- Historic Sites
Reagan His Place In History
Six Aspects Of The Man—Three Political, Three Personal—Hint At How Posterity Will View Him
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Reagan’s coldness allowed him to be stubborn. He used all the resources of public relations, from marks on the floor to theme-of-the-day spin control to movie-star looks, to make his case. But after he had done all that he could do, he did not care what people thought of him. He had his message; when he became President, he had his programs; that was that. He often settled for less than he wanted, but he never stopped wanting it. His stubbornness helped him reach the White House despite one of the more discouraging pre-victory political records. Some politicians have won second contests after previously losing runs for the Presidency: Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon. Some have won, after one failed attempt to secure their party’s nomination: James Monroe, George H. W. Bush. Reagan failed twice to get the Republican nomination—in 1968 and 1976—before lightning struck. Repeat losers, from Henry Clay to Bob Dole, usually go on losing. Only Reagan broke the pattern.
Reagan’s third important personal trait was simplicity. The literature of management is filled with variations on the polarity between big-picture men and detail men; in the realm of philosophy, Isaiah Berlin taught us to think of hedgehogs (the thinkers who see in the universe one big thing) and foxes (the thinkers who see multiplicity). The characteristic mistake of bigpicture hedgehogs is to ignore details that are in fact crucial; the characteristic mistake of detail foxes is to assume that hedgehogs see nothing at all. John Quincy Adams, the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, called Andrew Jackson a “barbarian” who “hardly could spell his own name” this was five years after Jackson had cleaned Adams’s clock in the election of 1828.
Tip O’Neill, no Boylston Professor of Rhetoric but a Massachusetts politician, like Adams, said Reagan knew “less than any president I’ve ever known” (O’Neill, like Adams, also had his clock cleaned by his ignoramus enemy). Reagan indeed was about as far over in the direction of the big picture and hedgehog as it is possible to be. In his book The Presidential Difference, the political scientist Fred I. Greenstein made a useful movie-industry analogy to Reagan’s intellectual and management style. Reagan obviously was the star of his own administration, but he was also its producer. The writing, even the directing, could always be left to someone else. He was responsible for Reaganism.
What was that? The most concentrated (Reaganesque?) summary of its leading heads was made by the journalist R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.: “The Evil Empire; cut taxes; the pieties.” The economist Milton Friedman daydreams about an income tax return so simple it could be printed on a postcard. Reaganism could be jotted down on the back of a business card.
What fell off the card, Reagan believed, could safely be ignored. Pat Buchanan, another speechwriter, remembered sitting in on a cabinet-level debate between Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Agriculture John Block on grain exports. While it raged, Reagan reached for a bowl of jellybeans, his favorite snack food, and began picking out his favorite colors. “My God,” Buchanan thought, “what in heaven’s name is with this guy?” Reagan, who caught Buchanan’s eye, winked. Buchanan interpreted the wink to mean: “They’re having an argument here, and I’m not getting into it.” Maybe that is what the wink meant. Or maybe—the coldness kicking in—it was Reagan’s way of averting an intrusive gaze. In either case, Mr. Shultz and Mr. Block were not attended to. That was safe enough when the subject was grain exports; less safe when it was the money shuffling of Lt. Col. Oliver North.
On the issues that constituted Reaganism, Reagan batted two for three. It became the fashion, after their collapse, to dismiss Communism and the Soviet Union as threats. It is easy to be wise after the fact. In the late seventies, Cuban soldiers patrolled the former Portuguese empire in Africa. The Soviets had acquired two new client states in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua and Grenada, and had invaded Afghanistan. Western Europe was rocked by a pro-Communist peace movement, terrified by the introduction of Soviet and American intermediate-range missiles on European soil.
Reagan’s distrust of Communism was deep and longstanding. As a president of the Screen Actors Guild, he had seen Communist attempts to take over Hollywood crafts unions; when the guild’s position on these turf wars shifted from neutral to anti-Communist, Reagan got an anonymous phone call on a movie set threatening that his face would be “fix[ed].” Early in the fifties, he read Witness, by the former Communist spy Whittaker Chambers. Witness was more than an espionage memoir; in one passage, Chambers recalled that the delicate folds of his baby daughter’s ears persuaded him that the universe was divinely designed and that scientific socialism was false. Three decades later, Reagan cited the passage on the baby’s ear to White House speechwriter Tony Dolan. Reagan was not well read, but what he read lodged in his mind.