Be Dull, Mr President

Kim Phillips-Fein

  • President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination by Richard Reeves
    Simon and Schuster, 571 pp, £20.00, March 2006, ISBN 0 7432 3022 1

The night before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president, he made sure that he got a good night’s sleep, carefully instructing his aides not to wake him until 8 a.m. Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, about to step down from office, had been awake for 48 hours, supervising the negotiations over the release of American hostages in Tehran. In the early hours of the morning on Inauguration Day, he called Blair House, where Reagan was sleeping, with exciting news about progress. Mike Deaver, the president-elect’s aide, told Carter it was too soon to wake him. At 8 o’clock, when Deaver finally tried to rouse the new president, telling him it would soon be time to be sworn in, Reagan groaned: ‘Do I have to?’ On the way to the ceremony, he tried to chat with the exhausted Carter, regaling him with tales of his Hollywood days long ago at Warner Bros. ‘He kept talking about Jack Warner,’ Carter later complained. ‘Who’s Jack Warner?’

But once on the podium, Reagan was a master. He stood facing Arlington, reading his own words, written in longhand on a yellow legal pad. His inaugural speech included a story about a Wisconsin boy, Martin Treptow, killed in action in France in 1917, who wrote on the flyleaf of his diary: ‘America must win this war.’ Fact-checkers had found no corroboration of the story: there was no diary, no record of Treptow’s burial in Arlington. No matter. Reagan kept it in, describing the crosses at Arlington, and the young soldier, buried under ‘one such marker’, who had displayed the passionate faith that Reagan hoped would once more unite the nation.

This is a good moment for the appearance of a new history of Reagan’s presidency. His week-long state funeral in 2004 (and its round-the-clock coverage on TV) marked his political canonisation. Among conservatives, it goes without saying that Reagan is the greatest American president of the 20th century: the man who vanquished Soviet Communism abroad and liberal politics at home. The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is dedicated to naming a landmark after him in each of America’s 3067 counties (the group has also supported campaigns to replace Roosevelt’s image on the dime with Reagan’s). The lineage of many of the most powerful figures in America today – Dick Cheney, George Bush, John Roberts, Samuel Alito – can be traced back through the Reagan administration. Conservatives disaffected with Bush accuse him of the worst sin they can imagine: betraying Reagan’s legacy. Even Democrats have forgotten the harsh feelings they once harboured. After Reagan’s death, John Kerry praised him for ending the Cold War and, in a dig at Bush, for his ability to govern without partisan rancour.

In 1985 Richard Reeves published The Reagan Detour, a book aimed at fellow Democrats who were disheartened by Reagan’s stunning victory in the 1984 election. He assured his readers that Reaganism would be short-lived: Americans still supported Social Security, they still trusted the federal government. Reaganism may have brought the country back from post-Watergate malaise and disillusionment, but liberals would surely be back in power soon. In his new book, however, Reeves acknowledges that the Reagan era changed American political life seemingly for ever, by exalting free enterprise and the market and putting government permanently on the defensive. ‘Amazing things, good and bad, happened in the 1980s,’ he writes, ‘because President Reagan wanted them to happen . . . There is no doubt that he established the Republicans as the country’s governing party.’

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