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.’

During the 1980s, liberals criticised Reagan for his lack of pragmatism, his somnolence, his shallowness and his inability to master details of policy. They argued that he was manipulated by his staffers, that he was no more than an actor and a figurehead, a fumbling old man. Reeves now believes that Reagan’s disregard for the nitty-gritty ephemera of governance was precisely the secret of his charisma. He was a man for whom ‘the speech was the real work.’ His politics were alluring because he had a sense of the world-historical in his every action, and he possessed this confidence because he saw himself as a participant in a global anti-Communist struggle, a rebel against the forces of socialism. Although Reeves doesn’t point this out, it’s Reagan’s certainty that has given his politics a new lustre at a time when conservatives can no longer appeal to the unifying faith of anti-Communism.

Reeves’s Reagan is a man driven by political idealism. In 1989, on a visit to the Soviet Union for a summit talk with Gorbachev, he attended a lunch organised by Moscow’s literary elite. From underneath a gigantic sculpture of Lenin’s head, Reagan spoke to the collected Russian poets, writers and movie directors. ‘The most important thing is to have the vision,’ he told them, citing Eisenstein. ‘The next is to grasp and hold it. You must see and feel what you are thinking . . . That is the very essence of leadership, not only on the movie set where I learned it, but everywhere.’

Where had Reagan’s vision come from? From the 1950s, when he had been a spokesman for General Electric. At the time, the company was staunchly opposed to the labour unions, and Reagan rode around the country on a train – he hated flying – from one factory to the next, speaking to groups of workers about the dangers of creeping socialism. Like Friedrich Hayek, Ludvig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt, whose work he deeply admired, Reagan even in the 1950s saw the New Deal welfare state as profoundly dangerous. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – with its health insurance for the old and the poor, its food stamps and easier access to welfare – only intensified Reagan’s antipathy towards the mixed economy that emerged from the Depression. He argued that high taxes on the rich, the power of unions, and other such limits on the market would one day lead to totalitarianism. In 1964, in the speech he made for Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated presidential candidacy, a speech which launched his own political career, he quoted the 19th-century economist John McCulloch: ‘The moment you abandon the cardinal principle of exacting from all individuals the same proportion of their income or their property, you are at sea without a rudder or compass and there is no amount of injustice or folly you may not commit.’

Although Reagan lambasted progressive taxes, labour unions, workplace regulations and anti-poverty programmes, his vision did not appeal only to the rich. On the contrary, the idea of the market had a strong romantic pull; it suggested the power of the individual, the rejection of hierarchies based on class and status. Reagan insisted that he wanted to be the president for ‘the entrepreneur, the farmer, the small businessman, the independent’, not for big business; at one point, he told Fortune magazine that what mattered most to him was the support he received from ‘all those people I shake hands with who have callouses on their hands’. When Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker, accused him and his ‘wealthy and selfish advisers’ of not understanding ‘working people’, Reagan lashed back: ‘I grew up in poverty and got what education I got all by myself and so forth, and I think it is sheer demagoguery to pretend that this economic programme which we’ve submitted is not aimed at helping the great cross section of people in this country that have been burdened for too long by big government and high taxes.’ His words echoed the kind of speech he would have given thirty years earlier at General Electric.

This confidence in the free market as the liberator of the working class enabled Reagan to preside over a great upwards redistribution of wealth, while being fully certain that his policies were in everybody’s best interests. He cared little for the specifics. In an early speech to the nation about the economy, he called for the funding of 83 government programmes to be slashed, including food stamps, school lunches and student loans, insisting that ‘the taxing power of government . . . must not be used to regulate the economy or bring about social change.’ The New York Times described the speech as ‘figure-studded’, but Reagan had left blanks in his handwritten draft for others to fill in the numbers. (This lack of interest in policy details did not mean that he left Congressional support of his programme to chance: Reeves describes Reagan working the phones with Congressmen to shore up their votes. Of Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Democrat, Reagan wrote: ‘He’s with us – like me he dreams of the day we can get rid of the whole d—n windfall profits tax.’) He didn’t flinch when breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, signalling to the nation’s business community that the federal government would make a stand against organised labour. He followed Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait he hung in the Oval Office, in saying: ‘There is no strike . . . what they did was terminate their own employment by quitting.’ The dark side of the 1980s – the staggering increase in inequality, the appearance of beggars on city streets, the Rust Belt cities that were never quite able to reinvent themselves as biotech havens or meccas of tourism – never dimmed his radiant faith in the free market.

