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Excerpted from the May 21, 1988 Issue

There has been a commotion over the disclosure by former White House chief of staff Don Regan that important White House decisions have been consequent upon the analysis of Joan Quigley, a soothsayer in San Francisco, and that Nancy Reagan would never permit her husband to leave home without one or even two time-and-motion studies by this same soothsayer.

Much of the clucking is being done by people who themselves turn zealously to their favored horoscope. The United States retains, unusually for an advanced industrial society, about the same level of religious superstition as Bangladesh. It is scarcely news that the President is in the mainstream of popular American credulity. He has been nurtured in the same rich loam of folk ignorance, historical figment and paranormal intellectual constructs as millions of his fellow citizens. Nor has Reagan been shy in disclosing that he believes that Armageddon may occur “in our lifetime,” at which point the elect will defy elementary principles of thermodynamics and rise to heaven in a kind of celestial waterspout, leaving the sinners to burn below.

Regan, at one time the Secretary of the Treasury, reveals that in his four years at that post he never once enjoyed a one-on-one colloquy with the chief executive and that in the devising of economic policy, “I was flying by the seat of my pants.” In fact his pants were under strict orders from Mission Control, in the form of the Federal Reserve’s Paul Volcker, who was the effective president for most of Reagan’s tenure. Even so, there is no reason to suppose that Quigley’s counsel was inferior to that of analysts following more orthodox routes of economic prediction. As Regan himself well knows, the investment strategies of many Wall Street players follow what is called “random walk” patterns of speculation, which concede the superiority of chance, within a finite range of alternatives, to human intellection.

The image of two women, one of them peering into a crystal ball, guiding the policies of the United States, is irresistible in prompting coarse calumnies both on the termagant Nancy and her pliant husband’s abdication of executive responsibility. But reflection should excite a more kindly analysis. She apparently had Quigley draw up Mikhail Gorbachev’s chart, the better to understand the prophet of glasnost. To judge by such examples of their work as were released at the time of Watergate, it was probably superior in penetration to the profile of the Soviet leader prepared by the C.I.A.’s team of psychiatrists. It certainly seems to have persuaded Ron that here at last was a man he could do business with.

Astrology is entirely consonant with Reaganism, representing negation of the moral sense, abdication of initiative to the motions of the planets as parsed by the precise time and whereabouts of Ronald Reagan’s birth. So astrology is therefore the twinkling penumbra of Reagan’s incandescent belief in the motions of the “free market.” Submission to the “laws” of this same utterly imaginary free market permits him and his fellow believers (a fair slice of the ruling class) to argue that intervention in the market’s mysterious workings, to subsidize the needy or house the homeless, is to tinker with an inspired mechanism and court disaster.

Alexander Cockburn (1941–2012) was the “Beat the Devil” columnist from 1984 until his death.