Killing the Reagan Legacy

Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency

by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Henry Holt, September  2015, $30

In this fifth book in their series Killing, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard begin with the death of “the former leader of the free world, the man who defeated Soviet communism and ended the Cold War.”

A fine tribute, but as the story of Reagan’s life unfolds, told through selected incidents and events, we’re back in the 1990s, wondering who was calling the shots, pulling his strings, writing his lines. “Ronald Reagan slept here” was his own self-deprecating humor about a memorial plaque for the back of his Cabinet chair. Perhaps it was more than humor. Given the stories about his declining film career — the supposed humiliation of the 1950 comedy Bedtime for Bonzo, for example — we wonder how he ever became president.

Before we get 50 pages into the book we have the first clue, in the scene depicting Nancy and Ronald’s wedding: Nancy will no longer “accommodate his every wish” — her “dominance will emerge.” That’s only the beginning. Even as Reagan performs a slapstick comedy routine in Las Vegas in 1954 to shore up his finances, the possibility of the job hosting General Electric Theater is in the offing. “Should Reagan be offered the GE job, Nancy will make sure he takes it.” When Reagan challenges Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries and loses the nomination at the convention, “Nancy Reagan looks ahead to the day that her husband, Ronald Wilson Reagan, becomes the president of the United States in 1980. She will see to it.”

After the assassination attempt, “Nancy decides whom Reagan will and will not see. This practice will continue throughout Reagan’s presidency.”

So there you have it — the first theme, that Reagan’s entire career after he marries is inspired, directed, and controlled by his wife. Nancy goads him on.

The second theme is that Reagan is passive, lacking his wife’s inner steel. He lets others make important decisions for him (not one example is offered) and is not very bright.

The unifying theme is that the assassination attempt caused mental decline, accelerated the onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and ultimately lead to the Iran-Contra debacle. Thus did the violent assault of March 30, 1981, change a presidency.

In reporting Reagan’s first speech after the assassination attempt, the April 28 speech to a joint session of Congress, the authors miss the critical turn in the speech, when Reagan shifts to policy and uses to his advantage the good will and support of the American people and the Congress itself to urge passage of his economic program. The authors lose the opportunity to fulfill the promise of their subtitle in another way: They could have described how his near-death experience gave Reagan renewed confidence in his own goals of revitalizing the U.S. economy and reducing the threat of nuclear war. That it did is supported by evidence in the literature. But the authors don’t make that argument.

#share#Instead they tell us of Reagan’s difficulty hearing (and therefore following a conversation). In long passages they report Reagan’s conversations with Margaret Thatcher about the Falkland Islands, disputed territory invaded by Argentina, with no apparent purpose except to show that Thatcher cowed Reagan, which is unquestionably incorrect if one pays attention to the full record of the relationship. And we get what is intended to be an ironic event: Reagan signs a proclamation naming April 10–16 as National Mental Health Week, and it’s not even on his schedule. (In fact, signing documents is never on the president’s schedule.) John Hinckley, Reagan’s would-be assassin, has been found not guilty by reason of insanity — and the authors call into question Reagan’s own mental state. But, they say, “in truth, Ronald Reagan can be sharp at times.” How nice.

Interspersed with scenes from Reagan’s life are scenes from the life of his attempted assassin, John Hinckley. Here and there, we are treated to scenes from Richard Nixon’s last days in office, Reagan’s first meeting with Margaret Thatcher, and Hinckley’s slide into incipient schizophrenia, and to a reprise of a Saturday Night Live skit on Gerald Ford’s pratfalls. Later scenes will portray Hinckley watching Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Ted Kennedy driving off the bridge in Chappaquiddick with Mary Jo Kopechne on board, and President Jimmy Carter suffering over the failed attempt to rescue the hostages held in Iran.

Why the authors want to present this distorted ‘witch and wimp’ view of Nancy and the 40th president is puzzling, especially since an alternative view of the effect of Reagan’s near-death experience is so readily available.

As we move into the reelection year, the authors accuse Nancy of ensuring that Reagan hasn’t campaigned for eight months, following a “Rose Garden strategy.” But Reagan has no credible opponent for the 1984 nomination, and Walter Mondale, who will be his Democratic opponent in the general election, has not yet been nominated. So there is no need for a strategy, Rose Garden or otherwise.

Of course we get the full chapter and verse on Reagan’s poor performance in his first debate with Mondale; at least we also get the report on the second debate. From there the narrative jumps to the Iran-Contra affair.

A few high points — like the Berlin Wall speech in 1987 — are indeed included, but without any perspective on Reagan’s strategy, perseverance with the Soviets on arms control, or success in revitalizing the U.S. economy. Nothing is said about Reagan’s four second-term summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Except for a few comments that Reagan deplored Communism, this is a policy-free book, and a book essentially innocent of the publication since the turn of the millennium on Reagan’s own writings — his radio commentaries, correspondence, the diary he kept in the White House, the minutes of his National Security Council meetings.

Why O’Reilly and Dugard want to present this distorted “witch and wimp” view of Nancy and the 40th president of the United States is a puzzle to me, especially since an alternative view of the effect of Reagan’s near-death experience is so readily available. Maybe five books in five years, each on a different personality and era, is more than anyone short of genius can manage. The authors will claim that the book is historically accurate; individual scenes (we may really be looking at a movie script here) might be accurate, or at least close. But it is in the selection, not just the telling, that history is written.


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