The Reagan Diaries

A Simple Reminder

“Getting shot hurts.” That’s Ronald Reagan as recorded for posterity in The Reagan Diaries, after the attempt on his life in 1981. A number of reviewers have singled that line out as an example of Reagan’s dry wit, or at least as a sample of his rugged cool. In reading, one automatically hears certain lines delivered in a certain tone of voice, and this line demands to be spoken in a comically understated way, to underline the stoicism of the speaker. Depending on your personal idea of who represents the embodiment of manly cool, the speaker could be Robert Mitchum, or Bill Murray, or Bruce Willis; certainly, he could be the actor-sometime Republican politician who first spoke the line so beloved of Reagan, “Make my day,” which is in much the same mold. In his public appearances, Reagan, who understood why his press officers felt the need to cook up fake one-liners that they claimed he’d delivered in the aftermath of the shooting (such as telling the surgeons about to operate on them he hoped they were Republicans, thus “inspiring” one of doctors to deliver the fictional topper, “Sir, today we’re all Republicans.”), would have known how to have said the line in the way those reviewers imagine hearing it. But in his personal diaries, Reagan wasn’t performing for a audience. Nor was he living out his fantasy of himself as a cool, tough man of action; that was for his daily life. In the diaries, he’s recording his daily activities and making note of things that he found interesting. I don’t think the line is a departure from the laundry-list nature of the entries that surround it. I think it’s the honest recording of a moment of surprise and discovery. After firing innumerable gunshots in the course of a movie career in which he played countless soldiers and cops and cowboys and even George Armstrong Custer, and after advocating military actions in which shots would be fired in real life, Ronald Reagan found out for himself that getting shot hurts. Who knew?

Reagan wasn’t just a simple man, he was an active proponent of simpleness as a corrective to what he and many others found unsettling and offensive about the social upheavals of the sixties and seventies. To hear some people tell it now, this side of him amounted to advising kids not to take drugs and listening to Sinatra instead of Iron Butterfly, but it also involved a rebuke to the civil rights movement, feminism, consumer advocacy, workers’ rights, and the Carter administration’s vaunted concern for human rights. Reagan’s belligerent attitude towards the very idea of complexity is summed up in his statement that “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.” The chief problem with his worldview was that he equated moral rightness with blandness, peace and quiet, not talking back, and never seemed to even consider the possibility that other people who were disturbing his sleep might be acting according to what they thought was morally right. As far as he was concerned, they were just making trouble for the hell of it.

Reagan opposed the creation of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King on the grounds that he still harbored suspicion that King was a Communist agent. The book includes two references to King by Reagan, both related to that holiday. In the first, Reagan records the public ceremony in which he signed the new holiday into law, saying that “it went very well.” If he mentioned anywhere in the diaries his feelings that the holiday was a mistake, or referred to the moment during the ceremony when, in response to a reporter’s question, he confirmed that he still thought King was a trouble-maker and possibly on the KGB’s payroll, then that has not made it into the published volume of the diaries edited by Douglas Brinkley. In the second reference, Reagan writes that, on the 1986 observance of King’s birthday, “Bishop TUTU of S. Africa took advantage of the day to kick me & our admin. around.” Reagan is “not a fan” of Bishop Tutu’s, and is struck by the fact that “even though he himself is Black,” Tutu fails to understand that if apartheid is dismantled in South Africa, all those poor uncontrolled Negroes will be at each other’s throats.

Even after Brinkley’ careful vetting, there isn’t much here that will disabuse anyone of the notion that Reagan saw the drive to end apartheid as a replay of the 60s civil rights movement and that, having failed to shut that down in his own country, this time he was going to put his foot down. The passages on Tutu and South Africa also underscore a constant note in the diaries, which was the degree to which the pleasant-seeming grandfatherly Reagan personalized everything. He was capable of expressing his “admiration” for anti-apartheid leaders who treated him with deference, not that his admiration translated into any softening in his opposition to their cause. But because Tutu had the gall to criticize him, he was by definition a bad guy. Just as Reagan couldn’t imagine any reason why anyone would take to the streets to protest anything but Communist oppression and dirty movies, and so assumed that everyone from the Freedom Marchers to the Nuclear Freeze Movement were just maliciously trying to start some shit, he couldn’t understand how anyone could have a cross word for such a swell guy as himself unless that person was in league with Satan.

