excerpts from the book
by Joan Didion
Vintage Press, 2001. paper
Reagan Administration - December 18, 1997 (p91)
The aides gave us the details, retold
now like runes. Promptly at nine o'clock on most mornings of the
eight years he spent as president of the United States, Ronald
Reagan arrived in the Oval Office to find on his desk his personal
schedule, printed on green stationery and embossed in gold with
the presidential seal. Between nine and ten he was briefed, first
by his chief of staff and the vice president and then by his national
security adviser. At ten, in the absence of a pressing conflict,
he was scheduled for downtime, an hour in which he answered selected
letters from citizens and clipped items that caught his eye in
Human Events and National Review. Other meetings followed, for
example with the congressional leadership. "I soon learned
that these meetings lasted just one hour, no more, no less,"
Tony Coelho, at the time majority whip in the House, told us in
Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan, a I997 collection
of reminiscences edited by Peter Hannaford. "If the agenda-which
he had written out on cards- wasn't completed at the end of the
hour, he would excuse himself and leave. If it was finished short
of an hour, he would fill the rest of the time with jokes (and
he tells a good one)." During some meetings, according to
his press secretary, Larry Speakes, the president filled the time
by reciting Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
When the entry on the schedule was not
a meeting but an appearance or a photo opportunity, the president
was rehearsed. "You'll go out the door and down the steps,"
Michael Deaver or someone else would say, we were told by Donald
Regan, secretary of the treasury from 1981 until I985 and White
House chief of staff from I985 until I987. "The podium is
ten steps to the right and the audience will be in a semi-circle
with the cameras at the right end of the half-moon; when you finish
speaking take two steps back, but don't leave the podium, because
they're going to present you with a patchwork quilt." It
was Larry Speakes, in his I988 Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency
from Inside the White House, who told us how, at the conclusion
of each meeting or appearance, the president would draw on his
schedule a vertical line downward and an arrow pointing to the
next event. "It gives me a feeling that I am accomplishing
something," the president told Speakes. It was Donald Regan,
in his I988 For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington, who
told us how the schedule reminded the president when it was time
to give a birthday present ("a funny hat or a tee shirt bearing
a jocular message") to one or another staff member. "These
gifts were chosen by others, and sometimes Reagan barely knew
the person to whom he was giving them, but his pleasure in these
contacts was genuine.... On one occasion, when he was somehow
given the wrong date for one man's birthday and called to offer
congratulations, nobody had the heart to tell him about the mistake."
"I cannot remember a single case
in which he changed a time or canceled an appointment or even
complained about an item on his schedule," Regan noted, betraying
a certain queasy wonder at his initial encounter with this apparently
cheerful lack of interest: Regan, still at Treasury, found himself
slotted into the schedule, along with James Baker and Michael
Deaver, to introduce to the president the novel notion that he
and Baker, then chief of staff, switch jobs. "Reagan listened
without any sign of surprise," Regan recalled. "He seemed
equable, relaxed-almost incurious. This seemed odd under the circumstances."
Notwithstanding Regan's efforts to offer the possibility of further
deliberation on so serious a move ("'I appreciate that, Don,'
the President said with the bright courtesy that is typical of
him. 'But I don't see why we shouldn't just go ahead with it"'),
the meeting lasted, including an exchange of Christmas-vacation
pleasantries, fewer than its allotted thirty minutes. "I
did not know what to make of his passivity," Regan wrote.
"He seemed to be absorbing a fait accompli rather than making
a decision. One might have thought that the matter had already
been settled by some absent party." On reflection, Regan
As President, Ronald Reagan acted on
the work habits of a lifetime: he regarded his daily schedule
as being something like a shooting script in which characters
came and went, scenes were rehearsed and acted out, and the plot
was advanced one day at a time, and not always in sequence. The
Chief of Staff was a sort of producer, making certain that the
star had what he needed to do his best; the staff was like the
crew, invisible behind the lights, watching the performance their
behind-the scenes efforts had made possible.... Reagan's performance
was almost always flawless. If he was scheduled to receive a visitor
at ten o'clock, he would finish whatever else he was doing at
9:58, clear off his desk, clear his mind of whatever had gone
before, and prepare himself for the next scene.
