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.

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[*] 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.