What a skeptical biographer discovered about a very elusive subject
I first met Ronald Reagan in November of 1967. It was a brief encounter, and I was not impressed. I was a reporter for The New York Times traveling with the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, who was then a Republican. There was a lot of talk at the time about a Republican “dream ticket” of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York for President and Governor Reagan of California for Vice President. The idea seemed to make some sense, or at least it was good copy: the energetic leader of liberal Republicans in the East and the new conservative darling from the West. Lindsay was thinking that maybe it could be Reagan-Lindsay, but he was beholden to Rockefeller, so his mission that day was to size up the actor, a self-proclaimed “citizen politician.” Reagan had been elected less than a year before, and outside California he was generally seen as an ignorant cowboy actor.
Lindsay and I walked down a long hallway to the presidential suite of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. As the mayor raised his hand to knock on the double doors, they popped open, and there stood Reagan. Someone must have been looking through the peephole as we approached. “Welcome to California,” said Reagan. “I’ve always wanted to ask a real New Yorker a question: Have you ever been to the top of the Empire State Building or visited the Statue of Liberty?”
Obviously rehearsed. A little goofy. I was dismissed and only later realized that every Reagan appearance, entrance, and exit was professional, a performance. This one just happened to have a bad script. I next saw Reagan half a year later at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. By then he was more politician than citizen, having declared himself a candidate for President rather late in the game on the chance that the party’s front-runner, former Vice President Richard Nixon, might not get enough delegate votes to win the nomination on the first ballot. Reagan’s gamble almost paid off. In 1976 he tried the most aggressive move in American politics: challenging an incumbent President of your own party. He lost in a very, very close contest—the delegate vote was 1,187 to 1,070—to President Gerald Ford.
By then I was plenty impressed. In the fall of 1975 I traveled the country promoting a book I had written on the incumbent— A Ford, Not a Lincoln —answering what seemed like thousands of questions on radio call-in shows. Back home in early December I wrote a magazine story predicting that the next President would be Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. All the night talk on radio had persuaded me that the real issue in 1976 would be Washington. The people who were driven to call those talk shows used their few minutes to complain about Washington and government. Carter was anti-Washington. Reagan was anti-government.
Within a week I received a letter from Reagan: “This is just a line to thank you for your article in the December issue of New York . I’m aware our viewpoints may differ, indeed you so indicated, but I appreciate your fairness. Perhaps one day our paths may cross and who knows we may discover our differences are not so terribly great. I look forward to a meeting and in the meantime thanks again.”
Our paths did cross over the next 15 years. And though he did not change my liberal mind and I did not dent his conservatism, we did agree on many things, particularly on American exceptionalism. I think Americans are different and had written quite a bit about that; Reagan thought Americans were simply better than other people and that God meant it to be that way. Reagan was a man of ideas, good ones, bad ones, and odd ones. He understood that words are usually more important than deeds. One of his forgotten assistants, James Lake, a campaign press secretary in 1980, said he saw Reagan lose his temper only once. Lake walked into the candidate’s section of a plane and said he needed to talk with him about a press release. Reagan blew up: “No, I’m busy. Can’t you see I’m working on my speech? Just go away. We will be there in 20 minutes, and I have to give this speech.”
The speech was the real work. Nobody I’ve talked with ever called Reagan an intellectual, but he did see the world in terms of ideas. He was an ideologue with a few ideas, held with unquestioning certainty. His rhetorical gift was to translate those ideas into values and emotions. He was capable of simplifying ideas to the point of dumbing down the national dialogue by deftly confusing fact and fiction. He made politics, and governing too, into a branch of his old business, entertainment. During the six years I worked on my book about him, I sometimes told friends the title would be President Reagan: Based on a True Story.
But, in truth, I had come to admire much about Reagan. I still disagreed with his politics, but as I plowed through his memos and letters and interviewed his people, it became obvious that he understood the Presidency better than the two other modern Presidents I had studied at length, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. By temperament and experience and a certain laziness, he knew the job is not about managing the government. The job is leading the nation.
In my books about those younger men, I tried to reconstruct a President’s world from his own perspective. I was interested in what he knew and when he knew it, what he actually saw and did—sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. I wanted to show what it was like to be President.