Dinesh D'Souza, when he arrived at the
Reagan White House as a senior domestic policy analyst in I987,
was twenty-six years old, a resident of the United States only
since I978 but already a name within what had come on the right
to be called "the movement." He was a native of India
who seemed to have arrived in this country with preternatural
pitch for the exact charged chords
(affirmative action, multiculturalism,
gender studies, the academy in general) that drove its politics
of resentment, and he played them, first as a founding editor
of The Dartmouth Review, then as editor of the equally strident
Princeton Prospect, managing editor of the Heritage Foundation's
Policy Review, and biographer of the Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell.
The I980s were years in Washington when
careers were made on undergraduate bliss. One of D'Souza's colleagues
on The Dartmouth Review became a speechwriter for Reagan, another
for George Bush. Another, Keeney Jones, the author of the notorious
"Dis Sho' Ain't No Jive, Bro," a puerile but predictably
inflammatory Dartmouth Review parody of black students ("Dese
boys be sayin' that we be comin' here to Dartmut an' not takin'
the classics. You know, Homa, Shakesphere; but I hea' dey all
be co'd in da ground, six feet unda, and whatchu be askin' us
to learn from dem?"), became a speechwriter for Secretary
of Education William Bennett. Another, Laura Ingraham, who became
famous at The Dartmouth Review for publishing the secretly taped
transcript of a meeting of the Gay Students' Association and to
whom D'Souza dedicated Illiberal Education, went on to clerk for
Clarence Thomas and then to become one of the most visible blonde
pundits on MSNBC. "What could be more exciting?" D'Souza,
who had been editor of The Dartmouth Review at the time "Dis
Sho' Ain't No Jive, Bro" was published, later wrote of those
years in Washington when to be young and movement was very heaven.
"We were a generation of young conservatives who came to
Washington in the I980s inspired by Reagan and the idea of America
that he espoused and embodied. The world was changing, and we
wanted to be instruments of that change. Reagan was a septuagenarian
with a youthful heart. He hired people like me because he wanted
fresh faces and new ideas in the White House. Full of vigor and
determination, we rallied to his cause."
"He hired people like me" may
seem to suggest excessive executive volition on the part of a
president who by all accounts expressed no interest in who his
secretary of the treasury or chief of staff was to be, but the
choice of the active tense is key here. D'Souza's intention in
his I997 Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary
Leader (which, like his 1991 Illiberal Education: The Politics
of Race and Sex on Campus and his I995 The End of Racism: Principles
for a Multiracial Society, was written within the nurturing framework
of the American Enterprise Institute) was to offer what he presented
as a "revisionist" view of the Reagan years, a correction
of the record for "a new generation of young people"
who, because they have had "no alternative source of information,"
have been unable to detect the "transparent bias" of
their teachers and the media.
It was D'Souza's thesis, honed by his
useful and apparently inexhaustible ability to present himself
as one of a besieged minority, that Reagan had been systematically
misread. The misreading only began, in this view, with Reagan's
"liberal critics," who were further identified as "the
pundits, political scientists, and historians," "the
wise men," "the intellectual elite," and "the
cognoscenti." The more grave misreading, as D'Souza sees
it, came from within Reagan's own party, not only from his more
pragmatic aides (the "prags," or "ingrates and
apostates," whose remarkably similar descriptions of the
detachment at the center of the administration in which they served
suggested to D'Souza "an almost defiant disloyalty")
but even from his "hardcore" admirers, or "true
believers," those movement conservatives who considered Reagan
a "malleable figurehead" too often controlled by the
pragmatists on his staff. "I was one of those conservatives,"
Even when Reagan proved us wrong and
showed how effective a president he was, many of us in his ideological
camp nevertheless failed to understand the secret of his success.
We could not fathom how he conceived and realized his grand objectives,
effortlessly overcame his powerful adversaries, and won the respect
of the American people. Many who worked with him are still bewildered.
This study seeks to solve the mystery.
In his casuistical pursuit of the elusive
frame in which Reagan can be seen as the "prime mover,"
the "decisive agent of change," and the "architect
of his own success," D'Souza was not actually breaking new
ground. Such attempts to "solve the mystery" date back
at least to the I980 transition, during which it became apparent
to some that the president-elect, without benefit of constructive
interpretation, could appear less than fully engaged. During a
transition briefing on secret international agreements and commitments,
according to Jimmy Carter, Reagan listened politely but asked
no questions and took no notes. Two hours before his 1981 inauguration,
according to Michael Deaver, he was still sleeping. Deaver did
not actually find this extraordinary, nor would anyone else who
had witnessed Reagan's performance as governor of California.
