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Understanding Reagan

The literature grows, but he remains as elusive as ever.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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“On the first nine levels, Reagan is the least interesting of men. But if you postulate a tenth level, then he’s suddenly fascinating.”

—​George Will, quoted in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon

“People who had worked for him much of their lives suspected that there was something beneath the surface they had never seen, but they did not know what the something was.”

—​Lou Cannon, President Reagan

If you want the Reagan myth in its purest form, here it is, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of his inauguration and the hundredth anniversary of his birth: the Official Centennial Edition of Ronald Reagan: 100 Years, a thick slab of text and pictures got out by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. There’s a gold-embossed seal on the cover marking it as a token of the “Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration,” which, an endnote inside tells us, is a “year-long series of activities, events, educational programs, and special projects throughout the United States and abroad.” Moreover, in keeping with the spirit of Reaganism, “no taxpayer dollars have been apportioned for this occasion.” That’s good.

The tone of 100 Years is, you might say, uncritical. No author’s name appears on the cover or the title page, which means there’s no one to blame for sentences like this: “He would strategize solutions on how to make things right. He believed in making the extra effort if it encouraged positive change and made an impactful difference in someone’s life.” Other passages are more comprehensible but still have the Parson Weems touch. “He did not need the presidency to feel good about himself.” “President Reagan never let his ego get in the way of his work.”

He was tireless, too, even after long days on the campaign trail. “Many times, other than the pilots and flight attendants, he was the only person awake on the plane.” And so on: “The president understood that life wasn’t always about him.” “He never pretended to be someone other than who he was.”

And who was that? The presidential foundation is offering no clues. True to the task of mythmaking, they give us a creature of improbable goodness. Take the provocative question of personal ambition. The authors want to show that he had none, on the assumption that it might have been unseemly if he had. They note, correctly, that Reagan did not appear to hunger for the presidency’s power or perquisites. For many of us the reticence was essential to his appeal. But it doesn’t square. No one will suffer the rigors and indignities of a modern presidential campaign unless the fires of ambition burn hot within him; it wasn’t the flight attendant’s dazzling conversation that kept him awake in that darkened campaign plane. And he did run for the office four times.

He made his first lunge in 1968. For the rest of his career, that early campaign was a hitch in the Reagan myth, because it suggested that an inner quality beyond sheer public-spiritedness launched Reagan into politics. When he became a candidate in 1968 Governor Reagan had been in politics for all of two years. The authors explain this Palin-like jumping of the gun as an act of selflessness.

“Some party activists thought of him as a potential presidential candidate,” they write. “Ronald Reagan, however, was not among them.” At last, after much cajoling, he agreed with the utmost reluctance to run as a favorite son, but only as a “formality” that would prevent a messy primary fight between other candidates. He never considered himself a “real” candidate, the authors insist. “Nonetheless,” they go on, “a few diehards worked against the governor’s wishes to rally support.” Darn those old diehards anyway. How embarrassing it must have been for California’s diffident favorite son​—​especially since it was his closest financial backers who were paying for all the campaign workers, posters, buttons, bumper stickers, and rallies. 

Narrowly (the official story continues) Reagan managed to escape the nomination, the convention chose Richard Nixon instead, and “the Reagans went on a short cruise in the Florida Keys, giving not a moment’s thought to what had happened. .  .  . So much for that ‘Reagan for President’ campaign.”

If the goal of the Reagan mythologists is to instill respect for their man, the misdirection and party-line fudges don’t advance the cause. Hoping to prove he was uniquely modest and self-effacing, they succeed only in making him strange, an evolutionary impossibility: an actor without vanity, a politician without gnawing ambition. These are creatures that cannot exist in nature. You might as well tell us he was a Heffalump or a jackalope.

