February 6, 2016

Ronald Reagan was not unappreciated at the end, far from it. But he was at the beginning.

Happy 105th Birthday, Mr. President.

President Ronald Reagan.jpg
"Whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears: to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's arm steadying your way."

-- President Ronald Reagan, 1992

"I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith."

-- Timothy 2:4:7

"His story was classically, movingly rags-to-riches; he was a nobody who became a somebody in the American way, utterly on his own and with the help of millions.

"He was just under 10 when the Roaring Twenties began, 16 when Lindbergh flew the ocean; he remembered as a little boy giving a coin to a doughboy leaning out a window of a troop train going east to the ships that would take them to the Marne and the Argonne Forest.

"Ronald, nicknamed Dutch, read fiction. He liked stories of young men battling for the good and true. A story he wrote in college had a hero arriving home from the war and first thing calling his girl. Someone else answered. Who is calling? "Tell her it's the president," he said. He wrote that when he was 20 years old.

"Many years later, in middle age, he was visited by a dream in which he was looking for a house. He was taken to a mansion with white walls and high sparkling windows. It was majestic. "This is a house that is available at a price I can afford," he would think to himself. And then he'd come awake. From the day he entered the White House for the first time as president he never had the dream again...." Read the rest at Thanks from a Grateful Country - WSJ

Excerpt from Jacob Weisberg's new biography, RONALD REAGAN: The American Presidents Series: The 40th President, 1981-1989

Surrounded by a Wall of Light

MOST OF NEWSWEEK'S WASHINGTON BUREAU was on vacation in late July 1987. That meant an opportunity for the summer intern to cover the president on an out-of-town trip. I remember Tom DeFrank, the magazine’s longtime White House correspondent, giving me my brief. I’d have a turn at pool duty, which meant flying in the rear section of Air Force One and typing up a report for the larger share of the press, following in a second plane. The assignment was “body watch” coverage: I was being sent along, at considerable expense, on the unlikely chance of something bad happening. In the event of an assassination attempt or accident, Tom told me, I should ignore the urge to run for the phone, and instead stay close and record every detail.

The visit to Wisconsin was Reagan’s last trip before departing for his usual twenty-five-day vacation at Rancho del Cielo, his retreat near Santa Barbara. I remember bits of the day distinctly: the dawn arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, the preloading of the plane before the president got aboard, and the executive splendor of Air Force One. In the galley, there were pens and writing tablets and decks of playing cards emblazoned with the official seal of the president of the United States. In the bathroom were baskets of candy, toiletries, and packs of cigarettes, in presidential slipcovers, free for the taking. No one fastened a seat belt as the plane took off. The reporters got off the rear of the plane first, so we could watch Reagan wave as he came down the front stairs and greeted the local receiving committee, before we hustled into the motorcade and sped down closed highways to his speech.

His first stop was the floor of a factory in Hartford, Wisconsin, that manufactured hoods for kitchen ranges, where he addressed the workers. He made two more speeches after that, one at a Rotary Club luncheon and another at an outdoor rally in the pretty Lake Michigan town of Port Washington. All along the way, there were flags and banners and balloons and people cheering. Reagan made his case against the big spenders in Congress, who were fencing with him over the budget. At each stop, he promoted what he called an Economic Bill of Rights, which was a repackaging of his wish list: a balanced budget amendment, a line-item veto, and a supermajority requirement for tax increases. The more immediate political purpose of the trip was to establish that, amid the drama of the congressional Iran-Contra hearings and the embattled nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, he was still relevant.

