A Country of the Mind

REAGAN’S AMERICA: Innocents at Home by Garry Wills. Doubleday, $19.95.
THIS BOOK IS A work of metapolitics. It is not about the pros and cons of the Reagan Administration. It is about the meaning of Ronald Reagan. Readers of Garry Wills’s 1970 book Nixon Agonistes will know what to expect—chapter headings from Milton and Chesterton, learned divagations on subjects as varied as “the Look” of Nancy Reagan and the theological roots of American pietism, passages of Catholic-inspired criticism of the sustaining myths of individualism and capitalism, and that combination of vivid writing and fresh thinking that is insight. There are in fact many insights, and over the course of a long book (451 pages) they form a kind of train; when we get to the last chapter, “Original Sinlessness,”we discover where it has been taking us. Wills writes that whereas “the doctrine of original sin states that humankind . . . ‘has a past’ ” that weighs like fate on the present, “the power of [Reagan’s] appeal is the great joint confession that we cannot live with our real past, that we not only prefer but need a substitute.” Reagan, in short, is the President of our amnesia. He has invented a bogus version of both his own past and our common past, and we don’t challenge either of these myths, because Reagan has made pretending that they are the truth “the easiest thing we do.” What are we pretending? That we did not lose a war, that we have not lost our economic primacy to peoples more productive than ourselves, and that these things are not the marks of a nation past its meridian but instead, as the President, quoting Torn Paine, has told us, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” There is the secret of Reagan’s bond with us. There is his meaning.
Is it indeed? Those who believe that politics is a rich subject will find the high-calorie speculation of Reagan’s America irresistible—I certainly did— and yet squirm over Wills’s use of those implicating words us and we. Who are the members of this “we” who fall for Reagan’s flatulent promises (“begin the world over again,” and so forth)? Clearly, Garry Wills is not among them. He is on to Reagan. “We.” evidently, is the electorate. Did “we” vote for Reagan because he allows us to forget the past? Or did we do so in 1980 because we wanted what we now know to be the simulacrum of leadership (certitude preserved by ignorance, inner security by fantasy) after four years of Jimmy Carter’s Hamletism, and in 1984 because inflation had fallen by more than half and interest rates by nearly as much in Reagan’s first term? I prefer the latter explanation. It has the advantage of being measurable, and it does not depict us as saps. Reagan’s mystic bond with the electorate has always been based on performance, as his 21-point fall in the polls after the Iran affair showed. I know that Wills’s “we” is only a literary device, but it is an inauthentic one. A writer should always test his “we”s against himself. Am I in there? he should ask. And if he isn’t, if the “we” refers only to others on whom he would like to drape certain attitudes as if they were rhetorical tailor’s dummies, then he should scrap his “we.
Wills’s book proceeds on a much grander plane than my bleached pragmatism. Much of it is infectiously readable, some of it brilliant. The brilliance begins at the level of the phrase: southern California is a “hick cosmopolis” settled by midwesterners still redolent of the farm, Star Wars a “glamorous wish” (“and such wishes are the very stuff of Reagan’s leadership”). It extends to the themes that Wills plays with for a chapter and then drops: for example, Reagan as the archetype of the “ ‘non-productive’ verbal new class,” derided as parasitical by neo-conservative publicists like Jeane Kirkpatrick. And it reaches to the overarching theme of Reagan as a figure fashioned by collective need.
He casts a surface unity over elements that have long been drifting apart— religious beliefs away from religious posturing, conservative nostalgia from capitalist innovation, interdependence from nonconformism. He spans the chasm by not noticing it. He elides our cultural inconcinnities.
“He is capacious, surrounding contradictions,” Wills says of Reagan. Wills takes on these contradictions in chapters that begin in biography and—recapitulating the movement of his paragraphs from modest opening sentences outward in waves of erudition—end in history, the enlarged perspective serving to throw new light back on the life. Reagan is the son of an Irish Catholic salesman father ("the salesman traffics in hope”) and a strict, river-baptized Protestant mother, who had her son appear in church morality plays. From this parental endowment. Wills gives us to understand, flows Reagan’s flagrantly promiscuous sincerity—he earnestly believes whatever he says, even though an embarrassing quantity of it is not true. Thus Reagan moved Yitzhak Shamir, then Israel’s Prime Minister, by confiding that he had taken films of the death camps for the Signal Corps—even though he never left the States during the war. Thus, heckled by pro-Nicaragua protesters at the World Parliament, Reagan interrupted his speech to say, “They haven’t been there. I have.”Not in this life. Wills offers many more examples. Reagan is called the Great Communicator, but communication implies a fealty to truth as the ground of community, to which Reagan is a stranger.
