The Gorbachevs and the Reagans
The Gorbachevs and the Reagans; drawing by David Levine

Of the seventeen presidents the United States has survived since Theodore Roosevelt declined his third term, none is so mystifying as Ronald Reagan. A New Deal Democrat until the age of fifty, he became the most revered Republican of his generation; a child of the working class, he inspired business to heightened resistance to labor. Admired for his belligerence toward the Soviet Union—“the evil empire”—he became the great peacemaker of his generation. Tirelessly denouncing big government, he made government bigger; a champion of fiscal conservatism, he inherited a deficit of $80 billion and in eight years increased it to $200 billion.

The contradictions go on. He had a visceral dislike of Communists, but his ability to work with Mikhail Gorbachev led to the ending of the cold war. Reluctant to use American forces in battle, he supported an army of contras in Nicaragua. A hero to anti-abortionists, he did virtually nothing to advance their cause. Applauded by conservative supporters of “family values,” he was divorced from his first wife and seldom went to church.

Equally puzzling was the Reagan personality. His affability and good humor were irresistible, but many took them as evidence of a man too simple-minded for the job. “An amiable dunce” was the famous judgment of Clark Clifford, a Democratic eminence of the day, though Reagan had already beaten Democrats twice for the governorship of California and once for the presidency, for which he would soon beat them again. Some dunce.

There was obviously something about this seemingly unremarkable man that made him extraordinary, but no one could define it. He was a riddle impervious to all who tried to catch him in an introspective moment. Even his wife Nancy was puzzled. “You can get just so far to Ronnie, and then something happens,” she told his biographer Lou Cannon. And Nancy, Cannon notes, “may have been the only person who really knew him at all.” George Shultz, his secretary of state, has written about the Reagan “mystery” and recalled Robert McFarlane, White House national security adviser, marveling that “he knows so little, and accomplishes so much.”

Edmund Morris, the much-praised biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, was given extensive access to the Reagan White House in the expectation that he would write the definitive Reagan biography. This close view left Morris so baffled that instead of a brilliant biography, he produced a literary hybrid of fiction and fact which was almost as puzzling as its subject. Lou Cannon, who is the indispensable if not definitive Reagan biographer, found that the President’s lifelong associates “suspected that there was something beneath the surface they had never seen, but they did not know what the something was.”

In Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, John Patrick Diggins refuses to be baffled. Professor Diggins has bold ideas, juicy opinions, and the cheek to state them forcefully. His book is barely underway before he declares that Reagan “may be, after Lincoln, one of the two or three truly great presidents in American history.” And:

Reagan was also one of the three great liberators in American history. Abraham Lincoln helped emancipate African Americans from slavery; Franklin D. Roosevelt helped wrest Western Europe from fascism; Ronald Reagan helped liberate Eastern Europe from communism.

And whereas Lincoln, FDR, and Truman had to fight brutal wars for human liberation, “Reagan alone succeeded in liberating people from tyranny without going to war, and he did so through conversation and dialogue.”

All this will doubtless please Reagan’s more passionate admirers, but some of Diggins’s other formulations may not sit so well. Reaganites will not be amused to find Diggins describing their man as a “liberal romantic.” Is any word in the conservative lexicon more vile than “liberal”? Diggins’s suggestion that Reagan’s incessant attacks on government were wrong-headed if not hypocritical may also chafe people of the right who cherish as inviolable truth Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem.” Diggins dismisses this as nonsense. Absence of government is the real problem, he says, and states where government is weak tend toward breakdown. He does not fail to note that under Reagan “a gargantuan government and a huge national debt became the perpetual curse of conservatism and the Republican Party.”

His criticisms seem slight, however, compared to the exuberance with which he ranks Reagan among the giants. He is not one of the old Reagan claque that sought to rename government buildings, airports, and subway stations in honor of its hero. His many previous works, which include a sympathetic history of the American left, suggest a mind beyond the seductions of political cant. During the 1980s, he writes, he viewed the Reagan presidency as “little more than the age of avarice.”

