Jim: “I’ve done a thing or two for them . . . .”
Marlow: “My dear chap, you shall always remain for them an insoluble mystery.”
–Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
I thought about President Reagan, by chance, Friday night, oblivious of the death vigil that had by then begun in California. I was in the middle of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim when I remembered to have read somewhere that the novel was Reagan’s favorite, or one of his favorites, something like that. And so I got to thinking about what in the book might have interested him. The next day, about 5:00, I logged onto Drudge and learned that he was dead.
What might Ronald Reagan have gotten out of Conrad’s book? Before I get to that question I must tell a story. Reagan resembled Lord Jim, the hero of Conrad’s novel, in a small but important way. Both men had about them a winning aura, an enigmatic grace. Reagan’s I encountered first-hand; many years ago I shook his hand. I have sometimes found that people one has read about in the press or seen on television are not quite, when one meets them in person, what one took them to be. Conrad has his narrator, Marlow, speak, in Lord Jim, of “this amazing Jim-myth”; and many of President Reagan’s detractors have and will continue to speak of an amazing Ron-myth, a conjuring trick, a thing of smoke and mirrors. So there is, I think, a certain value in the story of my handshake, precisely because it is not the testimony of one who knew Reagan well, or worked with him closely, or had anything valuable to offer him; there was no need, he had no motive, to exert himself to be charming.
The motorcade arrived. Black limousines followed by Secret Service station wagons (the SUV had not yet been invented) filled with automatic weapons. (A fourteen-year-old was impressed by all those guns.) Mrs. Reagan came into the hotel first; Reagan himself, of course, was not yet president and so was not obliged by the etiquette of state to go first through doorways. (When, shortly after becoming president, John F. Kennedy stood back to allow Eleanor Roosevelt to precede him through a door, she demurred. “You go first,” she said, “you are the president.” Kennedy laughed: “I keep forgetting.” To which she responded firmly, “But you must never forget.”) Mrs. Reagan was carrying the bouquet of flowers some dignitary had given her. She saw me, smiled, and greeted me in a most gracious way; I might have been an old family friend, so genuine was the warmth of this lady who is sometimes said to be cold. The governor was a few steps behind her, tall in a light summerweight suit, cream-colored or khaki. (Later that day Reagan would visit a New York slum; the footage is still sometimes shown during TV retrospectives of the 1980 campaign: In it he is wearing the same suit, though I think he had by this time removed his coat, the day being so hot.)
His greeting? The same smile, the same affability, the same kindness he showed on camera. Of course he was physically a most impressive man; but the spark of animation, the look in the eye, the joy in his bearing was something quite apart from mere handsomeness, came up from some deep well of his being. He was happy to be alive. I say happy to be alive rather than happy to be the Republican nominee, which would be something different; he was happy to be alive, and would have been so whether or not he was the Republican nominee. He was happy to be who he was and where he was–or so I think now as I try to remember the scene; there was no hint of that dissatisfaction to which many people, perhaps most people, are prey during some part of their day–that desire to be something or somewhere else.
If the charm were merely for show, part of an elaborate con-job, I don’t see how he could have, or why he would have, worked it up for the sake of a 14-year-old kid in a madras jacket hanging around a hotel door. No, the man’s aura was real and not the result of Hollywood trickery. At all events Governor and Mrs. Reagan turned and went to the left with their entourage; yet it was not the last I saw of them. For I went quickly round the other side of an elevator bank and saw them again as they walked towards the escalators on the north side of the hotel. Governor Reagan smiled; I think he was amused by how quickly I had gotten round the elevators. “Hi, again,” he said, with the geniality for which he is famous. No trace of condescension, indifference, or unease; he radiated the same perfect confidence, the same goodwill, he did in what I might otherwise have suspected to be his “got-up” performances for the camera. He then rode up the escalator to deliver his speech.
So he was not a phony; of that I am sure. And he had a winning grace, a mysterious strength–call it egotism if you like, but of a benign and constructive variety: I am sure of that as well. Yet in other respects Ronald Reagan was very different from the hero of the book he admired. It seems unlikely that Reagan ever failed in the performance of any duty in the way that Conrad’s Jim failed when as first mate on the Patna he jumped from the steamer into the lifeboat. Jim supposed the Patna to be doomed; and in that fatal moment leapt, as he thought, to safety, when his duty and honor were pledged to the souls on board the ship.
