Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

Getting a Grip on the Gipper

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon, 480 pp., $27.95)

Historical fiction can be an imaginative way of exploring great historical characters and bringing events to life beyond the documentary evidence and witness accounts. You might have thought writers would hesitate to approach Ronald Reagan and his times through fiction after the disaster of his official biographer Edmund Morris’s inserting himself as a semi-fictional character in his misbegotten Dutch (1999), but fortunately Thomas Mallon’s invented characters in his new novel of the Reagan era don’t include himself (though one suspects that more than one is a composite of real people).

Finale follows other Mallon historical titles, such as Dewey Defeats Truman (1997) and Watergate: A Novel (2012), that sparkle not for offering any bold new interpretation of events but for capturing the texture of the times with a dry wit and a keen eye for subtle insights. The charms of Finale grow slowly on the reader, as Mallon’s feel for this most extraordinary and unusual presidency of the 20th century can’t help but leave us nostalgic once again for the time of the Gipper. It was extraordinary for the events that took place — especially the key turning point of the end of the Cold War — and also the Hollywood element of Reagan himself, which is ever present but not overdone in Mallon’s treatment.

Readers old enough to recall the pre-Internet 1980s will enjoy the nostalgic appearances of Phil Donahue, Top Gun, Bob Hope jokes, Falcon Crest, Kaypro computers, Olivia Newton-John, the boomlet for a Jeane Kirkpatrick presidential run in 1988, Mike Deaver in rehab — even would-be assassin John Hinckley makes some appearances from inside his padded cell in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital.

Mallon’s structure and style offer a kaleidoscopic approach to the subject, with several narrative strands competing for focus. Finale opens with a brief account of Reagan’s triumphant and not entirely impromptu remarks on the final night of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, which everyone at the time assumed would be the 65-year-old Reagan’s political swan song. The novel then jumps ahead ten years to the brief, crucial period of the late summer and fall of 1986, which saw the highest and lowest points of Reagan’s presidency: the Reykjavik summit of October 1986 and the breaking of the Iran-Contra scandal, which threatened to end Reagan’s presidency before he finished his term.

Mallon eschews the style of the single knowing narrator in favor of unspooling the story from the point of view of multiple characters, one of them fictional but most of them prominent names from the time, including Richard Nixon, Pamela Harriman, Nancy and Maureen Reagan, and Christopher Hitchens. (The superbly drawn Hitchens — Mallon was a close friend — may have been the excuse for the whole book.) His renderings of Hitchens’s tartness are dead on, and many of his one-liners about other figures zing off the page. Of Pamela Harriman’s political ambition to swing a Senate seat in the 1986 election, for example, Mallon says: “She coveted it as she once might have another woman’s ring.” (He has Hitchens say of Harriman that she was “a lady with too many husbands and too much money.”) He channels Nixon perfectly, too, and contrives several convincing Nixon lines. Of the Khrushchev-era Soviets, Mallon’s Nixon says: “Thugs and peasants; you could practically smell the manure on them.” Nancy Reagan tells an aide, “Elaine, how long have you been in this job? Overreacting is what I do.” (Mallon also has Nancy contemplating pulling out Joe Biden’s hair plugs one by one, “as excruciatingly as she could.”)

Mallon wisely doesn’t try to put himself very far into Reagan’s head and leaves the Gipper mostly in the background. He is content to leave be the mystery of Reagan’s remoteness and to run with lines that mostly exist in the historical record. He has Jeane Kirkpatrick say that Reagan is unlike any politician, academic, or journalist she’s ever known, a “warmly impersonal man,” but that underneath Reagan’s smoke burns an intense fire. “But nobody knows where the fire is. And nobody knows who started it or how to keep it going.”

Mallon’s original contribution to Reagan psychobiography is to understand him as Detective Columbo, with a seemingly bumbling just one more thing manner that befuddled the Soviets. The climax of the book is Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, where the Soviets sprang a mousetrap on Reagan, certain that he’d be willing to confine his SDI missile-defense program to “the laboratory” in exchange for eliminating all strategic nuclear weapons. Many of Reagan’s aides thought it a deal worth making, and were just as incredulous as the Soviets that Reagan said “Nyet.” Everyone had misjudged Reagan, and instead of being caught in a trap, he ran away with the cheese and sent the Soviets home with the trap snapped shut on their ICBM trigger fingers.

Mallon’s account is understated and, while not explaining Reagan’s genius, leaves the impression that it was there somewhere. Mallon may have missed some opportunities to explore this dramatic scene; he appears to have worked from the State Department notes of Reagan’s one-on-one meetings with Gorbachev, which do not capture adequately some of the extraordinary arguments and digressions the two leaders had. A much more detailed Soviet transcript has been translated. (Amazingly, the Reagan Library was unaware of its existence when I pointed it out to them a couple of years ago, though they surely have a copy in a file somewhere.) There’s a moment in the Soviet transcript when Reagan notes the significance of the fact that Gorbachev, alone among Soviet leaders, has not used the boilerplate language about the old Leninist goal of world revolution. Mallon makes reference to this moment, but the State Department transcript does not capture this exchange adequately. Among other elements, a fight Gorbachev picked (and lost) with Reagan about Soviet movies offers not only unintentional comic relief but another window into how these two remarkable men dealt with each other in ways no previous president and general secretary ever could have.

But if Mallon missed an opportunity to explore more fully the moment when the Cold War very nearly ended once and for all, he has captured the mood and feel of the late 1980s perfectly. And he offers many sound one-off contrarian judgments and revisions. Mallon rightly mocks the supposed warmth between Reagan and Tip O’Neill that is used today as a cliché of reproach against “polarized” Washington: “What a joke that people thought he and Ronnie actually became Irish pals every day after six o’clock! The two of them detested each other, the only difference being that Ronnie had the class not to mock him in private. . . . [The story was] a pint of public-relations malarkey for both of them.” We also meet the younger Sid Blumenthal, “whose mind liked to gambol over history’s grassy knolls.”

Mallon departs the main scene with the Iran-Contra scandal at full boil, merely hinting at Don Regan’s fate and Reagan’s eventual recovery, and concludes with a short epilogue that is a melancholy peek at Reagan ten years later, as Alzheimer’s was taking him and preventing the meaningful sentimental reunion with Gorbachev that the two had wistfully proposed at Reykjavik. It is a metaphor, perhaps, for our growing forgetfulness of the messiness, confusion, and vicious crosscurrents that often attended the Reagan years. Here’s hoping that Mallon will turn his gimlet eye next to the Clinton years, especially as we look forward to (and dread) a possible sequel.

– Mr. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

Steven F. Hayward — Stephen F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a two-volume political history, The Age of Reagan.

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