Michael Rogin

  • Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North by Ben Bradlee
    Grafton, 572 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 246 13364 3
  • For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington by Donald Regan
    Hutchinson, 397 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 173622 6

Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the rest of me?, repeated the question the actor had asked in the movie King’s Row, when he woke up in a hospital bed to discover that his legs had been amputated. Reagan lost his legs in Hollywood, the autobiography explains, and recovered ‘the rest of me’ (that phrase is the leitmotif of his text) by fighting Communist influence there, acquiring personal and institutional backing, and marrying Nancy Davis. This reassemblage of the actor/politician made him whole – the cause he supported and the people who supported him constituting the rest of Ronald Reagan.

Dismembered as personal body on film, Ronald Reagan was reassembled as social body, as spectacle. It would be hard to credit the resulting confusion in the Reagan White House between the personal and the political, the historical and the imaginary, were not the evidence offered by the President and his circle so compelling. Guts and Glory portrays Oliver North, who enacted the anti-Communist part of Reagan. For the Record, written by the man who became his chief male caretaker, casts the President’s wife as the villain. When these current extensions of the President implicated him in law-breaking and lies, the Reagan Presidency almost came apart. But it didn’t. These books show how the rest of Ronald Reagan functioned to carry out Presidential desires and protect the President from responsibility for them.

Donald Regan does not remember ever meeting Oliver North; he is certain they were never alone together. That is because the compartmentalised Reagan White House not only separated domestic policy (the responsibility of the Chief of Staff) from foreign affairs (the domain of the National Security Adviser), but also supplied the President with what National Security Adviser John Poindexter called ‘plausible deniability’ by insulating him from the men like North who were actually implementing his covert operations. Split from one another and from Reagan himself, North and Regan were the doubles of the President they served.

‘I am bringing you a playmate your own age,’ Michael Deaver is supposed to have said when he informed the President that his Secretary of the Treasury, Regan, and his Chief of Staff, Jim Baker, were trading places. Struck at their very first meeting by the similarity in their names, Reagan had told Regan a joke about whether his own was pronounced ‘Raygun’ or ‘Reegun’. The President did not mention that the ‘pronunciation’ of his Secretary of the Treasury’s name that he was ‘going to have to get used to’ was the pronunciation of his own name until he entered politics. Reagan pretended to believe that he and Regan were cousins, descended from a common Irish ancestor. He had the Re(a)gan family tree traced back centuries in the old country. And Regan recognised that he was a return of the President’s past.

The two Re(a)gans were self-made men of wealth, typical of Reagan’s Californian backers but not of his Washington circle. They had both endured what each saw as confiscatory tax rates for the top brackets, and Reagan’s old hostility to taxing the rich first brought them together. The links that bound Ronald to Donald were thus very different from those that connected the President to the triumvirate of Deaver, Baker and Edwin Meese, who, joined by William Clark, ran the first term While House. These younger subordinates looked after Reagan; Regan treated him as a peer. Deaver in particular functioned as the Reagans’ factotum, but if he stood in for their estranged sons, he did so by reversing the supporting roles of adult and child. Once asked if he saw Deaver as a son, the President responded that he ‘always thought of him more as a father figure’. ‘I consider Mike’s leaving in the nature of an amputation,’ Reagan said when Deaver resigned from the White House staff. ‘And it is me that is suffering the amputation.’

Donald Regan opposed the overprotectiveness of the first-term White House. Restricting Reagan’s private engagements and public appearances, as Regan saw it, the triumvirate and the President’s wife gave too much power to the press. They governed by selective leaks, planting stories to improve their own influence with the President and to reach him through the papers he read (like the Washington Times). Wanting to ‘let Reagan be Reagan’, Regan battled with the first lady to control the President’s schedule.

But Nancy Reagan, as everyone now knows, had a trump in the Presidential protection game, a ‘friend’ who had access to the stars. The President’s wife has come in for considerable ridicule because she, like so many of the Reagans’ Hollywood friends, consulted an astrologer. But if Ronald Reagan could have his protective, military-industrial star wars in the large, public world, why was Nancy Reagan prohibited from employing her star wars in the more intimate battles of the White House? The President’s wife used the stars to block her husband’s Chief of Staff from letting the President be seen. The list of ‘forbidden and dangerous dates’ on the Presidential calendar around the time of the release of the Tower Commission report on Iran/Contra eliminated virtually the entire first four months of 1987.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in