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The Child Monarch

America’s silliest world-historical figure

Surrounded by newsmen aboard the ship S.S. Independence, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan sips a cool drink. October 20, 1967

During the eighties, the magazine had thrown itself behind the Reagan Doctrine, supporting aid for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and more generally endorsing the administration’s aggressive foreign policy. Hendrik Hertzberg, who edited the magazine for two different tours during that decade, wasn’t fully on board with that editorial line. (It was a curiosity of the magazine’s structure that the editor wasn’t entirely responsible for The New Republic’s editorial position; that was ultimately decided by the owner and editor-in-chief, Marty Peretz.) This review of Reagan’s biography may not have been intended as payback, but it had that kind of bile, not to mention wit and vigor.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor,
Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
by Lou Cannon
(Simon and Schuster, 948 pp., $24.95)

An American Life
by Ronald Reagan
(Simon and Schuster, 748 pp., $24.95)


Maybe the local time just seems slower because the current occupant of the White House is a hyperactive gland case. Anyhow, it’s hard to believe that only a couple of years have passed since the Reagans went away. It was a touching moment, we now learn. “Look, honey,” Ronnie whispered tenderly to Nancy as the helicopter banked back for one more sweep across the South Lawn, “there’s our little shack.” That’s according to An American Life. According to President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, he whispered tenderly, “There’s our little bungalow down there.” Whatever.

It’s taken a while for the full weirdness of the Reagan years to sink in. Not that the unnerving facts weren’t available; but nobody—not even Reagan’s political opponents—really wanted to face them. We’ve known for some time, for example, that Reagan’s schedule was drawn up in consultation with an astrologer. Reagan’s sacked chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, told us so in a book published a full eight months before the administration left office. Thanks to Nancy Reagan, Kitty Kelley, and now Lou Cannon, we’ve since learned about the weekly astrology classes Nancy took during the 1950s and ‘60s, the “zodiac parties” the Reagans attended in Hollywood, Nancy’s annoyance when the White House astrologer insisted on being paid for her horoscopes, and the humiliation felt by aides such as James Baker, Richard Darman, and Michael Deaver at having to explain away absurd and arbitrary changes in the schedule that they knew were being made on the basis of supersecret astrological prognostications.

Cannon finds no evidence that astrology had any direct effects on Substantive policy. But he finds plenty of evidence that this was a government of, by, and for the stars. And astrology, as it happens, is a pretty good metaphor for the peculiar qualities of that government and its peculiar central character.

Reagan, as portrayed in Caninon’s book and in his own is a childlike and some times childish man. His head is full of stories. He is unable to think analytically. He is ignorant. He has notions about the way things work, but he doesn’t notice when these notions contradict each other. He has difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. He believes fervently in happy endings. He is passive and fatalistic. He cannot admit error.

Within the White House, Reagan himself was consulted precisely as one consults a horoscope. To his frazzled assistants he had mystical power, but was not quite real. Like a soothsayer’s chart, he required deciphering. “Reaganology,’ Cannon writes, “was largely based on whatever gleanings could be obtained from body language.” The president’s pronouncements in meetings, which usually took the form of anecdotes that might or might not be relevant to the matter at hand, were open to various interpretations. When the conversation ranged beyond the handful of Animal Farm-type certainties that made up what Cannon calls Reagan’s “core beliefs” (taxes bad, defense good; government bad, markets good) Reagan was lost. Though the people who served with him respected him for his occult powers—his rapport with the television audience his ability to read a text convincingly, the powerful simplicity of the core beliefs—they viewed his intellect with contempt. They thought he was a big baby, and they were right.

This is a point that Cannon makes over and over, in one way and another. His book is devastating and superb. He has covered Reagan for twenty-five years and is looked upon by Reagan’s friends and enemies alike as a fair witness and an impartial judge. Having read not only Cannon’s new blockbuster but also several thousand of his stories and columns in The Washington Post. I still have no idea if he is pro-Reagan or anti-Reagan. His only discernible ideological predisposition is that he has no ideological predisposition (though this ideologically pre-disposes him to underestimate ideology’s importance, as well as to be more sympathetic to the administration’s “pragmatists” than to its movement conservatives).

Cannon’s hook braids a biography of Reagan together with a detailed and lively account of Reagan’s presidency. Much of it is necessarily about Reagan’s advisers and Cabinet secretaries, for it was on them that the day-to-day burdens of the presidency actually fell. A good deal of what Cannon shows us about Reagan is seen through their eyes. It’s quite a spectacle:

The sad, shared secret of the Reagan White House was that no one in the presidential encourage had confidence in the judgment or capacities of the president.

Pragmatists and conservatives alike treated Reagan as if he were a child monarch in need of constant protection.

Reagan’s reliance on metaphor and analogy for understanding made him vulnerable to arguments that were short on facts and long on theatrical gimmicks.

He made sense of foreign policy through his long-developed habit of devising dramatic, all-purpose stories with moralistic messages, forceful plots, and well-developed heroes and villains.

The more Reagan repeated a story, the more he believed it and the more he resisted information that undermined its premises.

Ronald Reagan’s subordinates often despaired of him because he seemed to inhabit a fantasy world where cinematic events competed for attention with reality.

