THE RIDDLE OF RONALD REAGAN
Nov 9, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 09 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
I could hardly believe my ears: Was this what he thought we had come to hear? As a professional actor, he might have been expected to be sensitive to audience reaction. No such luck. Nothing daunted by the sight of the faces falling all around the table, Reagan moved cheerfully on to other such anecdotes, and was only forced into taking up the crisis that concerned us when the time came for asking him questions. Even then, he made a bad impression by dwelling gratuitously on elementary aspects of the issues that he should have realized we already knew all about.
In short, the entire performance ranged from wild irrelevance to baby talk which, if it had not been coming from a personality so obviously lacking in any such intent, we -- or I at any rate -- might have found insulting.
My first impulse was to agree reluctantly that what we had in Reagan was indeed an "amiable dunce," or the "airhead" that one of my friends in the labor movement had assured me he was. But on second thought I decided that this could not possibly be the case. Reagan might once have been a movie star whose main talent consisted in the ability to read lines written for him by others, but even then he had been something more than that. Not only had he been politically savvy enough to get himself elected president of the Screen Actors Guild; he had also, though still a liberal Democrat (and one who apparently leaned more to the Left than he would later let on), fought off a Communist effort to take over his union.
Partly as a result of what he had learned from that struggle, he had begun rethinking his lifelong political views. In the process, while his acting career waned and he found new employment as a traveling spokesman for the General Electric corporation, he had developed by degrees into what might have been described as a "premature" neoconservative. (He did not even become a Republican until he was past 50.) Then, in his very first run for public office, he had managed to get himself elected governor of one of the largest states in the country. There he had done what even his enemies regarded as a creditable job, and to their chagrin he then won reelection by a large margin.
At that point in my life, my own inclination (later modified by a wider acquaintance with politicians than, for better or worse, I had yet experienced) was always to assume that there had to be a core of solid and substantial stuff in any man who achieved big things in the big world, even if the qualities in question were not immediately apparent to the naked eye. Consequently I dismissed the bad impression Reagan had made on me, figuring it must be wrong, and I determined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then, after Reagan beat out Bush for the nomination, and as his campaign against Carter heated up, I found myself heating up along with it.
"Airhead" or not, Reagan was, so far as I was concerned, making all the right statements, while Carter was making all the wrong ones. Carter was sending out the subliminal message that the decline of American power in the post-Vietnam period was historically inevitable, that it was childish to resist it, and that our task was to develop the maturity to face and adjust to a development about which there was nothing we could do. But Reagan, acknowledging this decline in all spheres -- military in relation to the Soviets, economic in relation to Japan, moral in relation to ourselves -- was then also insisting that it had come about not through any inexorable historical forces but as the result of bad policies. We had gone astray by forgetting what it was that had made us great in the first place, and Reagan, who remembered, promised to lead us back to the true path of American greatness.
As it happens, I had just published a little book entitled The Present Danger which carried the subtitle, "Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power?" There was nothing in it about the election per se, but the themes it struck were in harmony, to say the least, with those of Reagan's campaign. Hence when Reagan won by a decisive margin, I was elated; and being human, I grew even more enthusiastic about the prospects of his presidency when, after being elected but before assuming office, he issued a statement urging "all Americans" to read my "critically important book."
Alas, not enough of them heeded this call to boost the sales as much as my publisher and I had expected, but in other countries Reagan's blurb was taken to mean that the blueprint for his foreign policy could be discovered in The Present Danger. (The French edition even carried on its cover the tag "Reagan's bedside book.") The result was that for the next few years, I kept getting calls and visits from foreign journalists demanding to know what the president was up to whenever he seemed to be deviating from some of the implications of my analysis.
The more I denied any such inside knowledge, the more world-weary skepticism I evoked, and the more I disclaimed either influence or responsibility for what the president was doing, the more it was assumed that I really was calling the shots from behind the scenes. But in truth Reagan never consulted me, and I was even more bewildered by some of his actions than were these journalists from abroad. In fact, the only time he actually spoke to me about his foreign policy was in 1982, when he telephoned to defend it against an attack on the direction it was taking that I had, out of sheer desperation, just written for the New York Times Magazine.
