The Republican presidential candidate debates, which have shown non-Republicans just how factionalized the party is and how many possible meanings of the term “conservative” there are, have produced one point of general agreement among the many contenders: Ronald Reagan was a great president. For a committed Republican audience, Reagan stands first of all for victory. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all lost elections during their careers. If you don’t count presidential primaries, Reagan retired from politics undefeated: he had two substantial wins in the California governor’s races of 1966 and 1970, and two landslides—489 and 525 of the 538 votes in the electoral college—in the presidential elections of 1980 and 1984. No presidential candidate of either party since Reagan has been as popular on election day as he was. No wonder his name has a talismanic quality.
The idea that Reagan was not just a winner but also a major historical figure is commonplace among Republicans, but not only among Republicans. Barack Obama told a newspaper editorial board in Reno, early in the 2008 campaign, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” That’s a claim for Reagan’s largeness, if not his greatness, that a lot of Democratic politicians would agree with, though maybe not publicly.
It is worth remembering how unlikely it would have seemed in the early going of Reagan’s national career that he would wind up in the pantheon. Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was thought to prove that American conservatism was dead forever—but Reagan entered politics just at that moment, as an avowed conservative, evidently to the right of Goldwater. No president but Reagan has come into politics from a career in show business, with not a day of government experience before the age of fifty-five.
The publication in recent years of the copious diaries Reagan kept as president, and of collections of his letters, speeches, and radio scripts, has shown that he devoted probably more of his time to writing than any other sitting president, but also that he was remarkably uninvolved in the daily work of government. During his first couple of years as president, his popularity dropped dramatically because of a severe recession that he seemed hardly to notice. And what now stands as his great achievement, laying the groundwork for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, was something that almost no one saw coming, even as Reagan was leaving office. In 1984, I concluded an Atlantic Monthly profile of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense, with this description of the true rationale for Reagan’s policy of vastly increased military spending:
Of course we are in an arms race with the Soviets. Of course it won’t end at the bargaining table. We can win it. Their society is economically weak, and it lacks the wealth, education, and technology to enter the information age. They have thrown everything into military production, and their society is starting to show terrible stress as a result. They can’t sustain military production the way we can. Eventually it will break them, and then there will be just one superpower in a safe world—if, only if, we can keep spending.
I meant to leave readers with the impression that the Reaganites were living in a fantasy world—but that passage would now stand as a fairly uncontroversial description of what Reagan actually did.
It’s a sign of where Reagan’s reputation stands now that the main public controversy about him at the moment has to do with a book by one of the country’s best-known conservative voices being accused, not unfairly, of disrespect toward the great man. The book is Killing Reagan by Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host, and his writing partner, Martin Dugard, which was by a wide margin the best-selling work of nonfiction in the United States in 2015.
Killing Reagan is the fifth in a series of gerund-titled books (Killing, respectively, Lincoln, Jesus, Kennedy, Patton, and Reagan) that O’Reilly and Dugard have published in rapid succession since 2011. Their method calls to mind the work of Jim Bishop, who wrote highly readable, fast-paced works of popular history in the 1950s and 1960s, including three that involve the same main characters (Lincoln, Jesus, Kennedy) and the same end-of-life narrative device as books in the O’Reilly-Dugard series. The stories in the Killing books unspool simply, quickly, and declaratively, with a frisson of revelation: you’re getting the unofficial, inside version of a tale usually told in a sanitized or credulous form. In the case of Killing Reagan, the big claim is that its hero was mentally incapacitated substantially earlier and more fully than we knew.
O’Reilly and Dugard assure us that they consulted “a wide variety of sources” in researching Killing Reagan, but they do not say where any specific piece of information in the book came from; everything is simply stated as unattributed fact. The old Reagan hands who have criticized the book—including, among others, George Shultz, Reagan’s son Ron, and George Will—have focused most of all on a passage in which O’Reilly and Dugard say that when Howard Baker, the former senator from Tennessee, took over as White House chief of staff in early 1987, late in the Reagan presidency, he had an aide produce a secret report on whether Reagan was so far gone that he could no longer function as president. Although the report had no tangible consequences, and the aide who wrote it later downplayed its importance, for O’Reilly and Dugard it proves that long before Reagan’s public announcement in 1994 that he had Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps as early as the aftermath of the surgery, only a few weeks into his presidency, to remove John Hinckley’s bullet from his chest, his mind was not operating at full capacity.
This is one of a number of sensational assertions in Killing Reagan. They include that Reagan was not present at his daughter Patti’s birth because he was in the arms of his mistress; that he refused to vote for his party’s nominee, Gerald Ford, for president in 1976; and that he believed the Soviet Union was responsible for the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.