DIXON, ILLINOIS, where Reagan grew up, owes its very existence to government initiatives taken in the time of the Black Hawk War, and its prosperity to government-built canals. Reagan’s father and brother got the helping hand of government jobs during the Depression. But that Ronald was thus “cradled in the arms of ‘govment’ “ has not diminished his conviction that “government is the problem, not the solution.” When he started saying this back in the fifties, playing the Knute Rockne of capitalism on the mashed-potato circuit, didn’t GE executives, fresh from lucrative rendezvous at the Pentagon, cheer him? Manifestly, Reagan isn’t the only one who can surround contradictions.
By talking to participants in the celebrated student strike that Reagan lent his voice to at Eureka College, where he went after graduating as the president of his class at Dixon High, Wills establishes that Reagan, in his autobiographical account of the strike, in Where’s the Rest of Me?, muddled its real issues. No one who has heard his thoughts on welfare or the SDI will be surprised to learn that Reagan muddled them in an oversimple way that reduced complicated political and human realities to the level of one of his mother’s morality plays. In a pathbreaking chapter on Reagan’s first job after college (and after his years as a Dixon lifeguard, when, yes, he did save seventy-seven people from drowning), Wills suggests that the formative professional influence on Reagan was not the movies but journalism. The florid, sentimental, hilariously inaccurate sports broadcasting of the legendary Graham McNamee was Reagan’s model when he was an announcer and sports columnist, and it remains the mother lode of his inspiration as a President who gives pep talks to the nation and makes policy by anecdote.
In his account of the Hollywood years Wills maintains that Reagan, contrary to Lou Cannon’s claim in his authoritative Reagan, named names in the postwar anti-Communist Hollywood witchhunt. He was FBI informant “T-10,”according to his FBI file, which was not released until three years after Cannon wrote his book. Building on the investigative reporting of Dan Moldea and Jeff Goldberg, Wills next turns to certain of Reagan’s activities as a president of the Screen Actors Guild. These activities were, to use a polite word, dubious. Reagan entangled himself in one conflict of interest after another in his negotiations with MCA (the Music Corporation of America), his agent, and a firm that wanted favors from Reagan’s union. Through one of these deals Reagan came dangerously close to being indicted by the Kennedy Justice Department. It is hard to imagine, but in 1962 the rest of him might have been lost to history.
Besides providing a mercilessly (it must be admitted) selective account of Reagan’s life. Wills takes chapter-length excursions into Reagan’s beliefs. For example. the burden of his chapter on the idea of the frontier is to show that Reagan, and Frederick Jackson Turner before him, are wrong in depicting the frontier as the locus of rugged individualism. Its social ethos was instead remarkable for its conformity. “William H. McNeill argues,” Mills writes, “that comparative study shows ‘frontier conditions ordinarily provoked not freedom but a social hierarchy steeper than anything familiar in Europe itself.’ “ The West, by our standards, was not wild; Dodge City and Abilene, Wills says, averaged only one and a half murders a year in their heydays, and no wonder: these cowtowns had strict gun-control laws policed not by the lone marshals dear to Reagan’s heart but by “small armies of law enforcement.” Govment strikes again.
It is historical asides like this that make the other Reagan books—Cannon’s, Robert Dallek’s psychobiography, Laurence Barrett’s inside-the-WhiteHouse account—look like previews for the main attraction, Reagan’s America. Some readers, when they get to that last chapter, will feel uneasy about being included in Wills’s “we”; others will find the book’s disproportions (342 pages devoted to Reagan’s early life and the history of his emanations, only forty-one pages of consecutive text given over to his presidency) intellectually disreputable, like expounding a lion from his tail rather than his teeth; others still will dismiss Wills’s treatment of Reagan as a cultural symbol as the literary man’s revenge on politics, and deplore the ravages of learning upon common sense. But more readers, I think, will applaud his determination to go at American politics not only with his intelligence but also with his imagination.