The Reagan Centennial having come and gone, we may detect certain trends in current Reaganology. One, exemplified by the new HBO documentary (Reagan) directed by Eugene Jarecki, is that Reagan was not conservative at all—a myth perpetrated by right-wingers, according to Jarecki, who have sought “to engineer Reagan into our drinking water”—but at heart a Mondale Democrat. Another is that the two Reagan offspring who did the most to undermine their father’s objectives in his lifetime—Ron Reagan and Patti Davis—are now the self-appointed custodians of Reagan’s political legacy. Just as the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. could reliably anticipate John F. Kennedy’s opinions on events that occurred decades after his death, the two younger Reagans now provide the same service for their late father.
One point that seems to unite all sides of the partisan divide, however, is the ritual observation that Ronald Reagan was an enigmatic man, self-possessed and self-protective, whose inner being was elusive to outsiders, including his family. His acquaintances and associates, even his widow, have testified that they could penetrate his formidable reserve only so far; and his official biographer Edmund Morris (Dutch) has famously averred that he could never solve Reagan’s mystery, and that the 40th president was the “strangest” man he had ever encountered. Beneath the jovial exterior lurked a glacial heart.
Given Reagan’s famously amiable manner, and ability to connect emotionally to supporters, all this might be shocking, or seem unduly critical; except that it is neither a novel observation about Reagan—both Ron and Michael Reagan have pronounced at length about their father’s emotional distance—nor uncharacteristic of presidents generally. It takes a certain kind of ego to perceive the presidency within one’s grasp, and a certain personality to endure the trials of pursuing the modern presidency. Politicians in a democratic system, by their nature, are usually the sort of people whose inner lives are ruthlessly subordinated to exterior objectives, a temperamental trade-off alien to most people.
Indeed, in terms of emotional distance and personal isolation, Reagan closely resembles his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt, another driven politician who was both publicly charming and privately elusive, with thousands of acquaintances but no close personal friends, a cheerful but remote presence in the lives of colleagues and family. We can only guess at the ferocious engine of ambition which propelled FDR from his gentleman-paraplegic status into the White House, or Ronald Reagan’s unconventional path from Hollywood to national politics. The genius of political figures like Roosevelt and Reagan lies in their instinctive capacity to prosper—to anticipate public sentiment, to shape public perception, to communicate to voters on an individual level—in politics as art, not science. And as is often the case with genius, this is accomplished at some considerable personal cost.
The fact that Ronald Reagan’s public persona involved more than a little artifice, and that he was a significantly more complicated individual than he appeared to be—or as one associate said of Franklin Roosevelt, that he possessed “a thickly-forested interior”—is neither surprising in terms of his success as president, nor disappointing in terms of his enduring appeal.