Entry from June 7, 2004

All the eulogies for Ronald Reagan suggest that, remarkably, it is no longer controversial to speak of him as a great man — though those of us who thought so back in 1980 and before cannot but feel a certain ruefulness about it. This isn’t what most of his eulogists now were saying about him back then! But greatness has a way of forcing itself upon our attention, irrespective of whether or not we share the political beliefs of those who achieve it. Of course that’s not to say that there aren’t still lots of people who who resent him above all for being great and so defeating the post-honor culture’s imperative for bringing the great, the strong, the beautiful, the charismatic down to its own level.

I always thought that this was the trouble with Dutch, Edmund Morris’s ill-fated biography — or “memoir,” though in fact it was neither and both, a sort of non-fiction novel of which the author was the real hero. Morris, who once said that Reagan was “the most mysterious man I have ever confronted” and that “it is impossible to understand him” could not forgive him for resisting his biographer’s most determined efforts to feel superior to his subject, and to belittle him by “explaining” his psychology. But a great man has no psychology, no sub-text, no hidden depths to explain what is going on on the surface. He is all surface, which is what differentiates him from the mere celebrity with his shallow depths and simple complexity and which is also the unforgivable sin against the spirit of the post-honor era.

This has become almost a commonplace now, though it is not often recognized how completely it goes against the temper of our times. Greatness is a quality in such short supply in the world partly because we don’t want greatness, and won’t suffer it to remain anywhere where it is possible to analyze it or belittle it or ridicule it out of existence. What follows is my review, which appeared in the Washington Times of November 4th, 1990, of Reagan’s memoir, titled: Ronald Reagan: An American Life. I didn’t think it was a very good book, and don’t imagine that even many of the great man’s most fervent admirers often dip into it for pleasure. But it had something of the quality of the man about it.

Near the end of this book, Ronald Reagan describes a private conversation he had with Mikhail Gorbachev at the May, 1988, Moscow summit. Gorbachev had asked about the prospects for increased US-Soviet trade and Reagan replied with a homily on religious liberty for Soviet Jews:

That”s how our country was started, by people who were not allowed to worship as they wished in their homeland, so they came to our shores, a wilderness across the Atlantic, and founded our nation. I”m sure a lot of your people who are asking to leave wouldn”t want to leave if they had freedom of religion.

And so on with what an exasperated Brezhnev had once called his “game with words regarding the rights of man.” Reagan wonders “whether my words had any impact or not,” but you can bet your last jelly-bean that they had one kind of impact — the kind that Reagan must frequently have had upon hard-bitten politicos both at home and abroad who found themselves asking: “Is this guy for real?”

The answer, it turned out, was yes. That”s the point. In any other political memoir an account of a one-on-one discussion between the two most powerful men in the world which included that kind of boilerplate rhetoric would be simply unbelievable. Sure, that”s what they would say in public, but alone together in private? Give me a break! Such cynicism falters, however, before the awesome ingenuousness of Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter might have said something of the sort, but he couldn”t have done it unselfconsciously; he would have known it was phony. With Reagan nothing was ever phony — or everything was, depending on your political point of view. In the end it comes to the same thing. For in either case there was nothing beneath the surface. What you saw was what you got.

And that was the secret of his success. Reagan was the last word in method acting: he assumed the role of President and it took him over completely. There was no ‘real’ Reagan underneath, just the same simple patriot through and through. People believed him because he believed himself, whole-heartedly and unequivocally, in all the optimistic and idealistic certainty he was continually selling them on. A lot of people, especially foreigners, mistook this dazzling sincerity for stupidity. But Reagan wasn”t stupid; he was merely simple. It is interesting in retrospect that Gorbachev”s first letter to him should have spoken of the importance for trust between nations of not talking “in two languages: one for private contacts, and the other, as they say, for the audience.” For he must have come to see that Reagan was the ultimate monoglot. All the old world subtlety of a Henry Kissinger could never have done it, but when Ronald Reagan said, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” it was as if Gorby just threw up his hands and said: “Oh, what the hell.”

Or “what the h–l”, to adopt the prim convention of the Reagan diaries quoted here. Somehow, one almost believes even in that. He’s such a nice guy. He hasn’t got a bad word to say for anybody — except, perhaps, Al Haig. And if there were some latter day White House transcripts through which we could track the Iran-Contra affair, even the expletives wouldn”t have to be deleted. But by the same token we probably would learn little to titillate our appetite for scandal — any more than we do from the account of the episode here. This is not necessarily because Reagan himself was guiltless in it, though he may well have been. It is rather because the negative simply doesn”t register with him. What seemed like a poor memory in his video-taped testimony in the Poindexter trial was really something closer to a narrowness of moral focus which, even if it looks at failure, squalor or deceit can scarcely see them as such. If he had been guilty, he himself wouldn’t have known it.

The nearest he ever gets to self-scrutiny is when, for example, he acknowledges that he “goofed a couple of times” in the first debate with Mondale in 1984. But this was because he had allowed himself to be “overtrained”— stuffed full of a lot of unnecessary facts and figures — and “didn”t feel good about myself.” His feeling good about himself, as his handlers came to realize (“Let Reagan be Reagan”) was the means by which he made Americans feel good about their country. But it probably took a toll upon his family. He could only think in platitudes or stories and, because there was no private, intimate Reagan for them to take a privileged share in, it is small wonder that all his children were at one time or another estranged from him. What do you do when your father is a kind of monument? And, although the closeness of his relationship with Nancy is evident on almost every page, she is more like an alter ego, yet another facet of his public self, than a person in her own right. Of his children you will learn little from this volume.

Even his own early life, up until he was elected Governor of California at the age of 55, is reduced to a series of anecdotes and takes up less than a fifth of the book. By contrast, he devotes a quarter of it just to the account of the arms control negotiations leading up to the INF treaty of 1987. This, by the weighting he gives it, he apparently considers the crowning achievement of his administration, but there is characteristically no introspection such as would be necessary to sum up and put things in perspective. If, like mine, your eyes tend to glaze over at the sound of that dreadful dactyl, arms control, you will have to work hard to derive as much pleasure from his “historic moment” as he does. But it is worth making the effort if only because the book is very much the man: clear, understandable, greatly communicating, not very exciting for those inclined to look too deeply into things, but with all the mystery about it of the blindingly simple. It should go on the shelf next to Horatio Alger as one of our classic American success stories.

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