Reagan His Place In History

PrintPrintEmailEmailContemporary judgments of presidents are notoriously erratic. Consider the four who decorate Mount Rushmore, the stony seal of posterity’s approval. Although Washington retired with almost universally good reviews, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson did say he had “debauched” the nation. Jefferson left the White House with the joy of an escaping prisoner and a stress-induced migraine condition. The Senate was so angry with Theodore Roosevelt in his last days in office that it refused to accept his communications. Lincoln, who tops every historian’s rating of Presidents, was murdered.

When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he truly retired, intending no Nixonian or Carteresque codas, and the onset of Alzheimer’s was soon setting his agenda in any case. Journalists and historians could thus get an early start on their posthumous shiftings. But their work will go on for years. The talented Edmund Morris was given a clean shot at writing the definitive early account, like John Marshall’s biography of Washington (or Edwin O’Connor’s fictional portrait of James Michael Curley), but Morris produced such an eccentric work that even that task will have to be done, and redone.

Whatever the writers finally come up with, all their labors, like all the events of their subject’s career, will be distilled by the national memory into two or three facts or phrases, maybe only one. My childhood history of the Presidents, which had to find something important and moderately good to say about every Chief Executive, could at least say of Millard Fillmore that he sent Commodore Perry to Japan.

Here is a preliminary list of six aspects of Ronald Reagan—three personal, three political—from which those in the year 2075 may make their selection.

Like notable predecessors—Jefferson, FDR—Reagan had an optimistic view of things. Also like them, he had demons and enemies. But he was serenely confident that he would prevail. His political optimism came from a buoyant temperament. The command performance for his personality was the moment when, at the age of 70, one of John Hinckley’s bullets lodged an inch from his heart. He spent his time, before and after the operation that saved his life, cracking jokes almost as old as himself. We often use military metaphors to describe normal political controversy—for instance, a “barrage” of criticism. Ronald Reagan reacted to actual gunfire with better humor than many politicians do to bad headlines.

He reacted to gunfire with better humor than many politicians do to bad press.

In normal circumstances, Reagan’s favorite story about his sunny worldview concerned two boys who were told to clean out a stable. The task proved so Augean that one of them gave up. The other kept going. With so much excrement, he reasoned, there had to be a pony in there somewhere.

That story conveyed a truth about Reagan’s optimism: It was willed, sometimes contrary to all reason. Another story, which he told on the opening pages of his first memoir, the 1965 Where’s the Rest of Me?, supplies the psychological background of his determined hopefulness. Reagan describes finding his father, Jack, a genial, but alcoholic, shoe salesman, collapsed on the front porch one night after a binge. The scene was pure Frank Capra, down to the weather conditions: Jack Reagan’s “hair [was] soaked with melting snow.” As in some Frank Capra movies, there was also a dark subtext beneath a sentimental gloss. Ronald remembered helping his father, pityingly, to bed: “I could feel no resentment.” If he couldn’t feel any, why does he mention it? Any drunk’s child feels a host of negative emotions: resentment, anger, betrayal. Each child then deals with them in his own way. Ronald Reagan’s way was to dismiss his pain and to focus on the bright side: “In a few days” his father “was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved.” In later life, Reagan would blot out both real problems and false obstacles, as well as bullets.

The black velvet backdrop behind his cheerfulness explains a second salient trait of Reagan’s: his coldness. Yes, he had a funny story for everyone, including Tip O’Neill and Mikhail Gorbachev, and he laughed at other people’s funny stories, not just his own. But behind the bonhomie, there was nothing accessible. “Even as a teenager,” wrote Edmund Morris, “he had taken no personal interest in people. They were, and remained, a faceless audience to his perpetual performance.” Certainly Morris felt faceless in Reagan’s presence, which seems to have driven the biographer to distraction. But he was not the only one. People who worked with Reagan closely for years felt they never penetrated. According to his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, White House staffers made jokes of his elusiveness: “Who was that masked man?”