This article originally was published in the August 1980 issue of Playboy.
I t was Friday, so, according to the schedule, it must have been Augusta, Georgia—steamy, sultry and dull—where we met the two ladies in the hotel lobby, wearing the current thigh-revealing, split-skirt fashion they were showing in New York. They sported the Reagan straw hats and buttons but also the pushed-up-cleavage look that one often finds at Republican dinners, a throwback to the Forties tease who played opposite Ronald Reagan the actor. And it must be conceded that a Reagan for President button pinned near the exposed portion of a woman’s breast takes on a campy, rakish quality, making it less chilling when they flash that big smile and say they like Ronnie because he’ll give us more bombs and throw the bums off welfare.
There was a contradiction here that one encountered in state after state, traveling with the Reagan campaign. On the one hand, the puritanical and aged warrior intoning a death chant against the godless Communists, permissive Government, the immoral homosexuals, the welfare cheats, unrelieved and simplistic in its enmity but always self-righteous and pure. On the other hand, the people drawn to him tending to be more varied and hip than one would expect from the campaign rhetoric. It is as if they want Reagan to be something they no longer are.
That night in Augusta, the two attractive women, both divorcees in their late 30s, had imbibed a few drinks to prepare them for the meeting Reagan had planned with them and dozens of other hard workers in his local campaign. But as a result of their bar stop, they missed “the next President of the United States.” They were left to the consolation of a flirting interview with a film crew sent South by TV producer Norman Lear to capture the essence of what Ronnie’s campaign poster—the one with him in the cowboy hat looking 20 years younger—calls “Reagan country.”
Earlier that day, in an interview with me on the plane into Augusta, Reagan had blamed the Federal Government for the breakup of the family by encouraging permissiveness. It therefore seemed appropriate to ask those women if they also were opposed to premarital sex. “I love it!” said one who’d worked for Reagan since her college days.
“But Ronald Reagan says the new permissiveness and the Federal Government are breaking up the family,” I said, “and he would strongly disapprove of your engaging in sex without the blessings of marriage.” And then, with camera lights on and film presumably rolling, the aging cheerleader flashed that smile, tinged now with wisdom and cynicism, and issued her personal emancipation proclamation: “Well … fuck him.”
Does that mean she won’t support him? Hell, no. She’d still like Ronnie to be President and set everyone else straight. They’ve always liked Reagan because he’s a strong moral leader who would bring the country closer together again. And they like his attacks on permissiveness: “I think we ought to have lighter controls.”
Reagan can be magical on the stump, because he can convince even a cynical observer that he is a highly moral, honest and purposeful man who has got his act together and can do the same for the country. His appeal is the nostalgic one—as in Reagan’s movie roles—that of the good boy next door who will do right by the country, as he has for his family and friends. In that role, he effectively exudes an air of simple virtue that allows the audience to ignore serious gaps in his knowledge, his lackluster eight years as governor and the reality that his own family life has been quite disorderly.
But people want the image more than the truth. The Reagan sermon is a throwback to the Jimmy Carter homilies of 1976—"Ah just want a country as good, honest, decent as are the American people"—and then some assurance about how wholesome everything was back home in Plains, Georgia. The people listening knew they weren’t so pure, but they hoped Jimmy might be.
We rarely heard about Carter’s nephew serving time in a California prison, or the widespread use of drugs by young people in the county, or the good ol’ Carter boys’ checking out the latest crop of divorced women at the Best Western Inn near Plains, the closest they have to a night life down there.
Never mind—the voters wanted to believe that someone, somewhere in America, had a better life than they were experiencing, and Jimmy’s con filled the void. Virtuous, Bible-studying Jimmy could make us feel good all over again and lead us to what Reagan now calls “the shining city upon the hill"—a phrase taken from the Puritans. But Jimmy’s pristine image couldn’t sustain him through the Presidency, even though he brought the image shapers—Pat Cad-dell, Jerry Rafshoon, Ham Jordan, Jody Powell and company-right into the White House. It failed because we are not always so hard—working, selfless and lacking in greed as Carter pretended. His mind ever on the polls, he would not tell us what we didn’t want to hear or lead in an unpopular direction. So the image shrivels and the man himself ends up appearing weak and vacillating.
Well, let’s just try again. Now, Ronald Reagan—there’s a man who rides tall in the saddle; there’s a man who can solve our problems the way we used to, who can take on the Russians and anyone else who gets in our way. Let’s hear it for plain-speaking, two-fisted common sense. In an interview with me for the Los Angeles Times of March 6, 1980, he called the president of Panama "a pipsqueak dictator who hasn’t got as much gross national product as Cincinnati, Ohio.” And, as an indication of his Presidential negotiating style, he said, “From the minute their dictator down there told us that we had to give up the canal or there was going to be trouble—he was going to make trouble for us—that’s when we should have said to him, ‘Look, Buster, you withdraw that threat or there’s no more negotiation or sitting at a table with you, because we’re not, in the eyes of the world, going to give this up in answer to a threat of violence.’ ”
Reagan’s inherent promise is to solve our problems without additional sacrifice, without adding to our burdens—be they taxes or the draft. He is trusted the way a slicker like George Bush or John Connally wasn't—never to try any more newfangled Governmental approaches or programs. Enough with change.
It is a mood well understood by Reagan’s elder daughter, Maureen, who campaigns for her father but is an advocate of change and disagrees with Reagan on the E.R.A. She is an attractive and strong-willed woman who has lived a bit, been divorced and has worked as an editor, a secretary and an actress to pay the bills on her Los Angeles apartment. She is a delight to interview, because she keeps the Scotch coming and refuses to play the Goody Two-shoes role of a candidate’s poster family. She can be brutal in her comments, as on the pro-lifers: “After dealing with those people for years, I’m convinced they are not anti-abortion, they are anti-sex.” But she is also sympathetic to why people are disoriented by the changes that have occurred in this country and judges that apprehension to be the source of her father’s greatest appeal: “You gotta understand that people are starting to fight change now because they’re scared; they can only deal with so much; they can only handle so much that’s different from the way it was supposed to be, and it isn’t, and the way they were raised. Most of us are still part of a fairyland generation and, if we did it all right, Prince Charming was going to ride up on his white horse and we were going to go off into the sunset and live happily ever after. But it doesn’t work that way. Maybe he’s America’s Prince Charming.”
Maybe the Reagan phenomenon falls under what Erich Fromm called the escape from freedom. Maybe too much change, too fast, with too few good results. Then there’s Iran, inflation and the Russians, and not being able to believe in the dollar or working hard for the future. “They” just push us around and Jimmy Carter just takes it.