This article, to which the editors gave the accurate if unwieldy title "The Neo-Conservative Anguish Over Reagan's Foreign Policy," began by explaining why I and most of the other formerly leftist intellectuals now identified even by themselves as neoconservatives had been jubilant over Reagan's election. Then it went on to account for our disappointment, bordering on despair, over the record of his administration up to that point. I said that even though "Reaganomics" was not at that moment going well, it was still too early to tell whether his efforts to reverse the decline of American economic power by bringing "capitalism back to life in America" would succeed. Clearly, however, such efforts were being strenuously pursued, and so was his determination to refurbish and modernize "a badly deteriorated military capability." This program of rearmament, however, while absolutely necessary, was not a sufficient condition for reversing the decline of American power in the world. What was needed was action in line with the president's promise to change the direction of American policy toward the Soviet Union. Yet it was precisely on this promise that his administration was failing to make good.
I gave three examples from different parts of the world. Of these the most significant was Reagan's response to what had been going on in Poland since the Solidarity union had challenged the Communist party's monopoly of power there, and the Soviet Union had instructed its local quisling General Jaruzelski to put down this democratic uprising by military means.
Reagan had said that he expected the "evil empire" to break up some day from within, and now, suddenly, he was presented with an enormous opportunity to further and hasten that process. There was not even any risk involved in seizing this opportunity. He did not have to threaten to send troops, let alone send them. All he had to do was to stop helping the Soviets and their Polish surrogates through the various forms of economic aid they had been getting from us and other Western countries. This alone would have undermined their ability to put down the rebellion they had brought upon themselves through the depredations of the Communist system. Amazingly, however, right after martial law had been declared in Poland and while it was still in effect, Reagan threw his weight behind the bankers who insisted on rolling over the Polish loans that were just then coming due, and even helped the Poles pay the interest on those loans.
Part of my reaction to this incredibly perverse combination of action and inaction was stated in the article through quotations from two other equally shocked commentators. One was a mordant observation by the historian Walter Laqueur. According to Laqueur, not even Lenin, who allegedly predicted that one day we capitalist countries would out of the lust for profits compete to sell the Communists the rope with which to hang us, could ever have imagined that we would rush to give them the money to buy the rope. The other came from no less fervent a supporter of Reagan than George F. Will, who declared in one of his columns that the president was evidently running an administration that loved commerce more than it loathed communism.
But my own take on this disheartening turn of events was that it also involved more than the love of commerce. What it showed was that Reagan, despite his visionary rhetoric about the disintegration of the "evil empire," was in reality cooperating tacitly with the Soviet Union to stabilize that empire rather than encouraging its breakup from within. The standard rationale for such cooperation -- known as the "Sonnenfeldt Doctrine" -- was that the breakup of the Soviet empire carried with it the risk of military confrontations that (as happened with Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968) could only paralyze us out of the fear that they might escalate into a nuclear war. It was therefore in our own interest to join with Moscow in keeping things quiet throughout East Europe. Reagan had always explicitly rejected and even derided this rationale as the dishonorable face of detente. Nevertheless here he was, operating under the same grim imperatives.
I ended my article with the hope that he would recognize how deeply he had been unfaithful to his own principles and that he would return to them again. But in my heart of hearts, the real conclusion I reached was that this man was an even greater puzzle than I had at first imagined. Having decided that he could not possibly be the airhead or the amiable dunce that so many of his detractors saw in him, I now began wondering whether he was actually something worse.
The whole world regarded Reagan as a dangerous fanatic, and the Soviets themselves professed to believe that he had reverted to the old idea of "rollback," which Republicans like John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon had advocated in opposition to what they denounced as Harry Truman's "cowardly" policy of containment -- until, that is, they actually assumed power under Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. From that moment on, they had pursued a course that Dulles, now secretary of state, characterized as "calculated risk" (which in practice, said the French foreign minister at the time, "most often meant that he calculated a great deal and risked nothing").
Even after observing Reagan's similarly tepid response to the Polish crisis, the Soviets kept claiming to detect in his still bellicose rhetoric a policy aimed at rolling them back "right to the gates of the Kremlin itself." The words were those of Strobe Talbott -- then with Time magazine and now Clinton's undersecretary of state -- who clearly accepted at face value what the Soviets were telling him and even seemed to agree with it himself.
Never mind that the Soviets were in all likelihood using this line not because they thought it was true but because it was useful as propaganda against the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe that had been decided upon before Reagan took office because they were needed to balance similar Soviet weapons which were being set up on their side of the line. Never mind that the evidence of Reagan's actions pointed more toward detente than toward "rollback." Never mind that while the voice of Reagan may have been that of a "reckless cowboy," the hands were the hands of Dulles and Nixon. In the face of all this, the likes of Strobe Talbott still went around echoing Soviet warnings that Reagan was about to plunge the world into a nuclear war.