A larger theme was Reagan’s renewal of his bond with the American people. These were the kinds of midwestern places he knew from his childhood. “I grew up in a town with people like you, just across the border in Illinois,” he reminded his audiences. He quoted Yogi Berra and Will Rogers and told one of the anti-Soviet jokes he collected. He said government spending was like the grass that grows in the cracks on the sidewalk, citing the example of a mass transit system so expensive that it would have been cheaper to buy every rider a new car every five years. (He didn’t say where that costly transit system was.) The day ended with a patriotic rally in the town square of Port Washington, which glowed in the afternoon light. “America is number one, and we’re going to stay that way!” the president declared. Thirty thousand people were chanting, “Reagan, Reagan, Reagan” and “USA, USA, USA.” (“It was a humbling feeling to be greeted with such warmth & affection,” Reagan wrote in his diary that evening.) From a corral on the tarmac, reporters shouted questions about Bork and Iran-Contra as the president ascended the stairs of Air Force One, turned, and waved, either choosing not to hear or, more likely, unable to hear above the engine noise. He was back home in time for supper.

I came back with souvenirs and stories. But spending a day around people who loved Ronald Reagan only deepened the difficulty of comprehending his popularity. Like a lot of those covering him, I pegged Reagan as a disengaged dullard with a simplistic view of the world and a superficial understanding of policy. A few months earlier, he had acknowledged bewilderment about his own role in the arms-for-hostages swap. For any of his predecessors, such an admission would have amounted to a confession of lying. Reagan’s present-but-absent quality made his confusion plausible, and a little pathetic. He was too vague for a villain, but surely an embarrassment.

Few of my friends in those days would have predicted that Reagan would be remembered as a good president, let alone a great one. Yet it was at that very moment that Reagan was making contributions to the end of the Cold War that would stand as his signal accomplishment. A month earlier he had spoken in Berlin and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” His negotiations with the Soviet leader, which had broken down at Reykjavik the previous fall, would change the fundamental dynamics of the world I’d grown up in: the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Communist threat, and a domestic politics built around these threats.

In the subsequent quarter century, Reagan’s reputation has grown and grown. He stands today as the second most important president of the twentieth century, following Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was his first political hero. Their counterpoint is strongly apparent. Where Roosevelt tried to solve the country’s problems through decisive federal action, Reagan tried to solve them by removing government. Roosevelt gave us the era of the New Deal; Reagan ended it, making conservatism the country’s dominant ideology. But as Reagan’s reputation has grown, so, too, has his mystery. How did a man who sometimes didn’t remember the names of his cabinet officers change the country and the world so much? Was his intellectual disengagement somehow an aspect of his political success? Did he succeed by performing the presidency in a way only a trained actor could? Did he have some kind of magical luck?

Part of the answer to that puzzle lies in the personal qualities Reagan had in common with Roosevelt, whom Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously described as “a second-class mind, but a first-class temperament.” Roosevelt, too, was criticized for his superficiality and oversimplification, for relating to complex realities through anecdotes rather than facts. Like Reagan, he often proceeded in an intuitive fashion rather than a logical one. But both men had a native optimism that helped them depict a bright future at a moment of pervasive gloom. At the core of both their characters was a humor that served as a touchstone of common humanity. Like Roosevelt, Reagan managed to preserve a sense of playfulness amid the burdens of office. “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency—even if I’m in a cabinet meeting,” he joked. When Reagan visited China, he went to Xi’an and looked out at thousands of life-size Terracotta Warriors made by an emperor in the third century BC. “You’re dismissed,” he said, offering a crisp salute.

In one way, Reagan isn’t hard to understand at all: he knew what he believed, meant what he said, and made clear what he intended to do. He didn’t suffer from anxiety or self-doubt. The search for something beneath the surface has tended to produce few results. The biographer who tried the hardest to find it, Edmund Morris, ended his quest in bitter frustration. Granted access during Reagan’s second term that has no parallel among presidential historians, Morris spent fourteen years interrogating a sphinx. “Nobody around him understood him,” he said in an interview when his Reagan biography, Dutch, was published in 1999. “I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.’” Morris’s dismal conclusion was that Reagan simply had no inner life.