Ronnie just cannot resist throwing that red meat out to excite the audience and he sometimes forgets whether he really means it.
Traveling with the Reagan campaign, you hear it everywhere, and Reagan is the candidate best trained to play to that desperation. He has been railing against permissiveness, Big Government and communism for more than 20 years now and has become a creature of his one-liners. Jim Lake, his former press secretary, said in a conversation with me, “Ronnie just cannot resist throwing that red meat out to excite the audience and he sometimes forgets whether he really means it.”
Lake, who intends to vote for Reagan, was referring to the fact that in private interviews, one encounters a more reasonable Reagan, but on the campaign hustings, he gets out of control and the crowds love it.
“Just who do they think they are?” he repeats over and over to a crowd in Greensboro, North Carolina, without ever making clear just who “they” are. The sad tale that day has to do with the Government bureaucrats’ coming between a mother and her 15-year-old daughter, who is in “deep trouble.” It’s a story repeated in numerous other campaign stops, with the mother “hugging that child from birth on,” only to suddenly lose control to the Feds. He has used it so often that in Greensboro he leaves out half the story. We never do learn the nature of the “deep trouble” and are left wondering whether she committed a crime or was knocked up by the New Deal. But the punch line—"Just who do they think they are?“—got big applause, anyway.
The best rouser is the one about the Federal Government’s "destroying the American family.” This last was even stated in the Republican primary debates, but no one had the presence of mind or the curiosity to ask Ronnie what he was talking about.
On the chartered campaign plane from Orlando, Florida, into Augusta, I finally got a chance to ask the governor to spell it out (this and all subsequent exchanges taken from the interview I did with him for the Los Angeles Times):
Scheer: You speak of the breakdown of the family, the Federal Government’s intrusion into life between the parents and the children. What do you have in mind?
Reagan: There has been a constant effort on the part of government at almost every level to interfere with the family and make decisions with regard to children. For example, you’ve got a woman who has been appointed a judge by the President who has advocated that children should have the right to legal counsel in disputes with their parents. In California, they tried to get a bill passed that would allow underage children to go on their own, to a doctor, and get advice on contraceptives, and so forth, without the knowledge of their parents.
Scheer: But isn’t that one way to avoid the need for abortions, which you oppose?
Reagan: But isn’t that also government sticking its nose into the family?
Scheer: But if you have an underage child, isn’t it better that he or she get a contraceptive device and then thereby avoid what you have termed murdering a fetus?
Reagan: What has ever happened to the teaching of a family. …
Scheer: What if the family has broken down, what if the parents aren’t there, what if it’s a grandmother or an aunt who’s raising that child, and the child needs a contraceptive device or wants one; isn’t it better to allow him or her to purchase it rather than to have an abortion or an unwanted baby?
Reagan: Whatever happened to just saying no?
Is Reagan kidding? Does he not know what has been going on in this country, and does he really believe it’s all due to Government’s “breaking up the family”?
Following that exchange with Reagan, I wandered back to my seat in the press section of the plane very much needing a drink. All I could think of was sound trucks cruising our communities, urging young people to just say no. “Hey, you, in the back seat of that car, whatever happened …?” I wanted to say yes, to indulge some minor decadence. To sin in the pathetic way that one does covering a campaign, by heavy drinking. What world did Reagan live in? As in other campaigns, a number of the people around me on the plane, Reagan staff, press, off-duty Secret Service, would often spend their evenings near drunk, just hoping that some woman or man would turn up to whom they could say yes. Many of them are divorced or actively behaving in such a way as to become so. And I’d never once on any campaign trip ever heard anyone speak in other than an approving way about extramarital sex. Nor was any of this permissiveness inspired by the Federal Government.
But what about Reagan himself? How had he managed to avoid the pitfalls of ordinary humans? Then suddenly I realized that I had accepted the sanctimonious Reagan stance at face value. I, in fact, knew very little about Reagan’s family life, and neither did others in the press corps. His family life is a closely guarded secret. The Reagan staff barely concedes that the candidate has a family and keeps the press away from the two younger children.
But since Reagan has mixed up the personal and the political, it seemed necessary to take a closer look at his family life. After interviews with family and friends, it was possible to learn that Reagan does, indeed, live in the same messed-up world that the rest of us inhabit. And it hardly seems that the Federal Government caused the breakdown of his own family.
Was the Government responsible for his divorce from actress Jane Wyman 32 years ago or was it, as she testified in court, his attempts to subordinate her interests to his political preoccupations?
Was the Government responsible for his younger daughter, Patti’s, history of teenage rebellion and later running off to England with a member of a rock group—The Eagles—just prior to the 1976 campaign and not letting her parents know where she was? Or was it, as I hear it, Reagan’s rigid refusal to allow the young musician into the house because they were living together without the blessing of marriage? Reagan makes the point repeatedly that a wholesome family life is the best and simplest counterweight to the ills of society spawned by a permissive Government. He has also consistently led the hunt for scapegoats—hippies, radicals, lenient judges—which obscures the complexities of raising a family in a changing world. There is a smirking self-righteousness to the man—"Whatever happened to just “The Reagan children do not conform to the plastic normalcy Ronnie has been pushing all these years.” saying no?“—which implies that he and other proper folks have been successful at coping with family problems.
The point is not to extend gossip but, rather, to observe that the Reagan family has experienced the same problems of divorce, generational revolt, conflicting morality and dilution of sense of purpose as most Americans. The campaign does not like to mention the Reagan children, because they do not conform to the plastic normalcy that Ronnie has been pushing all these years; but I was pleasantly surprised to find them far more interesting than the Forties movie image of the family that he projects. True, all four Reagan kids dropped out of college over their parents’ objections, but Maureen did so to become an actress and eventually an organizer for the E.R.A. Elder son Michael races boats and sells gasohol, and Patti, 27, is now a rock musician. The youngest, Ronald, Jr., 22, left Yale suddenly after his first year to become a ballet dancer. Maybe it doesn’t fit Reagan’s high-in-the-saddle image to have a son who’s a ballet dancer, but his teacher’s report is that he is a serious and talented student with The Joffrey Ballet who had worked extra hard to make up for his late start.
The Reagan children are an embarrassment to the campaign precisely because they are interesting.
The Reagan children are an embarrassment to the campaign precisely because they are interesting. Reagan staffers cannot easily control the off-springs’ comments or actions. The younger two are not currently campaigning for their father and the older two, who are, must be kept at a distance, perhaps because they are bright and funny.