“My belated respect for the man grew from appreciating his boldness in dealing with the three miseries of the modern era,” he writes. These he lists as the nuclear arms race, which was “terrifying”; the expanding welfare state, which was “crippling;” and “a joyless religious inheritance,” which was “inhibiting.”


With this reference to America’s inhibiting religious inheritance, it becomes clear that one of Diggins’s main purposes is to set forth the somewhat startling theory that Reagan was heavily influenced by the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century poet, essayist, and philosopher. At the peak of his intellectual powers in the 1830s and 1840s, Emerson was instrumental in creating the Transcendentalist movement, a philosophical reaction against orthodox Calvinism and the Unitarian Church’s rationalism. The Transcendentalists developed their own faith, which held that God is present—immanent, in theological language—within man and nature. This gave man an important, even rarefied status. “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God,” Emerson wrote in his essay titled Nature. From this exhilarating belief came an optimism alien to New England’s glum Puritan culture. The individual was no longer a doomed sinner in the hands of an angry God; he was now divine, now himself part or parcel of God. The political consequence of this, which is what interests Diggins, is enhanced importance for the individual. What emerges is a new optimistic individualism.

Optimistic individualism begins to sound vaguely like Ronald Reagan, but it takes some effort to visualize Reagan immersed in Emerson’s writings. Diggins is insistent, however, that they contributed heavily to Reagan’s world view, blessing him with an “Emersonian outlook” which accounted for his habitual optimism, political popularity, and success in ending the cold war.

Professor Diggins’s field is intellectual history, which, as he has written elsewhere, deals with how the mind and character of an era are formed by historical experience. It is a discipline that encourages new ways of exploring the Reagan puzzle, and these free him from the useless clichés about movie acting, dozing in Cabinet meetings, and passing out jelly beans in the Oval Office. Could Reagan have been a nineteenth-century Transcendentalist? If a distinguished professor of the City University of New York Graduate Center thinks so, it may be worth considering.

Thus he suggests that Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan—“It’s morning in America”—can be seen as a quintessential expression of an Emersonian spirit. Invoking a sense of a bright and happy day coming, it contrasted with the dark Baptist visions Jimmy Carter had summoned up with his talk of American failings. A born-again Christian, Carter was committed to a religion rooted in the sin-drenched philosophy of the Calvinists. Emerson rejected the Protestant fascination with sin, and, in Diggins’s reading, so did Reagan. In his 1980 campaign against Carter, Reagan won easily. Like Emerson, Diggins writes, Reagan believed that “we please God by pleasing ourselves and that to believe in the self is to live within the divine soul.” America had shifted to Emerson. “Reagan opened the American mind to optimism and innocence, leaving it closed to sin and experience.”

The “Morning in America” campaign of 1984, Diggins writes, spoke to a nation delivered “from fear and loathing” by a man who “stood for freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart.” The 1980s had become

America’s “Emersonian moment,” when people were told to trust not the state but the self and to pursue wealth and power without sin or shame. Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo.

This is a highly original view of the “Morning in America” campaign. Political junkies have usually supposed it was concocted by an advertising agency, perhaps with the guidance of Mike Deaver, Reagan’s brilliant aide in charge of preserving, protecting, and perfecting the presidential image.

If it is hard to imagine the Great Communicator himself communing with Emerson, it may be because of popular misperceptions about both men. Contrary to his reputation as a ponderous sage, Emerson had one of the more adventurous minds of the nineteenth century. In his splendid 1995 biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson Jr. portrays “a complicated, energetic, and emotionally intense man who habitually spoke against the status quo and in favor of whatever was wild and free.” Contrary to popular impression, Reagan had a mind that was interested in complex problems.

Diggins is vague about how Reagan imbibed Emersonian ideas, aside from suggesting that they came from his mother’s religious instruction. He does not suggest that Reagan read closely in Emerson, but notes that Reagan quoted him on several occasions, including his last speech, in which he said, “Emerson was right. We are the country of tomorrow…. America remains on a voyage of discovery, a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” We now know, moreover, that Reagan’s mind was attuned to the pleasures of the written word. Recent publication of Reagan: A Life in Letters reveals a compulsive, lifelong letter writer and possessor of a sound and economical prose style, a man obviously comfortable in his command of language.