The contrast with Reagan’s own experience is obvious. Far from leaving others to their fates, Reagan (when he was seven or eight years younger than Jim when we first meet him in Conrad’s book) saved seventy-seven lives as a lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois. “It has been suggested,” Garry Wills wrote in Reagan’s America, “that Reagan’s famous rescues (seventy-seven in all) are the product of fame and nostalgia infecting each other long after. But the rescues were famous from the outset. The first time Ronald Reagan ever appeared on the front page of a newspaper was August 3, 1928, because the seventeen-year-old had saved a man, after dark, where another rescuer had failed.”
When, many years later, Reagan’s own life hung in the balance after he had been shot by Hinckley, he, of course, did not freeze up in terror in the way Conrad’s Jim does: Rarely has a man demonstrated so much grace under pressure as Reagan did in March 1981. Yet as I reflected on Reagan and Lord Jim on Friday night I thought I could see why the former president might have been drawn to Conrad’s story of the struggles of a man “trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be.” In Conrad’s novel Jim fails to keep this moral ideal intact. “He was not afraid of death, perhaps,” Marlow says of Jim, “But I’ll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency.” Reagan was, I suppose, determined to do better, to meet the tests, the emergencies, when they came; and history, of course, will record that he did meet them.
Jim, as a young man, dreamed of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line.” Ronald Reagan did more than dream of saving lives: He really saved them–as a lifeguard at first, and later in a different way, when he did so much to save so many lives from tyranny. But I do not want to paint too dark a picture of Conrad’s Jim; he was not at all a bad fellow; he had much nobility in him, much idealism, many beautiful dreams. It is only in comparison with a genuinely heroic figure that Jim appears somewhat contemptible. As Marlow says, Jim is “one of us.” Reagan was not. Like other great men, Reagan was a little different–a little stronger, a little better.
In Lord Jim the hero partially redeems himself, rectifies his great error, by his conduct in exile on Patusan, one of the Malay Islands. Here Jim becomes a just ruler, the high-souled man of the type the ancient Greeks adored. It is on Patusan that Jim becomes “Tuan Jim…. As you may say, Lord Jim.” His popularity is absolute; he is the “virtual ruler of the land.” His “loneliness added to his stature,” though he takes a beautiful wife, whom he calls “Jewel,” and to whom his devotion is absolute. Tuan Jim moves among the jungle-villages as a kind of demi-god: he “appeared like a creature not only of another kind but of another essence.” Legend “had gifted him with supernatural powers.” And yet the overlord does not abuse his authority, not in the least. A more different approach to governance than that of Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would be difficult to imagine. For, though he has not the brilliance and originality of Kurtz, Lord Jim possesses an “inborn ability to look temptations straight in the face” and turn away from them.
Conrad’s picture of a ruler uncorrupted by his vast power, a man who “was equal to his [good] fortune,” must have appealed to Reagan, who more than any other modern president was conscious of how easily power corrupts, how rapidly men of state forget where they came from, how soon they abandon the principles and the people they came to the great capital to fight for. When Reagan spoke of the dangers of “big government,” he was expressing, in a laconic way, the moral drama of Lord Acton’s famous maxim about the corrupting effects of power.
I suppose it would be fanciful to draw too many morals from President Reagan’s admiration of a single book. I doubt whether the president, in his negotiations with the Soviet Union in his second term, had in the back of his mind the mistake Jim made in his own encounter with absolute evil–the villainy, the cruel imperium, of “Gentleman Brown,” whom Marlow credits with possessing a “satanic gift of finding out the best and weakest spot in his victims.” But with his instinct for the right course of action Reagan avoided Tuan Jim’s mistake. Jim came gradually to trust Brown–and realized his error too late, after Brown slaughtered some of his people. Reagan’s motto was crucially different from Jim’s. “Trust,” he always said when it came to the Soviet Union, “but verify.”
“My last words about Jim shall be few,” Conrad’s Marlow says. “I affirm he had achieved greatness.” His country today affirms the same thing of Ronald Reagan. Hail to the chief.
–Michael Knox Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.