When the greatest crisis of Reagan’s term arrives, and it makes the papers that his people have been violating the law and running a secret, alternate foreign policy, selling arms to Iran in a mostly failed bid to get American hostages released and using that money to fund its proxy war in Nicaragua, Reagan is quick to get to the heart of the matter: “Ed Meese assured us that I’m in the clear legally on what we were doing.” The ethics and morality of the whole thing — which includes the two-faced nature of having done it at the same time that Reagan was basking in his self-created image as a man too morally pure to ever negotiate with terrorists (because it wouldn’t qualify as a “simple answer”) — isn’t a topic for discussion. (Reagan does mention that after George Schultz tells him that they never should have sold arms to Iran, “I gave him an argument,” but he doesn’t elaborate on what his side of that argument could have been.)

Early in his administration, Reagan also had to deal with the fallout from his budget director David Stockman’s famous interview with William Greider in The Atlantic, in which Stockman said that political concerns had kept the president from allowing him to administer “supply-side economics” to the federal budget in the pure form he had promised, and predicted, accurately, that this was going to result in terrifying deficits in the years to come. Reagan says that he’s “reading” the article and then says that if what he’s heard about it is true — an odd thing to say if he meant that “reading” to be taken literally — then “Dave is a turncoat — but in reality he was victimized by what he thought was a good friend.” Stockman himself never tried to claim that he’d been tricked or misquoted, but Reagan didn’t want to fire him, so he went from threatening to actually read the article himself to see what was in it to deducing that, whatever might be in it, Stockman was simply the victim of a Liberal Media trickster, and he made that leap all in the space of two sentences. Of course, the question of whether Stockman’s comments about the disastrous budgetary course they were on were irrelevant.

Reagan’s ability to automatically reassure himself that he was not just right but good was essential to what, no matter how much people natter on about his “legacy,” was his principal effect on the country during the high-water mark of his presidency, and what must account for why many people want to regard him as a great leader: he made them feel good. He made people who had found the country’s attempts, in the sixties and seventies, to come to terms with its problems and accept the complexities of life to be confusing and upsetting, and they felt that Reagan had righted the country by making things “simple” again. Whatever you think of that, it’s a rare gift, one that can’t be faked by someone who doesn’t believe in what he’s doing, as Reagan’s would-be successor, George Bush, did almost nothing but demonstrate. (Bush’s son had the right mixture of self-confidence and innocence, and at first he seemed a highly plausible candidate for Reagan II, but he turned out, upon closer inspection, to have too much Nixon in him: unlike Reagan, he was unable, in public, to conceal his seething rage at ever being disagreed with or corrected. Sometimes, trying to maintain his genial jus’ folks image while speaking to someone he would clearly love to have renditioned, he can get you to wondering how he’d do playing Basil Fawlty.)

Of course, when reading The Reagan Diaries for clues to what Reagan was actually doing there in the Oval Office — and there are some, buried amid the trivia and mountains of movie titles — one must keep in mind that this tome was whittled down from five large, leather-bound volumes, which Reagan — the only president of the twentieth century to have kept a diary, we keep being reminded — maintained diligently, not as an intended historical document (though he must have known that people would turn to it one day) but as a sort of “memory book” so that he and his beloved Nancy could page through it together and recall the good times during their retirement years. (Sadly, the former president’s Alzheimer’s put the kibosh on that sweet autumnal vision.) The work at hand is itself not so much an historical document as a popular bestseller assembled by a popularizing historian best known for his history-tour bus rides with his college students and for his worshipful attitude towards any American figure of recent decades who seems to strike him as glamorous, a hero-worship that transcends politics. (Brinkley has also edited Hunter Thompson’s letters and is now editing Jack Kerouac’s diaries for publication, and wrote a book about the Kennedyesque wartime heroism of John Kerry; he made an especially ridiculous ass of himself in the wake of John Kennedy, Jr.’s death, running from talk show to talk show insisting that the passing of George’s publisher was some major signal event in the life of his generation.) Brinkley has reportedly cleaned up countless misspellings in the original text but felt compelled to retain Reagan’s habit of censoring such G-rated cussword as “damn” and “hell” by writing them as “d_mn” and “h_ll”.

