Doctor Feelgood

R.W. Johnson

  • Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home by Garry Wills
    Heinemann, 488 pp, £14.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 434 86623 7

‘Would you believe,’ asked Ronald Reagan, opening his campaign for Governor in 1966, ‘that 15.1 per cent of the population of California is on welfare?’ A pretty shocking figure, you might think, for the Golden State in the midst of the Vietnam War boom: no wonder Reagan’s well-heeled backers were so righteously indignant about all their tax money going to all those layabouts. But we haven’t answered the question: would you believe it? Well no, actually – the real figure was 5.1 per cent. Unfazed, Ronnie’s backers simply redoubled their efforts and their campaign contributions. The expert handler put in to manage him discovered that ‘he knew zero about California when we came in, I mean zero.’ Instead, everything had to be reduced to little memorisable gobbets on 5 × 8-inch cards and, above all, Ron had to have a handler with him at every waking moment: ‘goofproofing Reagan was a task that called for eternal vigilance.’

Riding a tide of conservative money, Ronnie was duly elected. Then, discovering that the Chief Justice who had to swear him in was a liberal, Ronnie simply broke with precedent, dispensing with the Chief Justice and promoting a conservative associate justice in his place. Although Ronnie was, even then, not famous for intellectual (or other kinds of) effort or hands-on management, the swearing-in ceremony was to be staged at ten past midnight after his predecessor’s last day in office, to dramatise the urgency with which Reagan was keen to set about fulfilling his campaign promises. But Ronnie swears by astrology and his astrologer warned that the hour of 12.10 was astrally unfavourable. No matter, 12.01 would suggest even greater breathless urgency for the cameras. Unable to understand the California budget, our man Ron then carried out a simple 10 per cent cut in everything. This produced chaos, U-turns, and an out-of-control financial process, from which Reagan was rescued only by the arrival, at long last, of a competent finance director, one Caspar Weinberger ...

Almost all the key elements of the Reagan Presidency were already evident: the cheerful invention and trumpeting of ‘facts’ which turn out to be, at best, factoids; the happy ignorance of the world about him, even the local world he’d been living and working in for years; the complete reliance on, and thus the authority of, the handlers and men of any competence; the utter primacy of public relations over substance; the application of ideological simple-mindednes to an intransigent reality, and the consequent need for sharp U-turns. Send the Marines into Lebanon, pull the Marines out of Lebanon, hooray photo opportunities with the heroes as they set out, sombre and moving photo opportunities with them as they come back in body bags, just keep those cameras whirring. Above all, as Garry Wills, points out, Reagan not only tells fairy-tales (informing the Israeli premier of how he had seen the terrible suffering of the Jewish people while filming the concentration camps at the end of the war – when in fact he’d never left America) but lives in a sort of fairyland of his own.

Garry Wills has established a well-deserved reputation as one of the most acute and literate observers of the American past and present, and this volume is a delightful read, often very funny, sharply thoughtful and analytical, always telling: it will have a deservedly large success. (I hope, though, that Wills changes his publishers. I wouldn’t stay with someone who fulfils a classic author’s nightmare by getting his name wrong on the dust-jacket.) But it is important to say what the book is and is not. It is not, or not very much, about Reagan’s America or the Reagan Presidency. It is a lengthy biography of Ron (and Jane and Nancy), in which each episode – sportscaster, movie star, company propagandist, Governor, and so on – is examined in the light of the President Ron we have come to know and boggle at. The result is the definitive analysis of a personality and a career – and the fact that Wills is often kind and forgiving towards his subject makes his softly-spoken conclusions all the more ineluctable and devastating.

That said, the danger in these elaborate dissections of personality is that the secret is not there. There is a tendency to believe that, when someone is, like Reagan or Thatcher, greatly successful or even, like Nixon, a spectacular failure, there must be something special, almost magical about them as a person. In the wake of Reagan’s second and Thatcher’s third election victory we had to endure a surfeit of this sort of thing. And yet the truth is so prosaic. Mrs Thatcher is an extremely limited woman, energetic and ruthless, but seldom able politically to see very far ahead, innocent of economic knowledge, and equipped only with the right-wing suburban views common on the Tory back-benches in the Fifties when she entered Parliament. She owes her success to the normal, ordinary reasons – determination, energy, luck and circumstance. The nearest thing to a ‘secret’ in her career is that she managed, in her youth, to come across a millionaire somewhat older than herself who was seeking consolation from a failed marriage to another blonde, also called Margaret. Lo, the grocer’s daughter became a millionairess. What Mrs Thatcher preaches is that we should all go out and make money by hard work: what she actually did herself was to marry money, give up paid work, hire others to work for her, and dedicate herself to becoming first an MP, then a minister, and so on. Without Denis’s money her whole career would have been simply inconceivable. This is the truth of the matter – though you will wait a very long time indeed if you want to hear anyone admit this on radio or television.