And so on. Cannon stresses the movie angle as a way of understanding Reagan, which is interesting in light of how little public discussion of this angle there was during Reagan’s twenty-five years as an active politician. Governor Pat Brown of California, whom Reagan unseated in his first hid for public office in 1966, humorously likened him to John Wilkes Booth. The joke backfired, but the “actor issue” was a perfectly legitimate one. If it is fair to examine how a candidate’s background as a soldier or a corporate lawyer or a civil rights agitator might affect his habits of mind, then surely it was fair to ask if the mental habits instilled by spending most of one’s time until the age of 53 dressing up in costumes and playing out elaborately mounted wish-fulfillment fantasies was good preparation for high office. But partly because it hadn’t worked for Brown and partly because mentioning Reagan’s profession somehow got classified as bigotry (“jobism,” it might be called nowadays), the actor issue was never aired in any of Reagan’s subsequent campaigns.

As president, Reagan spent a lot of time at the movies. According to Cannon, he saw some 350 feature films at Camp David alone. Me also saw several more a month at the White Mouse family theater, plus an unknown number in the private screening rooms of rich friends. And those were just the ones requiring the services of a projectionist. In addition, the Reagans watched TV every night they were free. Reagan loved war pictures. He had starred in several during World War II (International Squadron, Rear Gunner, and For God and Country, among others) and had absorbed hundreds more. Some of his best anecdotes—the B-17 pilot who cradles his wounded gunner’s head in his arms as they ride their crippled plane down together; the black sailor who saves his white shipmates by grabbing a machine gun and swiveling to shoot a Japanese fighter out of the sky; the American Army officer (Reagan himself) who helps liberate the death camps—were twisted, hoked-up, or falsified versions of experiences that Reagan had encountered in movie theaters, not in real life.

We knew about Reagan and war movies. What Cannon adds is that Reagan loved peace movies, too. He couldn’t stop talking about War Games, a Matthew Broderick vehicle about a teenage hacker who breaks into the NORAD computer and saves the world from being destroyed by trigger-happy Pentagon generals. He watched The Day After, the 1983 made-for-TV nuclear holocaust weepie that his own people spent weeks trying to discredit, and found it powerful and affecting. His strategic defense proposal was strikingly reminiscent of one of his own movies. Murder in the Air (1940), in which the future president, playing Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, foils a foreign plot to steal the “Inertia Projector,” an American my gun that can shoot down distant enemy aircraft. And according to Colin Powell, Reagan’s last national security adviser, Reagan’s proposal to share strategic defense technology with the Soviets was inspired by The Day the Earth Stood Still, a gripping 1951 science fiction movie in which a flying saucer descends on Washington. The saucer disgorges Michael Rennie, the urbane representative of an advanced civilization, who warns earthlings to put aside their petty quarrels among themselves or face the consequences.

If the war-movie side of Reagan had been all there was to him, as many of us feared in the early 1980s, all of us might now be radioactive ash. But because he also had his peace-movie side, he turned out to be a somewhat less predictable and altogether less frightening character. He was, in fact, a precursor, a kind of spiritual grandfather, of what has become a standard Hollywood type: the autodidactic, self-righteous, “issue-oriented” star who is full of opinions about politics and who also dabbles in, and is fascinated by, “New Age” phenomena. These last, in Reagan’s case, include (besides astrology) extrasensory perception, precognition, sci-fi, people from other planets, and prophecies about Armageddon. It was only natural for him to be interested in such things, given that the Reagans spent most of their lives (as Nancy puts it with screwball reasonableness in My Turn) “in the company of show-business people, where superstitions and other non-scientific beliefs are widespread and commonly accepted.”

Reagan’s staff kept most of the wigginess from spilling over into the public arena. “Here come the little green men again,” Powell used to tell his staff whenever the subject arose of Reagan’s preoccupation with how an alien invasion would unify the earth. Powell, Cannon writes dryly, “struggled diligently to keep interplanetary references out of Reagan’s speeches.” They couldn’t be kept out of informal conversations, though—much to the bafflement of Mikhail Gorbachev, who, when Reagan started in about invasions from outer space at the 1985 summit in Geneva, politely changed the subject.

The wildest aspect of Reagan’s premature New Agery was his obsession with the Battle of Armageddon. The closest anyone ever came to flushing out this particular bit of Reaganuttiness came during the second televised campaign debate in 1984, when Marvin Kalb asked Reagan if the matter of Armageddon had had any effect on American nuclear planning. Reagan just made it through his answer safely, saying that while he had engaged in “philosophical discussions’* on the subject, “no one knows” whether “Armageddon is a thousand years away or the day after tomorrow,” and therefore he had never “said we must plan according to Armageddon.”

Had Walter Mondale picked up on this opening and used the rest of the debate, and maybe the rest of the campaign, to harass Reagan on what could have become the “Armageddon issue,” the election might have been less one-sided. A little more drilling in Armageddon territory could have yielded a political gusher. Cannon has conducted his own archaeological dig into the matter and unearthed enough shards to warrant the conclusion that “Reagan is hooked on Armageddon.” In 1968 Billy Graham visits Reagan and they talk about portents of the end of days. In 1970 Pat Boone brings a couple of radio evangelists to see Reagan in Sacramento, and one of them, seized by a supposed visitation of the Holy Spirit, prophesies rapturously that Reagan will be president and tells him about the approaching mother of all battles, and then listens as Reagan ticks off modern events, such as the founding of the State of Israel, that seem to fulfill the biblical preconditions for the big one. In 1971 Reagan tells his dinner partner, the president pro tem of the California Senate; that the end is nigh and that one of the portents is that Libya has gone Communist. In 1980 Reagan announces on Jim Bakker’s TV show that “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon.”

