Reagan: An American Story
by Adriana Bosch
published by TV Books
The idea of doing a biography of Ronald Reagan for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE was that of Peter McGhee, Vice President for National Programming at WGBH. The decision was made in 1994. Reagan had been out of office only five years. The dust of history was far from settled. But Peter saw a rare opportunity to make, not just chronicle, history -- to embark on a journey in search of Ronald Reagan the man and the meaning of the Reagan presidency.
I had met Ronald Reagan thirty years ago, in December 1967, at the front door of Yale's Timothy Dwight College, where he had come to speak to the students. I was there to document the encounter for the Public Broadcast Laboratory's "PBL" program, the precursor of PBS. In response to campus animosity, the college master had posted a notice asking students to "remember he was a guest of the college and to comport themselves accordingly. But," he added, "this does not imply any surrender of our convictions." For four days, students badgered Governor Reagan mercilessly over his backing of the Vietnam War and lukewarm endorsement of civil rights. I was pleased they pushed him so hard. It would make for better television. The New York Times headline was, "Reagan Keeps Smiling at Yale Despite Sneers and Hostile Air."
At the end of the week, addressing Reagan at a forum at the law school, a student tried a knockout punch. "Yesterday you had lunch with the political science faculty," he began. "One member noted that unlike other public figures you asked no questions or in any other way attempted to learn from these men. Does this mean you are closed to learning, especially from academic experts?" There were murmurs amid the painful silence. "Well, I don't know which member of the luncheon group that was," Reagan responded. "But I would think in all fairness that he might also add that at no time was I free of the questions that had been asked of me, and as a guest, I felt I should answer what was being asked." The auditorium erupted with sustained applause.
Though I would have several encounters with Ronald Reagan after the one at Yale in 1967, that was my introduction to the disarming charm and rhetorical power of Reagan.
The process for The American Experience began when my colleague and the author of this volume, Adriana Bosch, contacted the Office of Ronald Reagan in Los Angeles and sent them a copy of the biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower that she and I had done for The American Experience. We were informed that President and Mrs. Reagan liked it and would cooperate with us. That was more than flattering. It was crucial. Probably all the people we would contact who had served Reagan when he was governor or president would call his office to find out if the Reagans trusted us. Needless to say, this willingness to cooperate was not contingent upon any right to review our scripts at any stage, nor would we have agreed to any such request.
One of the advantages of producing something so soon after Reagan had left office is that the key participants and eyewitnesses, at least to his presidency, are still alive. One of the risks in a project at this point in time is that people will hold back critical comments of a man who remains enormously popular and who is ill.
We interviewed fifty-one people on camera -- including Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, even John Barletta, his Secret Service agent at the ranch -- and spoke to many more. They gave us a wealth of first-person stories and anecdotes. We were especially lucky to have the cooperation of two biographers who are candid about Reagan's frailties: Edmund Morris, whose own authorized biography of the president was published in 1999, and Lou Cannon, who has written three biographies of Ronald Reagan.
It was a pity that Tip O'Neill, Reagan's adversary as Speaker of the House, was not alive. We turned to Christopher Matthews, O'Neill's press aide, who has remained critical of many of Reagan's policies, although he admires Reagan as a very effective politician. We thought we'd talk to the Russians, his adversaries in the Cold War. They would muss him up a bit. It turns out that very soon after Mikhail Gorbachev met Reagan in Geneva in 1985 he began to like Reagan. This was the word we got in Moscow from Alexander Bessmertnykh and Sergei Tarasenko, high officials in the Foreign Ministry responsible for U.S. affairs on Reagan's watch.
We missed Gorbachev when we were in Moscow, but caught up with him in New York. I was granted half an hour for the interview. Gorbachev's final comment was, "He is really a very big person. A very great political leader, and, well, the rest is up to you."
Indeed it was. So what to make of Ronald Reagan?
His son Ron, who we found to be a very frank, amiable, and insightful fellow, warned us, "You're not going to figure him out. That's the first thing you need to know. I haven't figured him out. I don't know anybody who has figured him out." Lou Cannon remembered when someone asked Reagan on the eve of his election, "What is it, Governor, that people see in you?" Reagan's response was, "Would you laugh if I told you that they look at me and they see themselves?"