"I remember sitting there in the governor's office with him,
a couple of days after I had been elected to succeed him,"
Jerry Brown recalls in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of
We didn't have a nuts-and-bolts conversation
about the transition that day. I didn't see Ronald Reagan as a
nuts-and-bolts kind of guy.... He was definitely performing his
ceremonial role as ' governor, and doing it quite well. I think
a great deal of the job is ceremonial. The way I look at it now,
most politicians holding office think they are doing things but
it's all staffed out.... Most of the day-to-day stuff is very
symbolic. That was one of the frustrations I found in being governor.
At first, ' I took literally the nature of the material being
presented at meetings, but I soon found that visiting delegations
often were satisfied just being in the same room as the governor.
There is something illusory about it, like a play. Then again,
if that satisfies people, it has some value. Reagan seemed to
understand all that.
This was in fact the very understanding
that would come to power Reagan's performance as president, and
many people knew it, but to have said so at the time would have
been out of synch with the somewhat less Zen story line (West
Wing lights burn late as dedicated workaholics hit the ground
running) preferred in Washington. From the outset, then, the invention
of a president who could be seen as active rather than passive,
who could be understood to possess mysteriously invisible and
therefore miraculously potent leadership skills, became a White
House priority. "Reagan's aides have been telling reporters
of decisions that the President himself has made, as if they found
it necessary to explain that he has made some," Elizabeth
Drew reported two months into the administration, when both NBC
and Time had been enlisted to do "A Day with President Reagan"
stories. "A White House aide told me, 'We thought it was
important to do those, because of the perception out there that
this is a marionette president. It's simply not true."'
This president who was not a marionette
would be shown making decisions, and not only that: the decisions
he was shown making (or more often in this instance, where rhetoric
was soon understood to be interchangeable with action, the speeches
he was shown making) would have demonstrable, preferably Manichean,
results. Victory, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs,
which offered dramatic "standing tall" roles for the
active president to play, would be narrowly defined: the barest
suggestion of an election or a reform would serve to signal the
enlistment of another fledgling democracy. So defined, all victories
could assume equal import: the decision to invade Grenada, D'Souza
tells us, reversed the Brezhnev Doctrine. "Reagan had listened
intently but said little," D'Souza wrote about the moment
of standing tall that preceded the Grenada invasion. "Finally
he asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff whether they believed that
a military operation was likely to succeed." The Joint Chiefs,
according to D'Souza, who credits his account of this meeting
to Edwin Meese and Caspar Weinberger, said they believed that
the operation, which entailed landing six thousand marines and
airborne rangers on an island significantly smaller than Barbados,
"could be done."
"Very well," Reagan is said
to have said. "In that case, let's go ahead."
The invasion of Grenada is instructive.
The operation, which involved one of Reagan's few overt (and his
only, on his own terms, "successful") uses of military
power, was justified by the administration on the ground that
a ten-thousand-foot landing strip was under construction on the
island, but secondarily (or primarily, depending on who was talking)
because American medical students were "captive" (in
fact they could have left on either regularly scheduled or charter
flights) at an island medical school. "I don't think it was
an invasion," Jeane Kirkpatrick said on Meet the Press a
few days after the operation. "I think it was a rescue, and
I think that we ought to stop calling it an invasion." Norman
Podhoretz, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, wrote that
the invasion, or the rescue, suggested a return to "recovery
and health" for "a United States still suffering from
the shell-shocked condition that has muddled our minds and paralyzed
our national will since Vietnam." D'Souza characterizes it
as "Reagan's first opportunity to overthrow a communist regime,"
an occasion when "Reagan's leadership was exercised in the
face of apprehension on the part of his staff and skepticism on
the part of the congressional leadership."