Aside from being outspoken and independent, Maureen, 39, and adopted son Michael, 35 (children of his first marriage), who strongly support their father’s candidacy, are thought to be a liability because they sabotaged Ronnie’s campaign simply by growing up. They both joked to me about the campaign staff’s wanting to have some little kids sent over from central casting to complete the campaign portrait. They support Reagan because they judge him a very good man who will effectively lead the country. But he is a good man not because, as a father, he sat them down for prayer each night—he didn’t. They lived mostly in boarding schools and occasionally got a weekend with Mom or Dad. It wasn’t his fault; he and his ex-wife, Jane Wyman, were actors involved with the demands of their careers in Hollywood and, later, Ronnie was promoting General Electric and his own politics. Evidently, it is possible to be a good father even if you don’t rush home from work to the suburban tract house to hug the wife and kiddies and take them to church on Sunday. But to hear Reagan’s campaign speeches, you would never know that.
Wouldn’t it be wild if Ronnie got up one day on the campaign trail and said, "Hey, even before Kramer vs. Kramer, I knew divorce wasn’t the end of the world.” Or, “My wife, Nancy, and I were so eagerly in love that we produced a seven-pound baby girl just seven and one half months after our wedding.” Or, “I learned that kids can rebel against everything I stand for, and still be in the human race.” Or, “I got divorced because I was a male-chauvinist slob who was threatened by Jane Wyman’s being a much better actor. So I went off to marry a woman who lives only through me and my career.” Or, “After my divorce, I drank a lot and chased women and I still managed to come out of it Ok.”
In his autobiography, Reagan refers to his divorce only in the last four paragraphs of a chapter detailing how he and the House Un-American Activities Committee did in the Hollywood leftists. (Perhaps the Feds were responsible for his divorce, after all.) As he recalls, “I arrived home from the Washington [HUAC] hearing to be told I was leaving. I suppose there had been warning signs, if only I hadn’t been so busy, but small-town boys grow up thinking only other people get divorced. The plain truth was that such a thing was so far from being imagined by me that I had no resources to call upon.”
The question is whether or not he has since expanded those resources. For his campaign rhetoric still reflects—indeed, celebrates—the thinking of small-town boys, at least as they were pictured in the movies of the Forties, following their father’s example of hard work, pious living and substantial success.
Reagan’s real-life father, as he concedes, was something of an alcoholic who had trouble holding on to a job and was all but destroyed in the Great Depression. He and the entire Reagan family were saved from poverty only by F.D.R.’s New Deal. In fact, Reagan’s father was one of those faceless bureaucrats, the “they” in the “Just who do they think they are?"—the guy who gave out the relief payments and then the jobs when they made him the head of the local WPA. The real-life elder Reagan sounds like he was terrific; and perhaps it reveals a hidden side of the son that he recalls his father’s robust complexity so affectionately in his autobiography:
I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey from the speak-easy. I got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed. In a few days, he was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved and will always remember. Jack (we all called him by his nickname) was a handsome man—tall, swarthy and muscular, filled with contradictions of character. A sentimental Democrat, who believed fervently in the rights of the working man.
When Reagan wrote those words about his father, he had abandoned his own trade-union career with the Screen Actors Guild and gone off to preach the corporate message for General Electric.
Reagan recalls his father as "the best raconteur I ever heard, especially when it came to the smoking-car sort of stories.” He claims that Jack “drew a sharp line between lusty vulgar humor and filth. To this day, I agree with his credo and join Jack and Mark Twain in asserting that one of the basic forms of American humor is the down-to-earth wit of the ordinary person, and the questionable language is justified if the point is based on real humor.”
He’s even reported to have whispered an ethnic joke—about blacks and Chinese—at Jack Benny’s funeral. But people who know Reagan deny that he’s bigoted, and certainly not toward ethnic groups.
Privately, Reagan can use rough language both humorously and in occasional flashes of anger. He can also be one of the funnier candidates on the campaign trail. He likes to tell jokes, and that’s why he told the ethnic joke that got him into some trouble. Perhaps if reporters didn’t overreact to a politician’s telling the very same joke they routinely hear and tell in the city room, we’d get more humor. Reagan seems inclined to that sort of jest, and he’s even reported to have whispered an ethnic joke—about blacks and Chinese—at Jack Benny’s funeral. But people who know Reagan deny that he’s bigoted, and certainly not toward ethnic groups. He himself is the product of an ethnic joke—the cross of a hard-drinking Irish-Catholic father and a Bible-toting Scotch-English Protestant mother. His nickname, Dutch, derives from his father’s referring to him at birth as a fat little Dutchman.
Reagan’s humor may derive from his Irish father, but his puritanism bears the mark of his mother, who considered herself snatched by God from an early deathbed to stick around to convert sinners. Nelle Reagan’s missionary work took her and her Bible in and out of the jails of the Midwest and later the hospitals of California. Maureen Reagan remembers her grandmother as a remarkable woman of near Biblical strength and conviction, a woman of great social conscience and concern for the less fortunate. But it seems more a pie-in-the-sky, missionary’s vow for the sinner to be saved than, as Jack would have had it, for the poor to organize to gain their just deserts. Those are two views of poverty, and Reagan seems to have traveled from the vision of the father to that of the mother in his march from early liberalism to late conservatism.
In any event, Reagan’s mother was a strong figure and he seems to have looked for similar qualities in his wives, but their strengths differ markedly. In his marriages, he went from Jane Wyman, who exhibits a mocking independence, to his current wife, Nancy, a vassal of cold public virtue. The two women represent a startling contrast and it is difficult to imagine his having been attracted to both, though each is strong-willed and possessed of a fiery temper.
I met Jane Wyman, who has shunned the press, by happenstance at a party for Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen’s dog. It was a party that was ripe for a snappy “conservative chic” dismissal, but that would have gotten it all wrong. Yes, there was a large red, white and blue birthday cake and buttons saying, Isarnae for First dog (one guest offered-to considerable laughter-that it should be Barnae for first lady), and the dog who received presents was one of those frisky little ones that rich people adore. But Maureen’s apartment is modest and the crowd eclectic, a mix from the neighborhood including a Los Angeles Times pressman who belongs to Maureen’s local Lutheran church and the local hairdresser, who doesn’t. The party was an annual put-on for the little mutt who was found in the rain in Texas eight years ago, when Maureen was on tour. Brother Michael was happily telling ethnic and other jokes; he confessed he had told his lather the one that got him into trouble, and he wasn’t going to stop now. Actress Gretchen Wyler, who’s involved in Actors and Others for Animals, talked about saving dogs, and Jane Wyman was challenging the role of multinational companies. It was L.A. at its best—an easy mix of immigrants from all over the country, featuring a variety of styles and obsessions, whose coexistence is made possible by an easygoing tolerance.