That’s nonsense, of course. Every human being has memories, doubts, desires, an interior monologue. But it’s fair to say that Reagan’s private side was buried so deeply that few people ever had access to it. His close friends were few, if any. He was emotionally distant to his four children, who developed varying views about the remoteness he displayed while they were growing up. In the book she published in 1989, Nancy Reagan wrote, “There’s a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier.”

Where does that leave those still trying to understand Ronald Reagan? In writing this biography, I’ve pursued three questions that I don’t think have been answered adequately: Why did he move from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican? What role did he really play in ending the Cold War? And finally, the most elusive, why was he so psychologically impenetrable? In developing answers, I’ve paid special attention to his words. Reagan was a natural and prolific writer. His two autobiographies, hundreds of radio commentaries, and thousands of letters, along with his speeches, voluminous diary entries, and notes, not only tell us what he thought, but also provide more insight into his inner life than most of what has been written about him.

Reagan’s first memoir, written in 1964, shows how an ability to hold reality at arm’s length functioned as a coping mechanism and an enabler of his success. He cultivated his emotional distance as a survival mechanism, then turned it into a secret weapon. Reagan’s sense of privacy—his quality of liking people but not needing them emotionally—was the core of his political appeal. It allowed him to train his warmth on the broad, distant public rather than on his family, friends, and people who worked for him. It fueled his ideology of American identity, built around individualism and independence.

During the 1960s the citizens of Los Angeles got used to a weather phenomenon known as an inversion layer. Dust and pollution would form a blanket of smog that got trapped over the low-lying areas, creating a man-made cloud that hung low, blocking out the blue sky. The man elected governor of California in 1966 was a bit that way, too: murky up close, but bright and sunny at a distance. The farther you got, the warmer he was. Those closest to him felt he didn’t really know them; many at a great distance felt he did. In Reagan’s psyche, the specific and the general were reversed. Friends were something of an abstraction to him. Abstractions such as “the poor” and “the Soviets” became meaningful only when he translated them into stories about human beings. Reagan articulated this in a wistful 1978 radio commentary called “Looking out a Window.” He describes being alone in a hotel room in an anonymous city, watching the rush-hour traffic, and thinking about all the people going home from work. “They are not ‘the masses’ or, as the elitists would have it—‘the common man.’ They are very uncommon. Individuals each with his or her own hopes & dreams, plans & problems, and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any place on earth.”

How did Reagan’s inversion layer form? Starting from an itinerant childhood, forced from place to place by his father’s alcoholism, he willed himself to become an autonomous, self-reliant person. Denying and forgetting unpleasant reality allowed what Reagan’s dedicated chronicler Lou Cannon calls his “optimistic imagination” to flourish amid the difficult conditions of the Depression. At one level, he was simply adopting his mother’s approach to his father’s “weakness,” pretending it wasn’t there or that it wasn’t really so bad. But Reagan’s fogginess was overdetermined in that it was physical as well as emotional, accentuated by severe myopia, and later by poor hearing. “I hate them to this day,” he wrote in the mid-1960s about having to wear glasses.

This was only partly vanity. It was also Reagan’s preference for blur. Elsewhere, in a series of newspaper articles he wrote from Hollywood for the folks back home in Iowa, he talked about making his first films. He described his feeling of comfort acting “surrounded by a wall of light” that made it impossible to see anyone else. This created “a feeling of privacy that completely dispelled any nervousness I might have expected.” Many actors love the sense of connection to their audience; Reagan thrived on the isolation of performance. His cheerfulness and positive outlook drew people to him. His aloofness kept them at a distance. Reagan’s emotional inaccessibility drove the women he loved during the first part of his life to abandon him—his first fiancée, Margaret Cleaver, and his first wife, Jane Wyman, whose abandonment he found mystifying. Reagan’s Fortress of Solitude was also a way of coping with the pain of rejection and disappointment, including disappointment in himself. In his blissful second marriage to Nancy, who didn’t push for more than he could deliver, his fog became a way to preserve his ideals in the face of his lapses as a father and of behavior by his children that fell short of his ideals. Reagan chose to see his family life in the harmonious way he wished it to be, not the way it often was.