The obsession continues after Reagan is president. His national security aides grow used to hearing him talk about it. Robert McFarlane becomes convinced, in Cannon’s words, “that Reagans interest in anti-missile defense was the product of his interest in Armageddon.” When Frank Carlucci tries to persuade Reagan that nuclear deterrence is a good thing, Reagan astonishes Carlucci by telling him about Armageddon. When Caspar Weinberger tries to make the same case, Reagan gives him the same Armageddon lecture. On March 28, 1987, at the Gridiron Club dinner, Reagan tells James McCartney of Knight-Ridder that because Chernobyl is the Ukrainian word for “wormwood” and Wormwood is the name of a flaming star in the Book of Revelation, the accident at the Soviet nuclear plant was a harbinger of Armageddon. (In a hilarious footnote, Cannon adds that Reagan, in telling the story to McCartney, misremembered the name of the star and called it “Wedgewood.” Shades of Nancy’s china!) On May 5, 1989, Reagan tells Cannon that Israel’s possession of the Temple Mount is a sign that Armageddon looms. There are other omens, too, he tells Cannon. What, for example? “Strange weather things.”


The book titled An American Life omits any mention of strange weather things. It is as much a star autobiography as a presidential memoir, but star autobiography of the pre-Geraldo type. There are no shocking confessions, no harrowing addictions, no twelve-step recoveries. This is Photoplay circa 1940, not National Enquirer circa 1990.

Has Reagan read this book? Besides the printed tome, there is also an audio version—two cassettes with a total running time of 180 minutes, on which Reagan, in his seductive announcer’s voice, recites excerpts aloud. According to my calculation, the tapes represent about 32,000 of the roughly 260,000 words in the printed text. The evidence, then, is that Reagan has read at least 12 percent of his book. Trust, but verify.

The actual author of An American Life, as the opening acknowledgments more or less proclaim, is a “thoroughly professional team” of about two dozen people headed by Robert Lindsey, who has written several readable best-sellers. “Even though I am glad to have this book finished, I will miss my conversations with Bob,” writes Reagan, or writes Bob, or writes somebody. There’s no way, really, to be sure. Anyway, the conversations with Bob didn’t yield much. Almost everything in the book could have been gleaned, perhaps was gleaned, from the public record—from newspapers, old speech and interview transcripts, other books, and White House news releases.

But if there are no revelations, there is a portrait—no, there are two portraits. On the surface is the golden personification of the American dream: the small-town lifeguard who saved seventy-seven people from drowning, the movie star who saved the girl and the day in many a B picture, the citizen-politician who saved the conservative movement from sullen irrelevance, the triumphal president who saved his country from drift and decline. Below the surface—but only a little below, since these depths are not very deep—is the child monarch, a person of stunning narcissism and unreffectiveness.

Reagan, as all the world knows, is a big-picture man. His famous “hands-off management style” seems to have evolved early and to have extended to the smallest details of his own life. His must politically potent qualities——the placidity of his temperament, the smooth-surfaced simplicity of his politics, the magical ease with which he waves away inconsistency and irresponsibility—are all related, first, to his ability to ignore contradictions (more precisely, his inability to notice them), and, second, to the effortlessness that has attended all his achievements.

“I was raised to believe that God has a plan for everyone and that seemingly random twists of fate are all a part of His plan,” he writes. “My mother—a small woman with auburn hair and a sense of optimism that ran as deep as the cosmos—told me everything in life happened for a purpose. She said all things were part of God’s Plan, even the most disheartening setbacks, and in the end, everything worked out for the best.” But then, a few sentences later, he tells us what his father taught him: “that individuals determine their own destiny; that is, it’s largely their own ambition and hard work that determine their fate in life.”

Reagan is untroubled by the stark incompatibility of these two conceptions of will and destiny. He just forges blithely ahead, and before long it becomes clear which of the two views he finds more congenial:

Then one of those series of small events began that make you wonder about God’s Plan.

Once again fate intervened—as if God was carrying out His plan with my name on it.

Then one of those things happened that makes one wonder about God’s having a plan for all of us.

If ever God gave me evidence that He had a plan for me, it was the night He brought Nancy into my life.

And finally, as he and his wife emerge from the elevator on the second floor of the White House on the evening of the inaugural:

I think it was only then, as Nancy and I waited hand in hand down the great Central Hall, that it hit home that I was president…it was only at this moment that I appreciated the enormity of what had happened to me.

Even the presidency was something that happened to Reagan. This is more than just the affectation of a becoming modesty. The political philosophy that Reagan adopted in his 40s may have stressed ambition and hard work, but Reagan himself has never had to do much more than go with the Plan. Even in his own telling, it is striking how easy he has had it (which makes his denunciations of “giveaway welfare programs” especially unattractive).

After graduating from Eureka College in 1932, he tells us, he was bitterly disappointed when someone else beat him out for a job running the sporting goods department at the local Montgomery Ward in Dixon, Illinois, for $12.50 a week. That’s about it as far as reversals go, A few months later he was making $25 a week as a radio announcer. and then $75, and then, after a quick screen test taken during it trip to California to cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training for his radio station in 1937, $200 a week as a contract player at Warner’s—the equivalent today, after taxes, of welt over $100,000 a year.

Reagan was 26 when he arrived in Hollywood in the depths of the Depression, and after that it was just a matter of adding zeroes to his income. Even World War II was easy for him. Lieutenant Reagan spent it narrating training films for the Army Air Force at a movie studio in Culver City. His first picture after his discharge involved riding horses, which made it. he writes, “like a welcome-home gift.” Of course, he was already home. He had been home all along—though he genuinely believed, at the time and after, that he had been to war.

