Ronald Reagan in Truth and Fiction
(and Yes, He Doomed the Crew of the Challenger)
June 11, 2004
They keep talking about Reagan being a "big picture" man, indifferent to petty detail. The phrase gives a false impression, as though Reagan looked out at the world as though at some Cinemascope epic, a vast battlefield where, through those famous spectacles (one lense close-up, for speech reading, the other long-distance) he could assess the global balance of forces. Wrong. Reagan stayed awake only for the cartoons, where the global balance of forces were set forth in simple terms, in the tiffs between Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, or Tom and Jerry.
When he became president, and thus "commander in chief" the Joint Chiefs of Staffs mounted their traditional show-and-tell briefings for him, replete with simple charts and a senior general explicating them in simple terms. Reagan found these briefings way too complicated and dozed off. The Joint Chiefs then set up a secret unit, staffed by cartoonists. The balance of forces were set forth in easily accessible caricature, with Soviet missiles the size of upended Zeppelins, pulsing on their launchpads, with the miniscule US ICBMs shrivelled in their bunkers. Little cartoon bubbles would contain the points the joint chiefs wanted to hammer into Reagan's brain, most of them to the effect that "we need more money". Reagan really enjoyed the shows and sometimes even asked for repeats.
There was no internationally recognized border in Reagan's own mind between fantasy and fact, the dividing line having been abolished in the early 1940s when his studio's PR department turned him into a war hero, courtesy of his labors in "Fort Wacky" in Culver City, where they made training films. The fanzines disclosed the loneliness of R.R.'s first wife, Jane Wyman, her absent man (a few miles away in Fort Wacky, home by suppertime) and her knowledge of R.R.'s hatred of the foe. "She'd seen Ronnie's sick face," Modern Screen reported in 1942, "bent over a picture of the small, swollen bodies of children starved to death in Poland. 'This,' said the war-hating Reagan between set lips, 'would make it a pleasure to kill.'" A photographer for Modern Screen recalled later that, unlike some stars who were reluctant to offer themselves to his lense in "hero's" garb, Reagan insisted on being photographed on his front step in full uniform, kissing his wife goodbye.
Reagan had absolutely no moral sense about truth or falsity. Forty years after Fort Wacky, as commander-in-chief, R.R. told Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister of Israel, that he had helped to liberate Auschwitz, had returned to Hollywood with film footage of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed, and if in later years anyone controverted the reality of the Holocaust over the Reagan dinner table, he would roll the footage till the doubts were stilled. He said the same thing to Rabbi Martin Hier of Los Angeles. It was all fantasy, but I'm sure Reagan believed it, the same way he regarded his trip to the SS cemetery in Bitburg as a useful reminder to Europeans of the great days of World War II, when the people of the Free World-American, British, French and German-fought shoulder to shoulder against Soviet totalitarianism.
The problem for the press (which groveled before him, at least until the Iran-contra scandal broke) was that Reagan didn't really care that he'd been caught out with another set of phony statistics or a bogus anecdote about Auschwitz. Truth, for him, was what he happened to be saying at the time. When the Iran/contra scandal broke, he held a press conference in which he said to Helen Thomas, "I want to get to the bottom of this and find out all that has happened. And so far, I've told you all that I know and, you know, the truth of the matter is, for quite some time, all that you knew was what I'd told you." He went one better that George Wasdhington in that he could't tell a lie and he couldn't tell the truth, since he couldn't tell the difference between the two.
His mind was a wastebasket of old clippings from Popular Science , SF magazines (the origin of Star Wars) lines from movies and homely saws from the Reader's Digest and the Sunday supplements. He had a stout belief in astrology, the stars being the twinkling penumbra of his incandescent belief in the "free market," with whose motions it was blasphemous to tamper. Astrologers exulted when they saw his visit to Bitburg was timed to coincide with a concurrence of a full moon while at its perigree with the earth, along with a total eclipse of the moon. Elsewhere in the heavens Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto appeared to move retrograde. The same four planets appeared retrograde a year later when Reagan bombed Libya.
He believed Armageddon was right around the corner. He also believed tomato ketchup could be classified as a school meal, striking back at the nose-candy crowd who, as Stevie Earle once said, spent the Seventies trying to get cocaine classified as a vegetable.
