Tuesday, April 13, 2010
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
By Lou Cannon
Lou Cannon is the most prolific writer on the subject of Ronald Reagan, having written three tomes on the Gipper. Among his works are Governor Reagan, Reagan, Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey, and President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Cannon covered Reagan for the San Jose Mercury News while Reagan was governor of California and covered him in the White House as senior White House correspondent for the Washington Post.
This volume is perhaps the most expansive examination of the Reagan record ever published. Cannon engages in political analysis, describing how Reagan rose to power in both California and the United States and how he avoided being tattooed with major scandals such as the “homosexual scandal” that occurred within his executive office when he was governor of California, and Iran-Contra.
Cannon also delves deep into psychoanalysis, trying to determine what in the shielded psyche of Ronald Reagan made it so easy for him to connect with the American people, yet so difficult to connect with individuals on a personal level – including his own children.
There is also some policy analysis, although not as much as one would like. Cannon provides more of a chronology of policy than analysis. In politics, as in nature, for every action there is a reaction. Cannon examines both the good and bad that came from Reagan’s policies and actions as president.
As the title implies, Cannon looks at Reagan’s political career as a performance. Reagan’s detractors often criticized him for being little more than an actor and mocked him for his profession (as if there are only certain professions that prepare one for the presidency).
Cannon’s thesis is that Ronald Reagan was an actor playing a president. This may sound condescending or pejorative, but Cannon intends no disrespect to Reagan or the presidency. He describes in great detail how Reagan’s acting ability helped him achieve the presidency, maintain spectacular popularity ratings through most of his presidency, and conduct the office with a degree of style and flair that served his ends as well as those of the American people.
Perhaps it was more Reagan’s tenure as a pitchman for General Electric that prepared him for the presidency than his movie career. To be a successful salesman, one must believe in what he is selling. Reagan believed in what he was selling – even when that belief had little ground in fact. His advisers and even many of his critics that knew him say he was incapable of lying. He sometimes chose to believe things that weren’t true.
Reagan’s reliance on scripts figures heavily into Cannon’s analysis. Cannon documents three shining moments in his presidential debates where the answers, while well thought out, are supposed to be spontaneous.
His first moment where he shone was sort of spontaneous. In a New Hampshire debate in 1980, Reagan was speaking into a microphone, arguing over whether all of the Republican candidates should be allowed to participate or just he and George Bush. As Reagan, whose campaign funded the debate, argued for allowing all of the candidates on the stage, a debate moderator asked that the microphone be turned off. Reagan shouted into that microphone, “Mr. Breen [sic], I’m paying for this microphone.” The press took notice. No one remembered the substance of the debate.
Certainly the emotion was spontaneous as the Reagan and Bush campaigns had argued for several days over whether or not to limit the number of candidates. However, the line was similar to a line that Reagan had once used in a movie.
When he debated Jimmy Carter in Cleveland in 1980, he delivered a body blow to Carter with the quip, “There you go again!” Reagan and his debate coaches knew Carter was going to make claims that Reagan planned to cut social security. The claim had dogged Reagan in the primaries and continued to resonate with older voters. Nobody remembers the substance of that debate, or even that issue. What they remember was the plaintive dismissal in Reagan’s voice when he delivered the line. It resonated enough to mask Reagan’s otherwise tenuous grip on hard policy questions.
“I promise not to make my opponent’s youth or inexperience an issue in this campaign,” was the line Reagan used to get back on the offensive in the 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale. Mondale had beaten Reagan badly in their first debate, demonstrating a strong grasp of policy while Reagan struggled with the facts and figures he’d rehearsed. Reagan and his campaign struggled to develop a debate strategy for their candidate who was strong with “the vision thing” but weak with policy. They decided to “let Reagan be Reagan,” and deliver a one-liner that would serve as the sound bite on the news. The strategy paid off as Reagan’s poll numbers rebounded after the debate.
Cannon asserts that Reagan relied on scripts to conduct his entire presidency. Reagan worked well with a Tel-E-Promp-Ter, but preferred index cards. Not only did he use these index cards for speeches, he used them for policy meetings. Cannon makes a large issue of this, but oddly, the people he met with when using his notes did not.
Reagan was not a man who grasped the intricacies of government policy or mechanics well. An argument can be made that a president doesn’t need to. Jimmy Carter was probably the most wonkish president in history, yet was an abysmal failure. Because Reagan had to read his points from prepared notes does not mean he didn’t believe them or that they weren’t true. It simply means that he wasn’t able to remember all of them.