In 1954, after Reagan’s movie career had begun to falter, the Plan intervened in the form of an offer to serve as the host of a television series, “General Electric Theater,” and to give speeches at GE plants as a company spokesman. Taking this job, perhaps more than any other decision Reagan ever made, was what made him president. Reagan had turned down other TV oilers because, as he notes shrewdly in An American Life, “most television series expired after two or three years, and from then on, audiences—and producers—tended to think of you only as the character you’d played in the TV series.” Being the host, however, was different. It put him before the public every week for eight years (plus another two years as the host of “Death Valley Days”), not as a cowpoke or a private eve or a bumbling husband, but as a congenial, dignified man in a business suit called Ronald Reagan.

Cannon’s book stresses Reagan’s pride in his acting and his movie career, but Reagan’s hook confirms Christopher Matthews’s insight that Reagan’s real calling in life was not as an actor but as an announcer—and, by extension, as a giver of speeches. Reagan offers no reflections on the craft of acting, but plenty on the craft of announcing and speechmaking. (Can you picture the young Reagan waiting on tables for a chance to play Hamlet? Neither can I.) The speeches for GE became The Speech, a compendium of free enterprise bromides and fabulous anecdotes about government waste that he polished to a high gloss in hundreds of repetitions, and which, when he delivered it on national television in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater, led to the governorship of California and eventually the presidency of the United States.


Characteristically, Reagan sees no contradiction between the cozy cartel system of the Hollywood studios in which he prospered and the cutthroat laissez-faire doctrine he would later espouse. On the contrary, he deplores the antitrust suit that forced producers “to make movies purely on the speculation theaters would want to show them.” This kind of ideological incoherence contributes to Reagan’s opacity about just when and how he became a conservative. His wife is more straightforward on this point. Referring to Reagan’s years shilling for GE in the middle and late 1950s, she wrote in My Turn: “IT was during this period that Ronnie gradually changed his political views.”

From Nancy’s account, and from Cannon’s, it seems clear that during his GE spokesman days Reagan became persuaded by the sound of his own voice, which was also his master’s. More flatteringly to himself. Reagan depicts the change as starting much earlier. He pretends to recall, anachronistically, that as a small-town boy he learned “to know people as individuals, not as blocs or members of special interest groups.” He claims, improbably, that his support for Franklin D. Roosevelt was a function of FDR’s call in 1932 for a cut in federal spending. While making a picture in England in 1949 he observes, omnisciently, “how the welfare stale sapped incentive to work from many people in a wonderful and dynamic country.” He makes much of having called on the Democrats to nominate Dwight D. Eisenhower for president, but this was a popular position within Americans for Democratic Action, the leading liberal pressure group of the day. (The ADA ticket was Ike and William O. Douglas.)

Reagan also portrays his battles with Hollywood Communists in the Screen Actors Guild, the United World Federalists, the American Veterans Committee, and other organizations as a factor in his conversion to conservative Republicanism. This makes a nice, heroic-sounding story, but it’s demonstrably untrue. He writes that “after the war, I’d shared the orthodox liberal view that Communists—if there really were any—were liberals who were temporarily off track, and whatever they were, they didn’t pose much of a threat to me or anyone.” But this was not the “orthodox,” i.e., mainstream, liberal view. By 1946, and unmistakably by 1950, the great majority of American liberals, leftists, and Democrats were Firmly anti-Communist. This was the case even in Hollywood, where a fair amount of poolside Stalinism (like today’s hot-tub Sandinismo) persisted right through the mid-1950s.

Reagan after the war was a dupe, an enthusiastic joiner of Communist front groups. He expresses no remorse about this. On the contrary, in his memoir you can almost hear the fond, indulgent chuckle in his voice as he describes himself during this period. He was speaking out against the rise of neofascism in America.” He “joined just about any organization I could find that guaranteed to save the world.” But heck, he just “hadn’t given much thought to the threat of communism.” Darn that headstrong, idealistic Reagan kid anyway—somebody forgot to tell him about the Moscow trials. In any case, he doesn’t mention such things in explaining his awakening to the problem of communism. Instead he recounts a visit from a couple of FBI agents and his agreement to become an informer for them. (They asked if they could meet with me periodically to discuss some of the things that were going on in Hollywood. I said of course they could.”)

Whatever his reasons for turning against communism, he remained left of center long after he did so. As late as 1952, by which date he had been publicly denouncing Communists for six years, the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee declined to endorse him for an open House seat because they thought he was too liberal. It’s tantalizing to speculate on what might have been had the Democrats of Los Angeles not made this bonehead decision. Would Representative Reagan have become Senator Reagan? Might he have ended up as JFK’s running mate? Would he have drifted to the right and become a marginal crank like Sam Yorty? Or would he have stayed left and won the White House four or eight years earlier than he did? And—most delicious thought of all—would the ultimate sneer-word of today’s conservatives be not McGovernism or Carterism, but Reaganism?