In the public realm, Reagan’s obliviousness was equally functional. Willed blurriness became a technique he used to overlook moral lapses by the country he loved. Applying a soft-focus lens to American history was a way to repel the assault on it by the 1960s and reassert the nation’s enduring values. 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 that 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. There is something especially poignant in Reagan’s succumbing to Alzheimer’s, drawn ever deeper into a mental twilight that had always been his greatest protection against the pain of life.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at February 6, 2016 12:24 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

It was during the Reagan presidency that my vision started to clear regarding american politics. I had hope in those days.

The day George HW Bush said "Read my lips." was the day I started changing.

The day the arkansas hillbilly took office my view was changed to what it is today, and forever more. The plastic coins were removed from my eyes. The criminal from Hope erased my hope.

Posted by: ghostsniper at February 6, 2016 4:54 AM

Jacob represents people who still don't understand either Reagan or America.

Posted by: Moneyrunner at February 6, 2016 5:56 AM

I had to stop reading. I just can't bear to be reminded so forcefully how far and how fast we have fallen. I wish the Islamics would blow up LA, NYC and DC. The end result would be an improvement.

Posted by: John The River at February 6, 2016 6:04 AM

Nancy Reagan wrote, “There’s a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier.”

That *barrier* exists in everyone.

I'm reminded of a time a hundred years ago when I sat in a church sermon as the pastor weaved his spell.

He said, "There things about me my friends do not know." "

There are things about me my wife does not know."

He walked out in front of the pulpit with well worn bible in hand and said, "But there is nothing about me that God doesn't know."

We all have our layers.

This author tried to make Reagan's layers a penalty.

Posted by: ghostsniper at February 6, 2016 6:56 AM

Can the caterpillar understand the butterfly?
When the caterpillar metamorphs that question is beside the point.

Posted by: Stug Guts at February 6, 2016 8:13 AM

I did not ever hate the man, but cannot understand the adulation.

Posted by: pbird at February 6, 2016 8:27 AM

How can you have lived through every president since Reagan and not understand?

As far as presidents go, he was the last one in this country. Every other stand-in since has been giving us their rendition of what a tsar should be.

None of them were presidential in the least and all were utter embarrassments to humanity.

Posted by: ghostsniper at February 6, 2016 11:17 AM

I got to go to the Reagan Memorial Library last March. It is a beautiful place, lovingly maintained in Simi Valley. I recommend it for anyone in the area.
He was a real man, and his actions showed wisdom, a wisdom that is gone from modern politics. Reagan was the first President I voted for. For that, I will always be proud.

Posted by: Leslie at February 6, 2016 12:02 PM

To compare Reagan with FDR is intellectual malpractice, but it is a useful warning about the author. Reagan's awakening was formed by von Hayek. No one goes to the trouble of reading von Hayek thoroughly without a commitment to understanding the human condition in all it's contradictions. Reagan understood, and he understood himself. The author of this biography is trapped within an ideology alien to the understand of Reagan or his mentor.

Posted by: james wilson at February 6, 2016 1:46 PM

.... Reagan found that vagueness was a good management technique as well. Setting broad direction and leaving the details to others .....

.... meant that President Reagan was a very good executive. Too many people in charge of something tend to micromanage the workings of their organization.

Progressivism generally is micromanagement to the nth degree. Progressives just can't bring themselves to believe that freedom and free markets work -- that it's not necessary to plan an economy (or an entire society) down to the smallest detail for it to work. In fact, trying to do so just gums up the works, as Hayek so ably showed.

Some people these days are looking for a second FDR. I'm hoping for a second Calvin Coolidge.

My two cents' worth, as usual.

Hale Adams
Pikesville, People's still-mostly-Democratic Republic of Maryland

Posted by: Hale Adams at February 6, 2016 5:28 PM

Interesting that Reagan's birthday is in February.

