Looking at Reagan

"Why can't an actor be as good a President as a peanut warehouseman, a hustling attorney, a schoolteacher? It all depends upon the quality of his fantasies between takes."
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Ronald Reagan was trying to blow up an inflatable plastic elephant aboard the old Electra prop-jet, 30,000 feet above Pennsylvania. His wife had just asked him to; his efforts were fussy and ineffectual. “I can’t get the wrinkles out,” he said, handing the elephant back to Nancy Reagan, who handed it to an aide in a navy blazer and Topsiders. He blew deftly into the stem until the elephant was sleek and glossy, scrawled over with the autographs of those traveling with the campaign.

“Will you sign my elephant?” she asked me. She wore a bright red dress with a gold expansion belt, the radiant focus of an otherwise colorless entourage, and her smile seemed etched in place by the countless speeches to which she had borne witness.

I signed the elephant. Nancy Reagan’s personal secretary took it from me and handed her employer an open Whitman’s Sampler. Dispensing chocolates to the press corps had become a standard means of recognizing people she disliked or distrusted, without having to get closer than a nougat or a cherry in heavy syrup. It was May 1980, with Reagan just days away from collecting enough primary votes to assure the Republican nomination, the penultimate moment in a grueling process.

“Will  you have one of my chocolates?”

I politely declined, not wanting to sit down to an interview with a mouthful of candy. Still smiling, Nancy Reagan took my measure and then moved resolutely toward the back of the plane.

I was introduced to Reagan by his press secretary, Ed Gray. Reagan sat alone in shirtsleeves in the forward most row of seats, facing the window, his shoulders hunched, diminished in close up.

He turned and offered me a surprisingly limp handshake. Reagan does not like being interviewed and he does not like deprived of his rest, and we were flying from Detroit to Long Island on a tight schedule that precluded his taking a nap.

We had already met, at a Republican convocation in San Diego six years before, but Reagan made no pretense of remembering me or the event. His hair, orange then, had been allowed or encouraged to take on the steely tones of a senior statesman, and was combed into the modified roach unchanged in half a century. His suntan obscured tiny burst blood vessels in his cheeks and nose. What appeared from a distance to be character lines were crevasses in the flesh about his mouth.

Before I could begin, an aide stepped forward to clip a microphone attached to a tape recorder to Reagan’s tie, and he stayed there, an electronic plug in one ear and wires protruding from his clothing. Ed Gray took a position behind our seats.

I had been allocated half an hour with the candidate, reduced first to twenty three minutes and then to something less, not a lot of time to assess a prospective President of the United States. I had been advised by my colleagues in the back of the plane—after the whistle-blowing at takeoff, and the placing of drink order—not to allow Reagan to go into a routine about reform or increased productivity through tax reduction that ate up the minutes. I was more interested in the man than his policies; I asked Reagan what he considered to be the greatest influences in his early life.

He asked me to repeat the question, leaning forward to hear. Ed Gray also leaned forward; the wired aide lowered his head to within eighteen inches of the candidate’s. The interview was not to be private, as was promised, but it was certainly intimate.

Finally Reagan said, in a hushed, almost frail voice, “My mother gave me my religious faith.”

I waited for some elaboration, but it didn’t come. I asked about the Depression. “There was a kind of drabness.” That was the worst thing he could think of to say—drabness, lack of light—and he shifted quickly to the upbeat. “We had the lowest crime rate then. I always think of that when people give poverty as an excuse for crime.”

Two hours before, Reagan had told members of the Economic Club of Detroit that the automobile represented America’s last great freedom, and that for too long the values of those staunch industrialists “have been mocked and ignored and exploited.” He didn’t say by whom, but he didn’t have to. The federal government, its minions and sympathizers, have been in Reagan’s rhetorical dock for more than thirty years, almost as long as the communists. Neither the message nor the delivery has changed. Reagan comes on stage moving his hands as if he were dribbling two basketballs simultaneously, apparently embarrassed by the applause. Then the shoulders come back, the chin rises, and the head bobbles as he speaks, habitual bits of body language learned at Warner Brothers that still translate into sincerity and good will. He is a professional political neophyte, the eternal tyro, and the best there is. He may talk about the thousands of General Motors employees hired to fill out government forms or the expanding window of Soviet military superiority, but his manner suggests that he would rather be mending fences or riding one of his horses high above the Pacific Ocean.

I soon learned that Reagan’s “niceness,” so apparent in public, is impenetrable in private. Even when I asked him if people in the West have some lesson for the rest of the nation, a comfortable question, he shifted uncomfortably. “The people who moved west were willing to pull up and go for more opportunity,” he said, apparently worried about his advocacy of a settled family life, and the inherent transience of the West. Only when I asked him to contrast himself and Carter as amateurs in the White House did he brighten.

“Before I thought about running for the presidency I spent a lot of time on the mashed potato circuit,” he said, words that I had just read in another interview, “speaking and campaigning for things I believe in. I took stands on national and international affairs … California is patterned after Washington, a microcosm … the most populous state. Being governor is the closest thing to being President … I appeared before committees with an international flavor … California as a separate nation would be the seventh ranking power on earth … ”

“Time’s almost up,” said the wired aide.

