Dutch: Spine of Steel Wrapped in Geniality
Ronald Reagan loved to tell jokes and he especially loved to tell jokes about his old age. In his 1984 debate against former senator, former vice president Walter Mondale, Mr. Reagan answered a question about his own fitness for office with a mock-pious outburst: “I will not exploit for political advantage my opponent’s youth and inexperience!”
If there is a Heaven, Mr. Reagan is probably already vexing his old hero Harry Truman by boasting of surpassing the latter’s longevity: Mr. Reagan died Saturday at his home in Bel-Air, Calif., aged 93.
Few American presidents have been as consistently underestimated as Ronald Reagan. The veteran Washington fixer Clark Clifford famously dismissed him as an “amiable dunce.” Saturday Night Live mocked the supposedly disengaged president in a sketch that had him — absurdly improbably — barking orders to his Swiss banker in German while calculating the interest due on the proceeds of his Iranian arms sales down to the final centime. Mr. Reagan himself joined in the drollery: “They say hard work never killed anyone. But I say, why take a chance?”
Since his departure from office, however, Mr. Reagan’s reputation has risen more rapidly than any president’s since Truman’s. His faith that Marxist socialism and Soviet communism would, as he prophesied in 1983, swiftly be consigned to the “dustbin of history” was vindicated within a year of his departure from office. His certainty that free markets not only enrich human beings but liberate and empower them has been proven true from Silicon Valley to Samarkand. Even his bitterest opponents had to acknowledge that he rescued from despair and self-doubt a nation demoralized by foreign policy humiliations and economic weakness — and did it by the sheer force of his graceful, cheerful, smiling optimism and generosity of spirit.
Mr. Reagan’s geniality disarmed his critics. Sam Donaldson, an ABC television journalist who delighted in baiting President Reagan, once complained that Mr. Reagan would give a man who had lost his job literally the shirt off his back — and would then sit at his desk in his undershirt and sign away the man’s unemployment benefits. Mr. Donaldson was baffled that anybody could simultaneously doubt the welfare state and yet be personally kindly — even though Mr. Donaldson must have known dozens, if not hundreds, of politicians who combined enthusiastic support for big government with personal cruelty and malice. When spending his own money, Mr. Reagan was one of the world’s softest touches, sending out hundreds of small gifts to the many people who wrote to tell him of their troubles. But with the public’s money, he exercised greater vigilance, because it wasn’t his to give away.
Mr. Reagan’s geniality was wrapped around a spine of steel. There was much he didn’t much care about, and on those issues he was always prepared to compromise — as he did when he signed a big increase in excise taxes in 1982. But on the things that mattered to him — income taxes, national defence, the appointment of conservative judges — his opponents and even his aides could push him and prod him, threaten him and curse him, wave vicious news stories and ominous polls at him, and Mr. Reagan would yield not a single inch. Another of Mr. Reagan’s favourite jokes described the young psychiatrist who joined the staff of an institute for the criminally insane. At the end of his first morning, he was so upset by the horrific crimes his patients had described to him that he could barely touch his lunch. Yet he noticed that the senior staff psychiatrist, who handled the most appalling cases of them all, was eating heartily. He asked: “Doctor, how can you eat after a morning like that?” “Simple,” came the reply. “I never listen.”
It’s a joke that would have provoked mirthless laughter from Mr. Reagan’s opponents. Never listening was exactly what they accused him of — that is, when they weren’t accusing him of living in a Hollywood dream world. They ridiculed him for repeating as real, things he’d seen in the movies, such as the story of the bomber commander who won a posthumous Medal of Honor for crashing with a wounded crewman. But Mr. Reagan wasn’t dreaming: He understood the fallibility of the human mind.
Lou Cannon, the California reporter who produced the best biography to date of Mr. Reagan, reports this story: In 1983, one of Washington’s leading journalists sat beside Mr. Reagan at the annual Gridiron dinner and repeated to him one of the journalist’s favourite anecdotes — seeing Mr. Reagan and Eddie Albert sitting in a booth in the drugstore in Lexington, Va., during the filming of a 1938 movie about the Virginia Military Institute, Brother Rat. “Reagan listened to the story with delight … Then he leaned forward and put his hand on the columnist’s arm in a fatherly gesture. ‘I have something serious to tell you,’ [Mr.] Reagan said. ‘What’s that, Mr. President?’ [Mr.] Reagan confided that he’d never in his life been in Lexington because his role in the movie had not required him to go there. ‘I remember the others coming back from Lexington and telling me what it was like,’ [Mr.] Reagan said. ‘But I simply wasn’t there.’” The journalist was astonished. “‘Mr. President, how can that be? I’ve known it all my life. I’ve told it so many times.’ [Mr.] Reagan asked him how many times he had seen the movie. Five or six, said the crestfallen columnist. ‘That implanted in your head the idea that I was there,’ [Mr.] Reagan said gently. ‘You believed it because you wanted to believe it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time.’”