Another Reagan tool – one that was sometimes used against his administration – was the anecdote. While Reagan couldn’t remember the percentage of American adults receiving AFDC, he could remember a story and he had literally thousands of anecdotes memorized that he could draw on to make points and achieve policy objectives. Some of the anecdotes were of dubious origin. Nonetheless, they served him well.
One anecdote that Reagan applied forcefully and with great success was that of the Welfare Queen. A woman by the name of Linda Taylor from Chicago had created more than 80 aliases through which she was able to obtain welfare benefits and cheat the government out of thousands of dollars. While most people on welfare were barely able to subsist, Reagan made her emblematic of a wasteful and inefficient welfare system. The story of the Welfare Queen became ingrained in the American psyche. It was a story I heard from my father and grandmother (the two most anti-welfare people I ever knew) repeatedly as they tried hard to instill in me a work ethic.
Reagan without a script was uneven at best. Aides lived in fear whilst Reagan conducted press conferences. When talking about ideas, Reagan the performer did fine. When pressed on policy issues, Reagan stumbled, slipped, and was often incoherent. Reminded of something he’d said earlier in his presidency or even earlier that day, Reagan would often ask, “did I say that?” Obviously Reagan would have failed as an improv comedian.
Cannon’s psychoanalysis centers on Reagan’s boyhood and being raised by an alcoholic father. As Cannon points out, children of alcoholics hate confrontation, discord, or disagreement. Reagan’s father, when drinking, had a quick temper and there were undoubtedly many tense moments in the Reagan household. These children also tend to be introverted, not forming close bonds or friendships.
Reagan hated confrontation much more than the average person. He hated arguments in his presence. He could not fire aides that clearly needed to be dismissed. When arguments arose or tempers flared in his presence, he withdrew mentally. As a result, policy matters were usually resolved outside of his presence and the consensus delivered to him with for his approval or amendment.
This would seem to make for a weak presidency. In Reagan’s case, it did not. In his first term, Reagan had a strong executive office, headed by James Baker, an old Bush hand from Texas. Baker controlled the flow of paper, people, and ideas to the Oval Office with great effectiveness. Reagan knew what he wanted to achieve. He knew what he believed in. If policy arrived at his desk and presented to him in a manner true to those beliefs, he approved. If they did not, Reagan could be stubborn to a fault.
In confronting people, Reagan ill-served himself, the country and the world. Al Haig created many problems within the cabinet and with the American people with his imperious conduct as Secretary of State. Despite the pleas of close aides such as Michael Deaver and Baker, Reagan could not bring himself to fire him. Not until Haig started delivering ultimatums to the Oval Office was Reagan forced to ask for his resignation.
Another case is Secretary of the Interior James Watt. That this buffoon ever held a cabinet position is testimony to the fact that even idiots can achieve high office. Watt made many insensitive and intemperate remarks, calling a presidential commission, “A black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple. And we have talent” That remark alone was not enough to get Watt fired by Reagan. It was not until the outcry became so loud from his supporters that he could no longer ignore Watt’s idiocy that he acted.
An issue often brought up by his detractors was Reagan’s intelligence, or lack thereof. Cannon skirts this issue. Cannon does not seem to regard Reagan as being dumb, and he should not. Reagan was not the most intellectually gifted of presidents. I would argue that the presidency does not require advanced degrees or high I.Q.s. Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Carter, and Woodrow Wilson were all intellectually gifted, yet did not achieve great results. Meanwhile, men of lesser intellect such as Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Reagan excelled in the office. The Presidency requires the ability to lead people – sometimes where they do not want to go. Reagan had this quality. As to his intelligence, most people who knew him thought him to be a man of above average intelligence with a gift for speaking and writing.
With Reagan, people out of sight were out of mind. He had no close friends and was not close to his children. He often forgot the names of even his closest aides, hurting their feelings and lowering their morale. He seemed to care little about them as people. This is not to say Reagan was without compassion. As I noted earlier, Reagan used anecdotes to serve his purpose. Sometimes, his opponents used anecdotes as well. Shown how a policy or action hurt someone in real life, Reagan was prone to surrender and his aides tried to shield him from this. This was a strategy employed by Nancy Reagan often when she wanted to move the president in a particular direction.
Cannon is clearly an opponent of most of Reagan’s domestic policies. He illuminates the debate within an administration that had promised to cut taxes and balance the budget. Fierce battles were waged by both sides since both sides knew only one could be accomplished. The tax cutters won. Reagan never presented a balanced budget in his eight years and dramatically increased the federal deficit.