But O’Reilly and Dugard profess to, and may actually, admire Reagan extravagantly. Killing Reagan is a television star’s book about another television star. It understands performances—presidential debates, speeches, public events—as the crucial moments in Reagan’s career, and devotes almost no attention to Reagan’s policies as governor or president. As long as he hit his mark, who cares whether his mind had lost some of its processing power? O’Reilly himself has established a powerful connection with an audience; he’s the most popular cable-news host today by a three-to-one margin over his closest competitor, Rachel Maddow.
Reagan’s ability to connect with the public on a far larger scale is most of the evidence O’Reilly and Dugard need to make a claim for his greatness, and they are comfortable assuming that highly successful mass communication is, on its own, capable of producing results as large as the end of the Soviet Union. That many liberals, intellectuals, and the press disliked and condescended to Reagan, at least while he was in office, makes him all the more appealing to O’Reilly and Dugard.
Killing Reagan has a more complicated attitude toward Nancy Reagan, whom it at once respects for her total devotion to her husband’s career, which in their telling could not have been successful without her intensely detailed participation, and resents for her meddling and overprotectiveness. O’Reilly and Dugard seldom introduce a character without taking note of that person’s weight, hair-styling strategy, and whether he or she is Irish-American. The moment when Nancy Reagan seems to lose them is when she arranges the firings, in rapid succession, of Donald Regan, Raymond Donovan, Margaret Heckler, Patrick Buchanan, and William Casey.
Reagan confounds two usually unstated assumptions underlying contemporary biography: that a biographer ought to be able to produce deep, intimate psychological insight into the subject, and that the story of the subject’s career should be told through a reconstruction of the professional activities that made him noteworthy. On the first count, almost everybody who spent a lot of time with Reagan, even Nancy Reagan, has described him as an unknowable loner, someone who could create a bond with a crowd but not with another person. There’s the famous story, among many others, of Reagan’s introducing himself to his son Michael after giving the speech at the boy’s high school graduation, and of there being only two guests, William Holden and his wife Arden, who were fellow celebrities but whom he did not know well, at his wedding to Nancy. The difficulties Reagan’s otherwise prolific official biographer, Edmund Morris, had in producing his work underscored this impression of Reagan.
As a government executive, Reagan was unusually uninformed about, and even uninterested in, the work of his administration. He labored over what most presidents would consider a minor task, scripting his weekly Saturday morning radio addresses, but he didn’t know the names of all the members of his Cabinet. He announced one of the major efforts of his presidency, the Strategic Defense Initiative, on the basis of a long-held, and probably movie-originated, conviction that space-based missile defense could work, rather than on any scientific evidence.
The major scandal of his administration, Iran-contra, damaged him less than it would have another president because people found it hard to believe that he could have personally ordered anything as specific as weapons sales and funds transfers (though he actually did). Anyone who believes that admirable performance in a head of state necessarily must proceed from that person’s analysis of the activities of government would not be able to understand Reagan as a successful president.
Jacob Weisberg’s Ronald Reagan, the latest in a series of biographies of all the presidents launched by Arthur Schlesinger and edited, since his death, by Sean Wilentz, definitely does understand Reagan as a successful president, and does not consider him mystifying. Weisberg—someone I’ve known for many years—isn’t nearly as preoccupied with Reagan’s mental condition while in office as O’Reilly and Dugard are, but that’s because he sees Reagan as having, at a very early age, learned to create and inhabit a state of “mental twilight.” Reagan had terrible eyesight from birth, though he didn’t like to wear glasses, and his hearing was impaired from middle age. Alzheimer’s disease was merely the last stop on a lifelong ride.
Reagan’s father was a shoe salesman, alcoholic, and therefore peripatetic and frequently unemployed. Neither of his parents went to high school, and in the first ten years of his life the family lived in at least ten different homes. Weisberg reminds us that performing was a calling Reagan found very early and never left: his first roles, as a child, were in temperance plays at the teetotaling Disciples of Christ church that his mother, and then he, had joined. He acted in high school and college. His famous stint as a lifeguard in Dixon, Illinois, was fulfilling, he told an interviewer, because “it was like a stage. Everyone had to look at me.” After college he became a radio announcer, specializing in delivering persuasive play-by-play for games he hadn’t seen, and on his first trip to California, at age twenty-five, he wangled a screen test. He poured enormous energy and concentration into developing what actors call “the instrument.”