How true my colleague Adriana and I found that to be. People did see in Reagan a reflection of themselves. When I asked Nancy Reagan if Ronald Reagan was at heart a peacemaker or a Cold Warrior, she replied without hesitation, "Peacemaker, of course." That is how she wanted to see him. George Shultz stressed Reagan's negotiating skills. The Secretary of State believed in negotiations. Sergei Tarasenko of the Soviet Foreign Ministry called Reagan "perhaps the last romantic of his generation." Tarasenko struck me as an incurable romantic. Reagan's speechwriter Tony Dolan, responsible for the "Evil Empire" speech, placed Reagan among America's most intellectual presidents. Dolan is very cerebral. And on it went. The search for Ronald Reagan was not going to be easy.
"Go to the ranch," Edmund Morris urged. "That's where you'll find his soul." He described the ranch house as small and simple, with a fireplace but no central heating. "That's him," Morris said. "The fancy Los Angeles life is Nancy." In the barn at the ranch all the chain saws and pole saws, his brush cutting tools, were lined up in an orderly manner. And the posthole diggers. What impressed me most about the ranch were the fence posts made of telephone poles. Reagan and his sidekicks Dennis LeBlanc and Barney Barnett sawed all the posts, lined them up, and dug all the holes. First around the patio, then around the pond, then the pasture, and finally they tackled the orchard. That was a lot of digging, sawing, and aligning. And those fences are a beautiful sight. Reagan, Dennis told me, would never ask anyone to do something he would not do himself. That tells you something of the man.
And what about the woman behind the man? Nancy was at the ranch when we arrived. She had arranged to have Dennis show us around. Dennis was one of the elite of the California Highway Patrol who trained with the Secret Service and was detailed to protect Governor Reagan. He is a big handsome guy who I imagine would be difficult to push around. Dennis was with us when we were filming on the back forty. A Secret Service agent drove up -- a beefy guy who looked like Yul Brynner and sported a pistol on his hip. "Dennis," he said, "it's supper time. Rainbow wants you at the ranch house," referring to Nancy by her code name (the president's is "Rawhide"). Of course Nancy was his boss, but still, I've never seen a guy disappear so fast. That was my first glimpse of the power of Nancy Reagan.
Nancy consented to an interview, the first she had given since she left the White House. There was a lot she did not want to talk about, which is her right, but we were pleased with some of her anecdotes, which we could not have gotten from anyone else. Later, she felt she had not done well on camera and wanted very much to redo the interview. We disagreed, and when she relented her last words were, "I just want to do what's right for Ronnie."
We learned, in the making of the film, of Reagan's disgust with his drunken father: how as a child of an alcoholic, he learned to shut out the unpleasant -- the explanation, perhaps, to why he denied for so long that he traded arms to Iran for hostages. He found solace in his mother's church, the Disciples of Christ. He was a lifeguard on the Rock River in the summers as a student, and his subsequent political life, as Edmund Morris told us, was devoted to the general theme of rescue. As an actor and later as president, he needed to be engaged as a performer in a production. He saw himself once on a television monitor and said, "Oh, there he is." He often found it hard to distinguish fantasy from reality. From a childhood of adversity he forged a determined character. Beneath the affable exterior, his long-time advisor Martin Anderson observed, is "a solid tempered-steel bar."
That gives a glimpse of the man. But what about the president?
Reagan was nearly seventy when he was inaugurated, the oldest president in American history. For the previous twenty years, ever since Eisenhower, the presidency of every one of his predecessors had ended in failure. Many pundits felt the office was unmanageable, too much for anyone to handle, much less an actor turned president. And the problems America faced when Reagan came into office in January 1981 were enormous: an economy in shambles, an emboldened Soviet adversary and a crisis of self-confidence.
Reagan had little use for the details of government, tended to overdelegate, and grew increasingly disengaged. But he almost always rose to the occasion and pursued his ideals with great determination.
Through the force of his rhetoric and his capable staff, Reagan pushed through Congress his conservative program -- cuts in taxes and domestic spending and a military buildup, winning what he called "the biggest political victory in half a century." He saw the nation through its worst recession since the Great Depression and then through its greatest economic expansion in peacetime history. But he failed to curb the growth of government, leaving behind a trillion-dollar budget and a huge deficit. Under Ronald Reagan, for the first time in the twentieth century the United States became a debtor nation.
He succeeded in reviving the American spirit. Edmund Morris puts it well: "He rescued America from a period of poisonous self-doubt." When he left the White House in 1989, he was one of the most popular presidents in history.