Despite these deficits, the economy turned around and the longest period of economic expansion in our nation’s history began. When Reagan took office, economists were in a quandary because the Phillips curve – the inverse ratio between unemployment and inflation – had broken down. The nation had been through two periods of stagflation with high unemployment and inflation. The Keynesian model of spending the way out of a recession and cutting spending to reduce inflation no longer held. Under the leadership of Chairman Paul Volcker, the Federal Reserve began manipulating the economy through monetary policy. By expanding and contracting the supply of capital available, the Fed hoped to control inflation. Monetary policy as a tool for manipulating the economy emerged in the Reagan years.
The experiment worked, but with terrible consequences. By late 1981, the prime interest rate was near 21 percent. No one could afford to purchase a home or car. Inflation fell dramatically and unemployment soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression. By 1983, with inflation at an acceptable four percent, the Fed began to lower interest rates and the economy eventually took off. Reagan, whose popularity had sunk to the low 40s, proclaimed it “morning again in America.” Soon, his popularity would rise to 70 percent, making him the most popular president in the era of polling.
In Reagan’s conduct of foreign affairs, Cannon is a bit more complimentary. The START Treaty with the Soviet Union stands as Reagan’s greatest achievement and Cannon carefully documents the genesis of the idea and the negotiations that led to the landmark treaty.
Reagan strongly believed in the biblical prophecy of Armageddon. He feared nuclear war and despised the concept of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) as a guarantor of peace. He discarded the notion of the Cold War being the uneasy coexistence of competing ideologies. A Cold War was a war and wars are fought to be won.
To win, Reagan needed to negotiate with the Soviets from a position of strength. He recognized his opponent as being weaker, with the Soviet economy withering under the burden of defense spending. Reagan rearmed the nation with an unprecedented level of peacetime defense spending, causing massive deficits. He also introduced the concept of the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” as the media dubbed it.
SDI frightened the Soviets. Whether SDI was practical as a concept or a dream of Reagan’s we will never know. But the Soviets took it seriously. After watching Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstanin Chernenko – all hardline cold warriors – die, Reagan found in Mikhail Gorbachev and communist with whom he could do business.
In Gorbachev’s mind, stopping the development of SDI was top priority. Reagan stubbornly held on, claiming it as his duty to protect American citizens from nuclear war. Whether it was science fiction, abstract policy, or cutting edge technology, SDI drove the Soviets nuts. Reagan used this leverage to his advantage in negotiating with Gorbachev.
Cannon gives Reagan high marks for imagination, vision, and daring to great things in the area of foreign policy. Before Reagan, treaties between the super powers limited the expansion of nuclear arsenals and defense systems. Reagan’s imagination led to the actual reduction of those arsenals and he dreamed of a day when those arsenals will be gone. Despite having no significant foreign policy experience, Reagan achieved what only his imagination could have envisioned during the hottest point of the Cold War: the partial disarmament of the world’s nuclear arsenal.
Cannon devotes two chapters to the Iran-Contra scandal and is hyper-critical of Reagan. That it was a foreign policy blunder cannot be argued. That it violated the law is not in contention. How much blame Reagan bears for the blunder is a matter of contention.
The earliest development of the scandal came from the noble vision of national security advisor Bud McFarlane. With relations between the US and Iran non-existent after the Khomeini government seized American hostages was non existent. McFarlane envisioned a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran similar to what Nixon had achieved with China. Khomeini was in ill health (although he would go on to live another eight years) and McFarlane was receptive to moderates within the Iranian government who promised warmer relations with the US in exchange for arms with which to fight Iraq. The carrot they used to lure McFarlane was the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon.
In his eagerness to achieve this magnificent diplomatic coup, however, McFarlane ignored State Department intelligence that his primary contact in Iran was actually a great bullshit artist who had little influence within the country. McFarlane made deals and sold the Iranians anti-aircraft missiles and other military hardware from Israeli stocks, then replaced those Israeli stocks with American equipment. Each time McFarlane made an arms shipment, one hostage was released. Unfortunately, more hostages were taken.