Mr. Reagan believed what he wanted to believe: He believed in the goodness of America; that freedom was its greatest achievement; that freedom would prevail over its adversaries; that America’s best days still lay ahead.
For this he was accused of simple-mindedness. Mr. Reagan had an answer: These may be simple answers, he said, but they aren’t easy answers. Upholding them demanded faith, humility, perseverance and measureless courage — and Mr. Reagan possessed them all.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in the little town of Tampico, Ill., on the prairie flatland southwest of Chicago. His father, Jack, was the son of Irish immigrants; his mother, Nelle, a fervent Protestant. The parents settled their religious dispute with a typically American compromise: Their elder son, Neil, was raised a Roman Catholic; the younger in his mother’s Disciple of Christ church. The deal ensured young Ronald’s education, for the Reagan family did not prosper and it was only thanks to a scholarship at the Disciples’ Eureka College that Mr. Reagan received his B.A.
He took his degree in the spring of 1932, at the trough of the worst economic crisis in America’s 20th-century history. But Reagan was handsome and charming and athletic, and he found work as an announcer at local football games, and then at radio stations in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa. Five years later, he drove to Los Angeles for a screen test and was signed by Warner Brothers as a contract player.
So much was made of Ronald Reagan’s career as an actor that it’s easy to forget that he was only moderately successful in Hollywood. He had one great year, 1943, when his films outgrossed those of any other actor in the country. But it was Mr. Reagan’s bad eyes even more than his good looks that accounted for that achievement: because of his extreme near-sightedness, he was one of the few stars of military age not called up for active service.
Instead, Mr. Reagan volunteered for the Army Air Corps and spent the war in the military’s Film Production Unit. All his life he regretted having missed combat. And yet, his quieter service nonetheless changed his life: Because of his film work, Mr. Reagan was one of the first Americans to witness the footage taken at the Nazi death camps liberated by American soldiers. He would talk about that experience for the rest of his life, and soon afterward he resigned from an anti-Semitic country club in favour of one popular with Los Angeles Jews.
Mr. Reagan was always a man of strong political views. He began as a passionate — he would later say “hemophiliac” — New Deal liberal, casting four ballots for Franklin Roosevelt. He involved himself in left-wing organizations including the American Veterans Committee. But it was in those organizations that Mr. Reagan first encountered active Communists. He was horrified by their support for a hostile totalitarian regime, and perhaps even more by their clandestine and unscrupulous methods.
By the time he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947, he was still politically very liberal — he campaigned enthusiastically for Harry Truman in 1948 and for Hollywood left-winger Helen Gahagan Douglas against Richard Nixon in the 1950 California Senate race — but his romance with the political left was fading. Unfortunately, so were his acting career and his first marriage.
In later years, Mr. Reagan would become famous for his adamantine unwillingness to change his mind, but between 1948 and 1954 he underwent a radical ideological reversal.
Many explanations have been offered for this reversal, most of them nasty — for Mr. Reagan was the target of the most vicious criticism of any president since Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton’s whimpering notwithstanding. He was said to have come under the influence of his second wife, Nancy Davis, whose father was a vehement Republican. Others attributed his conservatism to his resentment of the crushing postwar tax schedule (top rate: 95%!). Few take seriously Mr. Reagan’s own account of his change: “I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left me.”
Yet it’s worth noting that Mr. Reagan’s rightward turn coincided with the Democratic party’s own turn from the hawkish anti-communist Harry Truman to the more dovish Adlai Stevenson — and that Mr. Reagan never changed his mind about the value of Social Security, about free trade, about equal civil rights, and about the greatness of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Mr. Reagan earned his living through the 1950s on television and at the lectern. General Electric signed him up to host Death Valley Days, a program it sponsored. Almost incidentally it asked him to travel the country lecturing at its plants and offices. He was amazingly good at it; his biographer Edmund Morris observes that by 1958, Mr. Reagan was one of the best-recognized men in America.
