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Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martine Anderson. Forward by George P. Schultz
549 pages, New York: The Free Press.
Review by Richard Alan Leach
Deemed more significant by the media than the ongoing fallout throughout the social order of regressive policies is the comparatively trivial question of post- presidential perks. On this media staple, we see two general tendencies. The Elder Statesperson who would expiate his sins (Carter) contrasts favorably with those who would only try to cash in on their celebrity status (Clinton, Reagan). But let's forget former President Clinton (which we are eager to do anyway) and consider, two decades later, Ronald Reagan's stature in mainstream U.S. culture.
If the evil that great men do lives after them, an increasingly corporatist media-culture ensures that knowledge of the evil is often interred with their bones. Reagan's acolytes are currently campaigning to have his visage replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. Legislation is pending on whether or not to erect a Reagan memorial on the National Mall in Washington. To celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary, Nancy Reagan christened the Ronald Reagan, a $4 billion aircraft carrier. According to the New York Times, “It has two nuclear reactors, will carry 6,000 sailors and is expected to last fifty years.”
This past February, Reagan's 90th birthday inspired a flood of tributes from conservatives and “insiders,” such as Wall Street Journal editorialist Peggy Noonan, who wrote an admiring op-ed. Her class loyalty does her credit: in the good old days, she wrote speeches for Reagan, so we can presume she knows her hero well. Although a spectacularly unoriginal thinker, he had the Right ideas, so he is lavished with praise. Right-thinking people everywhere see only a cause for celebration, nothing more. After all, Reagan was president for eight years and whatever “errors” (always “well-meaning”) were made during his Administration politeness requires that, two decades later, we “accentuate the positive.” For spoilsports, however, all these recent tributes seem part of a larger pattern. Why do so many agree with William F. Buckley that his long-time friend should be memorialized on Mount Rushmore?
The official story is easily recalled by anyone over 30: Reagan was the Marlboro Man who moved from Hollywood to the White House, thereby exemplifying the American Dream. His career seemed to prove the old saw that, in America, anybody could grow up to become president, especially if Reagan could. Insiders knew that he was little more than a “talking head” who dozed off during White House meetings and even at the Moscow Summit with Gorbachev in 1988. After the 1980s, anyone caught sleeping at work need only remark: “Well, it worked for Ronald Reagan, didn't it?” A culture is constructed, not reflected, as is often assumed, through the free marketplace of ideas, where it is considered “unseemly” to recall not only policy blunders, but high crimes and misdemeanors as well. The post-Hollywood role of the Great Communicator was basically public relations, to make the American people feel good about themselves, in a two-pronged strategy of official propganda at home and cover-ups for crimes abroad—a project crucially assisted by the major media. During Reagan's presidency, it was considered “unseemly” for the establishment media to discuss, or even acknowledge, Reagan's personal limitations or early signs of a deteriorating condition. Journalist Leslie Stahl was asked by Reagan's handlers to keep silent about the distracted, doddering president who, during an interview, seemed to forget where he was or who he was talking to. She complied.
Nor should tenured rightists be exempt from criticism, as academic projects to revise Reagan's image continue to blight scholarly publishing. Note the transition: during eight years and numerous scandals, Reagan was called “the Teflon President” (nothing sticks). The pretense was that this was due to some magical quality inherent in Reagan; the reality is that Reagan was given the Teflon Treatment by the media. Twenty years later, we now observe Stage Two: Teflon Tributes, to continue the project of sweeping the historical record under the rug. For a sterling example of this phenomenon, let us wade through a weighty tome entitled Reagan In His Own Hand. The editors collected some 250 of his 400-word essays—yes, penned by Ronnie—which he delivered over the radio for three years, between 1976 and 1979.
The entire project has a defensive cast to it: the subliminal message is that Reagan could actually write (imagine that) and with no ghostwriters or PR programmers in sight. It is the format, not the humdrum content, which dresses to impress. At 550 pages, this overlong, heavily annotated compendium of jottings is intended to give the impression (if only on the bookshelf) that Reagan was a Deep Thinker, rather than “vacant between the ears,” as his ideological soul mate Maggie Thatcher once remarked. The forward is by another impartial analyst of the Reagan years, former Secretary of State (under Reagan) George Schultz, who presents the book's intended theme lucidly: “Maybe Reagan was smarter than everybody thought.” Reagan's only previous book was his ghostwritten autobiography, An American Life.
Mark Burson, the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, has remarked inanely—indeed, outrageously— that Reagan's writings compare favorably with the Federalist Papers, providing “the most compelling evidence yet that the president was indeed a man of letters worthy of comparison to our Founding Fathers...” The last time their names were so abused was by the incumbent Reagan, when he christened the CIA-backed Contras as the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” while they rampaged through Nicaraguan villages, murdering and pillaging with U.S. logistical support.
A progressive reviewer is tempted to cite historical facts which Reagan's admirers prefer to forget, such as scandals that make Clinton's pale in comparison. To avoid such predictability, I will not discuss the “arms for hostages” outrage called Iran-Contra (an impeachable offense), or the record number of convictions or indictments (138) of his associates for criminal violations, making the Reagan administration the most corrupt in U.S. history. Instead, let us segue from this silly book to the laudatory review it received in the New York Times.