Not long after the Grenada invasion, for
which the number of medals awarded eventually exceeded the number
of actual combatant, the president, in his commander-in-chief
role, spoke at a ceremony honoring the nation's Medal of Honor
recipients. "Our days of weakness are over," he declared,
standing under a huge representation of the medal's pale-blue
ribbon and five-pointed star. "Our military forces are back
on their feet and standing tall." Grenada, then, virtually
as it happened, had materialized into the symbolic centerpiece
of the rollback scenario that was the Reagan Doctrine. In the
first dozen pages of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became
an Extraordinary Leader, D'Souza laid out, presumably for that
"new generation of young people with no alternative source
of information," a kind of Young Adults timeline in which
the Reagan administration is seen to begin at modern history's
lowest tide ("capitalism and democracy . . . on the retreat
in much of the world," America itself facing "the greatest
economic crisis since the Great Depression") and to conclude
at its highest, the triumphal surge of reborn patriotism and purpose
that was to raise all boats and end the cold war.
In this version of what happened between
I980 and I988, Reagan's role as prime mover is seen to reside,
before and after Grenada, less in actual actions than in his speeches,
those moments when the president was primed to "go over the
heads" of the Congress or the media or whoever was at the
moment frustrating the aims of the administration. D'Souza, in
Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader,
devoted four of his 264 pages to a close textual analysis of the
I983 "Evil Empire" speech (further comment appears on
four more pages), which was, he assures us, "the single most
important speech of the Reagan presidency, a classic illustration
of what Vaclev Havel terms 'the power of words to change history."'
This faith in the laser-like efficacy
of Reagan's rhetoric seems undiminished by the fact that it remains
largely a priori. "Going after a major policy change, crafting
a practical policy initiative, and sticking with it is an accomplishment,"
Martin Anderson, who was Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser
in the early administration, tells us in Recollections of Reagan.
Yet the accomplishment he cites is the I983 SDI, or "Star
Wars," speech. "Another very important event in I983
took place two weeks after the SDI speech," he adds, and,
again, it develops that he is talking about not an actual "event"
but another speech, in this instance the popular "Evil Empire."
William Kristol made recent reference
to our need to credit Reagan's "magnificent" I984 speech
at Normandy, as if the speech, which was written by Peggy Noonan,
were somehow at one on the "magnificence" scale with
the invasion it was delivered to commemorate. ("The State/NSC
draft that I'd been given weeks before wanted the president to
go off on this little tangent about arms control," Miss Noonan
later wrote about her Normandy speech, "and as I read it
I thought, in the language of the day, Oh gag me with a spoon,
this isn't a speech about arms negotiations, you jackasses, this
is a speech about splendor.") As evidence that Reagan had
the force of calculation behind his "predictions" and
"prophecies," D'Souza offers the "tear down this
wall" speech delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in I987. "Not
long after this," he writes, "the wall did come tumbling
down, and Reagan's prophecies all came true. The most powerful
empire in human history imploded. These were not just results
Reagan predicted. He intended the outcome."
The consequences of reinventing Reagan
as a leader whose leadership was seen to exist exclusively in
his public utterances, the ultimate "charismatic" president,
were interestingly studied by the political historian Jeffrey
K. Tulis, who, in his I987 The Rhetorical Presidency, outlined
in some detail the dilemmas presented by a presidential style
that tends to delegitimize both constitutional and bureaucratic
authority, to depend for its effect on created crises (to "go
over the heads" of the opposition requires the presence of
some urgent message to be conveyed), and so to place unusual policy-making
power in the hands of speechwriters:
Many speeches are scheduled long before
they are to be delivered. Thus the commitment to speak precedes
the knowledge of any issue to speak about, often causing staff
to find or create an issue for the speech.... The routinization
of crisis, endemic to the rhetorical presidency, is accompanied
by attempted repetitions of charisma. In Reagan's case this style
was further reinforced by an ideology and a rhetoric opposed to
the Washington establishment, to bureaucrats and bureaucracies....
He serves as a better illustration than any other president of
the possibility and danger that presidents might come themselves
to think in the terms initially designed to persuade those not
capable of fully understanding the policy itself. Having reconfigured
the political landscape, the rhetorical presidency comes to reconstitute
the president's political understanding.