One could imagine the best part of Reagan (the one I’ve seen at moments in interviews and must confess to liking) enjoying this party with his two older children and his ex-wife, though Nancy would not welcome it. Nancy and Jane do not get along. And Nancy prefers socially important functions. She is a serious, no-nonsense social climber. In public, Nancy Reagan is the extreme opposite of open. She possesses the tightest smile in the land, and it can always be clicked exactly into place.
Nancy’s chief mission in life appears to be to stick constantly to Ronnie’s side to caution him when his momentary exuberance might lead him once again to put his foot in his mouth. I experienced her screening effect at one press conference in Sarasota in March. In New Hampshire, Reagan had called marijuana “one of the most dangerous drugs.” At the Sarasota press conference, he was asked for the factual basis for that statement. Reagan referred to an HEW study showing that one marijuana cigarette had a potentially greater carcinogenic content than an ordinary tobacco cigarette. I had read the same report, which also indicated that marijuana users need far fewer joints to get high than the number of cigarettes used by the average smoker. I broke through the babble of the press conference to point that out to him and thought I had him cornered. He was, as is his custom, about to compound the error by talking even more about a subject he knew nothing about. But Nancy swiftly moved her lace next to his, looked up at him with her unwavering smile and whispered loudly enough to be heard by a few reporters near her, “You wouldn’t know.” Reagan snapped to, suddenly relaxed, cocked his head back as if to ponder his answer and said with a smile and oncamera, “I wouldn’t know.”
But there is still some vestige of the preconservative, pre-Nancy Ronnie who is the old actor, who won’t take himself too seriously, who is aware that the world is made up of many different types. Maureen says, “How could he be thought naive and prudish when he worked so long in Hollywood? He met all types.”
However, on the campaign trail. Reagan frequently rails against homosexuals. As governor, he got in a flap for his reported firing of two high-ranking staff members who were accused of being gay. Reagan’s security man investigated the matter and could find no evidence, but they were fired anyway, on the basis of another staff member’s accusation. The Anita Bryant people liked him in Florida; but, on the other hand, it is Reagan who, more than anyone, gets credit for sinking the Briggs initiative in California in 1978 by publicly opposing the antihomosexual proposition. Yet his tolerance is ambivalent:
My criticism of the gay-rights movement is that it isn’t asking for civil rights, it is asking for a recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle that I do not believe society can condone, nor can I…
Scheer: Why do you attack homosexuals, as you did at a recent rally?
Reagan: I didn’t attack them, I was asked a question. A fellow asked me if I believed that they should have the same civil rights and I said I think they do and should but that my criticism of the gay-rights movement is that it isn’t asking for civil rights, it is asking for a recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle that I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.
Scheer: For religious reasons?
Reagan: Well, you could find that in the Bible it says that in the eyes of the Lord, this is an abomination.
Scheer: But should that bind the rest of the citizens, who may not believe in the Bible? Don’t we have the right to separation of church and state?
Reagan: Oh, we do; yes, we do. Look, what other group of people demands the same thing? Let’s say here is the total libertarian—or libertine, I should say—who wants the right to just free and open sex.
Scheer: That’s the thing that’s confusing me—it’s the conservative who wants to keep government out of everything; why don’t you keep it out of private morality? Why do you want the cops coming in, the Government, the state, and telling people what their sex life should be?
Reagan: No one is advocating the invasion of the private life of any individual. I think Mrs. Patrick Campbell said it best in the trial of Oscar Wilde. She said, “I have no objection to anyone’s sex life so long as they don’t practice it in the street and frighten the horses.
California reporters who have long covered Reagan do not tend to judge him a mean-spirited man. He never seems the elitist and, indeed, conveys a sense of deference and concern to those who work for him or are just there to shake hands. Few people who have spent time with him dislike him, but there are far fewer people who will claim to really know him. He is a legendary loner who spends virtually all of his free time in solitary activity—mending fences on his ranch or riding his horse. Solitary except for his ever-present mate, Nancy.
The ranch house near Santa Barbara, where they spend much of their free time was built small with little room for guests. Ronnie has few if any close male friends and one aide who worked with Nancy insists that she "simply does not like other women, she is threatened by their presence, including that of her own daughter.” It was also said by one family member that “he is totally and devotedly in love with her and, for that reason, suffers her not infrequent tantrums.” An associate said, “She is a force, a strong woman in the preliberation sense of strength. Her power derives from her association with and power over a male.” First there was the famous neurosurgeon father, whose name and contacts gave her entree to Hollywood and her abortive starlet career prior to marrying Ronnie. Now she manages his equilibrium and has life-and-death power over his staffing decisions. In the weeks preceding the firing of former campaign manager John Sears, both Sears and his nemesis, Ed Meese, the governor’s campaign chief of staff who won out, were compelled to make their case to the governor through the wife. And there is little doubt that she was instrumental in this and many other final decisions. This is no Eleanor Roosevelt or even a Rosalynn Carter, smart women with I heir own strong social values and insights. Her life is Ronald Reagan.
Miss Wyman told the court that she and Reagan engaged in continual arguments on his political views.
Which is how Ronnie wanted it in his second marriage. His first had come to an end when his movie career foundered and Jane Wyman’s flourished. (She was nominated four times for Academy Awards and won once; he was never nominated.) Wyman clearly had ideas of her own and, perhaps, was ahead of her time. At their divorce trial in 1948, according to the account offered by the Los Angeles Times, “Miss Wyman told the court that she and Reagan engaged in continual arguments on his political views.”
Reagan was then the gung-ho president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was when he came back from being a friendly witness at HUAC, testifying against Hollywood Reds, that Wyman first asked for a divorce. According to a report of their divorce, “Despite her lack of interest in his political activities, Miss Wyman continued, Reagan insisted that she attend meetings with him and that she be present during discussions among his friends. But her own ideas, she complained, 'were never considered important.’ ”
Those years of HUAC and the black list gave Reagan not only a new wife but also a new ideological commitment. To understand his persistent obsession with the Communists, one has to view history from his point of view rather than, say, from Lillian Hellman’s. Reagan still believes that there never was a black list against Reds in Hollywood, as he revealed to me recently: “There was no black list of Hollywood. The black list in Hollywood, if there was one, was provided by the Communists. There were black lists by our customers and clients who said to the motion-picture industry, 'We won’t go to see pictures that those people are involved in.’ ”
In his view, it was war, as he stated back in 1951: “The Russians sent their first team, their ace string, here to take us over…. We were up against hardcore organizers.”