Similarly, to conduct an endless quest for the secret depths of Reagan’s ‘Doctor Feelgood’ personality is a bit like searching through the Reader’s Digest for great literature: if you’re not careful, you end up discussing the literary merits of ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met’. It makes more sense to see Reagan as merely a living monument to the banal power of the media in politics. If you are going to have, as the Americans do, a political system which makes television performance the key to political success, which allows the richer party to buy unlimited TV time, and which effectively allows no limit to the money that can be spent in pursuit of office, it is fairly predictable that the winning combination will be a screen pro standing for the Rich Man’s Party. And in this class, Reagan achieves a sort of perfection, because, for him, only the media is real. To be fair, this is a perception which is more and more widely shared. Look how our own newspapers and airwaves are nowadays saturated with endless non-news about the non-real world of the media and entertainment. The death of a minor character actor, or even, god save us, a news announcer, will get far more airtime than the demise of a major scientist or philosopher. In the world of the media, a Jack Benny or an Eamonn Andrews are far bigger men than Sartre. Similarly, the media are a thousand times more interested in Dallas and Dynasty, Coronation Street and Eastenders, than in anything that actually happens in Texas, let alone working-class Liverpool and London. Only the non-real is important and thus, in the end, real. In the US, this sort of thing is old hat, and Ronnie, living and working in radio and films all his life, internalised all this ago. For him, reality was always plastic, particularly since his only excursion into highbrow culture was the Reader’s Digest. How many more clues do we have to have when a President explains his foreign politics to us by saying: ‘Now I’ve seen Rambo, I’ll know what to do’? The vulgar trash of pop culture is what this man looks to for explanation and inspiration. Again, no deep secrets here.

Wills is perceptive about the way in which the Reagan Presidency has involved the use of Ronnie’s beliefs by people who don’t really share them, perhaps the best example being SDI. There seems little doubt that Ronnie has the complete Disneyland view of this project, that he really believes that lasers which can destroy things from space somehow don’t have offensive capability, and that he has wholly failed to understand how the project threatens the strategic balance. But he could be allowed to bumble happily on in this fashion – while those around him grasped SDI as a way of moving up to the next phase of weapons technology, pushing huge sums to arms contractors, establishing military supremacy in space, threatening the Russians and frightening them into weakening their own economic system through military over-spending. ‘All these motives,’ writes Wills, ‘were jostling along together under the cover of the Reagan fairy-tale, each gaining advantages so long as the fairy-tale was neither questioned nor taken seriously.’ Every now and again Ronnie would break free of his handlers and make jokes about launching a nuclear war, or suggest that the US made a present of SDI technology to the Russians, or reveal that he believed submarine-launched missiles could be recalled in mid-flight, or that trees were a major source of pollution. There would then be a rush by aides and, if necessary, by Ron, to say that he had been ‘misunderstood’, ‘misquoted’, or, if you got right down to it, that he had plain ‘mis-spoke’ – a telling admission that policy statements were seen merely as lines or script that Ron had to get through. Mainly our man hams his way through very satisfactorily, but occasionally, like any other actor, he mis-speaks. So what’s the big deal? We’ll do SDI again now, Ron, this time without the ‘Let’s give it all away to the Russians’ line. Uh, well, Mr President, in the next scene you have this line about maximum security being necessary for all European and Japanese work done on SDI and the desperate importance of preventing high-technology transfers to the USSR. Sorta confuses the fans if you’re offering the highest tech of all to ’em as a kinda present. OK? OK. Lights. Action. Take Two!

It is, though, high time we all stopped just having fun with the largely unfunny Reagan Presidency and began to ask what it all means. The first thing to notice is what the Reagan phenomenon says about America’s lack of a true ruling class. The heart and guts of any Republican administration in the old days generally derived from Northern, Ivy League Wasps, frequently from ‘old money’ New England families. This class has been mocked and pilloried, but it remains true that it was often well-educated, sophisticated, and had a genuine ethic of public service. After Eisenhower, the Republican Party has slipped further and further beyond the control of such groups.