McFarlane eventually burned out, knowing he’d been had. His replacement, John Poindexter, continued the policy, but sold the arms at a highly inflated price and deposited the profits in a Swiss bank account. It was from that account that Poindexter aide Col. Oliver North withdrew funds and diverted them to the Contra rebels, fighting the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This was in direct violation of a law passed by Congress prohibiting the use of American funds to aid the Contras. Much of that money never made it to the Contras. It went into the pockets of another Poindexter aide, Richard Secord who simply took it to enrich himself.
When the scandal broke, the old Watergate question of “What did he know and when did he know it,” began haunting Reagan. Reagan assured the nation that he did not trade arms for hostages. A special presidential commission was appointed and a congressional committee also investigated. Meanwhile, the American public grew skeptical of Reagan’s claims and his approval rating took the most precipitous drop in national history.
Reagan continued to resist the notion that he’d approved the deal, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Finally, with the scandal eroding his ability to govern and the unspoken threat of impeachment hanging over his head, Reagan went on national television and confessed that, despite his own belief that he had not, the evidence showed that he did approve the deal. With the admission, his poll numbers went up again. Reagan did what is so rare for presidents in our nation’s history: he admitted he made a mistake.
Cannon blames Reagan’s detachment from his policy making apparatus for this. Cannon does not take into account that when Reagan gave his approval, he was recovering from cancer surgery, having had several linear feet of his large intestine removed. Trading arms for hostages was no doubt an egregious policy error. However, decisions made while recovering from that kind of surgery have to be suspect and Reagan should have never been put in the position of making that decision at that time. The fault there lies with chief of staff, Donald Regan.
No one was ever able to prove that Reagan knew about the diversion of funds to the Contras. Cannon is more forgiving here, stating that no one presented any hard evidence that showed Reagan approved or knew of the diversion. Even North, at his congressional testimony and his criminal trial, refused to blame Reagan for this blunder.
gn policy as the Cold War ended and tensio
I have more historical insight now than Cannon had 20 years ago when he wrote this book. Iran-Contra had very little effect on American foreins in the Middle East heated up. It was a policy blunder of the highest magnitude. But its effect on the nation and the world was negligible.
As I stated earlier, Reagan started his presidency with a strong team within his executive office that balanced out what was a weak cabinet. Baker was a masterful chief of staff who ran the White House staff with efficiency, offset his boss’ weaknesses, and made sure that Reagan was well prepared for his duties each day. He had a stellar supporting cast in men like Michael Deaver, Richard Wirthlin, and Ken Duberstein.
The cabinet started out weak, but got better. However, Reagan relied very little on his cabinet. He also provided very little oversight of it. As a result, more government officials were convicted of crimes during the Reagan presidency than any other – even surpassing the Grant administration. George Schultz was an improvement over Haig and his appointment helped Reagan gain a better understanding of international relations. Jean Kirkpatrick’s name is now lost in history. But her work as the United Nation’s ambassador lifted the perception of the United States to levels not seen since the end of World War II.
While most cabinet officers were incredibly average, Reagan’s justice department was never up to par. William French Smith tolerated way too much corruption in a department whose sole purpose was to assure lawful conduct. One area where Cannon and I are in strong agreement is that Ed Meese was a total failure as an Attorney General and was an overall liability to Reagan at Justice and as deputy chief of staff. A man with a tin ear, callous attitude, and disregard for the necessity of compliance with the law and the perception of compliance was doomed to be a failure.
Reagan’s second term was less successful primarily because of the appointment of Donald Regan as Chief of Staff. Where Baker cultivated the press on behalf of Reagan, Regan disdained the press. When he did talk to them, it was for his own aggrandizement. Instead of offsetting Reagan’s weaknesses, he played to them to ingratiate himself. Presidents need to be protected from their own impulses and the bad ideas of others. Baker was exceptional. Regan was horrible. It was Regan who allowed Iran Contra to land in the Oval Office. When Howard Baker replaced Regan in 1986 at the behest of Nancy Reagan and Republican members of Congress, Reagan regained his footing and was able to move his tax reform plan through a congress controlled by the Democrats.
Cannon concludes by saying Reagan was successful in that he dared to dream great dreams, see greatness in America, and communicates well with the American people. He goes on to state that Reagan was too far removed and too disengaged from the day to day operations of government or even the activity of his own cabinet. Both conclusions are probably true. However, Reagan subscribed to a management style employed by many in the public and private sector. Select good people for the job and let them do the job. With few exceptions, Reagan did this.
What Cannon does not say, and is without contention, is that Reagan left the country and the world a better place than when he found it. That is the proper measurement of an effective president and Ronald Reagan stands higher than most of his predecessors in that regard.