The fact that Reagan converted to anti-communism long before he converted to conservatism may have had an important consequence. Evil though he thought the empire was, his conservatism did not depend on an emotional attachment to a permanent, Manichaean East-West struggle. This may be one reason why he was so much readier than were the ideologues among his aides when Gorbachev came along and announced that the struggle was over

Reagan is not, nor has he ever been, ideologically sophisticated. He was a sentimental liberal who became a sentimental conservative. His liberalism was a product of inertia combined with a vague sympathy for the little guy; his conservatism was a product of convenience combined with sympathy for guys who weren’t so little—the GE managers and executives who had his ear for eight years. (“By 1960, I realized the real enemy wasn’t big business, it was big government.”) This lack of intellectual sophistication—an inability to think, really—is one of the themes of Cannon’s book that manifests itself over and over again in Reagan’s book. For example, when he becomes governor of California, two years after the Watts riots. Reagan decides to “find out what was going on” by paying secret visits to black families around the state:

One of the first things I heard was a complaint that blacks weren’t being given a fair shot at jobs in state government. I looked into it and confirmed that virtually the only blacks employed by the stale were janitors or those working in other menial positions, largely because state civil service tests were slanted against them.

His response was to change “the testing and job evaluation procedures” to make up for the fact that “blacks just hadn’t had the opportunity to get the same kind of schooling as other Californians”—in other words, to rewrite the tests and the qualifications so as to guarantee equality of outcome. A good-hearted act, no doubt about it; but Reagan shows absolutely no awareness that this aggressive instance of affirmative action is precisely the sort of thing that his Justice Department would soon enough denounce as an affront to American values.

Another example. A lodestar of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy was the distinction between authoritarian regimes, which are by nature reformable because they permit competing centers of social power to exist, and totalitarian regimes, which are by nature unreformable because all power has been seized, or is in the process of being seized, by a party-stale professing a messianic ideology that claims a total monopoly on truth. This analysis was the heart of a famous article by Jeane Kirkpatrick in Commentary in 1980. Reagan was so impressed by this piece that he made Kirkpatrick his ambassador to the United Nations.

The doctrine of the immutability of totalitarian regimes has turned out to have no predictive power, and it was therefore a poor basis for long-term policy; but the analytic distinction between the two types of dictatorship was sound enough. The idea that there’s a difference between plain old undemocratic governments, however brutal, and those with totalitarian pretensions is not hard to grasp. Furthermore, this idea underlay some of the Reagan administration’s most important foreign policy innovations. Even so, it comes as no real surprise that the authoritarian-totalitarian distinction was utterly lost on Reagan. Discussing polity options for the hemisphere in An American Life, he writes:

Sure, we could send in the troops, but the threat of communism wouldn’t diminish until the people’s standard of living was improved and the totalitarian countries of Latin America gave them more freedom.

Discussing the Falklands War, he writes:

Margaret Thatcher, I think, had no choice but to stand up to the generals who cynically squandered the lives of young Argentineans solely to prolong the life of a corrupt and iron-listed totalitarian government.

The Argentine military junta, remember, was Kirkpatrick’s beau ideal of authoritarian government. And the totalitarian prototype in the Kirkpatrick scheme was pre-Gorbachevian Soviet communism, which Reagan describes as a system of—what else?—“authoritarian rule.”

Or perhaps it isn’t Reagan but his “thoroughly professional team” that is confused. I must acknowledge that the sentences quoted above are not recited on the cassettes, so there is no hard proof that Reagan was ever familiar with them. But An American Life does have passages that Reagan can he credited not only with having read, but with having written. These are excerpts from a diary that he seems to have kept as president, of which a total of about forty pages are scattered through the ghosted text.

To appreciate fully the flavor of these diary entries, one needs to sample more than one or two. The three entries below are given in their entirety. They are typical. I categorically deny that I am being unfair:

Feb. 22

Launch on issues. I’m convinced of the need to address the people on our budget and the economy. The press has done a job on us and the polls show its effect. The people are confused about economic program. They’ve been told it has failed and it has just started.

June 30

Word came that the hostages were going to leave in a Red Cross motorcade for Damascus. It was a long ride. We then were told that celebrations in small villages along their route were delaying them. About a quarter to three our time, they arrived at the Sheraton hotel in Damascus. Out to George Shultz’s home for dinner with George and O’Bie. A very nice and finally relaxed dinner. Before that, however, I spoke to the nation on TV from the Oval Office, then George took questions in the press room. When I spoke our people were just leaving Syrian air apace in a military aircraft.

Sept. 26

High spot was swearing in of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia in the East Room. After lunch meeting with George S., Cap W., and Bill Casey plus our White House people, Don R., John P., etc. It was a sum up of where we stand in the negotiations between George and Shevardnadze. The difference between us is their desire to make it look like a traffic for Daniloff and their spy Zakharov. We’ll trade Zakharov but for Soviet dissidents. We settled on our bottom line points beyond which we won’t budge. Then we picked up Nancy and helicoptered to Ft. Meade for the opening of the new National Security Agency complex. I spoke to the NSA employees. Then we helicoptered to Camp David and topped the day with a swim.

The entries from the diary that were chosen for publication in An American Life are presumably the best of the lot, and this is as good as they get. One can imagine the sick disappointment of Lindsey and the rest of the team when they got their first look at them. There are no portraits of friends and enemies, no thumbnail sketches, no gossip, no peeves, no wisecracks, no outbursts of principle, no anecdotes—no nothing, really, except simpleminded digests of news bulletins and appointment logs. For authenticity’s sake, the team has left in a few grammatical howlers and preserved a Reagan habit, which some will Mud endearing, of taking the hyphens out of compound phrases like “tight rope,” “plane side,” and “heart breaking” and saving them up for use in low-octane swear words, such as “h—I” and “d—in” (hang on, shouldn’t that be “d-m-”?).

Many entries combine childish diction with childish thinking, as in this reflection on the flap over the visit to the Waffen SS cemetery at Bitburg. Germany:

I still think we were right. Yes. The German soldiers were the enemy and part of the whole Nazi hate era. But we won and we killed those soldiers. What is wrong with saying. “Let’s never be enemies again”? Would Helmut be wrong if he visited Arlington Cemetery on one of his U.S. visits?

