The aides gave us the details, retold now like runes. Promptly at nine o’clock on most mornings of the eight years he spent as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan arrived in the Oval Office to find on his desk his personal schedule, printed on green stationery and embossed in gold with the presidential seal. Between nine and ten he was briefed, first by his chief of staff and the vice president and then by his national security adviser. At ten, in the absence of a pressing conflict, he was scheduled for downtime, an hour in which he answered selected letters from citizens and clipped items that caught his eye in Human Events and National Review. Other meetings followed, for example with the congressional leadership. “I soon learned that those meetings lasted just one hour, no more, no less,” Tony Coelho, at the time majority whip in the House, tells us in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan.1 “If the agenda—which he had written out on cards—wasn’t completed at the end of the hour, he would excuse himself and leave. If it was finished short of an hour, he would fill the rest of the time with jokes (and he tells a good one).” During some meetings, according to his press secretary, Larry Speakes, the President filled the time by reciting Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
When the entry on the schedule was not a meeting but an appearance or photo opportunity, the President was rehearsed. “You’ll go out the door and down the steps,” Michael Deaver or someone else would say, we were told by Donald Regan, secretary of the treasury from 1981 until 1985 and White House chief of staff from 1985 until 1987. “The podium is ten steps to the right and the audience will be in a semi-circle with the cameras at the right-hand end of the half-moon; when you finish speaking take two steps back, but don’t leave the podium, because they’re going to present you with a patchwork quilt….” It was Larry Speakes, in his 1988 Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House,2 who told us how, at the conclusion of each meeting or appearance, the President would draw on his schedule a vertical line downward and an arrow pointing to the next event. “It gives me a feeling that I am accomplishing something,” the President told Speakes. It was Donald Regan, in his 1988 For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,3 who told us how the schedule reminded the President when it was time to give a birthday present (“a funny hat or a tee shirt bearing a jocular message”) to one or another staff member: “These gifts were chosen by others, and sometimes Reagan barely knew the person to whom he was giving them, but his pleasure in these contacts was genuine…. On one occasion, when he was somehow given the wrong date for one man’s birthday and called to offer congratulations, nobody had the heart to tell him about the mistake.”
“I cannot remember a single case in which he changed a time or canceled an appointment or even complained about an item on his schedule,” Regan noted, betraying a certain queasy wonder at his initial encounter with this apparently cheerful lack of interest: Regan, still at Treasury, found himself slotted into the schedule, along with James Baker and Michael Deaver, to introduce to the President the novel and potentially disruptive notion that he and Baker, then chief of staff, switch jobs. “Reagan listened without any sign of surprise,” Regan recalled. “He seemed equable, relaxed—almost incurious. This seemed odd under the circumstances.”
Notwithstanding Regan’s efforts to hold open the possibility of further deliberation on so serious a move (“I appreciate that, Don, the President said with the bright courtesy that is typical of him. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t just go ahead with it”), the meeting lasted, including an exchange of Christmas-vacation pleasantries, fewer than its allotted thirty minutes. “I did not know what to make of his passivity,” Regan wrote. “He seemed to be absorbing a fait accompli rather than making a decision. One might have thought that the matter had already been settled by some absent party.” On reflection, Regan understood:
As President, Ronald Reagan acted on the work habits of a lifetime: he regarded his daily schedule as being something like a shooting script in which characters came and went, scenes were rehearsed and acted out, and the plot was advanced one day at a time, and not always in sequence. The Chief of Staff was a sort of producer, making certain that the star had what he needed to do his best; the staff was like the crew, invisible behind the lights, watching the performance their behind-the-scenes efforts had made possible…. Reagan’s performance was almost always flawless. If he was scheduled to receive a visitor at ten o’clock, he would finish whatever else he was doing at 9:58, clear off his desk, clear his mind of whatever had gone before, and prepare himself for the next scene.