Some of Reagan’s critics of the time suggested that the aging actor (he was 40 then) was attempting to lay out a political string to compensate for a stalled acting career. But whatever the original motivation, there can be little doubt of the passionate hatred that Reagan developed for the people he considered Hollywood’s hard-core Communists and their liberal fellow travelers. And the feeling was mutual. It was a civil war within a community that pretends to familial intimacy and even attains it at times, perhaps more than in any other industry. To hear each side tell it, the other had all the guns. There is now substantial literature documenting the fact that there was a black list and that many artists—actors, writers, directors—had their careers destroyed because people like Reagan could reach producers and theater owners and advertisers. But, as Reagan describes it, the Reds had the power of the pen and mouth—to besmirch reputations and to organize effective fronts to cloak subversion with the protection of the First Amendment. To be sure, both sides played hard ball and Reagan, who was out in front for his cause, took his lumps.
It was similar to the ways in which one could view the campus disturbances at Berkeley over the Vietnam war when he was governor more than 15 years later. The students saw that Reagan had the regents of the university and the cops, but he must have recognized that the students had grabbed the high moral ground and would win.
It is easy for Reagan to feel the aggrieved party. But then again, that’s not unusual in an activist. The problem, however, is that Reagan’s basic education for the Presidency—his world view—seems to have grown rather linearly and simplistically out of the Hollywood and Berkeley skirmishes with “communism.” To this date, a conversation with Reagan clearly indicates that he knows and cares less about the Sino-Soviet dispute in judging world events than he does about the battles within the Screen Actors Guild of the early Fifties.
In fact, Reagan must now detest the Sino-Soviet dispute, because any such complexity, if accepted, would mitigate against the rage that still wells up in him at the memory of those Commies who first broke his liberal faith and led him on the long march toward a conservative Presidency. The new faith, steeled in combat, was simple, direct; Communism is godless and its practitioners are monsters. He believed that in 1951 in Los Angeles and in 1980 in Orlando, Florida:
Scheer: You attacked “godless communism” and I’m curious about the use of the word godless–why is that an important element there?
Reagan: Well, because this is one of the vital precepts of communism, that we are accidents of nature.
Scheer: But is it the godlessness that makes them more violent, more aggressive, more expansionist?
Reagan: Well, it is one that gives them less regard for humanity or human beings.
Scheer: But here we have the Ayatollah in Iran, who certainly is not godless, and he seems to be—
Reagan: A fanatic and a zealot—
Scheer: But he’s not godless.
Reagan: No, not in his sense—and we have had that all the way back through history. We go back to the Inquisition in Spain. So there are people who, through their fanaticism, misuse religion. But the reason for the godlessness with regard to communism—here is a direct teaching of the child from the beginning of its life that it is a human being whose only importance is its contribution to the state, that they are wards of the state, that they exist only for its purpose, and that there is no God, they are just an accident of nature that created a human being. The result is, this is why they have no respect for human life, for the dignity of an individual. I remember one night, a long time ago, in a rally in Los Angeles, 16,000 people in the auditorium, and this was at the time when the local Communists, the American Communist Party—and this is all well documented—was actually trying, had secured domination of several unions in the picture business and was trying to take over the motion-picture industry, and with all of the rewriting of history today, and the stories that we have seen, and the screenplays and television plays, and so forth, about the persecution for political beliefs that took place in Hollywood, believe me, the persecutors were the Communists who had gotten into position where they could destroy careers, and did destroy them.
With Reagan, the categories get all mixed up and the Commies metamorphose into welfare socialists and the New Deal. Thus, in the appendix in his autobiography, under a section titled “Karl Marx,” we find this tirade, not against the Russian Bolsheviks but against the very Keynesians of the New Deal who kept his father from the gutter: “We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is not fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.”
Is he talking about unemployment insurance and senior-citizen centers and Medicare? And why does that basic speech, now 15 years old, still go over on the campaign trail? Because he’s riding a crest of resentment toward overblown programs that don’t work and bureaucrats who get paid even if they don’t.
If you can’t afford the suburbs and must live in the inner city and get your child bused to a school with tough ghetto kids, you can get pretty pissed.
And just who do “they” think they are? If you can’t afford the suburbs and must live in the inner city and get your child bused to a school with tough ghetto kids, you can get pretty pissed. Especially when they—the sociologists, (he judges, the liberal scribblers, the HEW bureaucrats—send their kids to private schools.
There is pain out there among the employed taxpaying masses, and the brilliance of Reagan is that he can absolve his own politics of any responsibility while fixing blame on all past steps taken to solve any of the problems. Take tough blacks and white racists in the schools. Did the liberals invent racial hostility? Are they or their political ancestors responsible for slavery, the maiming of black culture, the persistence of segregation in the South and discrimination in the North?
Reagan’s own position on civil rights is of the “some of my best friends are” variety:
Scheer: In 1966, you were quoted as saying you were opposed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as an example of Federal intrusion.
Reagan: I was opposed at the time, I can’t remember the exact details, not for the idea of doing something against prejudice, certainly. I was opposed to certain features of that law that went beyond and infringed on the individual rights of citizens that are supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.
Scheer: Which features?
Reagan: Well, they had to do with the, let’s say the person who owns property, his right to do with his property what he wants to do.
Scheer: Do you mean discriminate in renting it or discriminate in selling it?
Reagan: At that time, this was what I thought was interfering with the right, particularly, with the idea of selling. I recognize that that could lend itself to the same prejudice that we’re talking about, and I’m opposed to that prejudice. I said at that time that I felt that the President had a moral responsibility to use the powers of persuasion that the office has, to help cure us of the kind of bigotry and prejudice that made those discriminations possible.
Scheer: But you would still be against the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
Reagan: No, no, I wouldn’t, because I recognize now that it is institutionalized and it has, let’s say, hastened the solution of a lot of problems.
Scheer: So why is that so difficult in an interview situation for a politician to say, “I was wrong in '66 and I’ve changed my mind and now I would have supported the Civil Rights Act”?
Reagan: One reason is because, very frankly, you of the press—and not meaning present company—you of the press have a way of seizing upon a sentence and then distorting the view and presenting a political candidate or a political official as having some beliefs or prejudices that he does not have. Now, I will weigh my fight against bigotry and prejudice against that of the most ardent civil rights advocate, because I was doing it when there was no civil rights fight. I, on the air as a sports announcer years and years ago, was editorializing against the gentleman’s agreement that kept blacks from playing organized baseball. I dealt with it in my personal life; I played on a college football team alongside a black who’s today my best friend, when this was not commonplace.
