplomacy—that he took the President’s inscribed New Testament to Frankfurt to attack the Arab mind through its religiosity—would be funny enough even if North had not served it up, as Draper recalls, with circumstantial lies about Reagan going off to pray for a whole weekend over whether to “accept the Islamic Revolution” as God’s will. To scare the Iranians back into alliance with America, McFarlane, North, and others made up a Soviet major general named “Vladimir” who had revealed to them the Russian plans for invading Iran. To impress the Iranians North told them that McFarlane would be the next president of the United States. North was so exuberant in his lying that he misled his closest confederates—telling Poindexter that he had called a head of state (President Arias of Costa Rica) to save an operation, waiting for McFarlane to go to sleep in Teheran before ordering a plane of spare parts to take off (an order McFarlane had to countermand when he woke up).

Cannon is amazed that North repeatedly cheated the Iranians he was dealing with, overcharging them, sending them defective missiles. This hardly comports with the cover story that he was trying to build a new relationship of trust with the Iranians. Neither does the glee with which North pushed the “second channel” with Iranians representing themselves as members of the Revolutionary Guards—by that time, North was so frustrated at dealing with underlings that the closer he got to Khomeini, who could actually do something, the better.

North was also unwilling, despite CIA misgivings, to challenge the huge markups Ghorbanifar (for the Iranians) and Secord (for the Americans) were charging. When the Iranians complained that the charges were out of line with a defense department’s price list, which they had on an official microfiche, North’s reaction was typical—he asked the CIA to forge a fake microfiche with kited prices. Of course, it could be said that North wanted a large profit margin from which he could divert sums to the Nicaraguan “contras”—clearly Ghorbanifar made that argument to justify his manipulation of the charges; but North was compliant with the markups even before the diversion began.

One neglected document quoted by Draper goes far toward explaining this care and feeding of the arms merchants. When North was considering leaving the NSC before the scandal broke, McFarlane sent him a proposal that throws new light as well on McFarlane’s own early resignation. This is the “self-serving scenario” of March 11, 1986, in which North is invited to join McFarlane, and “McFarlane/North [will] continue to work the Iran account as well as to begin to build other clandestine capabilities so much in demand here and there.” North’s solicitude for Secord would be understandable if he intended to follow him, in time, into the patriotism-for-profit world of “clandestine capabilities.” Proof that that was his intention lies in North’s famous claim that William Casey told him to develop an “off-the-shelf” operation outside government for doing things the government could not do. As Draper proves, there is no evidence for this plan except North’s own words, and his long private talks with Casey, unsubstantiated by the two men’s logs, are exactly like the fictitious sessions North boasted of with President Reagan. Casey, however erratic he had become by his death, is unlikely to have wanted a rival CIA set up outside the CIA, and his aides plausibly scoff at North’s claims that Casey was giving him a mandate to become a Super-Secord on his own.

Casey leaves few tracks in the mass of documents drawn on in Draper’s book, but most of his acts are, naturally, aimed at aggrandizing his own and his agency’s position. He tried to have rival powers, Jim Baker and George Shultz, replaced with an ideologue subservient to him—Jeane Kirkpatrick in both cases. It is true that he encouraged extra-agency fund collection for the contras, to circumvent (as he thought) the letter of the Boland Amendment; but that was a single operation run, he believed, by the NSC staff. His overruling of the agency’s repeated declaration of Manucher Ghorbanifar’s unreliability reflects a determination to pursue the hostages matched only, at the upper levels, by Reagan’s own obsession with the hostages.

Reagan’s attitude was explained by his aides as a humanitarian concern, which accords with his anecdotal interest in people’s stories. But the documents in Draper’s book show, rather, a concern with the hostages as political liabilities, a desire not to be harmed by them as Carter was. Donald Regan, for instance, reconstructed a December 7, 1985, meeting with the President as reflecting these concerns:

And we were going to spend another Christmas with hostages there, and he is looking powerless and inept as President because he’s unable to do anything to get the hostages out.

This awareness of Carter’s liability in the hostage crisis brings up a matter that re-emerged too late for Draper to take into account—the argument that William Casey, as Reagan’s campaign manager in 1980, had contact with the Iranians to prevent “an October surprise,” a last-minute release of hostages, to Carter’s benefit, before the election. Reagan campaign aides like Martin Anderson have admitted to that concern, and Richard Allen admits there was some informal contact with Iranians, using McFarlane as intermediary.* Even if Casey did not, provably, meet with any Iranians in authority, informal intermediaries might have felt that they delayed the hostage release to thirty minutes after Reagan’s accession to power. That is, the campaign team could have thought it influenced the timing, even if it did not (there was reason for the Iranians to cultivate the new man in office, aside from any deals). If that were the case, it would make more comprehensible the astonishingly stubborn expectation that a deal could be struck with Iran, even after hopes were dashed again and again. Casey was an ally (and perhaps the inspirer) of that expectation in Reagan. Some want to investigate the 1980 campaign in order to punish, retrospectively, the Republican ticket that included Bush in the vice-presidential spot, but perhaps it has already been punished. The Iranian fiasco may have been the punishment for an earlier meddling with Iranians.

Reagan, with the astonishing luck that Cannon traces throughout his career, was saved from the worst consequences of his own regime’s crimes by that regime’s multiple ineptitudes. Vast power wielded by ninnies tended mainly to maim its tinkerers. But Theodore Draper is right to argue that we should not be complacent about that outcome. The tendency to enhance secret presidential power has persisted despite repeated scandals and attempts at reform. The Iranian story itself reflects an American determination, dating from Eisenhower’s CIA coup that restored the Shah, to use that country as a cold war listening post and mideastern power base.

The desire to re-recruit the Iranians to such an agenda appears at its most ludicrous in Colonel North’s stories about “Vladimir.” But the New World Order shows no signs of dismantling the limits on citizen knowledge that were imposed as war-emergency measures to face the Soviet Union in 1947. Secretary of State Baker again told Congress, in its hearings on the Gulf mobilization, that citizens, even those as knowledgeable as Admiral Crowe, recently the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could not pronounce on the desirability of war because they had not seen the classified information that makes our covert and overt presidential warriors so much more trustworthy in managing our fate than is the “uncleared” mass of us outsiders.

Remember, always, that the dispensers of our fate, in the Bay of Pigs and the assassination attempts on Castro and the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors, may have been a bit less loony than Oliver North (who is not?), but they prepared the way for North. They made him possible. And what was North paving the way for? President Reagan may have been a bit too dim to manage the McFarlanes and Poindexters (and therefore to manage North). Can we be sure that President Quayle will be Northproof? He and Ollie seem, almost, to be made for each other—which Robert Owen may have divined when he moved from one man’s staff to the other’s.

This Issue

June 13, 1991