Dinesh D’Souza, when he arrived at the Reagan White House as a senior domestic policy analyst in 1987, was twenty-six years old, a resident of the United States since only 1978 but already a name within what had come on the right to be called “the movement.” He was a native of India who seemed to have arrived in this country with preternatural pitch for the exact charged chords (affirmative action, multiculturalism, gender studies, the academy in general) that fueled its politics of resentment, and he played them, first as a founding editor of The Dartmouth Review, then as editor of the equally strident Princeton Prospect, managing editor of the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, and biographer of the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell.
The 1980s were years in Washington when careers were made on undergraduate bliss. One of D’Souza’s colleagues on The Dartmouth Review became a speechwriter for Reagan, another for George Bush. Another, Keeney Jones, the author of the notorious “Dis Sho’ Ain’t No Jive Bro,” a puerile but predictably inflammatory Dartmouth Review parody of black students (“Dese boys be sayin’ that we be comin’ here to Dartmut an’ not takin’ the classics. You know, Homa, Shakesphere; but I hea’ dey all be co’d in da ground, six feet unda, and whatchu be askin’ us to learn from dem?”), became a speechwriter for Secretary of Education William Bennett. “What could be more exciting?” D’Souza, who had been editor of The Dartmouth Review at the time “Dis Sho’ Ain’t No Jive Bro” was published, writes of those years in Washington when to be young and movement was very heaven. “We were a generation of young conservatives who came to Washington in the 1980s inspired by Reagan and the idea of America that he espoused and embodied. The world was changing, and we wanted to be instruments of that change. Reagan was a septuagenarian with a youthful heart. He hired people like me because he wanted fresh faces and new ideas in the White House. Full of vigor and determination, we rallied to his cause.”
“He hired people like me” may seem to suggest excessive executive volition on the part of a President who by all accounts expressed no interest in who his secretary of the treasury or chief of staff was to be, but the choice of the active tense is key here. D’Souza’s intention in Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, which, like his 1991 Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus and his 1995 The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society, was written within the nurturing grant framework of the American Enterprise Institute, was to offer what he presents as a “revisionist” view of the Reagan years, a correction of the record for “a new generation of young people” who, because they have had “no alternative source of information,” have been unable to detect the “transparent bias” of their teachers and the media.
It is D’Souza’s thesis, honed by his useful and apparently inexhaustible ability to present himself as one of a besieged minority, that Reagan has been systematically misread, not only by his “liberal critics” (further identified as “the pundits, political scientists, and historians,” “the wise men,” “the intellectual elite,” and “the cognoscenti”) and not only by his own more pragmatic aides (the “prags,” or “ingrates and apostates”), whose remarkably similar descriptions of the detachment at the center of the administration in which they served seem to D’Souza to be “characterized by an almost defiant disloyalty,” but even by his “hard-core” admirers, or “true believers,” those movement conservatives who considered the President a “malleable figurehead” too often controlled by his pragmatist advisers. “I was one of those conservatives,” D’Souza allows:
Even when Reagan proved us wrong and showed how effective a president he was, many of us in his ideological camp nevertheless failed to understand the secret of his success. We could not fathom how he conceived and realized his grand objectives, effortlessly overcame his powerful adversaries, and won the support of the American people. Many who worked with him are still bewildered. This study seeks to solve the mystery.
In his casuistical pursuit of the elusive frame in which Reagan can be seen as the “prime mover,” the “decisive agent of change” and the “architect of his own success,” D’Souza is not actually breaking new ground. Such attempts to “solve the mystery” date back at least to the 1980 transition, during which it became apparent to some that the president-elect, without benefit of constructive interpretation, could appear less than fully engaged. During a president-to-president-elect briefing on secret international agreements and commitments, according to Jimmy Carter, he listened politely but asked no questions and took no notes. Two hours before his 1981 inauguration, according to Michael Deaver, he was still sleeping. Deaver did not actually find this extraordinary, nor would anyone else who had witnessed Reagan’s performance as governor of California: “I remember sitting there in the governor’s office with him, a couple of days after I had been elected to succeed him,” Jerry Brown recalls in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan:
We didn’t have a nuts-and-bolts conversation about the transition that day. I didn’t see Ronald Reagan as a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy…. He was definitely performing his ceremonial role as governor, and doing it quite well.