Scheer: One thing that came up in the New Hampshire [Republican] debate was the question of the number of black people the number of minorities on various people’s staffs. I’ve been traveling with you for a few weeks now and I have yet to see a single minority person.
Reagan: We’ve been traveling with a very small segment. When we talk about staff, we’re talking about not only several hundred actual staff employees but even more, literally thousands of volunteers. I know we have a committee that is totally black. I don’t know their exact numbers, but we’re going to do an inventory and find out. But certainly there has been no effort to exclude.
Reagan is still against the desegregation of neighborhoods and affirmative action; and, surely, having one black friend from college football days will not solve the problems. When Reagan was governor, he said jobs created by the private sector for hard-core unemployed blacks were the answer. And the answer turned out to be fewer than 2000 jobs in a state that has 40 percent black-youth unemployment, a state of 20,000,000 people.
What Reagan added was a begrudging spirit—a contempt for those who had tried to do something. He loathed the civil rights activists whom he termed “irresponsible militants” and was later to embrace Nixon’s Southern Strategy with equanimity. He made people on welfare feel even more forlorn and weak than they were. At the time of the S.L.A./ Patty Hearst kidnaping, when the Hearst family provided food to the poor as a partial ransom, Reagan said, “It’s just too bad we can’t have an epidemic of botulism.” He challenged the patriotism of those who would stop the war in Vietnam and had his own Strangelovian solution: “We could pave the whole country, put parking strips on it and still be home before Christmas.” He derided environmentalists by saying, “A tree’s a tree—how many more do we need to look at?” He delighted in humbling the great public university system with inane comments such as, “The state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.” He responded as governor to campus demonstrations by saying, “If it’s to lie a blood bath, let it be now.”
Ironically, as governor, despite his vicious rhetorical stabs at programs for the poor and randomly heartless budget cuts, as in mental health, he ended up administering, indeed expanding, the liberal program of the most liberal state in the union. He did that begrudgingly—and only in his second term, when his back, was against the wall—because of the pressures from Democrats and even liberal Republicans. As the editor of Ramparts then, I was among those who found much to criticize. But recently, I was surprised to find Reagan more reasonable on the “social issues” than one would have expected from his public pronouncements. He also can be quite genial, as in this exchange:
Scheer: Why are you willing to talk to me? Why aren’t you more uptight?
Reagan: Well, because—why does a preacher preach?
Scheer: It’s an amazing encounter for me, because you seem relaxed, you don’t seem like a zealot.
Reagan: No, I’m not, but I remember this also: When I was a New Deal Democrat, I remember somehow that it was easier to dislike than to like. There seemed to be something about liberalism that worked better if you were kept angry and worked up.
I appointed more blacks to executive positions than all the previous governors in California put together.
Scheer: And yet up on your public platforms, you convey a more hostile, nastier image than you do right now.
Reagan: Well, let me give you a few things that I haven’t mentioned up there on the platform to further confuse the image. As you know, I succeeded a very liberal governor, Pat Brown. As far as his record on minorities went, I found out that it was all talk. I appointed more blacks to executive positions than all the previous governors in California put together. And yet I was the conservative. When I put through humane prison reforms, I was told my liberal predecessor couldn’t have done it because he would have been seen as soft on crime. I’m sure a lot of people think that would have been so foreign to my image that—well, I didn’t leave my former party; my party left me.
Scheer: But when you’re up on that platform, why don’t you say, “I was governor of a state for eight years that did more to house, feed, clothe its citizens than any other state?”
Reagan: Probably because today some of those things have become so costly and beyond control that people now want to know that something will be done about that. I’ve often said that my compassion was just broader than that of some of the liberals. It’s easy to have compassion for the downtrodden, the people on welfare; we all feel sorry for those people. But what about a little compassion for the worker who’s getting up in the morning, going to his job, paying his bills, sending the kids to school, trying to keep up with his taxes, contributing to his church and charity—and who makes the whole damn system work? That’s the difference between me and the liberal.
But in California, the definition of downtrodden has been very broad. The historical role of the Golden Slate has been to absorb the poverty of the ethnic Northeastern working-class slums, the whites of the Great Plains dust bowl and the Deep South rural black poor. No state in the union has been more generous in providing supporting social services to those immigrants from the rest of America than California, whether it was administrated by Democrat or Republican, by Pat Brown or Ronald Reagan. The rest of Reagan’s cuts in government largess succeeded more as a matter of rhetoric than of reality. In his first year, he made headlines by ordering a ten percent cut in all state-agency budgets but, instead, ended in signing a budget that was ten percent more, than that of his predecessor, the free-spending Brown.
Reagan made a big deal of attacking the state’s mental-health program; his comments on it and its participants were heartless, but he ended by reversing- himself on the cuts.
The governor gained a national reputation for his extreme attacks on the university system but, at the end of Reagan’s reign, as Goff put it: “The simple fact remains that state funding for the University of California and the state colleges and universities actually has increased about 100 percent during the Reagan years, while funding for general state operations has increased only 50 percent.” Nonetheless, It is rhetorical attacks on the university did take their toll. As Bill Boyarsky, then A.P. political writer in Sacramento, said, “The university system suffered greatly-not in money but in the loss of a unique spirit of experimentation and pride.”
Reagan now campaigns as an opponent of government regulation but signed the Democratic-controlled legislature’s bills on air and water quality control, creating the powerful state energy commission and providing for higher smog controls than the Federal standards. Want more? It was Reagan who initiated the requirement for environmental—impact studies on all state construction projects.
Compared with Carter’s reign in the Mickey Mouse state of Georgia, Reagan’s administration seems almost a case of socialism in our time. As Governor Jerry Brown said to me during the New Hampshire primaries, over a quiet, late night drink: “Damn, Reagan ran one of the most progressive states in the country, and now he’s campaigning like a reactionary.”
Reagan did those things because California Democrats, and some Republicans, badgered him into it. The fiery rhetoric of his gubernatorial campaigns soon gave way to a spirit of realistic compromise. So much so that one Republican critic said, “Reagan charges up the hill by day and retreats under the cover of night.”