Letter writing was clearly important to Reagan. Even as president he kept dashing off letters to friends, pen pals, media people, statesmen, critics, and the kind of people who write to presidents never expecting a reply. He wrote letters in the Oval Office and his White House study, at Camp David, on helicopter rides, and during long trips aboard Air Force One. A man writing a letter is a man in the act of thinking, and it was an exercise Reagan obviously enjoyed. After his first meeting with Gorbachev, for example, he sent a “Dear Murph” letter about it to his old friend George Murphy, a former senator and actor who had once played Reagan’s father in a film. Thanking Murphy for “that most generous review of my performance,” he said he had “enjoyed playing the part,” before adding:

Seriously it was worthwhile but it would be foolish to believe the leopard will change its spots. He is a firm believer in their system…. At the same time he is practical and knows his economy is a basket case. I think our job is to try to show him he and they will be better off if we make some practical agreements without attempting to convert him to our way of thinking.

When Reagan came to the White House in 1981, Washington was heavily invested in the cold war. After nearly forty years, it had become part of the city’s daily existence. No one of consequence anticipated that it might end in a foreseeable lifetime. This seemed so improbable that there was not even a contingency plan suggesting what the government should do next if it did. It had come to seem eternal. Yes, it was an affliction to be sure, and damned dangerous sometimes too, but Washington had learned to live comfortably with other eternal afflictions—the national debt, the race problem, the persistence of poverty. Washington had now found comfort with the cold war. Huge industries and great careers were built on it. It provided muscle and money for successful political campaigns. Ronald Reagan was about to disturb that comfort.

The story of his personal relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and the adventurous summitry of both men at Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, and Moscow is well known, but there are many ways of telling it. In the Diggins narrative Reagan becomes a lone heroic figure determined to save the world from nuclear war. Freshly arrived from California far outside the Beltway, Reagan finds himself in charge of the thermonuclear button. Handed the power to devastate the planet, he is appalled. It is his passionate conviction that the thermonuclear standoff between Moscow and Washington is intolerable.

Though supporting the big military buildup already begun by Jimmy Carter, he concludes, as Diggins puts it, “that the only answer to the cold war was to call it off.” Doing so requires abandoning policies from which Washington has fashioned a way of life over the past four decades. This pits him against the most sophisticated minds of his own government, an elite group of “strategic thinkers” with a heavy intellectual investment in the cold war. These include Casper Weinberger, his secretary of defense, Richard Perle at the Pentagon, entrenched politicians at the Capitol, aides inside his own national security apparatus, and persons like Henry Kissinger, once Nixon’s foreign policy chamberlain but now a consultant to corporations in the US and abroad.

Listening to these strategic thinkers, Reagan hears a grotesque jargon about “mutual assured destruction,” “kill ratios,” “throw weights,” and “first-strike casualties” numbered in millions, and is horrified. He wonders how these marvelous intellects can think of nuclear war as a plausible eventuality which must be perpetuated for the sake of national security. Reagan thinks of it as an unendurable cataclysm which must be made impossible—for the sake of national security.

Strategic thinkers were naturally rattled to find this outsider fooling around with their work. They had been thinking strategically when Reagan was just another movie actor playing opposite a chimpanzee, for heaven’s sake. They think Reagan is too naive, too innocent, to grasp the intellectual complexities of cold war strategy. He becomes the lone champion of nuclear disarmament in a government dominated by people at ease with the possibility of doomsday. And of course it is Reagan, in league with Gorbachev and encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, who prevails. So begins the ending of the cold war.

Diggins dismisses suggestions from some historians that Reagan’s success was an accident of timing. He writes:

Reagan may be admired not only for what he did but also for who he was, a thoughtful, determined man of character and vision. No doubt some Americans, especially intellectuals, would laugh at such a description. Such skeptics share a widespread assumption that the cold war was inevitably coming to an end and that Reagan happened to be in the right place at the right time. Reagan, however, was not simply receptive to a historical situation; on the contrary, he helped to create it. In taking action that would force events, Reagan led rather than followed, often going against the counsel of his national security advisors and secretary of defense.