I think a great deal of the job is ceremonial. The way I look at it now, most politicians holding office think they are doing things, but it’s all staffed-out…. Most of the day-to-day stuff is very symbolic. That was one of the frustrations I found in being governor. At first, I took literally the nature of the material being presented at meetings, but I soon found that visiting delegations often were satisfied just being in the same room as the governor. There is something illusory about it, like a play. Then again, if that satisfies people, it has some value. Reagan seemed to understand all of that.
This was in fact the very understanding that would come to power Reagan’s performance as president, and many people knew it, but to have said so at the time would have been out of synch with the somewhat less Zen story line (West Wing lights burn late as dedicated workaholics hit the ground running) preferred in Washington. From the outset, then, the invention of a president who could be seen as active rather than passive, who could be understood to possess mysteriously invisible and therefore miraculously potent leadership skills, became a White House priority. “Reagan’s aides have been telling reporters of decisions that the President himself has made, as if they found it necessary to explain that he has made some,” Elizabeth Drew reported two months into the administration, when both NBC and Time had been enlisted to do “A Day with President Reagan” stories. “A White House aide told me, ‘We thought it was important to do those, because of the perception out there that this is a marionette president. It’s simply not true.”‘
This President who was not a marionette would be shown making decisions, and not only that: the decisions he was shown making (or more often in this case, where rhetoric was soon understood to be interchangeable with action, the speeches he was shown making) would have demonstrable, preferably Manichean, results. Victory, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs, which offered dramatic “standing tall” roles for the active President to play, would be narrowly defined: the barest suggestion of an election or a reform would serve to signal the enlistment of another fledgling democracy. So defined, all victories would assume equal import: the decision to invade Grenada, D’Souza tells us, reversed the Brezhnev Doctrine, and had been attended by a commensurate show of standing tall. “Reagan had listened intently but said little. Finally he asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff whether they believed that a military operation was likely to succeed.” The Joint Chiefs, according to D’Souza, who credits his account of this meeting to Edwin Meese and Caspar Weinberger, said that they believed the operation, which entailed landing six thousand marines and airborne rangers on an island significantly smaller than Barbados, “could be done.”
“Very well,” Reagan said. “In that case, let’s go ahead.”
The invasion of Grenada is instructive, because the operation, which was justified by the administration because a ten-thousand-foot landing strip was under construction on the island and secondarily (or primarily, depending on who was talking) because American students were “captive” at an island medical school (in fact they could have left on either regularly scheduled or charter flights), involved one of Reagan’s few overt (and his only, on his own terms, “successful”) uses of military power. “I don’t think it was an invasion,” Jeane Kirkpatrick said on Meet the Press a few days after the Grenada operation. “I think it was a rescue, and I think that we ought to stop calling it an invasion.” Norman Podhoretz, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, wrote that the invasion, or the rescue, suggested a return to “recovery and health” for “a United States still suffering from the shell-shocked condition that has muddled our minds and paralyzed our national will since Vietnam.” D’Souza characterizes it as “Reagan’s first opportunity to overthrow a communist regime,” an occasion when “Reagan’s leadership was exercised in the face of apprehension on the part of his staff and skepticism on the part of the congressional leadership.”
Not long after the Grenada invasion, for which the number of medals awarded eventually exceeded the number of actual combatants, the President, in his commander-in-chief role, spoke at a ceremony honoring Medal of Honor recipients. “Our days of weakness are over,” he declared, standing under a huge representation of the medal’s pale blue ribbon and five-pointed star. “Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.” Grenada, then, virtually as it happened, had materialized into the symbolic centerpiece of the rollback scenario that was the Reagan Doctrine. In the first dozen pages of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, D’Souza lays out, presumably for that “new generation of young people with no alternative source of information,” a kind of Young Adults timeline in which the Reagan administration is seen to begin at modern history’s lowest tide (“capitalism and democracy…on the retreat in much of the world,” America itself facing “the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression”) and to conclude at its highest, the triumphal surge of reborn patriotism and purpose that was to raise all boats and end the cold war.