There were also times when, then as now, he seemed less than serious about the business of governing—what with his nine-to-five schedule and frequent out-of-town trips. His lack of attention to detail may be illustrated by the famous California bill that liberalized abortion by accepting the mother’s health—including mental health—as grounds for abortion. Reagan now campaigns heavily in opposition to abortion, calling it “murder,” and is a hero to the Right-to-Lifers. And he claimed to me that the only reason he signed the bill was that he wasn’t fully certain of its implications, despite great controversy and extensive legislative hearings:
Reagan: The abortion bill that I signed—it was a bitter fight. There was no right-to-life movement or anything. It was in 1967, my first year in office, and, naturally, there was the usual bitter fight—on the one side, predominantly led by the Catholic Church. Now, I had never thought about abortion, or given it any kind of thought as an issue prior to that time. I happen to be Protestant, so it had not been a part of, brought up in my religion, and so forth, and a legislator, now a Congressman, who authored the bill, was going for, literally, abortion on demand.
I finally came to the conclusion that the only justification in our Judaeo-Christian society is self-defense. I came back to them and said I could sign a bill that was based on that, to save the mother’s life.
So I did a lot of reading and soul-searching on this. I finally came to the conclusion that the only justification in our Judaeo-Christian society is self-defense. I came back to them and said I could sign a bill that was based on that, to save the mother’s life. Now, the issue came up, what about health, permanent health? So I agreed to that, with provision that there would be, in a hospital, a committee of doctors who would join the presiding physician in the determination that permanent health was at risk. And, of course, that led to-that did not include mental health. They happened to have me there. … I said, “Ok, I will make health general, all of it.” Now, there never was anything in there that permitted abortion on demand, but what has happened to that abortion law is that the safeguards, that I thought were in the legislation, are regularly violated in an unethical way by various groups of professionals.
The confusion Reagan displayed in his handling of the abortion issue as governor has continued to plague him during the campaign, as illustrated by the many misstatements of fact and statistics the press only recently pointed out—but of which he has been guilty for years on the stump. A close aide to Reagan confided to me, “Don’t worry, as President he’ll be better briefed.”
But one man who has briefed him in the past says, “He’s been on the rubber-chicken speaking circuit too long, to let the facts get in the way of a good one-liner.”
(In a February 1952 speech to the Hollywood Advertising Club, Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, announced: “Hollywood is not the Babylon it has been made out to be. Seventy percent of our workers are married and have children and 70 percent of these are married to their first wives. Our divorce rate is 29.9 percent, while nationally divorces average 40 percent.” He also went on to point out that “communism is infinitesimal in the motion-picture industry.”
Then, as now, Reagan was reassuring American businessmen that communism could be stopped, that the moral fiber of the country was strong and that all would be well if we kept the old family virtues intact.
It bothered none of his listeners that two weeks after that speech, the divorced actor married his second wife. Nor that he had his statistics wrong—the national divorce rate at the time was less than that in Hollywood, not more, as he claimed it was. Believe what I say, not what I do, and don’t let’s haggle over the facts. Then, as now, people loved it.)
Reagan loves the sound of his own voice, and he works hard for the applause. During the 1980 campaign, he would continue to use erroneous information that worked with crowds, even after he had been told it was wrong. For example, his claim that a Government study showed that Alaska had greater potential of oil than the known reserves of Saudi Arabia. Those of us traveling with him soon discovered that he had gotten the report wrong, and press aide Jim Lake conceded it. But Reagan had grown too fond of the line to drop it and claimed to his aides that it was based on a newspaper clipping that he had picked up somewhere but could no longer find.
The sloppiness is habitual, but it is dismissed by admirers as proof that he is his own man, not the carefully programed product of advisors, as happened in the Garter phenomenon. There is a charming fumbling quality to Reagan’s work habits, with his clippings stuffed into his pockets and anecdotes that he hears from those shaking his hand at receptions stuffed into his brain. The use of this “data” becomes less charming when it supports one scapegoat theory or another to explain the source of our problems. The bumbling septuagenarian then becomes the effective demagog whipping up the passions of a public that is confused, frustrated and ripe for the clarity of his positions, even when they are totally without foundation.
Reagan’s sloppiness has caused him to be viewed with suspicion by the elite Northeastern wing of the Republican Party.
Reagan’s sloppiness has caused him to be viewed with suspicion by the elite Northeastern wing of the Republican Party, probably less for what he did as governor than because they doubt his stability or fear that he may actually believe in some of his proposals for dismantling the Federal Government, which, after all, does serve the interests of big corporations. His proposal to return us to the gold standard must have been viewed as primitive by the economists at Chase Manhattan. Nor can the managers of multinational corporations, who have done quite well in a complex and changing world, be terribly sanguine about his sledge-hammer nostrums for the world’s problems. Those gentlemen are internationalists par excellence—world statesmen more interested in cutting deals with the Russians than in a holy crusade against them.
Unlike Carter and Nixon, Reagan has never made the journey back East to the centers of power to demonstrate his reasonableness. So the fear in those quarters persists that he may be a primitive isolationist.
Prior to the New Hampshire primary, David Rockefeller convened a secret meeting of like-minded Republicans aimed at developing a strategy for stopping Reagan by supporting Bush and, failing that, getting Gerald Ford into the race. Reagan heard about the meeting and was, according to one aide, “really hurt.” This aide reports that Reagan turned to him and demanded, “What have they got against me? I support big oil, I support big business, why don’t they trust me?” The aide suggested charitably that maybe it was because he was once an actor and that he attended too few important lunches in the East.
In any event, when Reagan scored his resounding triumph in New Hampshire in February, the overtures to the East began to work. New York establishment lawyer Bill Casey, who became campaign director the day of the New Hampshire victory, began building bridges and promising that a more moderate Reagan would emerge after the Republican Convention.
The problem with the creation of a moderate Reagan after the convention will be with Reagan himself. His previous campaign manager, Sears, tried to do it during the primaries; and Reagan got so confused in the attempt to appear more restrained and reasonable that he became inarticulate. He fired Sears, went back to being his old outrageous self and wooed them in the Southern states. William Buckley once likened Reagan to William Jennings Bryan, and there is something to that. He is far more effective as a demagogic speaker than he would be in the role of head of state. He is happiest with right-wing rhetoric and miserably plodding in any effort to express a more complex sentiment. I saw that one day in April when he went straight from a rousing rally in North Carolina, where he had them on their feet and seemed to know what he was talking about, to a stumbling performance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which he might just as well have stuck his prepared speech into his ear. He was afraid of that crowd, not because they were more liberal than the electorate-they may not be-but because he feared them socially.
