Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

A Man of Strategic Vision

Ronald Reagan by Jacob Weisberg (Times, 208 pp., $25)

Ronald Reagan was good for the United States of America. He’s also been a boon to the publishing industry, with the number of Reagan titles now exceeding 1,000. The Reagan presidency casts a long shadow. Perhaps because of our country’s present plight, there is a growing realization across the political spectrum that Reagan as president made a constructive difference.

Jacob Weisberg realizes this, too, although he’s not quite sure how it happened. His book is the latest in the American Presidents series, created by the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and now edited by Sean Wilentz, which aims “to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the scholar.” Put less grandly, these books are extended essays for readers who want to know something, but not too much, about a particular president.

Weisberg’s readable book does not match the best books in this series, notably Garry Wills’s on James Madison and Douglas Brinkley’s on Gerald Ford, but he does try to be fair to a president whose views he does not share. Despite giving a greater share of the credit to Mikhail Gorbachev, Weisberg realizes that Reagan played an outsize role in ending the Cold War and in the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union. He even acknowledges that some of Reagan’s economic policies succeeded, though he does not appreciate the full reach of Reagan’s legacy.

Unfortunately, Weisberg’s account is undermined by pop psychoanalysis, Freudian jargon, and an excessive tendency to portray Reagan as detached, disengaged, and unable “to distinguish fact from fancy.” The latter quote is from an interview by Edmund Morris of Reagan’s first serious girlfriend, some 55 years after she had last seen him. The girl’s father, a minister, is described by Weisberg as a father figure for Reagan, which he might have been. But Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan’s first political idol, is labeled an “alternative father figure,” which is a stretch. It may not matter, since Weisberg believes that Reagan was in a “fog” much of the time. In the author’s words:

Willed blurriness became a technique [Reagan] used to overlook moral lapses by the country he loved. . . . Tuning out discomfiting realities allowed Reagan to articulate his resonant version of American exceptionalism, his belief in the country’s divine chosen-ness and moral superiority. Reagan found that vagueness was a good management technique as well. Setting broad direction and leaving the details to others meant he got credit for what others accomplished, but less than the ordinary measure of blame when his plans ran aground. I don’t think Reagan sprayed his mist cynically, but I do think he had considerable control over it, at least until his later years. He could disappear into the fog at difficult moments and reemerge when conditions were more auspicious.

Weisberg develops his fog theory — he compares Reagan to an “inversion layer” in which the weather is murkiest near the ground — to explain why Reagan was a resonant communicator with the American people while often distanced from his family and closest aides. He is not alone in struggling with this supposed contradiction. Reagan’s remoteness — Nancy Reagan called it “the Barrier” — drove Morris, his official biographer, up the wall. Unable to understand Reagan, he resorted to fiction. Weisberg, with scant personal experience of Reagan, prefers psychoanalysis, for which he lacks discernible qualifications.

Biographers should resist the temptation to describe their subjects as living in a fantasy world, because they don’t know what’s going on in the subjects’ heads. Reagan is hardly the only popular president who was an enigma up close. For instance, the playwright and biographer Robert Sherwood saw in FDR “a thickly forested interior” that kept others from penetrating his mind. Sherwood never put FDR on the couch, as Weisberg does with Reagan, but he did use psychological insights to explain him. I tried to do the same in my books about Reagan without having any illusion that there was a single key to his personality. My explanation for Reagan’s distancing was that his father, Jack Reagan, was a nomadic alcoholic who moved his family from one Illinois town to another during Ronald Reagan’s formative years, depriving him of the opportunity to form boyhood friendships. Of necessity, Reagan became comfortable in his own company. He wasn’t aloof, however. Young Reagan was a popular boy who excelled in dramatics and swimming. I suspect he had a rich inner life, as evidenced by his vibrant imagination. But with the exception of Nancy Reagan, he rarely shared this inner world with others.

In public life, as governor of California and then as president, Reagan was rarely a detail man, but he displayed what his long-serving secretary of state, George P. Shultz, called “strategic thinking.” He may have lacked a precise blueprint, but Reagan knew what he wanted to achieve. At the Washington Post in June 1980, Reagan was asked whether the U.S. arms buildup he advocated would intensify the arms race. Reagan said that the Soviet economy was so unstable that the economic pressure of an arms buildup would bring the Soviets to the bargaining table. Reagan, who had been president of the Screen Actors Guild during a turbulent period, wanted to sit down with a Soviet leader with the United States in a position of strength. To this end, he pushed through Congress the largest peacetime military buildup in the nation’s history. He also embraced a missile-defense plan, the Strategic Defense Initiative, that frightened the Soviets because it would have meant competing on multiple technologies in which the United States had an advantage.