In this version of what happened between 1980 and 1988, Reagan’s role as prime mover is seen to reside, before and after Grenada, less in actual actions than in his speeches, those moments when the President was primed to “go over the heads” of the Congress or the media or whoever was at that moment frustrating the aims of the administration. D’Souza, in Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, devotes four of his 264 pages to a close textual analysis of the 1983 “Evil Empire” speech (further comment appears on four more pages), which was, he assures us, “the single most important speech of the Reagan presidency, a classic illustration of what Václav Havel terms ‘the power of words to change history.”‘
This faith in the laserlike efficacy of Reagan’s rhetoric seems undiminished by the fact that it remains largely a priori. “Going after a major policy change, crafting a practical policy initiative, and sticking with it is an accomplishment,” Martin Anderson, who was Reagan’s chief domestic policy adviser in the early administration, tells us in Recollections of Reagan, but the accomplishment he cites is the 1983 SDI, or “Star Wars,” speech. “Another very important event in 1983 took place two weeks after the SDI speech,” he adds, and, again, it develops that he is talking about not an actual “event” but another speech, in this instance the popular “Evil Empire.”
William Kristol made recent reference to our need to credit Reagan’s “magnificent” 1984 speech at Normandy, as if the speech, which was written by Peggy Noonan (“The State/NSC draft that I’d been given weeks before wanted the president to go off on this little tangent about arms control,” she later wrote about it, “and as I read it I thought, in the language of the day, Oh gag me with a spoon, this isn’t a speech about arms negotiations you jackasses, this is a speech about splendor”), were somehow at one on the “magnificence” scale with the invasion it was delivered to commemorate. As evidence that Reagan had the force of calculation behind his “predictions” and “prophecies,” D’Souza offers the “tear down this wall” speech delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. “Not long after this,” he writes, “the wall did come tumbling down, and Reagan’s prophecies all came true. The most powerful empire in human history imploded. These were not just results Reagan predicted. He intended the outcome.”
The consequences of reinventing Reagan as a leader whose leadership was seen to exist exclusively in his public utterances, the ultimate “charismatic” president, were interestingly studied by the political historian Jeffrey K. Tulis, who, in his 1987 The Rhetorical Presidency,4 outlined in some detail the dilemmas presented by a presidential style which tends to delegitimize both constitutional and bureaucratic authority, to depend for its effect on created crises (to “go over the heads” of the opposition requires the presence of some urgent message to be conveyed), and so to place unusual policy-making power in the hands of speechwriters:
Many speeches are scheduled long before they are to be delivered. Thus the commitment to speak precedes the knowledge of any issue to speak about, often causing staff to find or create an issue for the speech…. The routinization of crisis, endemic to the rhetorical presidency, is accompanied by attempted repetitions of charisma. In Reagan’s case this cycle was further reinforced by an ideology and a rhetoric opposed to the Washington establishment, to bureaucrats and bureaucracies…. He serves as a better illustration than any other president of the possibility and danger that presidents might come themselves to think in the terms initially designed to persuade those not capable of fully understanding the policy itself. Having reconfigured the political landscape, the rhetorical presidency comes to reconstitute the president’s political understanding.
Since D’Souza’s account of the Reagan presidency derives from and differs in no substantive factual detail from those of the “ingrates and apostates” who were already on their book tours when it ended, the superimposition of the “leadership” narrative meant grappling with some fairly intractable material already on the record. The peculiarities noticed by others (the President was “detached,” or “not entirely informed,” or “vague on details,” or “passive”) would need to be translated into evidence of a grand design. Biographical details would need to be mined for “character” points, often to less than coherent effect. “Here was the son of the town drunk who grew up poor in the Midwest,” D’Souza tells us on page ten. “Without any connections, he made his way to Hollywood and survived its cutthroat culture to become a major star.”