The question of Reagan’s inner life is interesting because his outer life was so momentous. He invites superlatives. He was the most consequential statesman of the second half of the twentieth century. His tenure was the only successful presidency in the last fifty years, as his successors failed to win reelection or got impeached for perjury or slunk out of office with an approval rating as low as a journalist’s. And he simply expands. Since his retirement in 1989 the mythic Reagan has been the Republican party’s rhetorical lodestar. In President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime —​the most complete Reagan biography​—​Lou Cannon points out that half of the Contract with America, which helped the Republicans win Congress in 1994, was drawn verbatim from Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address. In the Republican sweep last year his name was everywhere. He is to Republicans what Franklin Roosevelt was to three generations of Democrats​—​a talisman, a touchstone, a cory-phaeus that never fails. But no longer a man.

The truth is, Reagan seemed slightly unreal when he was still in office. “When I thought of him in those days,” the columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in her peerless Washington memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution, “it was as a gigantic heroic balloon floating in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, right up there between Superman and Big Bird. I felt like the kids in the apartments on Central Park West, watching the giant heads bob by.” Noonan was ridiculed for that image at the time, but I knew exactly what she meant. A fixture on TV in our youth, and now the omnipresent leader of the Free World, he seemed too big for ordinary life. 

In the 1980s, I took every chance to see Reagan in his appearances around Washington, usually from the press pen in the back of hotel ballrooms, a football field’s distance from the podium where he would talk huskily about the shining city or the second American revolution or whatever metaphor was in rotation that week. Though I was seldom under a deadline, I went to all his press conferences anyway. A White House aide had said that Reagan liked to “call on a few oddballs to lighten things up,” so I always prepared a question, just in case. Watching the C-SPAN replays later, I’d notice myself three or four rows back in the overlit East Room, transfixed, never glancing at my notepad as a real reporter would. I don’t know what I would have done if he’d called on me​—​faked a heart attack, probably, so I wouldn’t have to say anything. 

“It was like seeing somebody in a Reagan mask,” a friend of mine told me when I asked what it was like spending time with the president. I wasted many idle hours puzzling over Reagan. I’d read how unnaturally detached he was in his duties, so the newspapers said. I knew that sophisticated people thought he was simple-minded. In meetings, he relied on staff-prepared note cards in making any comment on the subject at hand. He memorized statistics from Human Events.

But the facts didn’t square, especially right then, in the late eighties, with the memory of the seventies still fresh as a nightmare. If he was an airhead, then how come the things that were so terrible before he became president were so great all of a sudden? The Soviets were in retreat and begging to be our pals, economic productivity was soaring and inflation was dead, patriotism was revived and money seemed to be sloshing around everywhere. Friends of mine who’d been unemployed since college found jobs, whether they wanted them or not. How’d all that happen if he was such a dope? I flattered myself that I could figure him out if I got close enough​—​neither the first nor the last to pursue that fool’s errand, as the Reagan literature proves.

The spring of his final year in office I was invited to a small dinner party where Reagan was to be guest of honor. I arrived late at my friend’s house and a pair of beefy guys with earpieces ushered me into the living room for cocktails. I’d been in this room dozens of times, saw each of the guests regularly, was familiar with all the furnishings, except .  .  . what’s wrong with this picture? In the center of an admiring semi-circle, cradling a screwdriver, telling stories, was the host of Death Valley Days, the most famous man in the world, tall, tan, and rouged. Close up he looked to me like a movie special effect, as though a cartoon character had been superimposed into a live-action frame. Instead of Roger Rabbit it was an amazingly accurate simulation of Ronald Reagan, in a brown suit. I stammered when he said hello. 

He continued to tell stories through dinner. In fact, every line of conversation led quickly to an anecdote. As a reader of the Reagan literature I was familiar with every one of them: Ernst Lubitsch and the bedroom scene, WHO radio and the Cubs games, Mikhail Gorbachev and his secret Christian faith. When he strayed too far from the storytelling there were moments of befuddlement. He’d just returned from the Moscow summit with Gorbachev. Two aides sat with us at table, visibly tense, and were quick to correct him when he spoke about visiting “let’s see, Tolstoy’s tomb?”

“Pasternak’s house, Mr. President.”