Since D'Souza's account of the Reagan
presidency derived from and differed in no substantive factual
detail from those of the "ingrates and apostates" who
were already on their book tours when that presidency ended, the
superimposition of the "leadership" narrative meant
grappling with some fairly intractable material already on the
record. The peculiarities noticed by others (the president was
"detached," or "not entirely informed," or
"vague on details," or "passive") would need
to be translated into evidence of a grand design. Biographical
details would need to be mined for "character" points,
often to less than coherent effect. "Here was the son of
the town drunk who grew up poor in the Midwest," D'Souza
tells us on page 10. "Without any connections, he made his
way to Hollywood and survived its cutthroat culture to become
a major star."
This was not literally true: Reagan was
never a "major star," but a reliable studio contract
player who hit an era of diminished demand and was reduced, before
finding a role as a spokesman for General Electric, to introducing
a club act, The Continentals, at the Last Frontier in Las Vegas.
"Survived its cutthroat culture to become a major star,"
however, fit the point D'Sonza was trying to make on this page,
which had to do with "the personal [and] political mystery"
that had enabled Reagan to change "both his country and the
rest of the world." By page 45, where the point to be made
had to do with the president's flexibility and skill at "the
art of negotiating and being part of a team," D'Souza had
reworked the bio to yield what he needed: "Reagan was never
a big enough star to permit himself such consuming narcissism....
When many actors were too fastidious to be seen on television,
regarding it as inferior to film, Reagan obligingly switched to
the new medium, thus guaranteeing himself more parts."
This constant trimming and tacking leads
D'Souza into fairly choppy water, where logical connections tend
to get jettisoned. If the famous Reagan "gaffes" were
calculated, as D'Souza suggests ("When we recall Reagan's
gaffes, we see that he sometimes used them as a kind of code to
transmit important political messages that would be incomprehensible
to a hostile media"), then could the president not be seen
as a demagogue, deliberately manipulating the electorate with
"facts" (the welfare queens, the student loans used
to buy certificates of deposit, the young man who went into the
grocery store and bought an orange with food stamps and a bottle
of vodka with the change) he knew would never stand scrutiny?
Not at all: the president dealt in "morality tales,"
in the "illustration of a broader theme," and "just
because this or that particular detail might be erroneous did
not mean that the moral of the story was invalid." If Reagan
failed to recognize his black secretary of housing and urban development,
Samuel Pierce, addressing him as "Mr. Mayor," did that
not suggest a relationship both with his own administration and
with urban America that remained casual at best? No, only an "oversight":
"He was wrong not to recognize Sam Pierce, but the reason
for his oversight was that he had no interest in the Department
of Housing and Urban Development, which he saw as a rat hole of
If Reagan set out to reduce the size and
cost of 7 the government and left it, in I990 dollars, $I.5 trillion
deeper in debt than when he started ("You and I, as individuals,
can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but only for a limited
period of time," he had said in his 1981 inaugural address.
"Why then should we think that collectively, as a nation,
we are not bound by that same limitation?"), could not the
president be said to have failed at his own mission? No, because
Reagan's unique approach to that mission, which allowed him to
cut taxes while increasing domestic entitlements and boosting
defense spending to a rough total, for the eight years, of $2
trillion, turned out to have "a silver lining." D'Souza
explains: "by a strange turn of fate, the deficit accomplished
for Reagan what he was unable to achieve directly: for the first
time in this century, Congress began to impose limits on the growth
of government." If Reagan lacked, as D'Souza allows, not
only "historical learning" and "encyclopedic knowledge"
but also "the two characteristics of the liberally educated
person: self-consciousness and open-mindedness," did dogmatism
not tend to undermine the value of his opinions? Not exactly:
Reagan "saw the world through the clear lens of right and
wrong," and so possessed a knowledge that "came not
from books but from within himself."
The knowledge that "came not from
books but from within himself" is where we reenter the real
woo-woo of the period, the insistence on the ineffable that began
with the perceived need to front the administration with a "leader"
and ended by transforming the White House into a kind of cargo
cult. "There is no point in pining for 'another Ronald Reagan,"'
D'Souza concludes, exactly if unwittingly capturing this aspect
of the period. "He isn't returning, and there will never
be another quite like him." Since it was the given of the
Reagan administration that Reagan was at its helm, and since a
good deal of the visible evidence suggested otherwise, the man
must be a "mystery," with skills pitched, like a dog
whistle, beyond our defective ability to hear them.
