The Magazine

THE RIDDLE OF RONALD REAGAN

Nov 9, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 09 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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To me, Ronald Reagan always has been, and remains, a mystery. Never -- not from the first occasion on which I met him and spent a few hours in his company before he became president; not after talking to him several more times over the years; not after watching him at a distance but with the closest attention during his two terms in the White House; and not after reading a spate of books about him after he left office, including his own memoirs and a half-dozen biographies and volumes of reminiscences by people who had worked closely with him -- never in all that time have I shared in the prevalent view that with Reagan "what you saw was what you got": a simple man with a few central beliefs to which he undeviatingly stuck through thick and thin.


This is why I have been waiting so eagerly for the publication of Edmund Morris's biography, which was scheduled to come out this fall after 13 years of work but has now been postponed indefinitely. Having been chosen for this task by Reagan himself, who admired his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris had evidently been given unusually free access both to the president and to his papers and records. In various interviews, furthermore, he let it be thought that he had solved the Reagan riddle. But apart from dropping a tantalizing hint or two -- for example, that Reagan was seriously slowed down by the attempt on his life early in his first term -- Morris was coy about his work-in-progress.


My guess is that Morris's trouble in completing the book stems from his own inability to decipher the riddle of Reagan -- that even (or perhaps especially) after spending so much time observing Reagan, studying him, conversing with him, and thinking about him, Morris has been unable to trace the Jamesian "figure in the carpet" that would make sense of the whole design. Be that as it may, we are still on our own if we wish to grapple with the question that has plagued me since the first time I laid eyes on Reagan and that has continued to bedevil all discussion of the man and his presidency.


Clark Clifford, one of the Democratic "wise men" who because of a financial scandal would pathetically discredit himself after a very long career of shuttling between public office and a private legal practice, had no such problem with Reagan. Either betrayed by his unconscious, or simply forgetting that Walter Lippmann had never been able to live down the column in which he dismissed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 as "an amiable man . . . who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president," Clifford fished up the same patronizing adjective in describing Reagan as "an amiable dunce." In the circles in which Clifford traveled -- where Lippmann's unfortunate lapse had evidently also been forgotten -- this tag quickly made the rounds and penetrated the thick coating of "Teflon" which otherwise prevented sneers and smears from sticking to this president.


I must confess that my own first impression of Reagan was not so far from Clifford's. I no longer recall exactly what I expected when I arrived at the private club in New York at which R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the editor of the American Spectator, had arranged a meeting between Reagan and "the intellectuals." The year was 1979, and Reagan was well launched on his second run for the Republican nomination for president. The first time, in 1976, he had been defeated in the primaries by Gerald Ford, who in turn was beaten by Jimmy Carter. But with Carter now in serious trouble over the seizure of American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, not to mention the calamitous state of the economy, the Republicans had a very good shot in 1980.


I was then still a registered Democrat, but I was also -- to use the terminology of that prehistoric political era -- a "hard" anti-Communist and a "hawk" on defense. Indeed, almost unthinkable as it now seems to me, I had voted for Carter precisely on those grounds, thinking (foolishly, as it would turn out) that this graduate of Annapolis might at bottom be tougher on defense, more of a "Scoop" Jackson Democrat, than he seemed. In any case, his only Democratic challenger was Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Kennedy was entirely out of the question. Even setting aside Chappaquiddick (which I and a great many others were not prepared to do), a fascinating irony emerged here that could hardly escape the notice of Democrats like myself who had remained loyal to the anti-Communist interventionism of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.