And then this follow-up, after Kohl suggested that they balance the Bitburg ceremony with a tour of Dachau:

Helmut may very well have solved our problem re the Holocaust.

And then there is this innocuous reference to a negotiation on the budget:

The big thing today was a meeting with Tip, Howard Bohling, Jim Wright, Jim Baker, Ed Meese, Don Regan, and Dave Stockman.

The problem is that Howard Bohling wasn’t at the meeting, or on the planet. Our diarist is conflating two of the actual attendees, Howard Baker and Richard Boiling. Are the identities of these men a mere detail? You could say that about Boiling, a mere representative (though a prominent one) and a Democrat to boot. But Senator (and Majority Leader) Baker was the second-most-powerful figure in the Republican Party. He would later become Reagan’s chief of staff. It is deeply weird that the president was so vague about who he was.

The emptiness of Reagan’s diary is one of many indications that the president’s narcissism was of the babyish, not the Byronic, variety. And a happy baby he was. His perfect obliviousness to the feelings and the thoughts of others protected him from emotional turmoil. And his emotional tranquility in turn helped to cushion him from what otherwise might have been the political impact of the contrast between his beliefs and his life. He listed “family” first among his public values, vet his emotional remoteness so wounded his own children that during the White House years three of them published books attacking him. And he treated his closest aides, Cannon tells us, “as indifferently as he did his children.” Once they left his employ, they would never hear from him again.

There were times when Reagan’s lack of self-awareness was merely goofy. At other times, however, his inability to see himself clearly takes on a somewhat mine unpleasant edge. Consider this anecdote:

I’ve never liked hunting, simply killing an animal for the pleasure of it, but I have always enjoyed and collected unusual guns; I love target shooting, and have always kept a gun for protection at home. As I had done when I was governor, I sometimes did some target shooting with the Secret Service agents who accompanied us to the ranch, and occasionally managed to amaze them with my marksmanship. We have a small pond on the ranch that sometimes attracts small black snakes, and every now and then, one would stick its head up out of the water for a second or two. After I’d see one, I’d go into the house and come back with a .38 revolver, go into a little crouch, and wait for the next snake to rise up. Then I’d shoot.

Well, since I was thirty feet or more from the lake, the Secret Service agents were shocked that I was able to hit the snake every lime. They’d shake their heads and say to each other, “How the hell does he do it?”

What they didn’t know was that my pistol was loaded with shells containing bird shot—like a shotgun—instead of a conventional slug. I kept my secret for a while, but finally decided to fess up and tell them about the bird shot.

This little story has a chilling, brightly lit creepiness, like something out of David Lynch. Its trajectory, from Reagan’s pious and no doubt sincere disavowal of killing animals for pleasure to his almost sensuous description of the fun of blowing the heads off unoffending water snakes (and doing it in an unsporting manner, too), suggests an obliviousness that is potentially sinister. One begins to suspect that, for all his generic charm, Reagan may not be such a nice guy after all. We are dealing here with the same insensibility that enables Reagan to believe that he never traded arms for hostages, that the deficit was all the Democrats’ fault, that his economic policies helped the poor at the expense of the rich.


But wait. If he was dumb, superstitious, childish, inattentive, passive, narcissistic, and oblivious, how come he won the cold war?

Good question. The answer, in two words, is Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan, always lucky, was never luckier than to find himself president of the United States at just the moment when a Soviet leader decided to lift the pall of fear and lies from his empire, thus permitting the system’s accumulated absurdities and contradictions to come into plain view and to shake it to pieces.

Everyone agrees that the West, led by the United States, deserves credit for creating the conditions under which this could happen. But in order to assign to Ronald Reagan the lion’s share—that is, to assign to this particular president more than the equal slice of credit that is due each of the eight postwar presidents who carried out the Western policies of containment, nuclear deterrence, conventional military readiness, support for NATO, support for non-Communist economic development, and political and diplomatic opposition to Soviet expansionism—you have to believe that the marginal differences between Reagan’s policies and his predecessors’ were the ones that brought about the Gorbachev breakthrough.

These marginal differences included bigger increases in military spending; intransigence in, if not outright hostility to, arms control negotiations; an emphasis on ideological attacks on Leninism in American public diplomacy; suspension of the anti-Soviet grain embargo; assistance to the guerrillas fighting the Soviet-supported Sandinista regime in Nicaragua; a somewhat more aggressive program of military aid to the Afghani mujaheddin than might otherwise have been pursued (though this program was begun under the Democrats and was popular with both parties); the anti-missile defense proposal; and the military interventions in Lebanon and Grenada. The effect, such as it was, of these policies on changes within the Soviet Union was probably mixed.

Reagan’s admirers argue that the American military buildup encouraged Soviet reform by persuading Gorbachev that the arms race was a pointless rathole. Still, it could also be argued that the buildup retarded reform by strengthening the worst-case paranoids within the Soviet military. More plausible than either argument is the view that Gorbachev’s determination to disengage from the cold war was the product of forces far deeper and stronger than whether American military spending increased a lot or a little during the early 1980s, that the forces that made and unmade Gorbachev were indigenous, historical, Russian.

