The Magazine

THE RIDDLE OF RONALD REAGAN

Nov 9, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 09 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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The irony was that the "extreme" conservative Republican Ronald Reagan had by now become closer in his thinking to John F. Kennedy than Kennedy's younger brother Teddy. Putting it even more strongly, Teddy Kennedy was running on policies that were almost the polar opposite of those on which JFK had campaigned against Nixon in 1960 (to "get the country moving again" through a tax cut, a military buildup, and a more forceful stand against Communist expansionism). Reagan's platform, by contrast, was so similar to JFK's that it might have been described (to adapt a phrase from Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential bid) "not as a choice but an echo." As for Reagan's main Republican rival, George Bush, he was, I thought, just another "country-club Republican" and as such not much more reliable on foreign policy (which was what I most cared about in those days) than Gerald Ford, a devotee of detente, had proved to be.


But there were problems with Reagan as well. About his anti-communism, and his understanding of the need for an American military buildup, there could be no doubt. But was Reagan, the heir of Goldwater, too far to the right to win a presidential election even if he could get the nomination? For that matter, was he too far to the right for unhappy Democrats like me and my fellow cold warriors -- such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Eugene V. Rostow, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, and Richard Pipes? After all, some of us were still resisting the label "neoconservative" by which we were becoming known by practically everyone else and still though of ourselves as liberals or even as social democrats.


Tyrrell's purpose in arranging for Reagan to meet with "the intellectuals" was to allay some of these anxieties. But as a measure of how great they were, the turnout was very small, several people having refused to attend for fear of becoming labeled Reagan supporters before they had made up their minds. I, on the other hand, was very curious to get a good look at the man in the hope that, given the absence of anyone better, I would be able to root for him with a clear conscience and even at best a whole heart.


When Reagan arrived with his wife Nancy, I was immediately struck (as I often have been when seeing even minor movie actors in the flesh) at how extraordinarily good-looking he was and by the jauntiness of his carriage. As the 10 or so of us present lined up to be introduced, however, it was Nancy who seemed to have a better idea of who we were than he did; he, for his part, comfortably and easily shook everyone's hand without manifesting much interest in or curiosity about what he probably took to be one more group of voters it was his job to win over. If so, he did a lousy job of it. Rather than being reassured, most of us left wondering whether he had any brains at all.


There were two reasons for this. First, Reagan obviously had not a clue as to what to say to this particular group, or even what subjects to talk about. I presumed that if we had been farmers, he would have concentrated on the problems of agriculture; or if we had been businessmen, he would have dwelled on the economy; and so on. But either he had been inadequately briefed, or he had paid less attention than Nancy to what he had been told, or he lacked the elementary intelligence to imagine what intellectuals like us who had been disaffected by the foreign and military policies being pursued by the Democratic party might be interested in hearing him discuss. Whatever the reason, he spent most of the evening telling anecdotes about what he had learned as governor of California.


Instead, then, of bringing up issues like the Soviet military buildup or the hostages in Iran, which he should have known or sensed would be on the minds of people like us, he regaled us with a long account of how a committee of experienced businessmen he had appointed to do a study of government efficiency in California had found out that legal-rather than letter-size files were being used in state offices whose cabinets were too small for them. This necessitated folding the files to fit, thereby wasting tons of space and millions of dollars. Having gone on about this for what felt like an eternity, he ended with a triumphant grin of pride over the detection and correction of so serious a problem, and held it out as a good example of how getting the private sector involved was the way to compensate for the failings of government bureaucrats.