Those who remember Washington’s cold war culture in the 1980s will recall the shocked reactions to Reagan’s intervention. People interested in foreign policy were astonished when in 1985 he met alone at Geneva—alone, not a single strategic thinker at his elbow!—with the Soviet Communist master Gorbachev. Those who thought this was foolishly reckless included members of his own retinue. Democrats were not alone in underrating Reagan.

Diggins’s enthusiasm for Reagan is so overwhelming that his book loses sight of Mikhail Gorbachev, yet Gorbachev took risks at least as daring as Reagan’s. By reducing his nuclear arsenal, pulling his armies out of Afghanistan, and liberalizing Soviet society (glasnost and perestroika), he was certainly threatening the comfort of Moscow’s cold war establishment. These must have been high-risk gambits for a new young leader in a crumbling superpower, but he gets little applause here. Diggins comes to celebrate Reagan the Emersonian, not to praise Gorbachev.

His book is one of those presidential upgradings by history such as George W. Bush is now said to hope for in a kinder, gentler future. There is ample evidence that Reagan’s presidential reputation is indeed enjoying just such a refurbishment. Apparently Democrats and his old intellectual and liberal critics needed to experience the autocratic and bellicose Bush before they could see what a prize statesman the nation once had in Reagan. One hears people formerly contemptuous of him comment that, having seen Bush, they now rank Reagan with the immortals. It is easy to dismiss this as cynical joking, yet here is the eminently respectable Diggins discussing “the Gipper” in the same paragraph with Lincoln and anointing him as one of American history’s “three great liberators.” It is a sign of the rising esteem Reagan now enjoys that it suddenly seems disrespectful to refer to him as “the Gipper.” Such are the cultural upheavals that accompany history’s upward revisions of presidential reputations. Who now recalls that Harry Truman was once derided as a failed haberdasher?

Other historians are also writing about Reagan’s excellences. Robert M. Collins, professor of history at the University of Missouri, gives him high grades for leadership in Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years. In large matters that counted most, Collins writes,

Reagan was firmly in charge. It was he who ultimately called the shots that mattered, often over considerable opposition from within the White House circle, from Congress, and from the public at large.

Two salient features that stand out in retrospect for Collins were the optimism that was “his signal personality trait” and “his unusual combination of ideological fervor and moderating political pragmatism.” He quotes George Shultz’s observation: “He appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears, to their confidence rather than their doubts.” Perhaps Collins was tempted here to contrast Reagan and Bush but preferred not to belabor the obvious.

Another sample of the revised Reagan appears in The Reagan Imprint by John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. His Reagan has “great flexibility of mind,” an “ability to adapt and embrace change,” “intellectual nimbleness,” and a “willingness to step out in new directions.” Like Diggins, Arquilla makes a persuasive argument that but for Reagan’s inquiring mind and courage to disagree with conventional Washington wisdom the cold war might still be with us.

Arquilla’s portrait of Reagan as a strategic thinker is quite different from Diggins’s. Arquilla finds him already worrying about cold war strategy during his long career as a radio commentator in the 1960s and 1970s. Reading these broadcast editorials, Arquilla found Reagan already talking like “a strategic thinker, not just an ideologue.” They showed Reagan himself beginning to think the world should be made “less nuclear.”

“The idea of holding civilians hostage to nuclear attack as a means of keeping the peace appalled Reagan,” Arquilla writes, and from his early days as governor of California he thought about “finding a way out of the illogic of mutual assured destruction.” In short, when Reagan arrived in Washington surrounded by advisers who opposed arms control, he already had reservations about strategic policy, and he was equipped with long-considered ideas of his own; he ended as the most successful strategist of them all. Though Arquilla does not mention Lincoln, he clearly agrees with Diggins that Reagan belongs with the giants.

Collins and Arquilla both dwell on the political shrewdness with which Reagan pragmatically eased up on his conservative ideology to accommodate the necessities of governance. Collins calls him a “pragmatic ideologue.” Reagan’s amiability toward friend and rival alike, Arquilla says, “was designed in part to reduce discord” and his “flexibility of mind and civility in discourse led to good results.”

