Culture

Reagan: Too Big to Judge?

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In his new novel, Finale, Thomas Mallon tries to “get at” the real Reagan.

When Edmund Morris, the author of a prize-winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a book much admired by Ronald and Nancy Reagan, was commissioned by the administration to write an equally epic one about Reagan, he soon realized that this was an impossible assignment. Even though he was very much a fly on the wall in top administration meetings, he was up against an almost insurmountable problem: Reagan himself.

“He was truly one of the strangest men who’s ever lived,” Morris told Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.’”

Thus, Morris sought to “get at” Reagan via a fictional narrator who was born in the same town as Reagan and observed him from Reagan’s days as a lifeguard to his tenure as president of the United States.

Thomas Mallon — one of those rarities in the writing trade, a conservative — adopts a similar approach in Finale, a novel set in 1986. Save Reagan himself, all the characters in the novel — Christopher Hitchens, Nancy Reagan, Pamela Harriman (the wife of Democratic heavy hitter Averell Harriman) — are allowed “thought balloons.” We know their reaction to all the staples of that decade. But we don’t with Reagan, and Mallon often doesn’t even try. He does invent several characters, among them Anders Little, a member of the National Security Council, but not as an “in” to the president; Little’s main duty is to provide a link between Reagan and the equally opaque Nixon (Mallon does attempt to show Nixon’s thought processes).

Nancy Reagan, little liked by many in the administration who loved her husband, emerges as every bit as mean-spirited and vindictive as her detractors, both left and right, stated. She sizes women up not by their intellect, but by how well their blouse goes with their hair. About her enemies, from Don Regan, Reagan’s chief of staff, to Raisa Gorbachev, she sits and broods, remembering each slight and insult (Regan unsubtly mocks her running the president’s schedule according to astrological advice) and preparing her rebuttals — which will appear in My Turn, an immature and shrewish title if ever there was one. For decades, liberals, aware that she convinced Reagan that Gorbachev might be something different from the usual Kremlin hardliners, believed her to be one of their own. But in Mallon’s account, she is merely being political. Aware of what she believes to be Reagan’s increasing dementia from Alzheimer’s, she wants to end his term prematurely, according to Mallon, so as to avoid others’ becoming aware of it. As such, she wants him to go out as a peacemaker.

Hitchens darts in and out of the novel. What is striking about Mallon’s Hitchens is how muted his criticism of Reagan is (the real-life Hitchens called Reagan, in his obit, “dumb as a stump”). Hitchens seems to reserve his greatest scorn for Pamela Harriman. He mocks her tunnel-visioned determination to wrest the Senate from Republican control. And he consistently reminds her that the Gulag is still up and running. In such moments, Mallon shows us why Hitchens remains one of the conservative movement’s favorite leftists.

Through Little, we are given another staple of the era — the AIDS crisis — which forced many who wouldn’t otherwise have done so to come out of the closet (e.g., Reagan’s friend and supporter Rock Hudson — but not, alas, Roy Cohn). Mallon doesn’t pound the reader over the head with the hypocrisy and obvious self-hatred of those such as Terry Dolan, a conservative activist who, along with his Moral Majority allies, championed family values and denounced homosexuals — but who also cruised men’s rooms and contracted AIDS. But it is there nonetheless.

At the Reykjavik Summit, Reagan comes alive — to the surprise of his inner circle, who had worried about Gorbachev taking advantage of a sick Reagan as Stalin did of the dying FDR at Yalta.

Of all the characters, Reagan makes the most spectral appearances. And in those appearances Mallon bridges what liberals said about Reagan — that he was, in the words of Democratic guru Clark Clifford, “an amiable dunce” — and what conservatives said — that he was a visionary who won the Cold War. Throughout the novel, Mallon has him drift in and out of reality. But at the Reykjavik Summit, he comes alive — to the surprise of his inner circle, who had worried about Gorbachev taking advantage of a sick Reagan as Stalin did of the dying FDR at Yalta. In the novel as in real life, Reagan is lucid, hard-hitting, and successful in checkmating the Soviet premier (he once told Gorbachev that America would not “let you win”). Mallon doesn’t try to explain Reagan’s performance, but it is evident when one reviews Reagan’s stances since the 1950s that this was the moment he was born for. Since the 1950s, Reagan had fantasized about, as president, telling a Soviet premier at a summit “Nyet!” when the Russian made demands. Equally important were Reagan’s dealings with the American Communists who sought to take over Hollywood unions in the 1940s. It was these dealings, Reagan stated, that prepared him for Gorbachev. When the pressure of summit performance lessened, Mallon has Reagan lapse back into dementia.

Mallon pulls no punches about Reagan’s Alzheimer’s. In the course of the novel Mallon makes it increasingly apparent that Nancy is running the show. But Mallon manages to laud Reagan even when he depicts the president as being out to lunch. In one of the few instances when he allows the reader to examine Reagan alone, he shows Reagan’s instinctual abhorrence of Communism. As he is examining objects he cannot name, he comes across a piece of the recently demolished Berlin Wall, knows that it represents something evil, and hurls it away.

In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a new police commissioner seeks to understand why the retiring Commissioner Gordon aided and abetted a vigilante. Gordon recounts a story about FDR: He says the president may have known about Pearl Harbor beforehand but let it happen. Thousands died, but it got America “off its duff” to fight the Axis. Gordon couldn’t get his head around this and finally concluded that FDR was simply “too big” to judge. The same could be said of Reagan. Perhaps he was in and out of reality while president; perhaps he let Nancy and others do the heavy lifting toward the end. But it was also his vision — something acknowledged grudgingly by liberals today — that toppled the Soviet Union.

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