The passion of his lifetime, ever since he battled Communists in Hollywood as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, was a hatred of Communism and the Soviet Union. I don't think he had a master plan to bring down the Soviet Union. But he did sense, as he told Lou Cannon and others at The Washington Post during the Republican primary in 1980, that his proposed defense buildup would not accelerate the arms race because the Soviet Union would not be able to compete. He seems to have had an uncanny intuition on this. His declared policy was to build up America's defenses and then negotiate from a position of strength. It came as a surprise to me to learn how much Reagan abhorred nuclear weapons and wanted to eliminate their threat. But administration insiders told us he wanted more than to negotiate arms reductions. He wanted to win the Cold War.
The Soviet Union collapsed on George Bush's watch, but the turning point came on Reagan's. There were actually two turning points. One was when he deployed Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe in 1983, thwarting the Soviet Union's efforts to split the NATO alliance. The other was a hastily arranged summit at Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, when he refused Gorbachev's demands to limit research on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reykjavik seemed like a failure at the time, but as Gorbachev told me in New York, their discussions brought them "to the top of the hill, and from the top of the hill you can see a long way."
Scholars will debate for decades what role Ronald Reagan played in the end of the Cold War. Many give the primary credit to Gorbachev. I too came to feel that Gorbachev played a major role in ending the Cold War -- he lost it. As Anthony Lewis of the The New York Times told me, "He lost it gracefully, and how lucky we all are that he did." Gorbachev was intelligent enough to realize the need to reform Communism and to reach a new understanding with the West. But he could not control the reforms he initiated. When they spiraled out of control, the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Ronald Reagan wanted to win the Cold War: he threatened the Soviets with his arms buildup, he supported anti-Communist insurgencies around the world, he committed the CIA to keep Solidarity alive in Poland, and he predicted to the British Parliament that Marxism-Leninism would end up "in the ash heap of history." Poland was freed, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Maybe you can't prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but to deny one seems foolish.
To the extent that "Reagan" the film and Reagan the book are biographies, it doesn't matter what credit you give him. You understand the man through his commitment. If character is revealed through action, Reagan's determination, his willful optimism, his faith in America and Western ideals are revealed in his battle against big government and Communism, the crusades of his lifetime.
On July 4, 1986, Lady Liberty's one-hundredth birthday, Ronald Reagan stood on the deck of the John F. Kennedy. As he pushed the button that sent a laser beam across the New York harbor to light the refurbished symbol of the American promise, the skies above erupted in the biggest display of fireworks in history. Midway into his second presidential term, Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity. He had become as one with America's great symbol: the embodiment of the nation's most cherished myths.
"He was a man for whom the American dream became a luminous reality," wrote journalist and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, "the wholesome citizen hero who inhabits our democratic imaginations, an 'Everyman' who was slow to anger, but willing to fight for right, and correct wrongdoing when aroused."
"Reagan was a bit of a mystic," his close aide Lyn Nofziger said, "very much a Christian and very much a man who believes in the Almighty and in a plan that the Almighty may have. And he thought that America was sent here between two oceans for a very specific purpose, which was literally to be a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world."
He had come to office in 1980 to rescue America from "a period of poisonous self-doubt," in the words of biographer Edmund Morris, to restore the nation's confidence, to demonstrate to Americans that they had a role, a special role of moral leadership in the world, something that they had forgotten in the dark decades of the 1970s and 1960s. When he left office in 1989, he left an America that was militarily stronger, wealthier, and more confident.
Yet he also left behind an America saddled with a national debt exceeding one trillion dollars, a country in which many social problems remained unsolved or had grown worse, a society that many felt had become less compassionate, and where the gap between rich and poor had widened.
"The sad thing about the Reagan era was, there were cuts in domestic programs but certainly no cuts in government spending enough to prevent this enormous growth in deficits ... to the point now where one of the chief costs of government is paying off the debt that was incurred," Christopher Matthews told AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. "I can't tell you what history is going to say one hundred years from now about Ronald Reagan's presidency," concurred ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, "but, if you talk about today, we're still paying for tripling the national debt. We're still paying ... for what went on during [the Reagan] years. "A hundred years from now, there's no doubt that ending the Cold War will be on Reagan's historical tombstone," countered Richard Norton Smith. "We'll forget the change of the mood of the country. We'll forget the economic indices of the Reagan era. But we will remember that he ended a forty-year nightmare, in which a mushroom cloud loomed over all of our heads." "If you seek his monument, look for what we don't see," George Will added eloquently. "We don't see the Berlin Wall. We don't see 'the iron curtain from Stetin to Trieste. '"
The only actor ever to become president, Ronald Reagan rose in politics through the power of his rhetoric, bursting onto the political scene in 1964 with a speech on behalf of conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. The "Great Communicator," Reagan used the presidency as a place of moral leadership, a "bully pulpit" to mobilize the American people with his unwavering optimism and to convert them to his own convictions -- his aversion to big government and his hatred of Communism. But this most ideological of presidents was also a pragmatist, a skillful politician who understood the value of compromise. Chief of Staff James Baker told AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, "President Reagan wanted to succeed and he knew that to succeed in politics, particularly with a Democratic Congress, he would have to compromise. He said to me many times, 'I would much prefer to get 80 percent of what I want than to go off the cliff with the flag flying.'"