There are also minor slips that are worth noting mainly because they were apparently the result of Brinkley and the publisher’s efforts to flesh the text out a little. Michael Kinsley, who was editor of The New Republic in 1986, has written about how he came to be inserted into a meeting Reagan had that year with Meg Greenfield and David Brinkley. Reagan just noted that a New Republic editor was present, and, as Kinsley discovered upon further investigation, “an editor at HarperCollins ... had slipped in my name. He or she — and Reagan, too — apparently were unaware of TNR’s all-chiefs-and-no-Indians tradition of ladling out titles instead of money. Almost everyone at TNR is an ‘editor’ of some kind. Reagan, it seems, actually had lunch with Charles Krauthammer.”

The question of how many of the names and other minutiae of Reagan’s published diaries are actually traceable to things that Reagan himself committed to paper is pertinent mainly because of the role the book is playing in the great battle over Reagan’s image, which is sort of silly but of no small interest to those of us who lived through his reign and would like to believe that our own memories aren’t quite the Swiss-cheese factories that his was, even when he was healthy. Recent years have seen Reagan’s jottings and his love letters to Nancy published in book form, and each of these publications has resulted in a lot of shouting about how we now know that there was never anything to the old liberal depiction of Reagan as a thickie: the man could write! The published diaries have set off a fresh round of this sort of thing, and it reminds one of Samuel Johnson’s line about the dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Don’t any of the people who think they’re celebrating Reagan ever feel that they’re actually insulting him a bit by going on and on about writing as unremarkable as his, very often about unremarkable photo ops and movie nights, as if his prose was like Saint-Beuve with a little Don Rickles thrown in for flavor? Reviewing the diaries in the London Times, Christopher Hitchens talks once again about how little regard he had for Reagan’s brain power back in the eighties, and then rhapsodizes over the wit and rare insight that he detects in the following: “’Al [Haig] thinks his turf is being invaded … He talked of resigning. Frankly, I think he’s seeing things that aren’t there. He’s Sec of St and no one is intruding on his turf — foreign policy is his but he has half the Cabinet teed off.” Of course, at the time there were plenty of people who’d already figured out that Al Haig was an unstable jackass but who took that extra step of not appointing him to a major cabinet position, or even considering it.

Of course, as one of the last die-hard holdouts on the Iraq War, Hitchens has a special reason for feeling moist-eyed about the old Reagan magic. Communism pretty much ended on Reagan’s watch, and that’s what he’s likeliest to get the credit for now when people are trying to decide what his legacy amounts to besides putting a song on people’s lips and a spring in their walk. In the Times Literary Supplement, Edward Luttwak made sport of the dumb liberals who never appreciated the long-term brilliance of Reagan’s plan to bring the Soviets to their knees, but at the time Reagan wasn’t in on it either. He truly believed that the Soviet Union was not a crumbling dinosaur but a robust military threat bent on world domination, and he put a heavy strain on our finances by relaunching the arms race. We now know that the Soviet Union was so weak that it was probably due to collapse by the millennium’s end no matter what happened, and we also know that Reagan helped speed up the process by inspiring the Soviet government to try to keep up with him in defense spending, thus bankrupting itself. One cold-eyed point that never gets made is that if Reagan had really known what he was doing here— as so many conservative idolaters try to insist that the whole thing went according to a secret plan — he should have faked our side of the arms buildup. The American government’s perception of the strength of the Soviet Union was based on bad work by our own intelligence agencies, after all, and we could have scared the Russkies while still managing to save enough money to keep the homeless off the streets and not be reduced to classifying ketchup as a vegetable in school lunch programs.