The early Sixties saw the rise of Goldwater, a Jewish supermarket millionaire from the far West, while the Nixon Administration brought to Washington a veritable mafia of get-rich-quick Floridians and Californians who, to put it mildly, were not overly weighed down by a public service ethic. Henry Cabot Lodge had given way to Bebe Rebozo. Watergate scattered this group in all directions (including jail) and it took some imagination to believe that much the same group would take over power again just six years later – but this is exactly what happened. Reagan re-installed such Nixon stalwarts as Haig, Shultz, Weinberger and Casey, while Ed Meese and Larry Speakes gave imitations of John Mitchell and Ron Ziegler which had all but the cognoscenti fooled. This time, however, there were no residual concessions to the Eastern Establishment – no Harvard professors like Kissinger (indeed, virtually no eggheads or Jews), and this time the constraints of the old public service ethic were virtually non-existent. These get-rich-quick, self-made men from the South-West brought to politics the same instinct for corner-cutting that they had shown in their business careers, and the Administration was quickly acknowledged as the most corrupt since Harding’s. The extraordinary resilience of this group suggests it is here to stay in future Republican administrations. A group that can bounce back so quickly from a Watergate can ride right through an Irangate.

It is, though, difficult to talk of this group as a new class. There is, perhaps, some comparison with the more petty-bourgeois tone of Thatcher’s Tory Party, but the truth is that the main impression is of a group of pushing, hustling, huckstering individuals with very little sense of the institutional or social continuities necessary to the constitution of a class. Instead, such men appear virtually as naked brokers for powerful interests, selling themselves and their services to the highest bidder. There is very little mediation of commercial interest through the prism of class in such a situation. As one reviews the saga of Irangate, chronicled in Leslie Cockburn’s Out of Control,[*] one is struck by the way in which this cast of cocaine-dealers, thugs, arms salesmen, retired generals, right-wing nuts, Third World guerrillas and many other bizarre characters simply flows through the ‘policy-making process’. Who owns whom is never easy to say, particularly since most of the cast are always available for rent. Eisenhower’s Administration – the last one to stand up successfully against the pressure for increased military spending – seems part of a lost age now. Ike could even warn publicly of the ‘military industrial complex’ – though only on leaving office, with no more elections to finance and fight. It is difficult indeed to imagine any administration bringing such interests to heel now, or indeed to imagine such words so much as crossing the lips of aspiring Presidential candidates.

On the whole, of course, the haves have in a general way – particularly employers – done well out of the Reagan period, but there is no doubt that the dominant interest has been that of the arms manufacturers. Never before in peacetime has an administration been so peopled with the products of the arms industry; never has the Pentagon been so much under the thumb of its main suppliers; and never before in peacetime have the demands of the Pentagon been so binding on an entire administration. It is best to avoid the normal jokes about the $100 spanner, or the $1000 toilet seat, or about having an Assistant Secretary of Defense (Paul Thayer) in jail – these are the mere ephemera of an administration utterly devoted to pouring hundreds of billions of dollars towards Lockheed, Boeing, Rockwell, General Dynamics, Martin Marietta and so on. Even though there’s no money to pay for it. Even though this means a huge budget deficit, means cutting back on education and social spending, means borrowing abroad, means becoming a debtor nation, means the collapse of the currency. Whatever the consequences, the ‘defence’ industries have got to have their monetary fix. The armourers have never thrived like this before.

The irony is that this extraordinary arms build-up was begun with the chuckling intent that the Soviets would have to match it, could not afford to, and would thus spend themselves into economic collapse. In fact, the Russians seem to have kept their nerve – there is no sign of an answering surge in Soviet military spending – and the strategy has boomeranged. It is the American, not the Soviet economy which has been weakened by the Reagan arms build-up. What should not be forgotten is that the rationale for the whole exercise was provided by a sudden, enormous and false re-estimating of Soviet military potential in 1976. The more or less openly crazed Team B, led by Richard Pipes, was invited in by the CIA to re-work the Agency’s established estimates of its rival’s strength in such a way that the only possible thing for the US to do was to conduct a massive and feverish arms build-up. The figures arrived at by Team B are now acknowledged to have been nonsense – indeed, a wholly ideological construct. This was, actually, perfectly obvious at the time, but the CIA Director who allowed Pipes and his merry men to get their hands into the cookie jar was a weak man, less concerned with doing his job properly than with staying on the right side of the powerful conservative lobbies. This, rather than anything to do with Irangate, is the real reason why that CIA Director, George Bush, would probably be no improvement on Reagan as President, and could well be worse.

