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My Years With Ronald Reagan
What a skeptical biographer discovered about a very elusive subject
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
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.