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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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.

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