That said, Ronald Reagan did not “do” as much as Kennedy or Nixon. Both of them wanted to know as much as they could and control as much of it as possible. They cared greatly, obsessively, about what people were saying about them. Reagan had the virtues and failings of an old man: He already knew what he wanted to know, he was set in his ways, an old man who did not generally care what journalists or the hired help thought of him. He was not history-obsessed as were Kennedy and Nixon. His wife, Nancy Reagan, became the shaper and keeper of the legacy. In 1985 he told one of his assistants, political director Ed Rollins: “First of all, the history will probably get distorted when it’s written. And I won’t be around to read it.”
President Reagan did not so much do things as persuade other people to do them. His official role model was a President considered to be unimportant, Calvin Coolidge. But young Ronald Reagan, growing up in Illinois river towns, read Coolidge’s auto-biography and read it again in the White House. One paragraph in that book seemed especially significant to me: “In the discharge of the duties of the office there is one rule of action more important than all others. It consists in never doing anything that some one else can do for you.”
Friend and foe alike had trouble figuring out how he did it at all. During a big-time symposium at the Library of Congress in April of 1986, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “You ask yourself: How did it ever occur to anybody that Reagan should be governor, much less President? On the other hand, you have to say also that a man who dominated California for eight years, and now dominates the American political process for five-and-a-half years, as he has, cannot be a trivial figure. It is perfectly possible history will judge Reagan as a most significant President.”
In An American Life , the autobiography he wrote in 1990, Reagan compares his boyhood on the river with the adventures of Tom Sawyer. Exactly right. Reagan could have been a barefoot hustler in overalls, chewing on a stick of hay, sitting on a barrel in the shade, munching on someone else’s apple, a shrewd kid watching other kids whitewash his fence because he persuaded them it was fun. In one of the more interesting Reagan moments, at a state banquet in Moscow, he gave Mikhail Gorbachev, the evil emperor who became his friend and partner, a video of Friendly Persuasion , the 1956 Gary Cooper movie about a Quaker family and the Civil War, and explained the plot to him—but not all of it: “I promise not to spoil the outcome for you.”
Well, the end was pretty interesting. With conservatives denouncing Reagan for selling out—his friend George Will accused him of losing the Cold War—the President and the General Secretary gambled their political futures (and their countries’ too) on their personal relationship. Conservatives, the ones attacking him in 1987 and 1988, now assert that Reagan won the Cold War all by himself. Actually, his achievement, an intellectual one, was understanding that communism was self-destructing, and he helped that process along in a very personal way. Reading the official notes of the ReaganGorbachev conversations was a glimpse into history in the raw, astonishing documents recounting what really happened in those thrilling days of yesteryear.
Funny too. Here’s a sample from their 1987 summit in Washington with only interpreters present. The President was telling Gorbachev of a story he had seen in People magazine about a 1,200-pound man who went on a diet: “He was on his way to the bathroom one morning, and he fell in a doorway and got stuck. It frightened him so much he went on a diet.”
“Is this a real fact?” Gorbachev said.
“Yes,” said Reagan.
Gorbachev asked how to get to the men’s room.
I soon lost any illusions I had about Reagan’s passivity. The Presidency is essentially a reactive job, dealing with crises unpredictable and unanticipated: strikes, bombings, market crashes, assassinations, revolutions, and plagues. The Reagan I found was a stubborn old man, a bold, determined guy. Russians remembering the summit meetings compared him to a dozing lion that sees an antelope on the horizon and drops back to sleep. He opens an eye again, and the antelope is a hundred feet away; he yawns and closes his eyes. Then the antelope comes close, 10 feet away. The lion roars to life, fills the sky, and the antelope is no more.
I learned, too, that national security is not greatly endangered by presidential naps. The press of the world laughed when Reagan dozed off while posing for photographs with Pope John Paul II. What they did not know was that inside the Vatican the President and the Pope had agreed to work together secretly to undermine the communist government of Poland. The two of them had been on the floor looking at satellite maps and then John Paul promised Reagan that he would not endorse the Nuclear Freeze movement sweeping Europe with crowds almost everywhere demanding the removal of American missiles.