The review is penned by David Brooks, an editor with the conservative Weekly Standard. Furthering the cause of Reaganite revisionism, his florid and flattering piece endorses the myth that “Reagan was a Reaganite.” He opens by defensively asserting that Reagan spoke from his heart (rather than his speechwriter's) when he composed these radio addresses. That is, because Reagan personally authored some of his radio scripts, we are asked to infer that, as president, he was not merely programmed by others (an “acting president,” as Lou Cannon dubbed him).
The comical attempt to elevate Reagan's intellectual prowess from lightweight to middleweight leads Brooks to declare, “Reagan was a middlebrow (and I mean that as a compliment). He believed in the serious explication of ideas. He'd troll through clippings from the Public Interest or National Review, or a policy document someone had sent him, and he'd want to bring it to his listener's attention…”—by merely noting his agreement, and summarizing the slanted arguments of these “conservative” publications. Brooks also explains that Reagan was a hedgehog, not a fox—which presumably explains why he never read anything to the left of Reader's Digest or National Review.
Reagan in His Own Hand provides “evidence” of Reagan's “revolutionary vision for America” only for ideologues with a vested interest in promoting this improbable fiction. The book discloses that Reagan re-wrote his lines to achieve a more natural, conversational tone; the “old TV President” (as satirized by Gore Vidal in his novel Duluth) was informed of what political “line” to take and polished his lines accordingly. What do our scholarly editors conclude? That he was a great thinker. All we really learn is that he was a better actor than we thought.
The free marketplace of ideas also tolerates muckraking, confident that such laborious and thankless efforts will be buried by such heavily-subsidized “official histories,” which will be trumpeted as important additions to the historical record. The subservience to power, not principle, of mainstream journalism is perhaps easier to discern today, where alternative perspectives are gaining a foothold: as a presidential candidate, Dubya tried to shut down a Bush parody website. By contrast, in the Reagan era, small-circulation books written for minor publishers on the subject of Reagan's factually challenged statements and numerous lapsus linguae were produced by a coterie of left-wing researchers. Reality, of course, was television. In the 1980s, dissenting media coverage was so rare that one had to be alert for episodic blips on the TV-radar screen.
Only media malfeasance can explain such leniency towards Reagan's misstatements of fact, as if incompetence in technical matters was only to be expected from a former actor. Yet, when defending themselves against media critics, off-duty talking heads sputter about journalism being merely “the rough draft” of history or resort to that hoary evasion: “We are disliked because we are the bearers of bad news.” Yet, it is precisely the whitewash of “bad news” about bad policies that disfigures the subsequent historical record, which draws excessively on the compromised objectivity of newspaper archives. Reagan's numerous verbal gaffes became the butt of insider jokes and the inspiration for a small number of well-researched but not well-publicized books. If one scours the mainstream reading lists, such as New York Times book reviews, one searches in vain for such excellent books as Tom Gervasi's The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy (1986), which was never reviewed by the newspaper of record. Instead, conservatives such as Bob Novak, George Will, or Norman Podhoretz, will critically review politically-centrist books on Reagan, skewering them for not being flattering enough to the president, who, after all, “won the Cold War”—a common misconception, thanks to incessant repetition in the mainstream.
Washington insiders knew and understood Reagan's symbolic role. Why else did his successor and Reagan's former vice-president, the elder Bush, make crucial decisions without ever talking to Reagan? In 1990, for example, the Bush administration decided to respond to Iraq's (unauthorized) invasion of Kuwait by undercutting sanctions and escalating the “Gulf Crisis” into a full-blown war. Reagan was never consulted. Of course, while in office, Reagan's handlers, such as the subsequently-convicted felon Michael Deaver, were adept at image-making and myth-mongering, and found the media easy to manipulate.
In Hollywood, Reagan was indebted to his scriptwriters for both his wit and his wisdom; in the White House, likewise. He often betrayed colossal ignorance of technical knowledge that should be possessed by any commander in chief. His limitations in this regard should have inspired the media to inquire about the gap between image-making and reality in U.S. politics and about the actual qualifications for high office in a polity subordinated to corporate prerogatives.
Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Reagan's former National Security Adviser, remarked of Reagan: “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.” Indeed he did: and the evil will live after him. When the first budget of the second Bush made it clear that he intends to follow the same well- trodden path of “tax and spend,” he even mentions Reagan by name. Yet this clue was left untouched by mass media amnesiacs, who ignore issues concerning the historical continuity of these regressive policies and their likely consequences, in preference to the “politics of personality”—in an eternal present-tense.
On second thought, I cannot resist returning to Iran-Contra. After the scandal broke, the media agreed with Congress that all that was necessary was for the president to “take full responsibility.” So, in 1987, Reagan finally acknowledged that he—or his Administration—approved an arms shipment to Iran: “First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities.” Thereupon, media pundits instructed their befuddled viewers to forgive and (especially) forget: “There. He said it. Now we can turn to other matters.” Meanwhile, obvious questions were left unasked, in accordance with the Teflon Treatment. The whitewash was completed by the masters of “damage control” on Capitol Hill, who knew the right question to ask, a trivial one: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Today, in the “Son of Star Wars” era, the analogous question should be: what doesn't George W. Bush know and when will he be briefed on it? Z