D'Souza tells us that Edmund Morris, Reagan's
official biographer, in I990 characterized his subject as the
most incomprehensible figure he had ever encountered. He tells
us that Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan in Sacramento and in Washington
and wrote three books about him, regards Reagan as a puzzle, and
is "still trying to understand the man." He tells us
that Reagan and Edwin Meese, whose daily lives were inseparable
in both Sacramento and Washington, never saw each other socially.
Reagan had "countless acquaintances," D'Souza observes,
but apparently only one close friend, the actor Robert Taylor.
Nancy Reagan spoke regularly to friends on the telephone, but
her husband did not: "He would say hello, exchange a few
pleasantries, then hand the receiver to her." Frustrated
by "the paradoxes of Reagan's personality," D'Souza
writes, "some who worked with him for years have given up
trying to understand him."
Yet these "paradoxes" existed
only within what was essentially a category confusion. Defined
as "president," or even as "governor," Reagan
did indeed appear to have some flat sides, some missing pieces.
Defined as "actor," however, he was from the beginning
to the end of his public life entirely consistent, a knowable
and in fact quite predictable quantity. D'Souza allows that Reagan's
life as an actor was a significant part of his make-up, but sees
"actor" as a stepping stone, a role the real Ronald
Reagan, or "president," had mastered and shed, although
not before absorbing certain lessons that "enabled him to
govern more effectively": the importance of appealing to
a mass audience, say, or the knowledge that "noble ideals"
could be more effectively communicated "if they were not
abstract but personalized and visualized." Grappling with
the question of how Reagan could be "uniformly fair-minded
and pleasant with aides" but "not get close to them
personally," D'Souza, laboring from within the definition
"president," extracts a "leadership" solution:
"He saw them as instruments to achieve his goals."
"People would work for him for a
decade, then they would leave, and he would not associate with
them-not even a phone call," D'Souza notes, and again draws
the "leadership" lesson: "Thus the conventional
wisdom must be turned on its head: he wasn't their pawn; they
were his." This fails to compute (if they were the pawns
and he their leader, would he not instead be inclined to keep
them on speed dial, available for further deployment?) and will
continue to do so, since the category is wrong: what might be
seen as mysterious behavior in one occupation can be standard
operating procedure in another, and it is within the unique working
rhythms of the entertainment industry that the "mysteries"
of the man and the administration evaporate. Reagan could be "uniformly
fair-minded and pleasant with aides" without getting close
to them personally (or knowing where their offices were or even
their names) not because he "saw them as instruments to achieve
his goals" but because he saw them as members of the crew
("invisible behind the lights," in Donald Regan's words),
as gaffers and best boys and script supervisors and even as day
players, actors like himself but not featured performers whose
names he need remember.
Similarly, the ability to work with people
for a decade and never call them again precisely reflects the
intense but temporary camaraderie of the set, the location, where
the principals routinely exchange the ritual totems of bonding
(unlisted home numbers, cell numbers, car numbers, triplesecret
numbers, and hour-by-hour schedules for sojourns in Aspen and
Sundance and Martha's Vineyard) in full and mutual confidence
that the only calls received after the wrap will be for ADR, or
for reshoots. Even that most minor of presidential idiosyncracies,
the absolute adherence to the daily schedule remarked upon by
virtually all Reagan's aides, the vertical line drawn through
the completed task and the arrow pointing to the next task (D'Souza
tells us again about the arrows, as evidence of "the brisk
thoroughness with which he discharged his responsibilities"),
derives from the habits of the set, where the revised shooting
schedule is distributed daily. sc. 83A - EXT. WASHINGTON STREET
- MOTORCADE - DAY, such a schedule might read, and, once Scene
I83A was completed, a vertical line would be drawn through it
on the schedule, with an arrow pointing to "sc. I7- ANDREWS
AFB - ESTABLISHING - DAY : not in any sequence the principals
need to understand, but the day's next task.
Asked whether he liked being president
better than being an actor, Ronald Reagan, according to D'Souza,
replied, "Yes, because here I get to write the script too."
D'Souza presents this as the president's amusing deprecation of
the way in which he achieved objectives "against the odds,"
and so it may have been intended, but the deeper peculiarities
of Reagan's tenure could even at the time be seen to derive from
his tendency to see the presidency as a script waiting to be solved.