In the desperate final days of the 1964 campaign, a group of California Goldwater supporters bought television time to broadcast the speech — or The Speech as Mr. Reagan’s friends were by now calling it — nationwide. It touched off more enthusiasm than anything the Republican party had done all year. It came too late to save Barry Goldwater, but it was the making of Ronald Reagan. In November, 1966, he was elected governor of California.
Mr. Reagan faced down student protesters, but he worked with Democratic legislators. Not yet a social conservative, he signed very permissive new divorce and abortion laws. He flirted with a presidential bid in 1968, drew back, and was re-elected by a convincing margin in 1970, otherwise a tough year for Republican incumbents. He was now the acknowledged leader of the conservative wing of the Republican party. In 1976, Mr. Reagan challenged sitting President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.
Mr. Reagan has often been accused of inattention to public policy. The recent discovery of a cache of hundreds of scripts in his own handwriting for his sparkling and well-informed radio broadcasts in the mid-1970s gives the lie to the charge. Indeed, his 1976 campaign was damaged less by his notorious “gaffes” than by a clear statement of principle: that he intended to move US$90-billion worth of federal social programs (this was in the days when $90 billion still seemed like a lot of money) back to the state level.
Mr. Reagan lost the nomination by 117 out of more than 2,000 delegate votes. But in a larger sense, he won the campaign. No politician in his lifetime was better able to articulate a moral defence of the rightness of the American experiment in self-government; no one was better able to project a serene and unshakeable confidence that better days must inevitably come.
When he joined Mr. Ford on the stage in Kansas City, the convention hall exploded with the most convulsive applause of the entire event — and more than a few Ford delegates worriedly asked themselves whether they had really chosen the right man.
Mr. Ford went on to lose the general election. The candidate who beat him, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, was a man of unflinching personal rectitude, but perhaps the feeblest chief executive since the doomed James Buchanan. And over the four years since 1976, Mr. Reagan painstakingly assembled the first governing majority Republicans had enjoyed since 1928. He stumped the country, recruited a brilliant team of advisors and image consultants, and pulled together new issues into a new kind of Republican politics.
Blue-collar Catholics and conservative Southern Protestants were wooed from the Democrats by Mr. Reagan’s emphasis on patriotism and military preparedness, as well as by his new opposition to abortion. The burgeoning West cheered his defence of gun rights and his criticism of domineering federal land management. The battered middle class liked his 30% tax cut plan and his promise to halt the growth in welfare spending. Traditional Republican constituencies were reassured by his talk of balanced budgets and by his choice of George Bush as his running mate. In November, 1980, he became the first challenger since his admired Franklin Roosevelt to topple an elected incumbent president.
Few expected much from the ex-actor nicknamed “Dutch.” House Speaker Tip O’Neill condescendingly welcomed Mr. Reagan to the big leagues — and the supposed minor-leaguer went on to out-general Mr. O’Neill again and again in some of the bitterest political conflicts since the 1930s.
After surviving a near-fatal assassination attempt, Mr. Reagan slashed taxes, fired 12,000 air-traffic controllers who tested him with an illegal strike, enacted a defence buildup, squelched inflation, reined in spending — all in the face of unrelenting media criticism, savage personal attacks from the Democratic congressional majority, and a steady stream of destabilizing leaks by members of his own administration determined to save their boss from himself by sabotaging his programs.
He ended the so-called energy crisis by ordering immediate decontrol of petroleum prices, saved Central America from communism, redirected Mexico on to a free-market path by artfully timed aid in its 1982 banking crisis, and named the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. He defied post-Vietnam taboos on the use of force in a calibrated series of interventions.
Maybe his greatest victories were two things he didn’t do: He didn’t flinch through the long 1981-83 recession that squeezed inflation out of the U.S. economy and he didn’t retreat when a Soviet-inspired and subsidized mass movement put millions of protesters into the streets of Europe to demand that he “freeze” the nuclear deployment that snatched back from the Soviets the nuclear advantage they had grabbed in the late 1970s.
Through it all, Mr. Reagan remained sunny, unflappable and indomitable. He never lost his simple faith in the American people — and they requited it amply and fully. Mr. O’Neill himself was obliged to concede, “No politician in my lifetime has stood higher with the American people than you.” In 1984, the people rewarded him for keeping his promises with a 49-state electoral college blowout.