What Reagan did, his essential approach to his work, involved storytelling: as an actor and, increasingly as time passed, as a person who told powerful and persuasive tales he had concocted, mostly about politics. By the mid-1950s, when he was working primarily as a television host and traveling spokesman for General Electric, he was making, Weisberg reports, as many as fourteen speeches a day. What Weisberg says is Reagan’s first fully recorded speech, a 1952 commencement address at a small Disciples of Christ college in Missouri, was called “America the Beautiful,” and it demonstrates a soaring, optimistic patriotism that was one of Reagan’s emotional notes consistently until he could no longer give speeches.
As a communicator, Reagan was both a big-picture guy and a little-picture guy: he placed everything he said in the grandest possible setting, but he had an uncanny ability to illustrate his theme with affecting specific anecdotes. Many of these were not true; Weisberg calls them “sentimental fictions.” Reagan spent years, for example, telling audiences that “Nicolai Lenin” had said, “It would not matter if three quarters of the human race perished; the important thing is that remaining one quarter be Communist”—which V.I. Lenin never said. That quote indicates Reagan’s preoccupation with anticommunism abroad and antiliberalism domestically. General Electric canceled his contract in 1962, the year he officially switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican; Weisberg believes the company felt that Reagan’s ever more strident railings against the state might imperil its own extensive business dealings with the federal government. In 1964 Reagan became a national political star with a sensational television address on behalf of the Goldwater presidential campaign. Two years later he was governor of California.
One of the challenges in understanding Reagan is accounting for the gap between his rhetoric and the way he governed. Weisberg tells us that not only General Electric but even the Goldwater campaign worried that Reagan was too right-wing to be put before the public—but he “left the Governor’s Mansion in 1975 without any significant record as either a tax cutter or a budget cutter.” As president he also declined to cut spending significantly; he did not abolish any cabinet departments, despite his campaign promises to the contrary; he passed up the chance to appoint Supreme Court justices who could be counted on to overturn Roe v. Wade, even though he had promised to do that too.
Having ardently opposed the creation of Medicare in the 1960s, he did not abolish or even reduce it in the 1980s. Despite his supremely, even frighteningly, hawkish rhetoric, he was notably slow on the trigger. After the devastating terror attack on a US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, Reagan did not mount a significant military response, and soon removed the American troops. He negotiated with Iran for the release of American hostages, after repeatedly saying he would never negotiate in such situations. He spent a career attacking arms control, but made significant arms control proposals to the Soviet Union.
Weisberg explains this by saying that Reagan was always extremely practical-minded, about the management of his own career as well as about government policy, and also that he thought of rhetoric as by far more important than, and not necessarily related to, what government actually did. But that raises the question of whether Reagan’s conservatism was, substantively, consequential. If one is going to claim, as Weisberg does, that Reagan was the second most important president of the twentieth century after Franklin Roosevelt, then how does one put Reagan’s heavily conceptual legacy on the scale with Roosevelt’s creation of many new laws, policies, and government entities, or his successful direction of the largest military action in history?
The only way to answer this question is to say that rhetoric matters, a lot, at least when it is strong and persuasive and comes from a head of state. But that’s still a tricky position to take, even as, for a Reagan biographer, it neatly solves the problem of explaining him. Nothing a successful politician says, no matter how fresh it sounds, can come out of nowhere; if it didn’t tap into existing sentiments, then the politician would not be successful. And mere tone-setting wouldn’t matter so much unless it actually affected governance. Weisberg acknowledges the first point but makes a strong case that Reagan still made a big difference. On the second, however, he grants Reagan’s communication-without-detail approach a great deal of power to achieve results in diplomacy, but does not make a clear case for its accomplishments domestically. That’s inconsistent. By Weisberg’s way of reckoning, Reagan ought either to have had a major historical effect everywhere, or nowhere.
No historical figure exists apart from the broader setting of his times; Reagan, in hindsight, came into politics during a period when, although the establishment of each party was dismissing conservatism, at least a portion of the public was receptive to it. Weisberg reminds us that during Reagan’s first race for governor, he realized that the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and the racial unrest stirring in California were available to be used as powerful foils. In national politics in the 1970s, he was able to draw upon a great deal of conservative ferment that the 1960s had generated, on issues like hostility to the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente with the Soviet Union, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, opposition to regulation and taxation (1978 was the year of Proposition 13 in California, the tax-limiting ballot initiative), and the reaction against Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Nixon, Gerald Ford, and most other leading Republicans read the times as liberal and positioned themselves as moderates. Reagan was able to turn what seemed to his political peers to represent a minor tendency into, for at least a generation, an unassailably dominant set of positions in national politics. Reagan did not try to repeal the Great Society, but after Reagan all ambitious Republicans had to call themselves conservatives, and even Democrats stopped calling themselves liberals. Taxation was a perilous subject for both parties. Even the word “government” had to be handled with extreme care. Weisberg is persuasive in arguing that these very Reaganesque (in the sense of being presentational rather than substantive) changes would not have been nearly so profound if Reagan had not been president.