This was not technically true (Reagan was never a “major star,” but a reliable studio contract player who hit an era of diminished demand and was reduced, before finding a role as a spokesman for General Electric, to introducing a nightclub act, The Continentals, at the Last Frontier in Las Vegas), but “survived its cutthroat culture to become a major star” fits the point D’Souza is trying to make on this page, which has to do with “the personal [and] political mystery” that would enable Reagan to change “both his country and the rest of the world.” By page 45, however, where the point to be made has to do with the President’s flexibility and skill at “the art of negotiating and being part of a team,” D’Souza has reworked the bio to yield what he needs: “Reagan was never a big enough star to permit himself such consuming narcissism…. When many actors were too fastidious to be seen on television, regarding it as inferior to film, Reagan obligingly switched to the new medium, thus guaranteeing himself more parts.”
This constant trimming and tacking leads D’Souza into fairly choppy water, where logical connections tend to get jettisoned. If the famous Reagan “gaffes” were calculated, as D’Souza suggests (“When we recall Reagan’s gaffes, we see that he sometimes used them as a kind of code to transmit important political messages that would be incomprehensible to a hostile media”), then could the President be seen as a demagogue, deliberately manipulating the electorate with “facts” (the welfare queens, the students investing loans in certificates of deposit, the young man who went into a grocery store and bought an orange with food stamps and a bottle of vodka with the change) he knew would not withstand scrutiny? Not at all: the President dealt in “morality tales,” in the “illustration of a broader theme,” and “just because this or that particular detail might be erroneous did not mean that the moral of the story was invalid.”
If Reagan failed to recognize his black secretary of housing and urban Development, Samuel Pierce, addressing him as “Mr. Mayor,” did that not suggest a relationship both with his own administration and with urban America that remained casual at best? No, only an “oversight”: “He was wrong not to recognize Sam Pierce, but the reason for his oversight was that he had no interest in the Department of Housing and Urban Develop-ment, which he saw as a rat hole of public policy.” If Reagan set out to reduce the size and cost of the government and left it, in 1990 dollars, $1.5 trillion deeper in debt than when he started (“You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time,” he had said in his 1981 inaugural address. “Why then should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation?”), could the President not be said to have failed at his own mission?
No, because Reagan’s unique approach to that mission, which allowed him to cut taxes while increasing domestic entitlements and boosting defense spending to a rough total, for the eight years, of $2 trillion, turned out to have “a silver lining”: D’Souza explains that “by a strange turn of fate, the deficit accomplished for Reagan what he was unable to achieve directly: for the first time in this century, Congress began to impose limits on the growth of government.” If Reagan lacked, as D’Souza allows, not only “historical learning” and “encyclopedic knowledge” but “the two characteristics of the liberally educated person: self-consciousness and open-mindedness,” did dogmatism not tend to undermine the value of his opinions? Not exactly: Reagan “saw the world through the clear lens of right and wrong,” and so possessed a knowledge that “came not from books but from within himself.”
The knowledge that “came not from books but from within himself” is where we reenter the real woo woo of the period, the insistence on the ineffable that began with the perceived need to front the administration with a “leader” and ended by transforming the White House into a kind of cargo cult. “There is no point in pining for ‘another Ronald Reagan,”‘ D’Souza concludes, rather eerily capturing this aspect of the period. “He isn’t returning, and there will never be another quite like him.” Since it was the given of the Reagan administration that Reagan was at its helm, and since a good deal of visible evidence suggested otherwise, the man must be a “mystery,” with skills pitched, like a dog whistle, beyond our defective ability to hear them.