It was around this time that many of his old conservative supporters began raising the cry, "Let Reagan be Reagan." Unhappy over his Polish policy, among other surprises and disappointments, but unwilling to interpret these developments as signs of weakness or even hypocrisy in their hero, they took refuge in the theory that the president was being frustrated and subverted by a staff that did not share his convictions. But this exculpatory explanation did not in fact exculpate, since it raised the question of why he had surrounded himself with such people in the first place and why he did not now fire them and bring in others who would be loyal to his stated policies. It also raised anew the old question about Reagan's intelligence: Was he so dumb that he could not even comprehend what his own administration was up to?
As for me, having already rejected the idea that he was a dunce, I went on to reject my newer suspicion that he might be the hypocrite or the wimp that some of his erstwhile enthusiasts on the Right now saw in him. But it was not the lengthy phone call he made to me about my article that did the trick. On the contrary. Flattered though I naturally was to be at the receiving end of such attentions by the president of the United States, the arguments he offered were both unresponsive to my criticisms and unconvincing in their own terms. Mainly he dwelled upon the dire economic straits in which the Soviet Union was mired -- the people over there, he told me, were reduced to eating dog food -- and in the end it was this factor that would do them in.
The detail about the dog food was probably one of those "facts" for which Reagan had already become notorious, but as we now know, on the central issue of their economic plight he was right. Furthermore, we also now know, and from sources which had been high up in the Soviet Union itself, that the much-derided plan he would later announce to build a missile defense hastened the demise of communism there. The Russians may not exactly have been eating dog food, but in the Kremlin it was recognized full well that the Soviet economy was simply not capable of keeping pace with the technological advances Reagan envisaged, and by some estimates this in itself cut at least five years off the lifespan of Communist rule.
Did Reagan, then, know what he was doing all along? I wanted very much to think so, but several of his actions made this extremely difficult. One of them was his notorious effort to trade arms for the freedom of the American hostages being held in Iran. I violently opposed this effort and attacked it in print (though no phone call came this time around). Admittedly, the merits of an opening to Iran were at least debatable within the geopolitical context of the day. Yet Reagan never started or engaged in any such debate.
Far from trying to justify himself, indeed, he kept on denying that he was doing what he was doing until he would have had to have been an even bigger and more skillful liar than Bill Clinton to continue pretending that he had remained steadfast in his firm commitment never to negotiate with terrorists and never to allow himself to be blackmailed by them. Unlike Clinton, however, Reagan seemed genuinely bewildered when it was proved to him that he had actually done something he had vowed never to do.
"A few months ago," he confessed, "I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." The transparent sincerity of this statement may have absolved him of lying ("To this day," he would write in his memoirs, "I still believe that the Iran initiative was not an effort to swap arms for hostages"). But it still convicted him of obliviousness.
Another obstacle to believing that Reagan knew what he was doing was his proposal in negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 to abolish all nuclear weapons. This, after fighting bravely against the abolitionism of the nuclear-freeze movement and resisting so much worldwide pressure against the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. After all that, how could Reagan himself have become a convert to nuclear abolitionism? Can he have understood that, because it was impossible to abolish the knowledge of how to produce nuclear weapons, this idea was quite simply unviable? And can he have understood that it was also undesirable in the sense that, even if it were temporarily implemented, it would have made the Soviet superiority over us in conventional weapons the decisive factor in the balance of power?
Gorbachev (who for sure did not know what he was doing) saved Reagan from this folly by refusing to budge from his position that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) be included in the abolitionist package. Which brings us to the one issue on which Reagan never deviated or wavered or contradicted himself. In advancing so novel an idea, Reagan was truly original, and he was courageous in bucking the tide of ridicule that greeted it both from politicians and scientists. Most important of all, he was right in wishing to rectify a situation in which the United States remained -- by a deliberate choice arrived at through the mercifully forgotten dogmas of the arms-control theologians -- completely defenseless against a missile attack.
Nevertheless, as remorseless critics like Angelo Codevilla have never tired of repeating, even on SDI Reagan seemed unaware of how things were faring in the real world around him. Even though the technology was already in place for almost immediate (if imperfect) implementation, the opponents of SDI both within his administration and within the arms-control church as a whole prevailed by making certain that it remained a research project. At this very moment SDI still languishes on the drawing board, and we are still naked unto any aggressor -- whether it be Iraq or Iran or China or even North Korea -- that may, and sooner than we think, develop the capability to fire missiles at us armed with nuclear or chemical or biological warheads.