There is in the development of every motion picture a process
known as "licking the script," that period during which
the "story" is shaped and altered to fit the idealized
character who must be at its center. A president who understands
the "character clarity" that results from this process
would sense immediately that a scene with, say, Prime Minister
Yitzhak Shamir of Israel could be improved by a dramatization
of how he, the president, or star, personally experienced the
Holocaust. It would be only logical, then, for Reagan to tell
Shamir, as he did in I983, that during World War II he had filmed
Nazi death camps for the Signal Corps (in fact he had spent the
entire war in Culver City, making training films at the Hal Roach
studio), that he had (presciently) kept one reel in case the Holocaust
was ever questioned, and that he had (just recently!) found occasion
to convert a doubter by running this reel. A president who understands
how a single scene can jump a script would naturally offer reporters
in Charlotte, North Carolina, as Lou Cannon tells us that Reagan
did during his I975 primary campaign, this improved version of
how segregation ended in the military:
"When the Japanese dropped the bomb
on Pearl Harbor there was a Negro sailor whose total duties involved
kitchen-type duties.... He cradled a machine gun in his arms,
which is not an easy thing to do, and stood on the end of a pier
blazing away at Japanese airplanes that were coming down and strafing
him and that [segregation] was all changed." When a reporter
pointed out that segregation in the armed services actually had
ended when President Truman signed an executive order in I948
three years after the war, Reagan stood his ground. "I remember
Reagan told me on the campaign plane later.
"It was very powerful."
The question most frequently asked in
a script meeting, in one variation or another, always this: Why
do we care, how can we up the stakes, what's going to make America
root for this guy? The "guy," of course is the main
character, the star part, and infinite time and attention is devoted
to finding his "hook," the secret to his character that
gets hinted at in Act One, revealed at the end of Act Two, and
turned in Act Three: "son of the town drunk," say, could
even be the secret behind "stood on the burning pier and
cradled in his arms the machine gun that would end segregation."
Ronald Reagan, we later learned from his personal physician, Brigadier
General John Hutton, first grasped the import of the AIDS epidemic
in July I985 (until then he had seemed to construe it as a punishment
for bad behavior, and "would say words to the effect: 'Is
there a message in this?"'), when he learned from a news
report that it had happened to someone America could root for,
There is in Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary
Man Became an Extraordinary Leader one arresting account, which
seems to be based not on D'Souza's access to the famous and less
known movers of the period (his two-page list of acknowledgments
recalls with considerable poignancy the fervor of the moment,
including as it does such evocative names as "Elliott Abrams,"
"George Gilder," "Josh Gilder," "Michael
Ledeen," "Joshua Muravchik," "Grover Norquist,"
"Robert Reilly," "Joseph Sobran," and "Faith
Whittlesey") but on reporting done by Jane Mayer and Doyle
McManus for their Landslide: The unmaking of the President, I984-1988.
The place is the White House. The time is October 26, I983, when
the American students "rescued" by the invasion of Grenada
were on their way to Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina.
"On the day of their arrival," D'Souza writes, "Oliver
North, who had helped plan the Grenada operation, came rushing
into the president's office."
He said that the students had not been
briefed on the reasons for the invasion, and no one knew what
they would tell the press. "Come with me," Reagan said.
He led North into a room with a television monitor. There the
two of them watched as the first young man got off the plane,
walked over to the runway, dropped to his knees, and kissed the
soil of the United States. "You see, Ollie," Reagan
said, "you should have more faith in the American people."
Reagan knew that with the student's dramatic gesture, the national
debate over the legitimacy of the Grenada invasion was effectively
Among the several levels on which this
passage invites the reader to linger (Why would students in need
of rescue need to be briefed on the reasons for the rescue? How
exactly would "more faith in the American people" lead
to the expectation that the first student off the plane would
show the cameras what the administration wanted shown?), the most
rewarding has to do with "Ollie," and his apparently
easy access, as early as October I983, to the president's office.
It would, in due time, be repeatedly suggested that Lieutenant
Colonel North was a rogue fantast who had inflated or even invented
his proximity to the president. "He said he sometimes spent
time alone with Ronnie in the Oval Office," Nancy Reagan
wrote in My Turn, her own essay into correcting the record. "But
that never happened." Larry Speakes called North's assertion
that he had been in the Oval Office when the medical students
arrived home from Grenada "an outright lie." "We
researched the records," he wrote, "and there was never
a time when Ollie was alone with the President in the Oval Office."