Weisberg properly lauds Reagan for recognizing the fragility of the Soviet system when most of his contemporaries did not. Had George H. W. Bush won the presidency in 1980, writes Weisberg, he would probably have pursued a “realist foreign policy that . . . accepted the Cold War status quo as a permanent condition. The Soviets would have felt no economic pressure from an accelerated arms race or SDI, and no moral pressure from a righteous American leader.”

But Weisberg goes astray in thinking that “Reagan’s idiosyncratic view of the Soviet Union as weak and vulnerable pointed him in two contradictory directions,” one confrontational, the other conciliatory. The two were of a piece. Reagan saw the value of calling things by their right names. In his initial press conference as president, on January 29, 1981, Reagan responded to a question by saying that the Soviets remained dedicated to world revolution, “meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that.” But Reagan also said at this press conference that he favored negotiating with the Soviets “an actual reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons” on a verifiable basis. Weisberg quotes the first statement but not the second.

From his first day in office, Reagan repeatedly reached out to the Soviets, observes Jack F. Matlock Jr., a Russian-speaking Reagan adviser, in his valuable book Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. The problem was the void at the other end of the line. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader when Reagan took office, was so mentally frail, said Matlock, that he was “no longer capable of discussing even trivial issues coherently.” His two successors were physically ill. Brezhnev’s immediate successor, Yuri Andropov, died of kidney disease. Konstantin Chernenko perished from cirrhosis of the liver. By the time Chernenko died, on March 10, 1985, Reagan and his advisers had prepared a policy framework to engage the Soviets on arms, human rights, and other issues. Then, said Reagan, “along came Gorbachev.” The two leaders shared a poignant fear that the United States and the Soviet Union might blunder into a nuclear war if their nations forever remained on hair-trigger alert with thousands of missiles pointing at the other. That’s still a concern, but Reagan and Gorbachev much reduced the danger.

Weisberg chortles at Reagan’s lapses, such as mistaking his housing secretary, Samuel Pierce, for a mayor at a conference of mayors. But when it mattered, Reagan was a commanding leader. This is demonstrated by the transcripts of the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, which ended dramatically when Reagan firmly refused to give up SDI. There is no sign Weisberg has read these transcripts, which show a confident Reagan more than holding his own with Gorbachev, no slouch, on complex issues. The Reykjavik summit led to the important Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the basis of every subsequent U.S.–Russian arms treaty. Last summer, as Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were exchanging insults, officials from their two countries were inspecting each other’s nuclear weapons.

On domestic issues, Weisberg acknowledges Reagan’s achievements but gives the credit to others. “The legislative accomplishments of Reagan’s second term were the pet ideas of senators which Reagan adopted as his own: Bill Bradley’s tax reform, Alan Simpson’s immigration reform, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s welfare reform,” Weisberg writes. What is he talking about? Reagan favored tax reform when Bradley was playing basketball for the Knicks, and he was always appreciative of the contributions of immigrants, legal or not. As for welfare reform, Weisberg himself relates that Reagan achieved a major welfare-reform bill as governor of California by negotiating with opposition Democrats. He didn’t need Moynihan to jump-start him.

Weisberg also misunderstands American exceptionalism, a concept first described by Tocqueville in 1831 and enunciated in varying forms by most U.S. presidents, including Obama. Reagan himself did not use the phrase, much less assert the “moral superiority” of the United States. He proclaimed instead that our country was exceptional in serving as a haven for freedom-loving people and as a global beacon for democracy. More than a score of nations became democracies during the Reagan years, and the United States didn’t invade any of them except Grenada, where thugs had murdered the Marxist prime minister. U.S. forces arrested the killers, expelled Cuban soldiers who were building an airstrip, and left as swiftly as they had come. “More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free”: The president who said this was not Ronald Reagan but John F. Kennedy. It lucidly expresses Reagan’s conception of American exceptionalism.

Two Reagans are on display in Weisberg’s telling. One decisively sets a bold agenda, rewrites and edits speeches, and makes productive compromises with foreign and domestic adversaries. The other is staff-dependent and in a fog. Readers who know nothing about Reagan will learn from this book that he was a transformational president. But they won’t have a clue as to how he accomplished what he did.

– Mr. Cannon covered the Reagan presidency for the Washington Post and wrote five books about Reagan, including President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.

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