D’Souza tells us that Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, in 1990 characterized his subject as the most incomprehensible figure he had ever encountered. He tells us that Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan in Sacramento and in Washington and wrote three books about him, regards Reagan as a puzzle, and is “still trying to understand the man.” He tells us that Reagan and Edwin Meese, whose daily lives were inseparable in both Sacramento and Washington, never saw each other socially. Reagan had “countless acquaintances,” D’Souza observes, but apparently only one close friend, the actor Robert Taylor. Nancy Reagan regularly spoke to friends on the telephone, but her husband did not: “He would say hello, exchange a few pleasantries, and then hand the receiver to her.” Frustrated by “the paradoxes of Reagan’s personality,” D’Souza writes, “some who worked with him for years have given up trying to understand him.”
Yet these “paradoxes” existed only within what was essentially a category confusion. Defined as “president,” or even as “governor,” Reagan did indeed appear to have some flat sides, some missing pieces in his personality. Defined as “actor,” however, he was from the beginning to the end of his public life entirely consistent, a knowable and in fact quite predictable quantity. D’Souza allows that Reagan’s life as an actor was a significant part of his makeup, but sees “actor” as a stepping stone, a role the real Reagan, or “president,” had mastered and shed, although not before absorbing certain lessons (the importance of appealing to a mass audience, the know-ledge that “noble ideals” could be more effectively communicated “if they were not abstract but personalized and visualized”) that “enabled him to govern more effectively.” Grappling with the question of how Reagan could be “uniformly fair-minded and pleasant with aides” but “not get close to them personally,” D’Souza, laboring from within the definition “president,” extracts a “leadership” solution: “He saw them as instruments to achieve his goals.” “People would work for him for a decade; then they would leave, and he would not associate with them—not even a phone call,” D’Souza notes, again drawing the “leadership” lesson: “Thus the conventional wisdom must be turned on its head: he wasn’t their pawn; they were his.”
This fails to compute (if they were the pawns and he their master, would he not instead be inclined to keep them on speed dial, available for further deployment?) and will continue to do so, since the category is wrong: what might be seen as mysterious behavior in one occupation can be standard operating procedure in another, and it is within the unique working rhythms of the motion-picture industry that the “mysteries” of the man and the administration evaporate. Reagan could be “uniformly fair-minded and pleasant with aides” without getting close to them personally (or knowing where their offices were or even their names) not because he “saw them as instruments to achieve his goals” but because he saw them as members of the crew (“invisible behind the lights,” in Donald Regan’s words), as gaffers and best boys and script supervisors and even as day players, actors like himself but not featured performers whose names he need remember.
Similarly, the ability to work with people for a decade and never call them again exactly reflects the intense but temporary camaraderie of the set, the location, where the principals routinely exchange the ritual totems of bonding (unlisted home numbers, mobile numbers, beeper numbers, triple-secret numbers and hour-by-hour schedules for sojourns in Aspen and Sundance and Martha’s Vineyard) in full and mutual confidence that the only calls received after the wrap will be for ADR, or reshoots. Even that most minor of presidential idiosyncrasies, the absolute adherence to the daily schedule noted by virtually all Reagan’s aides, the line drawn through the completed task and the arrow pointing to the next (D’Souza tells us again about the arrows, as evidence of “the brisk thoroughness with which he discharged his responsibilities”), derives from the habits of the set, where the revised shooting schedule is distributed daily: SC. 183A—EXT WASHINGTON STREET—MOTORCADE—DAY, such a schedule would read, and once SC. 183A EXT WASHINGTON STREET—MOTORCADE—DAY was completed a line would be drawn through it on the schedule, with an arrow pointing to SC. 17—EXT WASHINGTON STREET—ESTABLISHING—DAY.
Asked whether he liked being president better than being an actor, Ronald Reagan, according to D’Souza, replied, “Yes, because here I get to write the script too.” D’Souza presents this as the President’s amusing deprecation of the way in which he achieved objectives “against the odds,” and so it may have been intended, but the deeper peculiarities of Reagan’s presidency could even at the time be seen to derive from his tendency to see the presidency as a script waiting to be solved. There is in the development of every motion picture a process known as “licking the script,” that period during which the “story” is shaped and trimmed and altered to fit the idealized persona who must be at its center. A president who understands the “character clarity” that results from this process would sense immediately that a scene with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel could be improved by a dramatization of how he, the president, or star, personally experienced the Holocaust.