Nor were the other Reagan policy innovations—whether “hawkish” like the contra obsession or “dovish” like the grain-embargo cancellation, whether wise like the president’s vigorous rhetorical opposition to Leninist ideology or foolish like the Lebanon fiasco—truly central to the epochal decisions being made in the Kremlin. And the argument that these innovations were decisive requires us to believe that without them Gorbachev would not have come to power; or that he would have come to power, but would not have embarked on the path of glasnost and perestroika; or that he would have embarked on this path, but would have been deflected or replaced long before he could follow it as far as he did. None of these propositions seems plausible to me.

The issue of nuclear weapons increasingly occupied Reagan’s attention, and it presents a special case. How much he knew about the topic was the subject of much speculation while he was in office. Cannon shows that Reagan’s ignorance was actually more comprehensive than many of us suspected. The president did not know that submarines carried nuclear missiles, or that bombers carried them. He did not know that land-based ballistic missiles made up a much larger proportion of the Soviet nuclear force than the American one, and therefore he did not realize that his proposal for halving the numbers of such missiles on both sides was far from being the evenhanded basis for serious negotiation he believed it to be. Though he had campaigned against the “window of vulnerability”—the alleged ease with which a Soviet first strike could destroy America’s land-based missiles—he did not know that his own plan to put such missiles in stationary silos would open the “window” wider.

Throughout Reagan’s first term his strings were being pulled by officials who privately opposed the whole idea of arms control agreements with the Soviet Union because they thought such agreements weakened the West’s will to resist. These officials concocted bargaining positions that the Soviets could be relied upon to reject, which is exactly what the Soviets did under Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. Then along came Gorbachev, He wanted a deal so badly that he systematically probed until he found u question Washington was unable not to take yes for an answer to. And so the “zero option” for European-based intermediate-range missiles—a proposal that the Defense Department had crafted to be unacceptable—became, presto chango, the great and crowning achievement of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Whatever happens in the aftermath of the coup in Moscow, the central achievements of the Gorbachev years—the dissolution of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European empire, the demolition of Leninist ideology, and the defusing of East-West confrontation—will almost certainly remain. Could Gorbachev have done all this without Reagan? Probably, yes—but he probably couldn’t have done it without accepting Reagan’s (that is, the West’s) view of the cold war. Gorbachev recognized that the cause of the cold war was not superpower tensions or capitalist encirclement or the arms race, let alone the international class struggle. The cause of the cold war was simply the Soviet Union’s refusal to become a “normal” country. As a corollary, Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet Union faced no military threat from the West, however bulging Western arsenals might be. So he knew he could accept what his predecessors would have seen as preposterously disadvantageous arms control deals without putting his country’s physical security at risk.

There was another point of agreement between Gorbachev and Reagan. They both thought Gorbachev’s country was redeemable. Reagan had a recurring daydream that someday he would take a Soviet leader up in his helicopter and together they would fly low over an American suburb. The Soviet leader would see the tidy little houses of American workers, with their plastic pools out back and a car or two out front, and he would decide that maybe it was time to scrap communism and try a little democracy and free enterprise instead. Is this sentimental fantasy really so different from what actually happened?

When Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and “the form of evil in the modern world,” conservative op-ed writers expressed their satisfaction that at last we had a president who had a moral vocabulary and a tragic sense of history, a president who recognized that some political systems are irredeemably tyrannical and aggressive, a president who rejected the contemptible claptrap that attributes every international conflict to “lack of understanding.” These commentators, and many of their friends inside the Reagan administration, saw Gorbachev as simply cleverer than his predecessors, and therefore more dangerous. Reagan did not agree. When he said “evil,” he just meant bad. He didn’t really believe in immutable malevolence. The villains of Reagan’s world were like the ones in Frank Capra’s movies: capable of change once they saw the light. Reagan thought that Gorbachev was a pretty good guy.

As president, of course, Reagan was the ex officio high priest of the nuclear cult. He was followed everywhere he went by a military aide hand-cuffed to the “football,” the sacred object containing the codes that would enable him to launch the final conflagration. And the propinquity of the thermonuclear Excalibur gave him, in this one area of policy, a consciousness of personal power unparalleled in history and shared only with his Soviet counterpart. By the same token, the rituals of nuclear summitry required his personal participation, and he found the drama irresistible.

Resplendent in the vestments of the nuclear episcopate. Reagan announced his astonishing heresies. In 1983, just when the whole of the conservative foreign policy establishment, and many centrist and liberal nuclear worthies besides, had geared up to defend the morality of nuclear deterrence against freezeniks, Catholic moralists. Euro-accommodationists, and other unsound elements, the president proclaimed that nuclear deterrence was … immoral. To replace it, he proposed an exotic space shield that would protect America (and why not Russia, too?) against nuclear attack.

Whatever progress is ultimately made in anti-missile defense technology, the idea of an impenetrable space shield was then, and remains today, a lunatic notion. The notion’s provenance was lunatic, too. “The dream,” writes Cannon, “was the product of Reagan’s imagination, perhaps of Brass Bancroft and the Inertia Projector and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and certainly of the vivid prophecy of Armageddon that Reagan accepted as a valid forecast of the nuclear age.” SDI was purr Reagan.

Useless as SDI would be as a shield against a determined missile attack, it would not be al all useless as a supplement to a first strike launched by the side that possessed it. This—plus a superstitious awe of American technology—was why SDI alarmed the Russians. Reagan did not understand this. He thought they were lying when they said they were worried about Americans attacking them with nuclear weapons, because they had to know Americans would never do such a thing. McFarlane, who didn’t think they were lying, saw how the dross of Reagan’s “dream “could be turned into gold. In a negotiating ploy so one-sided that he privately called it “The Sting,” United States would abandon SDI—a research program of dubious practicability—in exchange for the destruction of thousands of actually existing Soviet nuclear weapons. McFarlane didn’t mind that Reagan kept saving SDI was not a bargaining chip, because every such avowal drove up its value as a bargaining chip.

