The Gipper Wins Another One

Ronald Reagan is the latest entry in the American Presidents Series from Times Books, the publishing house owned by the New York Times. The original general editor of the series, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., selected authors with the appropriate ideological pedigree to chronicle the nation’s 43 chief executives.[1] The core precept of the Schlesinger series was that successful Presidents push the boundaries of their office in pursuit of a Progressive agenda.

Schlesinger, succinctly described by David Broder as “James Carville in a cap and gown,” recruited such noted presidential scholars as Gary Hart and George McGovern (the latter was assigned Abraham Lincoln, apparently due to the dearth of Lincoln scholars). Fellow Kennedy courtiers John Seigenthaler and Charles Peters were also enlisted, along with Clinton wordsmith Ted Widmer and the Times’s Gail Collins, who covered her area specialty, the one-month presidency of William Henry Harrison. Occasionally Schlesinger tapped a token “Republican” to write for the series, including the felon John W. Dean along with John S.D. Eisenhower, who became eligible after mending his ways and endorsing John Kerry for President in 2004.

None of this comes as a surprise, for Schlesinger spent the bulk of his life writing cherry-picked histories designed to sanctify the Kennedys and engaging in duels with various journalists who accused Jack and Bobby of plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro. He was the premier scholar-activist of his time, and his Progressive agenda was draped in enough academic accoutrements to impress many of the nation’s media doyennes and assorted “public intellectuals.” In 1996, at the behest of the New York Times, he organized one of those perennial polls of presidential greatness, and on that occasion, too, those who weighed in were his ideological allies, including New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Illinois Senator Paul Simon. Ronald Reagan came in below Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Martin Van Buren on Schlesinger’s list of presidential “greatness.”

Upon Schlesinger’s death in 2007, the editorship of the American Presidents Series passed to Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton, thereby assuring that the series remained under appropriate ideological control. Wilentz, an award-winning scholar with a penchant for publicity, is the perfect torchbearer for a series with an explicitly Progressive slant. One of his claims to fame is the 2006 piece he published in the noted academic journal Rolling Stone declaring the presidency of George W. Bush an epic failure. Sandwiched between articles on Pearl Jam and Jessica Simpson’s ex-husband, Wilentz announced, with just shy of three years remaining in Bush’s second term, that the 43rd presidency appeared to be headed toward “colossal historical disgrace.” Mimicking his mentor Schlesinger, Wilentz has become something of a court historian for Hillary Clinton, rallying to her defense publically and advising her in private.

All of which makes this latest volume in the series something of a miracle. The author, Jacob Weisberg, is a former New Republic writer and editor at Slate. He emerged in the George W. Bush era as the press corps’ foremost connoisseur of Bush’s verbal miscues. (These were collected in 2001’s George W. Bushisms: The Slate Book of Accidental Wit and Wisdom of Our 43rd President. Apparently there has been no appetite among Slate’s readers in the 57 states for collecting “Obamaisms.”) Remarkably, Weisberg dispenses with the ideological bias that has afflicted the authors in this series, and presidency scholars in general, for he has produced a genuinely fair and somewhat admiring book about Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

This is a nuanced account, detailing Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons and his somewhat unique assessment that the Soviet Union was doomed. Reagan considered the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction to be morally abhorrent, but conservatives and liberals alike failed to understand this aspect of Reagan’s thinking, with liberals seeing him as a warmonger. Reagan often hid his anti-nuclear views from advisors who were of a more “realist” bent, and from the Nixon-Kissinger détente wing of the Republican Party, who would later condemn his views as beyond naïve.

Reagan thought, as Weisberg puts it, that Communist regimes were “doomed as a violation of human nature.” Weisberg adopts a heretical position for most liberals in acknowledging that the Soviet Union “didn’t fall; it was pushed,” and it was pushed by both Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan, with the latter being “nearly alone” in thinking that the collapse of the Soviet Union was possible. Weinberg’s conclusion is that Gorbachev was essential to the Soviet collapse, but “it probably would not have happened the way it did without Reagan, either.”

He also offers a number of insightful observations regarding Reagan’s unusual approach to the issues of his time. The Reagan “method” of arriving at decisions was far removed from social science methodology and often rooted in the anecdotal; this explains part of the contempt for him shown by the intelligentsia. As Weisberg notes, Reagan “felt his way through abstract issues by making them into stories about individual people.” He responded to “the poor as individuals, not as a category,” and he would also respond to the plight of the individuals who were taken hostage in Lebanon, thereby putting his presidency in jeopardy. His reliance on personal anecdotes sometimes led him into fantasy land, but it also allowed him to see beyond the conventional wisdom.

Weisberg’s assessment of Reagan’s effort to trim the size and reach of the welfare state is also quite balanced. He argues, contrary to the hysterical rhetoric of Reagan’s critics then and now, that “Reagan didn’t succeed in eliminating a single major program, which illustrates the truth of his adage about eternal life and government bureaus.” He does note that Reagan’s deregulatory drive “halved the thickness of the Federal Register, which complies new regulations.” Perhaps more important than cutting programs and eliminating bureaucracies, though, Reagan changed Americans’

attitude about government, stoking its newfound unpopularity and diminishing expectations about what it was capable of doing. Reagan took citizens who a generation before had turned to Washington for solutions and told them to look elsewhere: to voluntarism, to the free market, to themselves.

