My Years With Ronald Reagan

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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.

Amazing things, good and bad, happened in the 1980s because Reagan wanted them to happen.

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.

“Including you?”

“Especially me.”

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.”

Act One The Ronald Reagan Pub Comes to America