Understanding Reagan in the Era of Trump

Never the smartest guys in the room, the two entertainers turned presidents drastically changed the Republican Party. Do the similarities stop there?

Ronald Reagan
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images.

In Reagan: An American Journey, a mammoth new biography, the historian Bob Spitz takes a closer look at the inner life of the 40th president by examining his background and childhood, using his early life to help explain his political career and trajectory. There have been an endless number of books about Ronald Reagan, written by detractors and admirers and historians of all political stripes, but many of those authors, including Reagan’s controversial official biographer, Edmund Morris, have come away finding their subject ultimately inscrutable and impossible to know.

I recently spoke by phone with Spitz, who has previously written books about the Beatles and Julia Child, to talk about how he approached the challenge of understanding Reagan. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Reagan really went from New Deal Democrat to right-wing conservative, whether he was actually losing his mental capacity late in his presidency, and the comparisons and contrasts between Reagan and another onetime entertainer who has captured the heart of the GOP.

Isaac Chotiner: Since Donald Trump came onto the scene, American conservatism, which many people up until three years ago defined as Reaganite conservatism, has shifted. Did that make you look back on Reagan’s influence or impact in a different way?

Bob Spitz: Conservatism has changed. You know, it’s become much more hardcore and gone much further to the right than when Reagan was in office. That’s the simple answer.

Maybe the way to re-ask the question is: Of the people who considered themselves Reaganite conservatives and ideological conservatives and all that that meant, the vast majority of them have gone along with the Trumpist reincarnation of conservatism. I’m wondering if that makes you think differently, either about the people who were involved in Reaganite conservatism or just kind of the whole project itself.

Well, it scares the shit out of me, actually. I mean, that’s the simple answer. I think that those who became conservative—and really, many Democrats shifted to Republican conservatism during the Reagan administration—If they can’t see their way, can’t see the difference between Reagan conservatism and Trump conservatism, then we’ve got a very serious problem in America, and I really think that we do have a serious problem.

What did you find from Reagan’s childhood that you felt was new and that gave you new insight about who he was as a person and leader?

I talked to a lot of people who knew the family, but I also found some people in their early 100s, believe it or not, who had been classmates of Reagan and gave me insight into his background and the way he was raised by his parents. The influence of faith was much greater than I had anticipated or even read about. He was a major church figure in Dixon, Illinois. Taught in the Sunday schools. Was really influenced by his mother and his girlfriend’s father, who was the pastor of the church. That really kind of gave me insight into who he became later on in his life. His finding his voice as a young guy, and really coming into his own, was an escape from a situation at home that I think was kind of strangulating. His dad was a reckless alcoholic who could never keep a job. His mom was a … I don’t know how to even say this kindly. She was influenced by religion to just this side of fanaticism. And so Reagan had to take the good of what he got from his parents, but he had to push through that to really find himself. Really, he found that he was a charmer, and he really got by on his charm as a kid and then of course throughout his entire life.

Let me ask you about Reagan’s political turn from New Deal liberal to archconservative. If you’ve ever met someone who’s undergone a big political shift, there’s often something going on within them that is at least partially responsible for that, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Do you agree with me, and if you do, what do you think was driving Reagan internally that helped drive that shift?

I completely agree with you, yes, and I think that there were two major things that happened to him. No. 1, he made a very serious error. When he was in the Army, he read that soldiers who came out of World War I and didn’t pay their taxes while they were in the service were forgiven that debt, and he figured the same thing would happen to him, so he withheld his taxes while he was in the service. Lo and behold, Uncle Sam wanted them paid back as soon as he got out of the service, and at that point Reagan felt like the government was digging into his pocket. His finances were kind of strangled, so he blamed the government for that. That’s when he started to talk about Big Government with a hand in your pocket, that taxes were too high. He took it personally. That was definitely one thing.

The other thing that I think influenced his shift from Democrat to Republican—and he was a dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt Democrat who believed in all of the Democratic Party’s social issues—but the other thing was when he … let me just be sure I phrase this right. When he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he came up against a lot of movie and film people who had been involved very seriously in the Communist Party, or adhered to schmaltzy Communist principles, and that bothered Reagan.

I say this not to compare Reagan and Trump, because I don’t actually think they’re that similar, but it is interesting the way Reagan was viewed as kind of, one, an entertainer, and two, somewhat of a dangerous outsider who was not only going to shake up politics but also change the political party that he was joining. Were you surprised by those parallels?