Reagan came to White House with an agenda, a few simple ideas about taxes and prosperity, the moral and economic bankruptcy of communism, and a remaking of America back into an optimistic combination of his own boyhood and of a Reader’s Digest version of the 1950s. Happy times, he remembered.
Or he imagined all that. Reagan might be called a visionary, but he was not linear in seeing things other men did not. He imagined a gentle God-fearing and whitewashed American past that never was, persuading himself and many others that it was real. He had specific goals—reduced taxation and military superiority among them—but imagined results and endings. And he believed those ends justified almost any methods or means, which got him and the country into trouble in Central America, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.
He imagined a flag-snapping American future and to an amazing degree made it happen. He did have a strategy. Asked before he was President, when he was attacking “détente” and “containment” as strategies for dealing with communism and the Soviet Union, he was saying, in private, that his real strategy was only four words: “We win. They lose.” And that’s what happened, though he did not reach that imagined end all by himself, as his champions now claim in printing after printing of hardcover hero-worship. “Nor should Reagan’s admirers claim that without him the collapse of communism would never have happened,” editorialized The Economist on the week of his death in June 2004. “It would have collapsed anyway, in the end. A system which believes that a small group of self-selected possessors of the truth knows how to run everything is sooner or later going to run into the wall. But Reagan brought the wall closer. . . . The result: maybe 20 years less of Marxist-Leninist ideological arrogance, and of the cold war’s dangers.”
I also did not find a Reagan who was an unwitting tool of a manipulative staff. Quite the opposite. The first and most effective chief of staff in Reagan’s White House, James A. Baker III, once said of the boss, “He treats us all the same—as hired help.” Could the talented Mr. Baker have changed the tax code or doubled to 14 percent the portion of the federal budget devoted to interest payments? Could Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger have more than doubled the Pentagon budget? Could Secretary of State George Shultz have broken the Soviet Union or even believed that was possible? Could Don Regan, another chief of staff, have raised the morale of a nation?
“What was the biggest problem in the White House when you were there?” I asked Regan.
“Everyone there thought he was smarter than the President,” he said.
Smart they might be, but in the end they were just part of Reaganism , a word that institutionalized his dominance. No other President became a noun in that way. Amazing things, good and bad, happened in the 1980s because President Reagan wanted them to happen. Reagan’s ignorance of detail and his many blunders did not fundamentally change the way people felt about him as a leader. His personal popularity remained remarkably high in the years after the recession of 1982, even though a majority of Americans disapproved of his driving the country deep into debt, fighting little wars in Central America, secretly selling arms to Iran, and refusing to acknowledge the lethal spread of AIDS.
Reagan was the candidate of optimism and national destiny, saying, as he always had, that Americans were God’s chosen, the last best hope. Through good times and bad for eight years, according to Gallup polls, he was the most admired man in America. He had a 63 percent approval rating when he left the White House, higher than any popular Presidents in the last half of the century, including Dwight Eisenhower (59 percent) and John F. Kennedy (58 percent). Among Americans between 18 and 29, Reagan’s approval rate was 87 percent. There were statistical debates about whether he had realigned the country’s political structure in the manner of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but there was no doubt that he had established the Republicans as the country’s governing party. There is also no doubt that many Americans paid a high price for President Reagan’s certainty. None of us can be certain of the “opportunity costs” of Reaganism; the money going to tax breaks and defense may have cost decades of lost opportunities for better education and health care. The rich got richer, and Reagan told them they deserved it. The poor got poorer, and he told them it was their own fault.
For American conservatives he had become what Franklin Roosevelt had been for liberals. FDR, larger than life. Indispensable. Almost all the people I interviewed as I worked on the book said they considered Ronald Reagan a great man. He was a heroic figure, if not always a hero. Many of them had worked for him, of course, but adversaries had stopped laughing at the question. One of those adversaries, Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, was not smiling when he told me: “Reagan is above the debate for them. It is like reciting Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book . He is like a religious figure. They have to hold him up as an icon to preserve the agenda, to protect the ideology.” And so they do, writing books, renaming airports, and building statues. They keep the faith. Returning to the White House on March 30, 1981, the day President Reagan was shot, Vice President Bush said it all: “We will act as if he were here.”