Saint Ronald

Why must we pretend the 40th president was alert and engaged?

Untouchable icon?
Untouchable icon?

Thunderous protest has persuaded CBS to cancel The Reagans, its miniseries about America’s 40th president and his second wife. (The series will air instead on Showtime, which shares a corporate parent with CBS.) It isn’t especially troubling that CBS would bow to angry protesters in canceling The Reagans, given that the miniseries itself, if at all typical of the genre, is likely a piece of hackwork. (Those who live by popular tastes, die by popular tastes.) But it is troubling that the public, or at least a highly influential segment of it, has apparently ruled any criticism of President Reagan out of bounds. When did the Gipper become St. Ronald?

Among the miniseries’s themes that drew particular complaint, Jim Rutenberg reported in the Oct. 20 New York Times, was that Reagan “suffered moments of forgetfulness” and took a “laissez-faire” stance in handling the White House staff. Ed Morrow, who organized a boycott to pressure CBS into dropping the miniseries, complained in National Review Online:

[I]t is a portrait of Reagan that is unrecognizable outside of an old, lame Saturday Night Live skit. It is a caricature. Indeed, Brolin’s heavily rouged, orange-haired Reagan is a caricature of the standard liberal caricature of Reagan. He is a doddering fool, stumbling around using his acting talents to pass for a statesman.

Reagan was no doddering fool, but his rather extreme mental and emotional detachment were at the time noted not only by his critics but by many of his political allies. Liberals like Chatterbox who struggled to persuade themselves that Reagan had more on the ball than he seemed saw their worst suspicions confirmed in the memoirs of former Reagan aides. Here’s former chief of staff Donald Regan in For the Record:

In the four years that I served as Secretary of the Treasury I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy or fiscal and monetary policy with him one-on-one. From first day to last at Treasury, I was flying by the seat of my pants. The President never told me what he believed or what he wanted to accomplish in the field of economics.

Here’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan, describing her first encounter with President Reagan in the White House in What I Saw at the Revolution:

I was surprised how big his hearing aid is, or rather how aware of it you are when you’re with him. There was a quizzical look on his face as he listened to what was going on around him, and I thought, He doesn’t really hear very much, and his appearance of constant good humor is connected to his deafness. He misses much of what is not said directly to him, but he assumes it is good.

Here’s communications director David Gergen, in Eyewitness to Power:

Reagan could be remarkably unaware of (and indifferent to) developments around him. If I were still working for him, I would probably pass it off as being “intellectually selective.” But it’s hard for anyone to argue that he knew as much as a president should about the state of the world. …His inattention to details and hands-off stance could be dangerous for his leadership. His Republican allies in the Senate believed that because he did not pay close enough heed, he turned down a budget deal in 1985 that they had carefully crafted to cut the deficits. By their account, he didn’t seem to understand the terms of the deal. … Majority Leader Bob Dole was furious at the time.

All these former aides went on to say, in one way or another, that in the end things somehow managed to work out for the best. That’s a topic for legitimate debate. But none seemed to disagree with the proposition that President Reagan was not all there.

Today, however, etiquette demands that we pretend never to have noticed. Why? Reagan’s Alzheimer’s, which reportedly has reduced him to a near-vegetative state, is one reason. It’s thought in poor taste to speak ill of the very faculty that his disease has wiped out. Another factor is Reagan’s symbolic role as the ideological wellspring of today’s conservative movement. In the 1980s, he was merely president, but by now Reagan has been so identified with conservatism that any criticism of the man is taken to be an attack on the ideology. And of course, the passage of time usually renders any public figure more admired than he was during his own era.

Ironically, conservatives like Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who called on CBS to cancel The Reagans, were probably acting against their own interest. Airing a miniseries about Ronald Reagan on network TV would likely have enhanced the aura of glamour that already surrounds him. According to Rutenberg in the Times, the miniseries “does give Mr. Reagan most of the credit for ending the cold war and paints him as an exceptionally gifted politician and a moral man who stuck to his beliefs, often against his advisers’ urgings.” So what if it fails to credit President Reagan with creating a lengthy economic expansion (though not as lengthy as the one overseen by Bill Clinton) or with “delivering the nation from the malaise of the Jimmy Carter years” (achieved mainly by a drop in oil prices)? Even its clearly false notes could easily burnish rather than harm Reagan’s image. For instance, its apparent picture of Reagan as a homophobe (“They that live in sin shall die in sin,” he says by way of justifying inaction on AIDS) is much more flattering than the truth, which is that Reagan was (in Hendrik Hertzberg’s exquisite formulation) a “closet tolerant” who back-burnered the AIDS issue out of political expediency. Biographies and TV dramas about the Kennedys have grown steadily more critical and salacious over the years, but they don’t seem to have diminished the nation’s Camelot obsession. By rendering criticism of Ronald Reagan taboo, conservatives act against their long-term interest in maintaining his status as a culture hero. It’s very difficult to sustain passion, over time, for a plaster saint.