I remember very well getting my reserve commission signed by Carter, and then serving in the infantry under President Ronald Reagan. The army had direction and heart again, and the Vietnam era began to fade.

When he stood outside the meeting in Reykjavik in his suit coat, next to Gorby in his big wool overcoat, we all knew who was boss.

Posted by: Casey Klahn at February 6, 2016 8:04 PM

And so the Reagan fraud continues, aided and abetted by those who should, and do know better but simply refuse to acknowledge the truth.

Would a conservative grow government beyond that of his liberal predecessor?

Would a conservative increase the federal deficit beyond that of his liberal predecessor?

Would a conservative enact more restrictive firearm laws than under his predecessor?

Would a conservative grant amnesty to millions of invading illegals, while falsely promising to stop future invasions?

No. A conservative would not. Saint Reagan the Fraudulent was not a conservative – ever. Our worldview has become so corrupted that a jackal like reagan, merely by adopting the mantle of conservatism thus became in the eyes of many a shining example. When we allow our thinking to be so disgustingly inept we end up with the present crop of statist liberals masquerading as conservative frontrunners.

Reaganism is not an endpoint to be achieved – it is the progressives victory that a liberal is viewed as conservative! What better way for their agenda to be promoted than by claiming your ally is your direct opposite?

Reagan famously noted that he Never Left the Democratic Party. Meaning that he was A-OK with the views and values of the 60's democrats.

Iran Contra becomes Waco becomes OK City becomes Fast & Furious. Thanks, Ronnie.

Yep, Reagan continued in the White Orifice that which he was well known for - acting. Not being.

Posted by: itor at February 7, 2016 12:23 PM

So, itor, Reagan wasn't perfect? Is that what you're saying?

He was so superior to any other president since then that he seems perfect from our current perspective. Sure, it would have been fine if he didn't increase the deficit. But look at what we've got now:

A president who isn't incompetent, but rather, is deliberately and capably destroying our country.

A president who is deliberately instituting totalitarianism.

A president who is far from being stupid; the stupid people are those who do not see the danger.

A president who is succeeding at every goal he has set.

A president who was caught on tape assuring the Russian ambassador that he would have "flexibility" after the election.

A president who embraces our enemies, and rejects our friends.

A president who repeatedly acts unConstitutionally and lawlessly to acheive his goals.

A president with the Media behind him, covering his lawbreaking and excusing it.

A president with no competent people in Congress willing or able to stop him; few will even speak out.

A president who has neutered the military; they are the front lines defending the Constitution. Why have they not placed this president in the stockade by now, to face a court martial for treason against the United States of America?

This president is doing exactly as he said: fundamentally transforming this country. Selling it out to the anti-American UN. Paying a hundred $billion to the ayatollahs. The list is very long.

However, our Constitution, our freedom, our wealth, our children, and our future are no longer at risk. The risk is past. Because those things have already been lost.

So complain about President Reagan if you like. But compare him with the real life Manchurian Candidate that we have now, and...

...doesn't President Reagan seem perfect?

Posted by: Smokey at February 7, 2016 1:35 PM

"Saint Reagan the Fraudulent was not a conservative – ever."

And your point is what?

I've seen several of Reagan's movies and at best he was piss poor as an actor.

Posted by: ghostsniper at February 7, 2016 1:39 PM

I did not adore the man, but I cant understand the hatred for him by many, even today on the left.

Posted by: foo dog at February 7, 2016 2:22 PM

No, Smokey, St Ronald the Fraudulent Does Not Seem Perfect. Even by comparison.

You Are Missing The Point. Or Evading Same.

St Ronald the Fraudulent paved the way for slick willie, the Boosheviks, and the halfrican. And the feculent bucket of republicans posing as conservatives in the ensuing elections.

"A president who repeatedly acts unConstitutionally and lawlessly to acheive (sic)
his goals."

Yep, that was Ronnie. You know it, if you were paying attention.

Posted by: itor at February 10, 2016 8:55 PM