It was only logical, then, for Reagan to tell Shamir, as he did in 1983, that during World War II he had filmed Nazi death camps for the Signal Corps (in fact he spent the entire war in Culver City, making training films at the Hal Roach studio), that he had (presciently) kept one reel in case the Holocaust was ever questioned, and that he had (just recently!) found occasion to convert a doubter by running it. A president who understands how a single scene can jump a script would naturally offer reporters in Charlotte, North Carolina, as Lou Cannon tells us that Reagan did during his 1975 primary campaign, this improved version of how segregation ended in the military:
“…When the Japanese dropped the bomb on Pearl Harbor there was a Negro sailor whose total duties involved kitchen-type duties…. He cradled a machine gun in his arms, which is not an easy thing to do, and stood on the end of a pier blazing away at Japanese airplanes that were coming down and strafing him and that [segregation] was all changed.” When a reporter pointed out that segregation in the armed services actually had ended when President Truman signed an executive order in 1948 three years after the war, Reagan stood his ground. “I remember the scene,” Reagan told me on the campaign plane later. “It was very powerful.”
The question most frequently asked in a script meeting is, in one variation or another, always this: Why do we care, how can we up the stakes, what’s going to make America root for this guy? The guy, of course, is the main character, the star part, and infinite time and attention is devoted to finding his “hook,” the secret to his character that gets hinted at in act one, revealed at the end of act two, and turned in act three: “son of the town drunk,” say, or “stood on the burning pier and cradled in his arms the machine gun that would end segregation.” Ronald Reagan, we later learned from his personal physician, Brigadier General John Hutton, first grasped the import of the AIDS epidemic in July 1985 (before then he seemed to construe it as a punishment for bad behavior, and “would say words to the effect: ‘Is there a message in this?”‘), when he saw a news report that it had happened to someone America could root for, Rock Hudson.
There is in Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader one arresting account, which seems based not on D’Souza’s access to the famous and less-known movers of the period (his two-page list of acknowledgments recalls with considerable poignancy the fervor of the moment, including as it does such evocative names as “Elliot Abrams,” “George Gilder,” “Josh Gilder,” “Michael Ledeen,” “Joshua Muravchik,” “Grover Norquist,” “Robert Reilly,” “Joseph Sobran,” and “Faith Whittlesey”) but on reporting done by Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus for their Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988.5 The place is the White House. The time is October 26, 1983, when the American students “rescued” by the invasion of Grenada were on their way to Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. “On the day of their arrival,” D’Souza writes, “Oliver North, who had helped plan the Grenada operation, came rushing into the president’s office.”
He said that the students had not been briefed on the reasons for the invasion, and no one knew what they would tell the press. “Come with me,” Reagan said. He led North into a room with a television monitor. There the two of them watched as the first young man got off the plane, walked over to the runway, dropped to his knees, and kissed the soil of the United States. “You see, Ollie,” Reagan said, “you should have more faith in the American people.” Reagan knew that with the student’s dramatic gesture, the national debate over the legitimacy of the Grenada invasion was effectively over.
Among the several levels on which this passage invites the reader to linger (Why would students in need of rescue need to be briefed on the reasons for the rescue? How exactly would “more faith in the American people” lead to the expectation that the students would show the cameras what the administration wanted shown?), the most rewarding has to do with “Ollie,” and his apparently easy access, as early as October of 1983, to the President’s office. It would, in due time, be repeatedly suggested that Lt. Col. North was a rogue fantast who had inflated or even invented his proximity to the President. “He said he sometimes spent time alone with Ronnie in the Oval Office,” Nancy Reagan wrote in My Turn, her own essay into correcting the record: “But that never happened.”6 “We researched the records, and there was a never a time when Ollie was alone with the President in the Oval Office,” Larry Speakes wrote. “North’s claim that he was watching television with the President when our medical students arrived back in the U.S. from Grenada in 1983 was an outright lie.” 7 Yet D’Souza’s vignette casts Lt. Col. North, whose several code names included “Mr. Goode” and “Mr. White,” in a different light: he was on the scene, he was in the picture, he seems in a moment of threatened crunch to have regarded the President as his confidant.