On the actual activities of government, there are two main arguments for Reagan. Internationally, Weisberg writes, “his claim to greatness rests on his role in the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism.” The obvious counter to this is that it would have happened anyway, but Weisberg takes on this argument, which can’t definitively be settled, by saying that under any other conceivable American president, “the Soviets would have felt no economic pressure from an accelerated arms race or SDI, and no moral pressure from a righteous American leader,” and that absence would have enhanced the sustainability of their system.
Domestically, Weisberg gives too much credit to the originality of Regan’s ideas and too little to the magnitude of his effects. He does this partly through the way he presents the pre-Reagan period. The idea is that the United States was overgoverned before Reagan took office (much as Britain was supposedly overgoverned before Margaret Thatcher) in ways that impeded economic growth and worsened poverty and social decay. Reagan shoved the pendulum back in the other direction. Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who spoke often about austerity and limits, made a perfect foil for Reagan’s presenting the American situation in this way, but even Carter was subject to the tide of the times: he adopted a tougher stance on the Soviet Union, pushed deregulation, was parsimonious about government social spending, and initiated Paul Volcker’s reign as the inflation-fighting chair of the Federal Reserve. It’s worth remembering that one reason Reagan defeated Carter was that Ted Kennedy, finding Carter’s policies unacceptably conservative, had challenged Carter from the left during the Democratic primary season, badly damaging the party’s unity.
Weisberg is able to give Reagan’s way of talking about domestic affairs a lot of credit partly by exaggerating how far left the government had drifted during the 1970s. For example, he writes, “Twenty years on, the Great Society was in many respects maintaining a culture of poverty,” but that alarmed phrase was invented by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis before the advent of the Great Society; if the Great Society means the domestic initiatives of Lyndon Johnson, then by far its largest components were Medicare, Medicaid, and new federal funding for education at all levels. Even the relatively tiny and short-lived War on Poverty did not, by design, entail any cash transfer or housing programs for the poor. Conversely, Weisberg asserts that Reagan’s “deregulation and pro-business policies unleashed enormous entrepreneurial energies,” but these energies were beginning to manifest themselves already, because of changes in technology, communication, trade, and the way markets were structured. Microsoft and Apple were founded during the Ford administration, both of them benefiting from government-sponsored research.
On the domestic governing effects of Reagan’s approach, Weisberg is less specific than he is about international affairs; there isn’t a piece of evidence about Reagan’s domestic programs that is comparable in magnitude to the end of the cold war. Near the end of his book, he writes, “The financial crisis of 2008, driven by irresponsible risk taking and self-regulation, was an indirect consequence of Reaganism,” but he doesn’t take us through the specific steps that got him to this conclusion. What he seems to mean is that it was Reaganism’s creation of an atmosphere favoring excessive risk—the negative side of those enormous entrepreneurial energies—rather than Reaganism as a set of policies that led, much later, to the crisis. But a president as effective at tone-setting as Reagan wound up with an administration filled with people who spent their days making policies consistent with his tone.
Even if Reagan himself was not always aware of what these policies were, they still had the force of law. The Federal Trade Commission loosened its consumer protection and antitrust regimes. The Federal Communications Commission permitted greater concentration of media ownership, eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, and made the renewal of broadcast licenses nearly automatic, which led to the proliferation of conservative talk radio and the elimination of the broadcast networks’ documentary units. The Environmental Protection Agency declined to limit acid rain. The surgeon general was silent for years about AIDS. The Securities and Exchange Commission greatly reduced its review process for new offerings of financial products. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation allowed thrifts to engage in much more risky lending and investment practices, with the result that it was insolvent by the time Reagan left office.
The effects of changes like these were lasting. Barack Obama, more than a quarter-century later, is still at work trying to undo some elements of the Reagan domestic policy legacy, especially on environmental and civil rights issues. By focusing so powerfully on the language and framing of American politics, Reagan was able to have large effects, in a rightward direction, on the country’s governance too. One can get a sense of that by listening now to his small army of would-be successors, who are less adept than their hero at keeping the public’s attention on generalities and who therefore make it more clear what they would actually do.