“That’s right.” He recovered quickly by slipping back into the safe harbor of storytelling. He told our host, the writer and editor Bob Tyrrell, that he knew some of “our conservative friends” thought he had “gone a little soft” on the Soviets since this Gorbachev fellow had appeared on the scene. (And he was right: They did think that.)

“Well, let me tell you a Russian proverb I’ve picked up.”

His listeners knew what was coming, of course. Doveryai, no proveryai. Trust but verify, right? He’d been saying it on TV for a year and a half. Johnny Carson made jokes about it. Children recited it in their sleep.

“I think it sums up our approach pretty well.”

Sure, trust but verify. Got it. 

“And I’ve told Mr. Gorbachev this in our meetings.” He savored the moment, thought he detected mounting suspense.

Okay, okay, Doveryai, no proveryai

“The proverb is this,” he said. He paused again, for dramatic effect, and cocked his head.

I shot a look at another guest: Maybe Reagan’s got a new proverb?

No.

Doveryai, no proveryai!”

His eyes sparkled. 

“It means: trust but verify, Bob.” The aides smiled insanely. 

At the end of the evening the guests gathered in the foyer, and he went down the line to say good night. His hand was unexpectedly soft. I told him that meeting him was one of the great honors of my life. Which was true​—​which is still true. And he cupped my hand firmly in return, bowed his head slightly, and said, “No, I’m the one who’s honored.” Which of course was baloney. I used to have a photograph of the moment. I was grinning like a cocker spaniel.

The tell-all books began to appear halfway through his second term. By virtue of their temerity and a vague sense of naughtiness​—​no administration had been so beset by turncoats with publishing contracts​—​it was tempting to take their revelations as authoritative. And there was a surprising unanimity in what they revealed. The template was cast by David Stockman, his apostate budget director, in The Triumph of Politics (1986). Stockman’s Reagan appeared as a man almost infantile in his passivity and lack of mental acuity. Donald Regan, a White House chief of staff whom Reagan fired gracelessly after the Iran-contra scandal erupted, had a higher opinion of him, as both a man and a president, but was just as puzzled by his unflappable detachment. Regan included in his book stories of the president’s sentimentality and kindness​—​quietly sending generous checks to hard-luck cases he’d read about in the newspaper, for example. But each of these was balanced by some anecdote less flattering: The president never condescended to praise the work of subordinates, and the chief of staff could never persuade his boss to send greetings and thank you’s to the White House switchboard ladies when they retired. 

Even the aides who resisted tell-all memoirs resorted to paradox and oxymoron in their efforts to explain him. Martin Anderson, a faithful and long-serving aide, called him a “warmly ruthless man.” James Baker said Reagan was the “kindest and most impersonal man” he’d ever met. He might dote on persons who appeared in front of him and forget them instantly when they’d turned the corner out of sight​—​an inverted model of the misanthrope who loves humanity and dislikes human beings.

Among the people to whom Reagan was thought to be indifferent were his children. Their own books were the most harrowing of the tell-alls, and Reagan mythologists have a hard time wrestling with them, when they’ve been acknowledged at all. By most recent count there have been nine of them, among four kids. Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis became a professional writer on the strength of a memoir, The Way I See It (1992), an update of Mommie Dearest, with a big role for Daddy, too. She also wrote a pair of novels in which the same theme​—​parents throttle talented and sensitive daughter​—​was fictionalized, admittedly this time. With another memoir of her childhood, Angels Don’t Die (1995), and an account of her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, The Long Goodbye (2004), Patti is still writing about her parents, much more kindly now, if no more plausibly. Her ear is finely tuned and the prose is lovely, but there’s too much of it: Her writing bears the heavy marks of a person who has spent many hours in therapy and can’t make herself stop confessing. There are moments when you want to shout, Just say no! (“I had a blanket that I carried with me everywhere. .  .  . It was called Blankie.”) Even the friendliest reader, moreover, will suspect she’s an untrustworthy guide to her parents.