I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I remember joking when Reagan was elected that I was going to move to Canada, as opposed to yesterday when I fucking meant it, so yes. I mean, you can make those parallels. Reagan came to office following a succession of, you know, Nixon in office, post-Watergate, and here was another Republican who was listing further to the right, and it really frightened those of us who came out of college in the early ’70s who tended to be Democrat and liberal. I called him Ronnie Ray Gun and I was afraid of his policies, but Reagan was completely timid in regard to how he operated in the White House compared with what we’re seeing today. Reagan didn’t have a hostile bone in his body. Reagan paid his taxes. Reagan revealed his taxes. Reagan put all of his finances in a blind trust that he never saw again until the day he was out of office. He never let his kids exploit the Oval Office or his presidency, and of course he never fucked a porn star.

Do you have documentary evidence on the last one?

No, I don’t, but through all my research, that’s what I can tell you.

OK, so tell me one aspect of his presidency, domestic or foreign, that you found that changed your opinion or surprised you.

Well, I can give you a blanket statement. I found when researching him that Reagan was never the smartest man in the room, but he knew it, and so he deferred to others in such a big way that he was rarely the loudest voice on any issue. Yes, I was disappointed with the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was basically a hoax. I was completely disappointed with the way he took on AIDS, which was not at all, and set the AIDS research back, oh, you know, a decade. Reaganomics was a disaster, and Iran-Contra was a disaster.

I think what he did more than anything—and this is what I think you can credit him for—is that he restored the respect from Americans for themselves and their government after the traumas of Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, and a succession of seemingly failed presidencies. You know, when critics described him as Dr. Feelgood, he took it as a compliment, and so his greatest triumph may have been the restoration of American morale.

You said he knew he wasn’t the smartest guy in the room. There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple months about way aides have dealt with Trump. Did Reagan’s aides take advantage of him, do you think? How did they manage him?

No, I actually think it was a brilliant situation. Reagan knew he wasn’t the smartest man in the room, so he had people like Jim Baker and Ed Meese and people whose policies I disagreed with but who supported him, and I don’t think they took advantage of him in any way. Reagan would always say, Hey, let’s roundtable this with the fellas, so he would listen to his advisers and then he would make his own decisions. Usually those were gut decisions, based on a little knowledge, but at least he listened to people who were very smart and had a lot of experience in government.

Most of the people who were in his Cabinet and in the Oval Office with him had been in service for maybe 15 to 20 years. They had worked for presidents. They had worked for senators. As opposed to what you’re seeing today: people who were game-show contestants who are all of a sudden in the Cabinet or advisers to the president. It’s crazy, but I think Reagan had a really smart team behind him, and he was smart enough to listen to them.

Where do you come out on the debate over Reagan’s mental state in the last few years of his presidency? Obviously, he was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after leaving the presidency.

I spoke to a lot of people about this, and I talked to Howard Baker about this before he died. Howard Baker came into the Oval Office as his third chief of staff because his people had told him that Reagan was failing, and Baker spent about three weeks just talking to the president day and night and came away saying, “I didn’t see any signs of Alzheimer’s at all.”

Reagan didn’t retain faces very well and names very well, but aside from that, I think he was pretty sharp until he fell off that horse the year after, six months after he was out of office. Then he went into a very, very steep decline. [Before that], he nodded off at times. He was an older man and he would forget names and faces, but he was pretty sharp. That said, I will tell you that his mom had Alzheimer’s, his brother had Alzheimer’s, his father had signs of it, so it was definitely very strong in the family, and I think he knew all along that he was a candidate.

So did you find that researching all this stuff about Reagan, especially his childhood, gave you more of a sense of who he was, or do you think your ultimate conclusion is that, along with a lot of other biographers of Reagan and people who worked for him, that the man was kind of unknowable?

Oh, he was definitely not unknowable. I completely disagree with that. I found this out when I wrote about the Beatles and when I wrote about Julia Child, that you can never understand a person until you understand where they come from. Reagan’s whole sense of place in the Midwest—and his upbringing with his parents as I just described to you—really gave me an understanding of who he became and what his values were, and he’s constant throughout his life.

I came into possession of all Edmund Morris’ interviews with the president, and I completely understand why he couldn’t figure out who he was. He didn’t ask the right questions. He never got close enough to him. I spent a lot of time in the Midwest. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people he grew up with.

What were some of those questions that should have been asked that weren’t?

Well, it wasn’t so much the questions that should have been asked that weren’t. It was whenever they got into a pivotal situation, whenever they got into a really interesting topic, Morris seemed to pivot away and talk about something social with the president. I mean, it was almost bizarre in reading those things. As a biographer, you want to scream when you read something like that, because he had the subject right there in his hands and he didn’t press forward. Edmund Morris, I think, is a brilliant writer, and I love his Roosevelt biographies, but I think he just felt that this was a guy he couldn’t get a handle on, and he didn’t do the job.