McFarlane didn’t realize that the old boy meant what he said. And Reagan had another dream, which prompted him to utter another heresy, the most dangerous one that the priesthood could imagine. He said he wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether. Total nuclear disarmament was a silly old chestnut of cold war propaganda, especially Soviet propaganda. But Reagan believed in it. He had said so in a number of speeches before he became president, but no one paid any attention because everyone assumed that it was just drivel that he’d thrown in to soften his right-wing image. As president. Reagan continued to believe in the desirability of complete nuclear disarmament, even after it was explained to him that nuclear weapons were good because they had kept the peace for forty years. His advisers, he writes in An American Life, included “people at the Pentagon who claimed a nuclear war was ‘winnable.” I though I they were crazy.”

Reagan knew that his own secretary of defense, for example, was “strongly against” nuclear disarmament. Still, he told Gorbachev that he wanted exactly that. In October 1986, at the Reykjavik summit, the principals agreed on principles: the Soviet Union and the United States would scrap all their ballistic missiles within five years and all the rest of their nukes within ten. The only thing that stood in the way of the deal was SDI. Gorbachev wanted it confined to the laboratory, and he simply refused to take seriously Reagan’s offer in share it. Reagan, all accounts agree, became angry—so angry he stalked out of the room while Gorbachev was still talking to him. The session, and the summit, ended. Reagan’s “dreams” had fratricided, like incoming missiles bunched too closely together. He and Gorbachev had to settle for the Euromissile treaty, which would be signed a year later.

Cannon blames Reagan for the failure at Reykjavik. “Reagan,” Cannon writes, “clung to his competing dreams of a world without nuclear weapons and a world in which people would be protected from nuclear war by an antimissile defense.” But were these “dreams” really so inherently contradictory? If both sides still had nuclear arsenals, then sol would indeed be “destabilizing,” because it would create an obvious, if conjectural, temptation to strike first: smash the other side’s forces. and even a leaky defense might be enough to repel what was left. But if “a world without nuclear weapons” were actually to be achieved, then might not shared anti-missile defenses (of a suitably modest kind) be just what Reagan was saying they’d be—insurance against cheaters or crazies?

In retrospect, it’s clear (at least to me) that both Reagan and Gorbachev blundered at Reykjavik. If one of them had given in. both superpowers might be dismantling the last of their ballistic missiles right now. But Gorbachev’s stubbornness was less excusable than Reagan’s. Gorbachev should have realized that it didn’t much matter what he conceded about SD1: once nuclear disarmament was a reality, there would be little political support in the United States for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on exotic space lasers designed to shoot down weapons that were being eliminated anyhow. Gorbachev should have tried to understand why Reagan was so angry: SD1 was Reagan’s baby, Reagan’s pride was at stake, and therefore Reagan was the one who was overvaluing it. Gorbachev should also have realized that Reagan meant what he said about sharing the technology, that on this point, as on the space shield itself, Reagan was willing to brave ridicule and the weight of expert opinion.

All this is, admittedly, a little moot. Once Gorbachev decided to forgo rule by terror, the arms race was going to melt away no matter what anyone else did. The peace that reigns between the United States and the Soviet Union is obviously more of Gorbachev’s making than of Reagan’s, whereas Reagan alone is responsible for a domestic legacy that includes, besides a wonderful revival of the American Spirit, a soul-crushing national debt, an ignoble Supreme Court, stark economic stratification, mounting racial fear, the impoverishment of public institutions, and a make-my-day brand of social discourse that revels in ugly contempt for losers. Yet none of that (except the debt) is a surprise. We—those of us who voted against him—knew he was going to be that way from the start.

Reagan was the plaything of whichever of his aides most deftly pushed his hot buttons, but on the nuclear question he lurched into leadership—and that was a surprise. The same ignorance that made him a pawn in the struggles among his advisers also made him a savant—an idiot savant, to be sure—in the surreal universe of nuclear strategy. He may not have known which end of the missile has the warhead on it, but he was an expert on the end of the world.

It was Reagan’s genius to paste a smiley-face on Armageddon’s grinning skull. It turned out he didn’t view the biblical account of Armageddon as a prophecy of something inevitable, let alone desirable. He viewed it as a sci-fi story, a cautionary tale about a big awful disaster that could and should be prevented. This is a misreading of the text of the Book of Revelation, but Hollywood always rewrites the classics. Too many downbeat endings.

And how was Armageddon to be prevented—or, rather, who was to prevent it? Something McFarlane observed about Reagan is instructive on this point. “He sees himself as a romantic, heroic figure who believes in the power of a hero to overcome even Armageddon,” McFarlane told Cannon. “I think it may come from Hollywood. Wherever it came from, he believes that the power of a person and an idea could change the outcome of something even as terrible as Armageddon…. He didn’t see himself as God, but he saw himself as a heroic figure on earth.” Not as God, but maybe as God’s sidekick.

Perhaps, in true Hollywood style, there will be a sequel. The happy ending was not the only unusual feature of our hero’s interpretation of the tale of Armageddon. “As Reagan understood the story,” Cannon notes, deadpan, “Russia would be defeated by an acclaimed leader of the West who would be revealed as the Antichrist.” Residents of Pacific Palisades, beware of strange weather things. What rough and chuckling beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Beverly Hills to be born?