The Magazine

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.”

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