By October 1983, the sequence of events that became known as “Iran-contra,” or, as D’Souza calls it, the “historical footnote that future generations will not even remember,” was well underway, and the White House deep into that perilous territory where certain spectral missions were already coinciding, to deleterious effect, with the demands of the script. Iran-contra, D’Souza assures his Young Adults, “seems to have been transacted in the White House without Reagan’s knowledge or approval,” but even if we discount the assertions of Reagan’s aides that he was briefed on every detail except possibly (this point remains unclear) the diversion of funds, and even if we discount the President’s own statement that “it was my idea to begin with,” Iran-contra was not a series of events that professionals of the Washington process would naturally think of transacting.
It was instead a scenario that suggested the addled inspiration of script meetings, the moment when the elusive line materializes: on the one hand we have the “lion in winter,” as D’Souza calls Reagan, the aging freedom fighter (NB, possible: we learn in act two he knows he has something terminal but hasn’t told anybody???) whose life has been dedicated to the eradication of tyranny and who is now, apparently alone (NB, everyone opposes, scene where even trusted aide backs away), facing his last and toughest battle with the forces of evil.
The inspiration, of course, the solution to the script, the always startlingly obvious idea that comes only when the table is littered with takeout and the producer is inventing pressing business elsewhere, is this: the lonely lion in winter turns out not to be alone after all, for we also have the young colonel, “Mr. Goode,” a born performer, a larger-than-life character, a real character, actually, one who (according to Larry Speakes) “loved to operate big in the Situation Room… standing in the middle of the floor, a phone at each ear, barking cryptic orders to some faraway operative” and who (according to Peggy Noonan) could convincingly deliver such lines as “And don’t forget this is in accord conversation Casey-North approximately 1500 this date” and “Don’t talk to me about Pastora [the contra leader Edén Pastora, aka Comandante Zero], I’m not speaking to Pastora.”
For the “President,” a man whose deepest instincts had trained him to find the strongest possible narrative line in the scenes he was given, to clean out those extraneous elements that undermine character clarity, a man for whom historical truth had all his life run at twenty-four frames a second, Iran-contra would have been irresistible, a go project from first draft, a script with two strong characters, the young marine officer with no aim but to serve his president, the aging president with no aim but to free the tyrannized (whether the tyrants were Nicaraguan or Iranian or some other nationality altogether was just a plot point, a detail to work out later), a story about male bonding, a story about a father who found the son he (in this “cleaned-out” draft of the script) never had, a buddy movie, and better than a buddy movie: a mentor buddy movie, with action.
“Reagan didn’t violate the public trust in the pursuit of personal power,” we are told by D’Souza, who, possibly because he noticed that he had “Ollie” running into the President’s office on page 158, seems by page 247 of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader to have somewhat amended his earlier (page 16) assessment of Iran-contra as a series of events “transacted in the White House without Reagan’s knowledge or approval.” Note the change from passive to active voice: “He did it because he empathized with the suffering of the hostages and their families…. He refused to listen to Shultz and Weinberger’s prudent recommendations that he avoid the foolish enterprise altogether.” D’Souza seems not to appreciate that for this president, in this script, it would have been precisely the suggestion that he was undertaking a “foolish enterprise” that sealed his determination to go with it. “There are those who say that what we are attempting to do cannot be done,” he had said in a hundred variations in as many speeches. This was a president who understood viscerally—as the young colonel also understood, as D’Souza seems not to understand even cerebrally—that what makes a successful motion picture is exactly a foolish enterprise, a lonely quest, a lost cause, a fight against all odds, undertaken, despite the best advice of those who say it cannot be done, by someone America can root for. Cut, print.
December 18, 1997