Yet D'Souza's vignette casts North, whose several code names included
"Mr. Goode" and "Mr. White," in what seems
to have been his own preferred light: he was on the scene, he
was in the picture, he was able in a moment of threatened crunch
to regard the president as his confidant.
By October I983, the sequence of events
that became known as "Iran-contra," or, as D'Souza calls
it, the "historical footnote that future generations will
not even remember," was well underway, and the White House
deep in that perilous territory where certain spectral missions
were already coinciding, to deleterious effect, with the demands
of the script. Iran-contra, D'Souza assures his Young Adult readers,
"seems to have been transacted in the White House without
Reagan's knowledge or approval," but even if we discount
the assertions of Reagan's aides that he was briefed on every
detail except possibly (this point remains unclear) the diversion
of funds, and even if we discount the president's own statement
that "it was my idea to begin with," Iran-contra was
not a series of events that professionals of the Washington process
would naturally think of transacting.
It was instead a scenario that suggested
the addled inspiration of script meetings, the moment when the
elusive line materializes: on the one hand we have the "lion
in winter," as D'Souza calls Reagan, the aging freedom fighter
(NB, possible: we learn in Act Two he knows he has something terminal
but hasn't told anybody???) whose life has been dedicated to the
eradication of tyranny and who is now, apparently alone (NB, everyone
opposes, scene where even trusted aide backs away), facing his
last and toughest battle with the forces of injustice. The inspiration,
of course, the solution to the script, the always startlingly
obvious idea that comes only when the table is littered with takeout
and the producer is inventing pressing business elsewhere, is
this: the lonely lion in winter turns out not to be alone after
all, for we also have the young colonel, "Mr. Goode,"
a born performer, a larger-than-life character, a real character,
actually, one who (according to Larry Speakes) "loved to
operate big in the Situation Room . . . standing in the middle
of the floor, a phone at each ear, barking cryptic orders to some
faraway operative" and who (according to Peggy Noonan) could
convincingly deliver such lines as "And don't forget this
is in accord conversation Casey-North approximately I500 this
date" or "Don't talk to me about Pastora [the contra
leader Eden Pastora, aka "Comandante Zero"], I'm not
speaking to Pastora."
For the "President," a man whose
most practiced instincts had trained him to find the strongest
possible narrative line in the scenes he was given, to clean out
those extraneous elements that undermine character clarity, a
man for whom historical truth had all his life run at twenty-four
frames a second, Iran-contra would have been irresistible, a go
project from concept, a script with two strong characters, the
young marine officer with no aim but to serve his president, the
aging president with no aim but to free the tyrannized (whether
the tyrants were Nicaraguans or Iranians or some other nationality
altogether was just a plot point, a detail to work out later),
a story about male bonding, a story about a father who found the
son he never (in this "cleaned out" draft of the script)
had, a buddy movie, and better still than a buddy movie: a mentor
buddy movie, with action.
"Reagan didn't violate the public
trust in the pursuit of personal power," we are told by D'Souza,
who, possibly because he noticed that he had "Ollie"
running into the president's office on page I58, seems by page
247 of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary
Leader to have somewhat amended his earlier (page I6) assessment
of Iran-contra as a series of events "transacted in the White
House without Reagan's knowledge or approval." Here, on page
247, we see a change from passive to active voice: "He did
it because he empathized with the suffering of the hostages and
their families.... He refused to listen to Shultz and Weinberger's
prudent recommendations that he avoid the foolish enterprise altogether."
D'Souza seems not to entirely appreciate that for this actor,
given this script, it would have been precisely the suggestion
that he was undertaking a "foolish enterprise" that
sealed his determination to go with it. "There are those
who say that what we are attempting to do cannot be done,"
he had said in a hundred variations in as many speeches. This
was a president who understood viscerally-as the young colonel
also understood- that what makes a successful motion picture is
exactly a foolish enterprise, a lonely quest, a lost cause, a
fight against the odds: undertaken, against the best advice of
those who say it cannot be done, by someone America can root for.