Reagan’s domestic economic agenda was inextricable from the fight against ‘Marxism-Leninism’ in the international arena. His anti-Communism, like his free-market convictions, went back to mid-century; he imagined himself taking up the epic battle between materialism and Christianity, freedom and enslavement, as outlined by Whittaker Chambers in Witness (1952). In a 1983 speech before the National Association of Evangelicals, he spoke of the USSR as ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’, an ‘evil empire’ driven by ‘aggressive impulses’ (Reeves reports that a band struck up ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ as Reagan stopped speaking). Sometimes his passion embarrassed even his aides. ‘Be dull, Mr President, be dull,’ Edwin Meese, his longtime adviser (and attorney general), would beg him.

Many conservatives thought Reagan went soft on Gorbachev when he agreed to hold the summit meetings and sign arms control treaties. He told Nixon (a frequent correspondent) after the first summit meeting in Geneva that, in his opinion, Gorbachev believed in God. On a visit to Moscow late in his presidency, he announced to reporters that he no longer saw Russia as an ‘evil empire’ – those thoughts belonged to ‘another time in another era’. But Reagan’s Cold War was never just about the Soviet Union. As Reeves shows, he paid nearly as much attention to El Salvador and Nicaragua. ‘If the Soviets win in Central America, we lose in Geneva and every place else,’ he wrote in his diary. Reeves has found no definite proof that Reagan knew about Iran-Contra, but he makes it clear that the president was obsessed with the ‘freedom fighters’ of Latin America, and went to tremendous lengths to raise money for them, whether or not Congress approved. He held private meetings with wealthy donors who contributed to the cause, and the State Department hired a public relations company to place op-ed pieces critical of the Sandinistas in major newspapers. As with tax cuts, it was a question of principle. As Reagan said before a rally of the Nicaragua Refugee Fund, ‘We cannot have the United States walk away from one of the greatest moral challenges in postwar history . . . Viva Nicaragua Libre!

Reeves’s book is one of the first thorough histories of Reagan in power, drawing on dozens of interviews and scores of presidential documents – including transcripts of the summit meetings with Gorbachev – that have only just been made available. It has plenty of gossip: Reagan loved to tell the occasional off-colour joke; his loyal staffers felt undervalued – like ‘hired help’, in the words of James Baker, who served as his chief of staff. We learn about the administration’s obsession with terrorism after the hijacking of TWA 847, and Reagan’s reluctance even to say the word ‘Aids’ for several years after a diagnosis existed. Most significantly, by portraying Reagan as a man possessed by a political vision, Reeves demolishes the stereotype of him as a passive or incompetent president.

Yet the intellectual project of President Reagan feels constricted. Reeves has written volumes on the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, too, and his goal in all three books, as he puts it, is to ‘show what it was like for each of these men to be president’, rather than to provide a broad political narrative. There is something frustrating about this reluctance to step back and draw conclusions. Reeves never seriously tries to analyse the impact of Reagan’s economic programme; nor does he offer any sense of how instrumental Reagan’s ‘imagination’, as compared to the contradictions of the Soviet system, was in ending Communism.

The book does, however, implicitly raise the question of why conservatives revere Reagan today. When he was actually their president, they weren’t so sure. Early in the presidency, the venerable conservative journal Human Events published an article headlined: ‘Is Reagan Ignoring Activists?’ Jerry Falwell urged ‘good Christians’ to oppose Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, causing Barry Goldwater to exclaim: ‘Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.’ (Falwell fell into line following a phone call from the president.) After the 1987 summit meeting with Gorbachev, Reagan was denounced by Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus as ‘nothing more than a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda’, while the columnist George Will said that the president was accelerating America’s ‘intellectual disarmament’, and insisted that ‘8 December will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost.’

What has changed? Reagan got the credit for winning the Cold War, but something else seems to be at work. Today’s Reagan-worship reflects a longing for the days of anti-Communism. In the 1970s and 1980s, the disparate strands of conservatism were unified by the revival of the Cold War. Even the most self-interested aspects of conservative politics – lowering taxes on the rich, stopping unions from organising – became associated with a moral struggle against regimentation, bureaucracy and stultifying totalitarianism; even the bloodiest and most sordid wars, like those in Central America, could be glorified as part of a push for worldwide liberation.

The conservative movement in America has won one victory after another, yet today it no longer has the feeling of a crusade. Without the stark, frozen image of the Soviet Union in the background, political projects like dismantling Social Security or repealing the estate tax no longer seem revolutionary. It is proving increasingly difficult to persuade the electorate to see the war in Iraq in terms of a global campaign for freedom. The descendants of Reagan have come to power in Washington, and they display the same tendency to value ideological certitude over the messy compromises of reality. But the overarching vision no longer exists. As Reeves’s book shows, the Reagan presidency was indeed a triumph of imagination; its deeper victories have come to seem more and more illusory with time.