George W. Bush, by contrast, though he came to power despite losing the popular vote, proceeded as if he had won by a landslide, trying to undo a century of progressive domestic policy by restoring a nineteenth-century conservatism devoted to serving corporate wealth. The resulting discord was apparent even before Americans turned against the Iraq war. If victory and peace are to emerge from the protracted warfare now in progress, “political and ideological correctness must bow,” Arquilla writes. “And there can be no better example of how to put ideas before ideology than the life and work of Ronald Reagan.”

The historical makeover which Reagan is undergoing dwells heavily on his amiability as something more than a pleasant personal habit. Diggins, Collins, and Arquilla all treat it as part of his political armament that was essential to his success. Diggins, theorizing about a debt to Emerson, suggests that this amiability was the expression of an unorthodox Christian background quite alien to what usually passes for Christianity in the White House.

Reagan was not a “born-again” Christian “who had to be saved from a dissolute life by divine grace, embracing the Bible to rid himself of inner demons,” Diggins writes, thinking perhaps of George W. Bush. “His religion resided calmly in a mind that had been serene almost throughout his life.” The churches he knew through his mother were influenced by nineteenth-century trends toward rejection of external authority and toward democratized religion. In a century obsessed with religious ideas and doctrine, many rejected the old orthodoxies. Out of this turmoil emerged Unitarianism, intellectually shaped by William Ellery Channing, who was to become the mentor of young Emerson.

Diggins now seems to be saying: and out of Emerson came Ronald Reagan. Among other things, Emerson came to believe that God was not an external power administering cruel justice to humans who violated a stern code. “Reagan was an Emersonian, not only in temperament but sometimes even in thought,” Diggins writes. “Emerson held that we are born free and good but that everywhere we are regulated and corrupted, that ‘organization tyrannize[s] over character,’ and ‘all public ends look vague and quixotic beside private ones.'”

From this point in an extraordinary chapter titled “The Political Romantic,” Diggins offers a series of proposals about Reagan as an Emersonian which range from the controversial to the mischievous and suggest that Diggins is an entertaining thinker looking for a good debate. He would have us, for example, think of Reagan as a president who, like Emerson, wanted to rid Americans of the Puritanical tradition, of thinking about life in terms of sin, suffering, and sacrifice. Emerson made the self divine. One did not need to look up or outward to find God. God was within oneself, and so the self itself was sacred, and therefore incapable of sin. Nor could its desires be causes for guilt. Like Emerson, Diggins says, Reagan wanted to free America of an inhibiting fear of selfishness, and indeed to let selfishness flourish. Since Reagan held with Emerson that people please God by pleasing themselves, it followed that they had no need of compulsory authority and “if left to themselves they could run their own lives.”

Here Diggins is not so pleased with the Emersonian strain:

My personal reservation about Ronald Reagan is not that he was a conservative; on the contrary, he was a liberal romantic who opened up the American mind to the full blaze of Emersonian optimism… [but] left the American mind innocent, without knowledge of power and evil and the sins of human nature.

In this, Emerson put Reagan at intellectual odds with the Republic’s founders who believed that men were not angels and so needed strong government to preserve an orderly state. Suggesting that men are not angels—Madison’s observation—conflicts with Emerson’s thinking about the sacred self and so, Diggins says, would have made Reagan frown had he attended the Constitutional Convention.

Fond though he is of Reagan, Diggins comes down at the end on Madison’s side:

Reagan told the people what they wanted to hear, whereas the framers told them what they needed to know—a government that refuses to educate, lead, and guide, to elevate and “refine and enlarge” the “passions and interests” of the people, is a government that cannot control the governed and cannot control itself.

One would like to say to this Emersonian everyman, this prince of a president, stop watching old films, forget Errol Flynn, and read The Federalist Papers and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where the claims of commerce are not simply to be celebrated but “properly understood,” and the trail of the serpent is to be seen in the heart of society and not only in the halls of government.

This Issue

March 1, 2007