EDITOR’S NOTE: This review of Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, An American Life, appeared in the February 11, 1991, issue of National Review .
President Reagan is not, as he tells us, an introspective man. There is nothing confessional about this autobiography, no early traumas revealed, no great agonies of soul flaunted. That is not to say that Mr. Reagan conceals the disappointments and defeats inseparable from every life. On the contrary. In the early passages covering his childhood and education, he is candid about his family’s poverty (which compelled them to move house several times), his father’s business failures and alcoholism, his disappointment in early love, and his difficulties in sports and at school.
He was able to tolerate the economic ups-and-downs partly because he was too young to understand their significance, and partly because the traditional values and good neighborliness of small towns in the Midwest supplied him with a different kind of stability. He quickly learned to pick himself up, brush himself off, and start all over again.
He shows the same knack here, notably when he sums up his marriage to, and divorce from, Jane Wyman in a single gentlemanly paragraph. In that case, perhaps, he had little alternative. But he shows a tendency, where other people’s feelings are concerned, to gloss over unpleasantness in a way which does him credit as a Christian but detracts somewhat from his value as a historian.
There is more to this than Mr. Reagan’s congenital decency and optimism, however. In a rare introspective moment, he reveals himself to be a surprisingly private man who has difficulty in making really close friends. Several passages about his wife Nancy portray her as someone who, in effect, protects his interests against his own easygoingness toward other people. He confesses to an inability, damaging for a professional politician, to remember people’s names. Even his raconteurship can be seen as a protective device against the unwelcome intimacy of Hollywood fans and political supporters.
We can guess at the causes of this remoteness: his frequent changes of home and school as a child, his nearsightedness (not discovered until he was 12), his partial deafness. But the result seems clear. Genial in public, amiable toward casual acquaintances, Mr. Reagan is detached and reserved in private. He keeps all but a few close friends at a distance.
Liberal reviewers, having solved this first mystery of Mr. Reagan’s personality, think that they have solved the second mystery of his popularity. They paint a picture of a Holy Fool revered by a simple populace. Detached from economic collapse, remote from the worsening condition of the poor, ignorant of international realities, Mr. Reagan could preach the most harmful doctrines with perfect sincerity. And being an actor, he could communicate these beliefs to the American people despite the surrounding evidence of economic collapse and military excess. Here, for instance, is Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books: The cartoon character Mr. Magoo, blind and optimistic, loudly describes the happy things going on around him while the viewer sees him surrounded by perils, destruction, and violence…
Reagan creates the reality he is voicing, Magoo-like, no matter what untoward events are occurring all around him…he is convinced that his businessmen brought on prosperity, a restoration of trust in government, and an end of the cold war. Or Maureen Dowd in The New York Times Book Review:
Mr. Reagan made us feel good about ourselves and our country… He told us we could have it all without paying for it. But after eight years of his Presidency … we did not feel good about the class divisions or the crass materialism or the economic programs that bypassed the poor and minorities.
Illusions, self-deception, and blind adherence to ideology are certainly on display here. But they are to be found in Mr. Reagan’s liberal critics rather than in the former President. Merely examine the charges.
Prosperity a mirage? The U.S. enjoyed the longest peacetime expansion in its history during the Reagan years, one in which inflation was brought down and prices kept stable.
The cold war ended–but by someone other than Mr. Reagan? Whether the cold war is over may be debatable in the light of the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania. What is not debatable is that the Soviet empire in Central Europe has been dismantled. And the people of the former Communist countries have no doubt that President Reagan was the prime mover in their liberation. It is now only American intellectuals who, parochial to the last, cling to the argument that Mr. Gorbachev woke up one morning and decided to get rid of Communism.
Economic programs that bypassed the poor and minorities? When President Reagan left office, more Americans were in work than ever before, but fewer were doing minimum-wage jobs. Real average income, which had fallen from 1978 to 1982, rose each year thereafter. And federal spending on low-income assistance programs–everything from AFDC to food stamps–rose by 12 per cent in real terms during the Reagan years.
If cornered on these points, Reagan’s critics nimbly escape by pointing out that much of this expenditure was passed by Congress over the President’s objections. This is partly true (and partly false), but it usefully establishes the underlying principle of anti- Reagan apologetics: the former President is to be given no credit for any benefits from expenditures during his term of office but is to be held solely responsible for any deficits such expenditures helped to swell.
Faced by Reagan, liberal critics become a herd of inverted Magoos, seeing only the poverty and failure that pre-dated his election and blind to the economic and social improvements that followed it. This false view prevents their glimpsing some things about Mr. Reagan that might be more to their taste.
For Mr. Reagan put his remoteness to steely political use. Throughout his career, he was able to discard old political allies who had become liabilities with little apparent pain. Campaign manager John Sears was dispatched into the wilderness of lobbying for South Africa thus: “So, on the day that New Hampshire voters were going to the polls, I invited John, Jim Lake, and Charles Black to my hotel room and I asked them to resign. They took it well and I think they understood why the changes were necessary…. From then on, with the management changes we had made, the campaign ran smoothly . . .”
What applied to individuals applied also to causes. Mr. Reagan knew what many of his critics have yet to grasp: that a President is remembered for only a handful of vital political decisions such as the economic-recovery program and the military buildup of his first term. Everything else was subordinated to these objectives. Central America was put on the back burner for most of his first term; the right-to-life movement was given rhetorical support but little else; Judge Bork was nominated and abandoned until too late; and when the President’s first foray into cutting popular domestic programs in the form of Social Security was resoundingly rebuffed by Congress in 1981, he never raised the issue again. It gets only two post-1980 mentions in this book.
This economical use of power produced a phenomenal record of achievement: the reduction of inflation by more than two-thirds; the halving of interest rates; the longest economic expansion in American peacetime; a comprehensive tax reform; negotiations leading to the first U.S.-USSR treaty actually to reduce nuclear weaponry on both sides; the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and of Cuba from Angola; the undermining of Soviet power in Europe; and the restoration of American power and prosperity. And all this with no grave crisis left for his successor to struggle with–save for the deficit, which was on a declining path.
But in politics, as someone said, you can achieve almost anything provided that you let someone else take the credit. Reagan’s aides encouraged a picture of his Administration which showed them in charge while he slept–and he never seemed to mind this lese-majeste. But why should he mind? His views on the major issues always prevailed in the end. And if aides took the credit for most decisions, the corollary was that they found themselves taking the blame for decisions that turned out badly.
Mr. Reagan, then, is a somewhat different political leader from the bumbling idiot of liberal myth–in private a kind and gentle man, in politics a charming Machiavellian, economical in his use of power, manipulative in his use of people, and modest when it comes to sharing out the credit. In short, a master politician.
The problem of this book is that memoirs are a form of taking the credit and Mr. Reagan simply can’t do it. A lifetime of not fully showing his hand has bred in him a style of amiable discretion that he simply can’t shake. His talented ghost,” Mr. Robert Lindsey, captures his tone of voice perfectly. But the effect is a kind of literary muzak in which the harsh edges of the last decade’s political battles are softened in recollection.
An American Life is readable, full of good stories, and the record of a great Presidency. But it is not the inside story. Mr. Reagan is too good-natured to tell us that.