Ronald Reagan was indeed a man of paradoxes, a mystery that has yet to be unraveled despite the efforts of scores of aides, biographers, even his own family. As his son Ron told us, "I haven't figured him out, I don't know anybody who has figured him out."
He was an idealist who believed in America's inherent goodness, in freedom and its ultimate triumph. Yet sometimes he acted with the expediency of a Machiavelli. Under the "Reagan Doctrine," he confronted Communism throughout the world, aiding dictators and democrats, Islamic fundamentalists and African warlords, faithful to the timeless maxim that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
He cut the benefits of millions and watched Americans suffer through the hardest economic times since the Great Depression, yet he would respond compassionately to the hardship of individuals by writing them personal checks from the Oval Office.
He called the Soviet Union "the focus of evil," but negotiated arms reductions agreements with its leaders. He abhorred nuclear weapons, but built them by the thousands. He repeatedly stated that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought," but took the world to the brink by deploying Pershing missiles in Europe in the fall of 1983, scaring millions worldwide, including the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Dr. Helen Caldicott, who feared that "Reagan could push the [nuclear] button."
He seldom went to church, but was deeply religious -- he had faith in the power of prayer and believed that the hand of God determines human events. He believed in Armageddon -- the inevitable and final confrontation between good and evil -- yet an incurable optimist, he did everything in his power to try to prevent it. He preached family values, but was himself a detached father who failed to reach his children.
Reagan was not a learned man. His lack of command of factual details -- even on important issues -- and frequent gaffes -- misstatements or factual errors -- lead many to think that he was not intelligent. But as his aides report, he had a formidable memory and an uncanny ability to listen to a debate, reducing issues to their essence and formulating them in terms that were simple and crystal clear. "This guy was very smart," Reagan's advisor Martin Anderson told The American Experience. "And there's one piece of hard evidence if anyone disbelieves that. We have here in the archives of the Hoover Institution some handwritten drafts of major speeches that Ronald Reagan wrote all by himself. Ask any intellectual, the real test of how well a person thinks or how much you know, or how you can assimilate and put together information, is to sit down with a blank piece of paper and a black pen and write it yourself in your own hand. Try it. That is really a very powerful test of overall intelligence. And the record has survived."
"Reagan was certainly smart enough to be president," Lou Cannon concluded, and his temperament was ideally suited to the job. He didn't rattle, he could shut out the clamor ... shut out what was going on around him and focus on the business at hand.... That's a big thing if you are in that Oval Office. "
He was gentlemanly and considerate, but he was also tough and determined, and as many an adversary discovered, a formidable foe. Columnist George Will told AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, "the stricken fields of American politics are littered with the bleached bones of those who underestimated Ronald Reagan."
Mostly he is remembered as a simple, aging president, whose humor and charm captivated much of America. Less known is the younger man: the fast-talking, quick, and aggressive conservative governor and candidate, whose mind, in the words of a biographer, "worked like clockwork."
Tip O'Neill's aide Christopher Matthews, who met Reagan in the early days of his presidency when he still had most of his old vigor, recalls him as "tough and confrontational, feisty and streetwise ... more like James Cagney than Jimmy Stewart." Martin Anderson best described him as a "nice soft silky pillow ... but if you took a hard punch, you would find in the middle a solid tempered-steel bar. That was the real Ronald Reagan. That was the essence of Ronald Reagan."
This essence, which Reagan biographer Edmund Morris has called Reagan's "atman" -- a Hindu term meaning a strong inner core -- was forged against the adversity of a poor, nomadic and isolated childhood, a childhood which began in the plains of rural western Illinois, where Reagan spent the first years of his life.
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