In the end, Reagan’s role in the breakup of the Soviet Union had a lot to do with that tendency of his to reduce everything to personalities. He was opposed to Communism because he knew that it was bad, because he understood it to be anti-American, which was practically the same thing as being anti-Ronnie. He fell hard for Gorbachev straight away, offering to share the fantasy “Star Wars” missile defense shield with him, and scaring the bejesus out of the same conservative pundits who now give him credit for lighting the sun. Gorbachev was indeed a different kind of Soviet leader, but it can’t be a total coincidence that he was the first Soviet leader who Reagan, then a year into his second term, actually met in the flesh. Is it really that hard to imagine the star-struck fellow making the same generous offer to Yuri Andropov, if Andropov had managed to live long enough to sit across a table from him and had the cunning to not spit in his eye and insist that he’d loved him in Cattle Queen of Montana? Maybe it is. But I can’t shake this feeling that today’s hawks might have a very different view of Reagan if luck, which he had in abundance, hadn’t arranged for him to have the chance to give to give the store away until it was to the right Russian.

The legend of Ronnie the Red Buster is of course very important now to people like Hitchens, because they think it provides a parallel to the Iraq debacle. Again offering less of a compliment than he seems to realize, Hitchens has explicitly held Reagan up in comparison to Bush the Younger as an example of just how much it can pay to trust the international brinksmanship of really stupid Americans. Reagan’s eagerness to lay down his sword with Gorbachev was rooted in an idealistic ability, which shocked the pluperfect shit out of his old fans and delighted the general populace at the time, to believe, once he’d met a Russian leader, that these strange creatures were in fact human beings who shared his own desire to abandon life in the shadow of the nuclear clock. Though it’s a little hard to remember now, in these decadent days when “support” for the Iraq War has been boiled down to people screaming that everything that’s being reported about Iraq is a bunch of damned defeatist lies and if we did leave things would be even worse, but once upon a time the war was cast in flowery idealistic words about “democratizing” the Middle East, just as Reagan “democratized” the Eastern bloc, or at least replaced what had been there with something different.

The comparison doesn’t really wash, because comparisons with the War on Terror and the Cold War don’t hold up. Unlike the gouty old bureaucrats who were in charge behind the Iron Curtain by the time Reagan took office, the Islamic terrorists we’re supposed to be trying to disenfranchise with all this democratizing really do want nothing more than to strike at the U.S.; that’s the whole idea. And even if it weren’t, Reagan’s charm offensive didn’t look much like the cratering of Baghdad. (Neither did his proxy wars in Latin America, which ended up having such long-lasting results that his old bęte noire Daniel Ortega is now once again the duly elected president of Nicaragua, something that the U.S. is too busy to spend much time even pretending to care about now.)

People are funny. They may pay tribute to Reagan for the moral rightness that they say they believe was the natural result of his being so uncomplicated, but at the same time they may want to believe that someone who they think has had a big impact on their lives must have been a complicated man. It must be an urge similar to that felt by those who can’t believe that Oswald killed Kennedy; no way could a little pissant like that bring down a God and change the world. That’s why they jumped all over Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, when the best he could do was Dutch. Morris caught hell for that book from the true believers, not just for the strange neo-fictional approach that he turned to out of self-defense against what he felt was his subject’s vapidity, but because of the lost opportunity; people kept saying that it was terrible that Morris had squandered the special access that Reagan had granted him. But Morris always insisted that he could never get Reagan to say or reveal a single interesting thing to him in all their private chats, and I believe him.

Since Morris failed to provide the longed-for revelations of how Reagan planned every lucky accident of his presidency and the reassuring justifications of the occasional missteps (“Yes, you see, in order for the radar satellite to bounce off the chip concealed in my pompadour and signal the Fantastic Four to begin the attack on Doctor Doom’s Latvian fortress, I absolutely had to be in the Nazi cemetery at Bitburg that morning...”), people are now turning to the man’s own writings to prove what a wonder he was, and they’re willing to settle for any evidence that he ever stayed awake during a cabinet member and remembered his vice-president’s name as proof that he was, to slip into newsmagazinese, “much more alert and on top of things than has been commonly assumed.” People who are at peace with themselves for having loved the man are more comfortable with the dumbfounding possibility that he was exactly what he seemed to be during every second of his public life. Mike Dugan, director of the Reagan Library, has said simply of the memory logs, “I wouldn’t call it an introspective diary.” That may seem like a bit of an oxymoron. It’s also pretty much the size of it.