In an extraordinary observation for someone with impeccable media credentials (and whose first book, written in 1996, was called In Defense of Government), Weisberg acknowledges that there were “valid aspects” to “Reagan’s critique of social programs,” particularly those of “the Great Society,” which was “in many respects sustaining a culture of poverty.”

Weisberg offers an insightful analysis of Reagan’s detached governing style, noting the negative but also the positive aspects of what he calls this “new model for the presidency.” While Reagan’s style was not entirely new, but rather something of a throwback to the pre-Progressive presidency, he understood the benefits that accrued to a chief executive who acted as a unifying head of state, above the partisan fray. Ronald Reagan was no policy wonk, and the thought of burying himself in briefing books (see Carter, Jimmy) repulsed him. One of Reagan’s top priorities was to restore America’s confidence in itself and in the office of the presidency, and he did so through speeches that healed and inspired the nation. Reagan succeeded magnificently in this regard; as Weisberg observes, “in 1979, 84 percent of the public told Gallup they were dissatisfied with the way things were going in America. By 1986, only 26 percent felt that way.”

Reagan considered speechwriting and speech-making to be a vital aspect of his presidential portfolio. He “invariably improved his speechwriters’ drafts with more vivid and colloquial language, a superior sense of humor, and his humanizing anecdotes,” Weisberg writes. These addresses also provided thousands of Reagan appointees with a clearly defined agenda, or as Weisberg puts it, this was the way Reagan “brought others serving in his administration into alignment with his beliefs,” partially compensating for his hands-off management style.

This detachment, however, frequently encouraged infighting among the President’s senior advisors and contributed to an image of a chaotic White House, where “top aides regularly provided reporters with behind-the-scenes accounts that highlighted their own leading roles.” Nowhere was this more apparent than in the internecine struggle between Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. They undermined each other for over five years, contributing at times to a halting and incoherent foreign policy, not to mention the exhaustion of a train of National Security Advisors, of which Reagan had six in eight years.

There are a few points where Weisberg goes astray. For one thing, he adopts Reagan OMB director David Stockman’s account of Weinberger having “trapped” the President into a massive 7 percent increase in defense spending. The fact is that Reagan had said all along that his commitment to increasing defense spending was nonnegotiable, and he was determined to have an arms race with the Soviets that he believed the Kremlin would lose.

The author is also too quick to dismiss the notion that the nuclear freeze movement, particularly in Europe, was aided and abetted by the KGB. There was ample evidence[2] to support that conclusion, not simply through “apply[ing] a framework from the 1950s.” Moreover, Weisberg notes the high number of prosecutions of various Reagan administration officials, which he attributes to Reagan’s propensity for “mocking bureaucrats” and “undermining regulation[s].” But this fails to appreciate that Reagan governed in a time not long after Watergate, when independent counsels had carte blanche authority to indict at the slightest whiff of scandal. (Were the independent counsel law still in effect, one could imagine a variety of criminal investigations today pursuing Obama’s IRS targeting of conservative organizations; the Justice Department’s subpoenaing of phone records from the Associated Press; or Justice’s “Operation Fast and Furious.”)

Weisberg also overlooks a significant passage in Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech, where the President, in front of an audience of Southern evangelicals, condemned America’s own legacy of “evil,” the institution of slavery. And it is not at all clear that Reagan left America a “more selfish” place or “fueled a new culture of media and celebrity.” These forces were well underway before Reagan entered the White House—the rallying cry of the 1960s and the Woodstock Generation was, “If it feels good, do it,” followed by the 1970s “Me Decade.” And John and Jacqueline Kennedy arguably fueled a culture of media and celebrity far more than did Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

And speaking of evil, American liberals hated Ronald Reagan when he was President, although it has become gospel among some of them that Reagan was liked on both sides of the aisle. He wasn’t. Tip O’Neill, arguably the most partisan House Speaker of the 20th century, declared that Reagan, not the Soviet Union, was the focus of evil in the modern world. According to O’Neill, “the little man of America” was ignored by Reagan, “and I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” The Massachusetts Democrat would later add, in case anyone didn’t get the message, that

the evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.

Weisberg rejects this vicious and vacuous assessment, for Reagan was one of the few public figures to embody “the idealized national character,” with his elements of “simplicity, innocence, and personal modesty.” These qualities are, as Weisberg rightly notes, rare in public life and hard to fake. This book is a rarity as well, and one that hopefully portends more balance in the future from the American Presidents Series.

[1] Due to the anomaly of Grover Cleveland’s being counted twice (the 22nd and 24th presidencies), Barack Obama’s presidency is the 44th but in fact only 43 individuals have held the post.

[2] See Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996), pp. 206-207, 260; also John Vinocur, “K.G.B. Officers Try to Infiltrate Antiwar Groups,” New York Times, July 26, 1983; and George Lardner, Jr., “Soviet Role in Nuclear Freeze Limited, FBI Says,” Washington Post, March 26, 1983.