My purpose in being so negative is not to join in the raucous chorus of liberal contempt for Ronald Reagan. Nor is it to deny him the credit that is unquestionably his due for having slammed the brakes on the downward slide of American power in the post-Vietnam period and then pointing the ship of state in the general direction it would have to go in rebuilding that power.
Nor, finally, do I agree with those who say that it was Gorbachev and not Reagan who ended the Cold War or, more preposterously, that Reagan actually prolonged it. To repeat: Former officials of the Soviet Union have themselves given the lie to this interpretation and the charge that goes with it. In spite of all his mistakes and inconsistencies (and there were many more than the few I have mentioned); in spite of how little awareness he seemed to have about what his own people were doing in his name; and in spite of the fact that the Cold War was actually won under Bush -- in spite of all this, it was Reagan (with more than a little inadvertent help from Gorbachev) who made it possible for that victory to come so much earlier than he himself, or anyone else, ever dreamed.
Nor was it only the mere prospect of SDI that brought the Soviets down. There was also the decision, delayed longer than it should have been but finally taken, to supply the Afghans fighting against the Soviets who had invaded their country with the weapons they needed to turn that invasion into "their Vietnam." (True, some of these same Afghan "freedom fighters" are now among the terrorist leaders posing a threat to us and our allies, but that -- a grisly example of the law of unintended consequences -- is another story.) There was, too, the invasion of Grenada, whose paltry military significance was dwarfed by the political message it sent that the United States was no longer abiding by the nefarious Brezhnev Doctrine (according to which, once a country went Communist it must remain so forever). In Africa, the same message was sent by Reagan's support of Jonas Savimbi's forces who were struggling to liberate Angola from the Communist clutches of the government there (which had brought in Cuban troops to reinforce its own).
But the loudest message of all was Reagan's steadfast backing of the contra rebellion against the Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Though there was so much opposition to this policy in Congress that implementing it led to serious legal trouble for several members of the Reagan administration, it succeeded in the end in two complementary senses. For not only did it put paid to the Brezhnev Doctrine; it also made good on the promise of the obverse Reagan Doctrine, which committed the United States to the spread of democracy wherever it might prudently be possible to do so. The mere enunciation of this commitment by Reagan would in itself have been of great political significance as part of an ideological offensive against the Soviet Union's counterclaims. But giving it military teeth, especially in Nicaragua, surely played its own part in the breakup of the Soviet Union's European empire and in the worldwide collapse of communism.
The riddle, then, remains. But let me at least take a shot at beginning to solve it while waiting for Edmund Morris to do the whole job, if he ever does. And let me inaugurate the process by telling a joke, just as Reagan himself always liked to do, except the one I have in mind is Jewish. A man gets rich, buys himself a big yacht, and then proudly goes to visit his mother wearing the uniform of a naval captain. "Why are you dressed like that?" she asks him, and he explains that as the owner of a yacht, he has now become a captain. "Well," she replies, "by you, you're a captain; and by me, you're a captain; but by a captain, you're no captain."
I think this joke throws a necessary dash of cold water on one of the ideas that has confused everyone about Ronald Reagan -- the idea that he was a great ideologue or (if that term seems to carry denigratory connotations) a man of unshakable principle. Certainly this is how Reagan looked as compared with most politicians, very few of whom believe in anything very strongly, or at all. But this is not how he looked as compared with a genuinely principled person, or a truly passionate ideologue.
In other words, Ronald Reagan was much more of a conventional politician than he was taken to be. It is this that explains why he could so often compromise and sometimes violate even key elements of his putatively rock-bottom convictions; or why he tried mightily to pretend both to his friends and his opponents (and in some instances to himself as well) that he was doing no such thing; or why he was even willing to reverse course altogether for the sake of victory. The ruling passion of the politician being not only to win but to win big, Reagan went so far in his nearly successful quest to sweep all 50 states as to embrace detente in all but name during his campaign for reelection (not for nothing did I entitle an article I wrote in 1984 for Foreign Affairs "The Reagan Road to Detente"). Yet it was his attacks on that very policy which had as much as anything else made him a hero to his fellow conservatives.