The memoir of Reagan’s adopted son Michael, On the Outside Looking In, was published in 1988 and earned attention initially because the author revealed that he’d been molested by a camp counselor as a boy. But deep resentments toward his father colored every page, and the slights were big and small. Michael married late in life, for instance, after much cajoling from his parents. Yet when the wedding day arrived, he tells us, Ron and Nancy chose to go to Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding instead. The child from Michael’s marriage seldom saw his grandfather, but on a rare visit to the White House he was elated to get a message from him: Would he like to come outside to make a snowman? The boy threw on his snow boots and rushed down to the South Lawn. He was greeted there by ranks of photographers with their cameras trained on Grandpa, who stood patting snow onto a snowman already built by White House staff.

The only Reagan spawn who didn’t write a book about his father has now filled the gap in the public record. Early returns suggest that My Father at 100, by Ron Reagan, will not be greeted kindly by the mythologists, but it is a charming and beautifully written book nonetheless, by a son who is both knowing and dutiful. 

“I have long resisted writing about Dad’s life or offering a memoir of our lives together,” Ron Reagan writes. “Doing so while he held office always struck me as exploitive, not to mention unfair to a loved one in such a vulnerable position.” That unexpected word vulnerable is typical of the son’s tone and sympathy: He knows that the most powerful man in the world is, in one respect, uniquely weak​—​publicly exposed to embarrassments and abrasions from his own family that other men would not have been from theirs. If Ronald Reagan weren’t president, nobody would have cared that his head-case of a daughter hated him.

This protectiveness is essential to the son’s feelings for the father. Ron writes of his exasperation, compounded over decades, with his father’s custom of telling jokes and anecdotes over and over again. And yet: “On the only occasion I recall pointedly telling him that we’d all heard that story plenty of times before, he looked so crestfallen that I silently pledged never again to inflict that kind of pain on any living creature.”

“Like everybody who was close to my father, I felt protective of him. Bringing that out in people was always among his least recognized talents.”

This was true even for those who felt withdrawal pangs from Reagan’s impersonal and fleeting kindness, a legion that includes his son. “I never felt that he didn’t love or care for me,” he writes. But: “You couldn’t help wondering sometimes whether he remembered you once you were out of his sight.”

Reagan’s remoteness, his habit of “wandering inside his own head,” may have obscured the first signs of the Alzheimer’s that would eventually do him in. My Father at 100 made big news last month for the author’s guess that the disease first showed itself midway through the presidency. The speculation is offered glancingly in the book, but it was enough to set off his brother Michael, who leapt to the battle stations of the digital age, Twitter and Facebook: “My brother seems to want [to] sell out his father to sell books,” he tweeted furiously, if tweets can be furious. 

For Ron to trade on his father’s name in this way, said Michael​—​founder of the Reagan Group, president of the Reagan Legacy Foundation, promoter of Reagan PAC (Restoring Every American’s Government Across the Nation Political Action Committee), owner of www.reagan.com, editor of the Reagan Report, and author, most recently, of The New Reagan Revolution —​was “unconscionable.” 

The controversy brought back many vivid memories of Reagan family dysfunctionality​—​it was almost like 1987 all over again!​—​but it quickly faded when Michael apologized for his rashness, allowing readers to turn their attention to the merits of Ron’s book, which are considerable. It comes as a relief that Ron Reagan is still trying to understand Ronald Reagan, too, still feeling around for that tenth level, and having no more success than the rest of us. 

But the book does raise the question of how useful the stories of even his children are to either mythologists or revisionists. No doubt the kids had a unique vantage, and still do. They stand and watch as their father turns, literally, into a statue​—​hundreds of statues by now, in dozens of countries. (It doesn’t help that the statues seldom look like Reagan: A bust in the quad of Reagan’s alma mater, Ron says, “strikes a nice balance between a rabid leprechaun and James Brolin as conceived by a chain saw artist.”)

In The Long Goodbye, Patti Davis writes of sitting with her mother in her parents’ bedroom one evening and realizing that every object within view​—​hairbrushes, jewelry cases, tables and chairs, the suits that hung in the closet​—​was destined for the museum at the Reagan presidential library. There they would be magically transformed from household items of everyday use into historical artifacts, catalogued and labeled by curators, and in time displayed for a curious public. 

