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ronald reagan

26 january 2016

Jacob Weisberg pulls no punches in his new study of Ronald Reagan, but he occasionally runs over to the Gipper's corner and cheers him on.

There is no doubt of the significance of the Reagan era in American history, but there can be some uncertainty over how much Ronald Reagan himself contributed to it. The other great reshaping Presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, were architects and in some areas hands-on builders, at least till debility limited them in their last years. Reagan wasn't even an architect; he was more like the rich client who vaguely describes his dream house. And Reagan too was slowed by debility toward the end of his term, to an extent not fully ascertained even now.

Weisberg agrees with Edmund Morris, author of the wonderful but weird official biography Dutch, that Ronald Reagan was a talented speaker and avid reader. Many of his memorable utterances were his own, according to Weisberg, and when they weren't he was very professional in delivering them. He crafted decades' worth of speeches and wrote countless letters and diary entries. One gets the impression that if other careers hadn't worked out, Reagan might himself have become a speechwriter.

If he seemed to be an airhead, it was perhaps because he had tunnel vision, and wasn't a good listener either (Reagan was both inattentive and partially deaf). Weisberg also notes Reagan's distressing tendency to make stuff up. He attributes Reagan's entire vision of world communism to a bunch of jokes about command economies and a collection of things that Lenin never said. If you were a young liberal in the 1980s, it was an article of faith that Ronald Reagan was an idiot. The truth may have been that he only seemed like an idiot, which is somehow not all that reassuring.

Another article of faith from my youth was that Reagan was out to start a nuclear war – a belief not helped by the President's jokes about doing just that. Yet Reagan's big war turns out in hindsight to be rather like Barack Obama's plan to take away our guns. His opponents were convinced he was fixing to do it, but eight years passed and nothing even close happened. In fact, Reagan eventually went Richard Nixon a step better on detente, and set disarmament finally in motion after 40+ years of cold war. Weisberg rightly identifies Reagan's rapprochement with Mikhail Gorbachev as an entirely positive and lasting achievement.

By contrast, Weisberg sees Reagan's domestic policies as fairly incoherent and frequently corrupt. The Reagan domestic dream house could only have been realized by M.C. Escher. The idea was to cut taxes drastically, increase military spending just as drastically, and keep social programs largely in place, resulting in a balanced budget. This conservative variation on the Engineer's Triangle was ultimately achieved by Bill Clinton, who balanced his budgets by raising taxes, decreasing military spending, and paring away social programs. In the process, Weisberg notes, America accumulated greater contrasts between wealth and poverty, moving decisively away from the egalitarian ideals forged during Depression, wartime, and the postwar welfare-state era.

Clinton could cut military spending, of course, because Reagan had brought down the Soviet Union. Or did he? Even Weisberg buys into the idea that the Reagan arms race pressured the USSR into collapse. I can accept the notion that the arms buildup led to disarmament – it seems a paradox, but it's analogous to getting your running partner to slow down by picking up the pace to a point they can't sustain. But it's less clear to me that the American threat pushed communism into unsustainability. Americans tend to discount the agency of Eastern Europeans and even more so the agency of Russian opponents of the Soviet system. And after all, it isn't like Presidents Truman through Carter were exactly shy about pressuring the Soviets. But apparently even Gorbachev has acknowledged that Soviet overreaction to the Reagan threat became destabilizing. Weisberg argues that Reagan foresaw the eventual fall of the Eastern bloc better than nearly any other American observers, left or right. He had a simplistic faith that people would ultimately reject life under communism, and an equally simplistic conviction that people would eventually see sense and start to ratchet down the threat of nuclear destruction.

And of course the major foreign-policy successes of Reagan's administration came in those last years, when he was beseiged by the Iran-Contra scandal, when analysis of his spontaneous speech shows verbal decline, when his diaries were becoming (says Weisberg) "painfully mechanical" (136). The energy of the "tear down this wall" speech is hard to reconcile with a President well into the grip of Alzheimer's. Yet perhaps here too we see Reagan narrowing his considerable powers of focus to pinhole proportions, and exerting his last remaining verbal gifts to help nudge Soviet dominion off its dais.

Weisberg, Jacob. Ronald Reagan. New York: Times Books [Henry Holt], 2016. E 877 .W45