There is to Reagan a sense of great intellectual and social inferiority, born of the fact that he does not have the educational credentials or broad range of knowledge thought by some, including most editors, to be a prerequisite for the Presidency. He mispronounces the names of world leaders and gets countries in the wrong hemispheres. He prefers to stick to the simple slogans about the welfare state and godless communism, because to venture into any greater complexity might prove acutely embarrassing, as it often has when he has tried it, be it in a discussion of his proposed blockade of Cuba or farm-price parity. He is painfully aware of the gaps in his knowledge and, for that reason, prefers to stick to his sure-fire one-liners. And the best ones—because he is a true believer on this—have to do with his attacks on the Russians.
The emotional high point of a Reagan campaign speech comes with his oft-repeated charge that détente is a failure and that we have been sandbagged by the Russians. To hear him, one would not know that our gross national product is twice that of the Soviets or that they have suffered immense reversals throughout the world, particularly with the loss of their influence in China and Egypt. Reagan’s speeches about the threat of godless communism are straight out of the Fifties and would have an absurdly archaic ring to them were it not for the equally absurd positions that Jimmy Carter took to increase his standing in the polls—positions that have made Reagan seem suddenly credible.
Carter’s overreaction to the Soviet Afghan intervention gave Reagan the opening he needed, and the elephant went charging through. Carter had said that Afghanistan represented the greatest crisis since World War Two, implying that it was a greater breach of international etiquette than the Berlin blockade, the Korean war, the crushing of the Hungarian revolution and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. That’s all Reagan needed to hear to dust off his rhetorical guns and go blasting away at this détente business, which he always thought was a trick of some sort. If the Russians were as bad as Carter now had it, how could the President have pushed for the SALT agreement? How could he have abandoned trusted anticommunist allies like the shah in Iran or the government of Taiwan? How could he dwell on human rights and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons when he should have been backing any anticommunist dictator he could find as a necessary ally for the future Armageddon? Carter had managed to shift some of the rage felt over the hostages in Iran to the Soviets in Afghanistan and, as we moved through the spring primaries, it almost seemed as if we were boycotting the Olympics in an effort to free the hostages. Suddenly, the relative equanimity of détente was out and the old devil theories of communism were in. And that, for Reagan, is a piece of cake—he never believed they were anything other than monsters, anyway, as he states in the following exchange with me:
Scheer: The last time I talked to you, you said that no President of the United States should rule out the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike in a potential confrontation [with the Russians]…. Now, would that include the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States?
Reagan: What I’m saying is that the United States should never put itself in a position, as it has many times, of guaranteeing to an enemy or a potential enemy what it won’t do. For example, when President Johnson, in the Vietnam war, kept over and over again insisting, “Oh, no, no, no, we’ll never use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.” Now, I don’t think nuclear weapons should have been used in Vietnam, I don’t think they were needed; but when somebody’s out there killing your young men, you should never free the enemy of the concern he might have for what you might do. See, you may feel that way in your heart, but don’t say it out loud to him….
We have let the Russians get strong and we have let them violate the agreement.
Scheer: Do you believe that we could survive a nuclear war?
Reagan: No, because we have let the Russians get strong and we have let them violate the agreement.
Scheer: But let’s say we get stronger than them again. Do you think we could survive a nuclear war? With the right underground shelter systems, with the right defense systems, could we survive one?
Reagan: It would be a survival of some of your people and some of your facilities that you could start again. It would not be anything that I think in our society you would consider acceptable, but then, we have a different regard for human life than those monsters do.
Scheer: How did the Chinese stop being monsters? I mean, they were on a par, at least, with the Russians in treachery and monstrous deeds, supposed to have killed 20,000,000 of their people.
Reagan: Fifty million.
Scheer: Fifty million—I don’t think the Russians have killed 50,000,000 of their own people—when did the Chinese stop being monsters?
Reagan: I don’t know that they have.
Scheer: And yet we’re talking about having an alliance with them.
Reagan: Because we’re hoping that through time and through their animus and fear of the Soviet Union, maybe they’ll become more like us. People who have gone there say there is indication—that they’re trying to improve the situation and that they allow more human rights for their people.
Scheer: Why couldn’t the Soviet Union change in the way the Chinese have?
Reagan: Have the Chinese changed? I don’t know. The Chinese people are still the victims of tyranny.
In such private interviews, Reagan states his positions matter-of-factly, with no apparent sense that the future of civilization may hang in the balance. He comes on like a friendly but determined coach who says if we want to win in the second half, we’ve got to go all the way. But he does not tend to rave and rant, as he can in public appearances. This, some advisors will say, is the reassuring thing about Reagan—that he is more reasonable, even in foreign affairs, than his public rhetoric implies. And they also immediately add that his bark was worse than his bite as governor of California—and that, anyway, he was a “nine-to-five governor” who left running the state to a bevy of “reasonable aides.”
But it was one tiling to verbally shoot from the hip as governor, attacking welfare recipients and students, and quite another to dismiss one’s international adversaries (and even one’s friends, as in the case of China) as monsters. It may also prove scary. He savors making important decisions by himself, albeit based on his aides’ one-page memos summarizing various options, and he prides himself on acting decisively. As Nancy once said, “He doesn’t make snap decisions, but he doesn’t tend to overthink. either.” In California, that led to pronouncements of courses of action that had to be quickly reversed. But can sudden foreign-policy decisions be reversed so easily?
Reporter Boyarsky, who wrote the incisive book The Rise of Ronald Reagan, says, “As governor, Reagan used to revel in confrontations with dissident students. It makes me wonder now how he would act as President in any confrontation on the world scene-in the taking of hostages, for example.”
After one Reagan tirade on the hustings in North Carolina, I turned to a TV reporter who had covered him extensively in Sacramento and asked, “Is this guy going to blow up the world?”
The reporter’s reply was, “Only if he gets the opportunity between nine and five.”
Later, I asked Reagan about it:
Scheer: What about the commonly held fear among those who distrust you—are you going to push the button? Are you going to get us blown up? Are you going to get us into a nuclear war?
Reagan: I’ve known four wars in my lifetime. I’ve been in only one of them, but, no, I don’t want one. But what I’ve seen about all these wars is that we’ve gone into them every time through weakness…. Am I a warmonger for saying, “Look, the answer is to never let an enemy believe you lack the will to defend: there is a point beyond which you will not buy peace at any price—that is slavery and humiliation”?
It’s true that Nixon came in with a reputation not unlike Reagan’s, as a hysterical Southern California anti-Communist, and he broadened contact with Russia and China. Perhaps Reagan would do likewise, though I just cannot imagine it. Nixon was always an opportunist, testing the winds of conventional wisdom; but Reagan has the marks of a true believer. He acts like a man who is captive of his own phrases, and it was not altogether reassuring to watch him nod solemnly when North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms introduced him one night by saying, “Perhaps God is giving us one last chance.”