There is little doubt that the fundamental force which put Reagan into office was a growing sense of public unease at American imperial decline. (Already in 1976 Gerald Ford’s posters had read ‘Don’t Follow England Down the Drain!’). But the real meaning of Reaganism is that instead of recognising the inevitability of that decline and attempting, Kissinger-like, to manage it, Dr Feelgood thought the fans would like it better if you just insisted the whole phenomenon did not exist and acted as if that were so. You got better lines to speak that way. When Jimmy Carter spoke worriedly of a ‘national malaise’, or Walter Mondale spoke about the inevitability of higher taxes, people thought it was all a bit sombre and downbeat. And only deadbeats are downbeat – always better, especially in America, to be upbeat. The fans like it more. And the fans did like it more – they liked it four more years more. In effect, they were invited in to share Ron’s warm little fantasy world with him and were happy to do so. Garry Wills cites the reaction of one of Ron’s fans faced with some of his more overtly crazy statements: ‘Well, even Jesus spoke in parables’ – truly the cry of someone keen to stay a believer.

Reagan’s childlike refusal to face realities has greatly accelerated American decline, and even some of the fans have begun to wake up to that. America is moving rapidly towards trillion dollar debtor status; the country has lost its high-tech lead in industry after industry; the dollar is at an all-time low; and Reagan will bequeath the nation an enormously increased military establishment – such as Navy Secretary John Lehmann’s famous 600-ship fleet, designed to be capable of fighting three different wars in separate theatres simultaneously. Just to maintain this establishment is going to be ruinously expensive – and of course the tidal wave of expenditure lavished on the defence industries has only made them richer and more powerful players of pressure politics. Whatever happens, there will have to be some very painful choices.

Reagan has, in a sense, been a poor man’s Harold Macmillan. Macmillan disposed of most of the British Empire in a few years and led us down the slope to complete nuclear dependence on the US. But he did all this with such panache, and with so many brave words about Europe, the future, the Commonwealth and never having had it so good, that he was lauded as Super-Mac and the whole process of decline was carefully disguised as its opposite. The difference is that Super-Mac knew very well what he was doing, while Ron will be the last person in America to realise what he has done. But if you only bother about the media you’ll never know what is going on, especially since American predominance at the level of popular culture and the media seems to wax ever greater even as American economic power wanes.

It may not, in fact, matter very much who wins the next American Presidential election, or indeed the one after that. Maybe we should be thinking, not of 1988 or 1992, but of 1996. America has no real alternative to continuing imperial decline: the big questions are simply how fast and how peacefully. The problem is that the arms industries will fund any and every Presidential candidate and, whoever wins, those industries will demand to be fed. It is unclear, though whether Americans at large are willing to accept the sacrifices this may entail. As the American debt grows, the choice will become stark: paying off the debt – or, more realistically, never paying more than just the interest on the debt – will require either large tax increases, or a deep recession, or a huge inflation. The American public will vote for inflation as the least painful solution: somewhere out there in the years to come there is a giant inflation of almost Weimar proportions waiting to happen. But the banks will hate that, as will virtually all the other business interests (including the arms manufacturers) who are full voting members of the American democracy. The people’s candidate, if such there be, will thus find him or herself fighting for inflation against a probably unbeatable coalition of the haves. We have seen all this before, of course – in the great Populist crusade of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan unforgettably complained that the American people were being crucified on a cross of gold. The candidate of 1996 is more likely to phrase his lament in terms of ECUs or Yen than of gold, but if he is a literate man or woman he/she will surely nurse a special grievance against the man who spoke of his country as that ‘shining city on a hill’, when in fact he was rushing it towards a ravine. Ah well, he mis-spoke.

[*] Out of Control: The Story of the Reagan Administration’s Secret War in Nicaragua, the Illegal Arms Pipeline and the Contra Drug Connection by Leslie Cockburn. Bloomsbury, 287 pp., £13.95, 11 February, 0 7475 0066 5.