In his second term, Mr. Reagan cut taxes again, to a top marginal rate of 27%. His refusal to be intimidated into bailing out the dying Soviet empire — as the Western Europeans wished him to — helped Mikhail Gorbachev into power. Not that he took Mr. Gorbachev on faith either: If the Russians wished to be accepted into the community of nations, they must “tear down this wall.”
Through that second term, Mr. Reagan’s physical strength perceptibly ebbed. Only after he left office was it revealed how much blood he’d lost in the 1981 shooting. Never had his humility and humour been more tested: As the surgeons wheeled him into the operating room he quipped, “I hope you are all Republicans.” “We all are today, Mr. President,” they answered. Recovering from the wound, he would mop down his own sink with paper towels, to save the nurse the job of cleaning it. The humility and humour remained, the jolly chuckles and the pink-cheeked smile. His strength and nimbleness, however, never truly recovered.
Details sometimes went amiss as a weakening Mr. Reagan husbanded his vitality the way a great gambler hoards his cash for the moment that he draws the right cards. This careful style helped Mr. Reagan maintain his effectiveness to the end — but it also drew him into the Iran-Contra scandal.
As Mr. Reagan’s attention became ever more sharply focused on his final tasks, his White House focused too, leaving underlings free to second-guess their boss and in the end get him into trouble.
Reagan survived Iran-Contra because the elements of it that were illegal (aiding anti-communist Nicaraguans) were popular and the things that were unpopular (arming the Iranians) were quite legal. But the scandal cost him the last of his working majority in Congress in the 1986 elections, and put an end to his hopes of balancing the budget by controlling federal spending. He was hurt too by the October, 1987 stock market crash, which briefly appeared to legitimize the complaint of his critics that there was something showy and unsound about the prosperity of the 1980s.
But the market bounced back and so did Mr. Reagan. By 1988, the economy was roaring again. Mr. Reagan stood higher in the polls than any second-term president since Eisenhower. Regardless of party, few Americans could resist feeling nostalgia and affection for the leader who had so loved and idealized them. Unable to reward him, they elected his chosen successor by a handsome 54-46 margin.
Within 12 months of his departure, the wall he denounced did indeed come down; two years more, and the hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time over Red Square. In 1991, America used the army he built to win a decisive victory in its first large battle after Vietnam. And though he left his share of economic troubles behind for future presidents — US$1.5-trillion added to the national debt, an unsatisfactory partial deregulation of the financial sector — it was during his administration that the great computer boom and fabulous stock market rise began.
He leaves behind a country that is sure of itself and its purpose. He leaves behind the example of a president who had the fortitude to do the right thing under the most daunting and dangerous circumstances.
He leaves behind perhaps above all the happy memory of his magnificent personality: of his goodness, of his magnanimity, of the sunlight that filled a room when he entered it and the absolute sincerity that cinched his voice when he closed his speeches, “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” He was a great president because he was such a good man.
Peggy Noonan, who wrote some of the best of his speeches, was one of the few to understand in his lifetime the connection between his greatness and his goodness. “[F]or most of his adult life, when public opinion was running hard in one direction, he was pulling hard in the other, swimming against the tide. He paid the price in many ways, was called wild and radical by the leaders even of his own party. But he didn’t complain, and he tugged and tugged as if with a rope in his teeth until, at the end, the country had come along with him and reached the same safe shore. And when it was over he stood up, smiled, and refused to hate his foes. That refusal — that was heroic too.”
Edmund Morris concluded his notorious authorized biography of Ronald Reagan with this story. On the very last day of his presidency, Mr. Reagan asked Mr. Morris whether there was something he wanted to know that he had never had the opportunity to ask. Yes, Mr. Morris answered, there is one thing: Have you ever met a completely evil person? Mr. Reagan thought. No, he said, I never have. Systems can be purely evil, as communism was, but not people — Mikhail Gorbachev was a communist after all, and yet it was he who set the reform of communism in motion. So you believe that just one person can make that much difference. Mr. Reagan brightened, as if after four years of interviews he had finally been understood. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Mr. Reagan made his final public speech at the 1992 Republican convention. It contained the last of his trademark jokes about his age. Bill Clinton, he noticed, was named after Thomas Jefferson. “Well I knew Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was a friend of mine. And this man is no Thomas Jefferson.” The delegates all laughed. And then they took up a chant that should today echo around the world: “Thank you Ron! Thank you Ron! Thank you Ron!”