Now, one may, as Dinesh D'Souza does in his lively polemic against Reagan's critics on both the Left and the Right (Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader), see all this as a virtue. Alternatively, one may, like some of Reagan's disillusioned supporters on the Right, regard it as a betrayal both of them and of himself that was consummated by his own chosen successor and by the slow slippage of the Republican party back into the hands of the "moderates." Or one may, in the fashion of Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (which for sheer detail and comprehensiveness is still the closest we have to a definitive biography), conceive of Reagan as inhabiting "a fantasy world where cinematic events competed for attention with reality." But the point I am trying to make here is analytic rather than judgmental, and it is that in trying to solve the riddle of Reagan, the best way to start is to recognize the degree to which he was a normal or conventional politician rather than the conservative ideologue that so many people at both ends of the political spectrum imagined he was.
Admittedly, he differed from the usual run of Republican politicians in his understanding of communism, and this contributed to the confusion about him. Another funny story, this one true, may shed a bit of light here. Ernest Bevin, who had been a union leader all his life, and who (like Reagan) had spent a great deal of his energy fighting against Communists trying to take over his movement, became the British foreign minister when the Labor party behind Clement Attlee swept Winston Churchill out of office in 1945. Shortly after being appointed, Bevin accompanied Attlee to a summit meeting with Stalin and Truman at Potsdam, and when he returned, he was asked how, in his first foray into the realm of international affairs, he had fared against the much more experienced Soviet delegates. "Fine," said Bevin. "I know those Russians. They're just like the Communists."
Like Bevin, Reagan knew from his experience as a union president what a Communist was ("I still have the scars on my back that I got from fighting the Communists back in Hollywood," he once told a member of his cabinet). Which was more than could have been said even of the most rhetorically ferocious anti-Communists within the Republican party, and still less the more "pragmatic" ones. Most of them had never even met a Communist, and they were sometimes capable of talking about the Soviet Union as though it were a gigantic regulatory agency armed with nuclear weapons (which was the closest they could come to an image of absolute evil). As good Americans, moreover, they had a very hard time believing that anyone could ever put ideology ahead of making a good deal. This was why they -- along with their allies in the business community -- were such enthusiastic proponents of detente and why they maintained so devout a faith in the power of trade to trump Communist conviction.
True, as we have seen, Reagan was fully capable of setting his knowledge of communism aside when it suited his political convenience. But "by" a country-club Republican, he was an anti-Communist ideologue.
This still leaves the "dunce" part of the "amiabledunce" question hanging. In the White House Reagan notoriously had trouble remembering the names even of members of his own cabinet, and he became even more notorious for his "gaffes." But as I myself approach the age at which he became president, I suffer from similar lapses. This is a common phenomenon even among people who once had extraordinary memories, and by all accounts Reagan in his younger days did: In Hollywood, for instance, he was famous for the ease and speed with which he could learn his lines. And to see an old clip of Reagan holding a press conference when he first became governor of California is to be astonished by the quickness of his mind and how articulate he was: In these respects he reminds one more of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton than of himself as president.
And so a reasonable speculation is that, in addition to advancing age (the signs of which were already apparent in my own first meeting with him), the assassination attempt did indeed slow him down even further. What then carried him through was the "amiable" part of his nature, a quality that was reflected and magnified by his relentless optimism about his own life ("Nancy says I never get depressed," he remarks in his memoirs) and the destiny of the nation he had been chosen to lead.
Probably more than anything else, it was this cheerful outlook, especially as contrasted with the "malaise" that his immediate predecessor had both perceived and deepened, that made Reagan so popular and that then gave him the power to start turning the country around. (To be sure, this amiability is not to be confused with warmth or a sympathetic concern for others. As is demonstrated by the testimony of his own children, and by the way he insouciantly turned his back on subordinates who got into legal hot water by carrying out what they had every reason to think were his policies and desires, Reagan was a very cold fish. In fact, his almost complete indifference to everyone in his life except Nancy is precisely what may have made it so easy for him to be so cheerful all the time.)
Since his departure from the scene, the Republican party has been dreaming of another Reagan, by which some mean a great winner, others mean a great conservative, and still others mean a great crusader for democracy. But aside from being a unique personality, Ronald Reagan was the product of a set of special circumstances that no longer exist. Neither his policies, nor the way he pursued them, nor the virtually Parson Weemsish hagiographical interpretation to which they have been subjected, can serve as a model either for the present or the future. Possibly Edmund Morris will one day figure it all out and thereby deliver Reagan's still grieving followers from the fantasies that haunt their political dreams. But whether or not Morris ever succeeds in doing this job, the time has come for all the Reaganauts who keep praying for a reincarnation of their idealized hero to recognize that Ronald Reagan -- whoever or whatever he really was -- is gone and that we shall not look upon his like again.
Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of the forth-coming memoir Ex-Friends (Free Press).