A television reporter stood in the aisle waiting her turn, backed by a technician with hands full of more recording gear. Behind him stood a Secret Service agent, his jacket pulled back to reveal the sculpted handle of his revolver and a waistband radio. A stewardess carrying a tray of sandwiches and pickles wove among them.

I quickly asked Reagan about his reading habits. What was his favorite book, or books? His eyes grew large. “Oh, I’m not sure I can answer that.” The wired aide’s knees were jammed against mine; Ed Gray hovered impatiently overhead, a mortician’s smile on his lips.

“The Bible,” Reagan ventured. “The Bible is my favorite book. If I was alone on an island I would want the Bible, not just in the religious sense but because you can read new meaning there … ”

“Time’s up.”

“Anybody want a pickle?”

Earlier in the interview I had asked Reagan what he was afraid of. He said he was afraid of the designs of the Russians, but I had pushed for something more personal. At last he had said, “Well, I have a touch of claustrophobia.”

“Wasn’t that exciting?” asked one of the reporters, when I returned to the back of the plane. He was laughing. “There’s no lust in Ronald Reagan’s heart. What you see is what you get.”

That night I watched Reagan charm a ballroom full of heavily dressed Nassau County Republicans. He was relaxed and diffident, a changed person from the guarded old man I had talked to on the plane. He told a story about his and Nancy’s being mistaken for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and I would have sworn he was telling it for the first time if I had not heard him tell the story a few hours earlier, in Detroit.

During the speech that followed, I watched the young women at the tables around me. They nodded in grim, bright-eyed agreement, whether Reagan was denouncing an administration that prevented farmers from “putting their crops in the ground,” “phony economists in Washington with Phi Beta Kappa keys at one end of their watch chains and no watches at the other,” or the fact that the federal government “does not know as much about raising kids as mom and pop.” Few of those sparkly young women would have readily identified themselves as half of a mom and pop team, and they sure as hell didn’t empathize with farmers. Something was going on that transcended age and the usual politics of resentment.

I returned to Washington, where I live, the city so despised by the people in that ballroom and the last place in America to accept the real possibility that Ronald Wilson Reagan could be President. Jimmy Carter did not deserve to be re-elected, but the idea of his Republican counterpart in the White House was more than the press could bear. Carter would portray him as an ideological loon, no doubt with plenty of help from Reagan, who would lose in November with nothing more than a grinning hank of hair for an opponent.

Meanwhile, Reagan continued to rise in the polls. Republicans on and off the Hill were preparing for another sort of inevitability. When I talked to Roger Stone, Reagan’s campaign coordinator in the Northeast, he was wearing loafers without socks in sympathy with the mellower sartorial habits of those Californians already winging their way toward the Potomac. “Ronald Reagan is a very nonpolitical person,” Stone said, a curious description of a man who had been involved in politics for longer than Stone had been on earth. “I’m afraid you don’t have much to write about,” he added, sipping Perrier in the Mayflower bar. “What you see … ”

“ … is what you get.”

“Right.”

That had become the conventional wisdom, a nice bit of campaign strategy in an age when billions must be spent making things appear to be what they are not. But the Reagan phenomenon was full of paradox: a septuagenarian riding the shoulders of a youth-worshipful culture, a bundle of ancient verities from the fountainhead of trend and illusion, a professional role-player in a final tryout for the weightiest office. Reagan’s foreign policy adviser, Richard V. Allen, a former member of the National Security Council and what is usually referred to as “an old Washington hand,” spoke publicly of Reagan’s “voracious” reading, even his “deep” thinking. The adjectives seemed to contradict the notion of the candidate’s lack of complication—what you see is what you get—and I asked Allen about Reagan’s motives and thought processes.

“It’s a calling,” Allen said. “What Burke meant by obligation. Not that Reagan’s ever heard of Burke. I mean, I don’t know if he’s actually read Burke. But he has a great accumulation of knowledge. He’s a voracious reader of clippings and memoranda; he appoints people to read books for him, and if they don’t, they’re in trouble. He’s very conservative with regard to words. Sometimes he’ll read a position paper and say, ‘Tell me what all these words mean.’”

More paradox. An eighteenth-century moralist who prefers Little House on the Prairie or most any television production to the pages of a book; celebrated individualist whose ideas and information are digested by other minds; an anti-politician whose only successful career has been political. Was Reagan simple or smart, a cynic or an innocent, a throwback or something quite unprecedented?

“He’s a genuinely nice guy,” said John Sears, Reagan’s chief political adviser before he was fired on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. “He’s not a great original thinker but he can get to the heart of things … I don’t know how much he’s learned. There’s been no real suffering in his life.”

Who is Ronald Reagan, then? It was a difficult question for a man who makes his living in the political twilight zone between appearance and reality. Sears takes his time answering, gazing through the gritty panes of his office and down into the traffic along Connecticut Avenue.

“At rock bottom, Reagan is still a boy from a small in Illinois. He’s managed to retain his roots while surrounded by rootlessness. But his idea of success was formed in California. Success in California is the same as anyplace else, only bigger.”

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