Reagan’s children care about him for reasons different from those that motivate the rest of us, of course. Ron and Patti in particular are deaf to the appeal of his politics. A former talk show host for the left-wing radio network Air America, Ron Reagan at times uses his memoir to plump his own political views, which read like a comment thread at the Huffington Post. Present-day Republicans, he insists, are betraying his father’s legacy with their “rage-mongering.” These passages are as unobjectionable as they are uninteresting. But then he pulls rank: “Many of those who presume to speak in his voice scarcely met him, if at all,” Ron goes on. “Dad and I, on the other hand, were well acquainted.”

He’s making a category mistake​—​understanding political ideas is a different act from understanding the man who held them. But even in this second category Ron proves no more surefooted than anyone else. “He was easy to love but hard to know,” he writes. We’ve heard that already. “He was as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met.” We’ve been getting an inkling of that, too.

Strange as Ron uses it here is a word of desperation. What it means is, We give up. We can’t figure him out. It is the same word used by Edmund Morris, the author of Dutch, the official biography of Ronald Reagan and a fitting book with which to close this little survey. With sales of 400,000 in hardcover, even more in paperback, and still in print, Dutch is the book you are most likely to find in the biography section of the bookstore, even if you find no others, when you embark on your own search for Reagan. Years after he’d finished it, Morris was still exasperated. “He was,” he told an interviewer, “one of the strangest men who ever lived.”

The story of the writing of Dutch, well known as it is, is more revealing of Reagan than the book itself. Morris was hired as the official biographer by Reagan aides in 1984. They were acting under a terrible misapprehension. They had read and admired his Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and hoped for something similarly evocative on the boy from Dixon, Illinois. And Morris’s Rise is dazzling indeed. Its greatness lies in the author’s ability to re-create scenes, establish mood, and​—​most dazzling of all​—​plumb the depths of his subjects by reconstructing states of mind and making them plausible in every psychological detail. With politics and ideas, however, Morris was not so deft, and easily bored. A finely etched portrait of William Jennings Bryan in Rise, for example, scarcely mentions the debate over free silver.

Yet can you understand Reagan without understanding his politics? Morris is the most talented writer ever to take up Reagan seriously as a subject. He was given the run of the White House for four years, and kept up with Reagan in retirement. The president sat with him for dozens of interviews lasting hundreds of hours. Diaries and private letters were opened to him. No historian has ever been granted such access to a sitting president.

But he was stymied, as he freely confesses. “Dutch [Reagan’s nickname] remained a mystery to me,” he writes in a typical passage. So Morris abandoned the idea of trying to write a biography at all and instead produced an act of literary madness​—​the invented memoir of a doppelgänger Edmund Morris who, it turns out, had grown up with Reagan and followed him to Hollywood, only to be hired decades later as his official biographer. The book is flawless in conveying the anxieties and pleasures of life in the West Wing, the atmosphere of prewar Hollywood, and the lonesomeness of the Midwestern prairie; it taps out the tattoo of Washington life without missing a beat; it is bittersweet, sentimental, affectionate. And it is nuts. When Edmund Morris tried to understand Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan drove him insane.

The book comes to a climax of sorts in one of their final interviews. Morris admits to the reader that he has spent much of his time with Reagan “trying to restrain a surge of adoration,” and it is dawning on him, as it dawned on Stockman and Regan and most everyone else who knew Reagan and lived to write about it, that his love is unrequited.

“I’m going to embarrass you, Mr. President,” Morris tells him in the Oval Office. He mentions a quote from Samuel Johnson and announces that it applies perfectly to Reagan: “The more you explain it, the less you will understand it.” 

“Dutch looked shocked. ‘That’s me? I think I’m an open book!’ ”

Morris never understood Reagan’s remark, or weighed the possibility that it might be true. He just knew there was a tenth level down there somewhere. He never found it. Let Dutch be a cautionary tale to the rest of us.

Besides, George Will was wrong: The first nine levels are interesting, too, if only because Reagan was .  .  . you know, Reagan. Maybe that’s all he was, and wasn’t that enough?

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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