Nixon thought Reagan was “strange” and, so he told the secret tape recorder in the Oval Office in 1972, “just an uncomfortable man to be around.” The late President certainly was a very weird human being, not at all like the fellow being hailed this week as the man who gave America back its sense of confidence and destiny after the Carter years.
The ceremonial schedule for Reagan’s corpse the week after his death had it lying “in repose” for several days. What else was it supposed to be doing? Anyway, Reagan always stuck to his script, and even if he had come to in the presidential library in Simi Valley, he would have stayed with his allotted role and lain doggo.
Reagan was “in repose” much of his second term, his day easing forward through a forgiving schedule of morning nap, afternoon snooze, TV supper and early bed. He couldn’t recall the names of many of his aides, even of his dog. Stories occasionally swirled around Washington that his aides pondered from time to time whether to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. I saw him at the Republican convention in New Orleans in August of 1988, where he sat in his presidential box entirely immobile, with the kind of somber passivity one associates with the shrouded figure in some newly opened Egyptian tomb before oxygen commences its mission of decay. I never saw him being “sunny,” a favorite adjective of the hagiographers. As an orator or “communicator” he was terrible, with one turgid cliché following another, delivered in a folksy drone punctuated by wags of the head.
There was no internationally recognized border in Reagan’s mind between fantasy and fact, the dividing line having been abolished in the early 1940s when his studio’s PR department turned him into a war hero, courtesy of his labors in “Fort Wacky” in Culver City, where they made training films. The fanzines disclosed the loneliness of R.R.’s first wife, Jane Wyman, her absent man (a few miles away in Fort Wacky, home by suppertime) and her knowledge of R.R.’s hatred of the foe. “She’d seen Ronnie’s sick face,” Modern Screen reported in 1942, bent over photos of starved babies in Poland, gritting between “set lips” that “this would make it a pleasure to kill.” A photographer for Modern Screen recalled later that Reagan wished to be photographed on his front step in full uniform, kissing his wife goodbye.
Reagan had absolutely no moral sense about truth or falsity. Forty years after Fort Wacky, as Commander in Chief, R.R. told Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister of Israel, that he had helped to liberate Auschwitz, had returned to Hollywood with film footage of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed, and if in later years anyone controverted the reality of the Holocaust over the Reagan dinner table, he would roll the footage till the doubts were stilled. It was all fantasy, but I’m sure Reagan believed it, the same way he regarded his trip to the SS cemetery in Bitburg as a useful reminder to Europeans of the great days of World War II, when the people of the Free World–American, British, French and German–fought shoulder to shoulder against Soviet totalitarianism.
The problem for the press was that Reagan didn’t really care that he’d been caught out with another set of phony statistics or a bogus anecdote about Auschwitz. Truth, for him, was what he happened to be saying at the time. When the Iran/contra scandal broke, he held a press conference in which he said to Helen Thomas, “I want to get to the bottom of this and find out all that has happened. And so far, I’ve told you all that I know and, you know, the truth of the matter is, for quite some time, all that you knew was what I’d told you.” He had a sound belief in astrology, the stars being the twinkling penumbra of his incandescent belief in the “free market,” with whose motions it was blasphemous to tamper. He believed Armageddon was right around the corner.
After Jimmy Carter’s timid efforts to make America adjust to late-twentieth-century realities, Reagan installed fantasy as the motor of national consciousness, and it’s still pumping disastrously along. He was an awful President, never as popular as the press pretended, presiding over a carnival of corruption and greed at home, terror in Central America and Africa. On March 23, 1983, a friend of mine watched as a naval officer and a defense contractor in the Fort Myer Officers’ Club in Virginia listened impatiently as Reagan churned his way through a longish overture to his excited launch of Star Wars. Then, as Reagan began to token forth the billion-dollar feeding trough of SDI, they screamed to each other in incredulous delight, “He’s going to do it…he’s doing it…he’s done it! We’re rich, we’re rich!” With these words, they both made a rush to the telephones.
There were many such shouts of joy for the rich down through Reagan-time and beyond. The East Coast elite distrusted him as late as the 1980 campaign, trying to head off his nomination by running Gerald Ford again. Learning of the Ford bid, Reagan turned to an aide and cried, “What have they got against me? I support big oil. I support big business. Why don’t they trust me?” Probably because they thought he would blow them up, along with everyone else. He didn’t, but they never did trust him, though they had a hell of a party while he was around.
The people who did trust Reagan were mostly white men, small-business owners, some (sometimes many) construction workers, many ordinary folk up and down the map who wanted a world much as it had been in the 1950s. Them he betrayed.
As Reagan shambled toward the stairway of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Inauguration Day, 1989, Bryant Gumbel mused to Tom Brokaw that this seemed to him “quite remarkable.” It turned out that Gumbel was mightily impressed that the 78-year-old Reagan had not sought to stave off retirement by mounting a coup d’état. All around the world, Gumbel said, leaders “cling to power.” James Baker, the man who, with Paul Volcker, ran the world for Reagan, probably could have done it. The press would have gone along. As it was, Baker just bided his time for twelve years.