Hearing all the cosy talk about the Gipper, young people spared the experience of his awful sojourn in office, probably imagine him as a kindly, avuncular figure. He was a vicious man, with a breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of his decisions. This indifference was so profound that Dante would surely have consigned him to one of the lowest circles of hell, to roast for all eternity in front of a tv set on the blink and a dinner tray swinging out of reach like the elusive fruits that tortured Tantalus. And talking of torture, there wasn't a torturer in Latin America who didn't raise a cheer when Reagan was elected even though Carter hadn't cramped their style particularly.They were right to exult. In Guatemala, Rios Montt plunged into his darkest butcheries. David Rockefeller made haste to Buenos Aires to tell the generals that with Reagan's election a new era of understanding had been launched. A CIA-inspired torture manual surfaced from El Salvador, though the US press made little of it at the time. RENAMO perpetrated ghastly massacres in Mozambique, spurred on and paid for by Reagan's men.
He hailed the contra murderers attacking Nicaragua as the "moral equivalent of the founding fathers" (though the Iroquois would probably have agreed). Fresh from honoring the SS men buried in Bitburg he went two days later to Spain where he declared that the Lincoln Brigaders and the defenders of the Republic had fought on the wrong side. He was surrounded by scoundrels large and small. Probably the worst was William Casey, head of the CIA, who stood at the head of a vast cavalcade of fringe players, all the way down to the Neocons who flocked to his standard.
I have boundless faith in the American people, but it is startling to see the lines of people sweating under a hot sun waiting to see Reagan's casket. How could any of them take the dreadful old faker seriously? The nearest thing to it I can think of is the hysteria over Princess Di. In its way , the "outpouring" reminds me of what, nearly 20 years ago, I termed "news spasms", expertly fuelled by the imagineers in the Reagan White House. These spasms, Nuremberg rallies really, were totalitarian in structure and intent, obsessively monopolistic of newsprint and the airwaves, forcing a "national mood" of consensus, with Reagan (in this reprise, his casket) as master of ceremonies. Particularly memorable spasm events included the downing of KAL 007, the destruction of the US Marine barracks outside Beirut, the Achille Lauro hijackings and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle of January 28, 1986,, which disaster prompted one of the peak kitsch moments in a presidency that was kitsch from start to finish. Reagan ended his address to the nation thus: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God'."
In fact it was the White House that had doomed Christa McAuliffe and her companions to be burned alive in the plummeting Challenger. The news event required the Challenger to go into orbit and be flying over Congress while Reagan was delivering his state of the union address. He was to tilt his head upward and, presumably gazing through the long-distance half of his spectacles, send a presidential greeting to the astronauts. But this schedule required an early morning launch from chill January Canaveral. Servile NASA officials ordered the Challenger aloft, with the frozen O-ring fatally compromised.
Nixon thought Reagan was "strange" and, so he told the secret tape recorder in the Oval Office in 1972, "just an uncomfortable man to be around." The late President certainly was a very weird human being, not at all like the fellow being hailed this week as the man who gave America back its sense of confidence and destiny after the Carter years.
The ceremonial schedule for Reagan's corpse the week after his death had it lying "in repose" for several days. What else was it supposed to be doing? Anyway, Reagan always stuck to his script, and even if he had come to in the presidential library in Simi Valley, he would have stayed with his allotted role and lain doggo.
Reagan was "in repose" much of his second term, his day easing forward through a forgiving schedule of morning nap, afternoon snooze, TV supper and early bed. He couldn't recall the names of many of his aides, even of his dog. Stories occasionally swirled around Washington that his aides pondered from time to time whether to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Thatcher had it right for once at his funeral when she said that Reagan "is more himself than ever." I saw him at the Republican convention in New Orleans in August of 1988, where he sat in his presidential box entirely immobile, with the kind of somber passivity one associates with the shrouded figure in some newly opened Egyptian tomb before oxygen commences its mission of decay. I never saw him being "sunny," a favorite adjective of the hagiographers. As an orator or "communicator" he was terrible, with one turgid cliché following another, delivered in a folksy drone. His range of rhetorical artifice was terribly limited.
After Jimmy Carter's timid efforts to make America adjust to late-twentieth-century realities, Reagan installed fantasy as the motor of national consciousness, and it's still pumping disastrously along. He was an awful President, never as popular as the press pretended, presiding over a carnival of corruption and greed at home, terror in Central America and Africa. On March 23, 1983, a friend of mine watched as a naval officer and a defense contractor in the Fort Myer Officers' Club in Virginia listened impatiently as Reagan churned his way through a longish overture to his excited launch of Star Wars. Then, as Reagan began to token forth the billion-dollar feeding trough of SDI, they screamed to each other in incredulous delight, "He's going to do it...he's doing it...he's done it! We're rich, we're rich!" With these words, they both made a rush to the telephones.
There were many such screams of joy for the rich down through Reagan-time and beyond. The East Coast elite distrusted him as late as the 1980 campaign, trying to head off his nomination by running Gerald Ford again. Learning of the Ford bid, Reagan turned to an aide and cried, "What have they got against me? I support big oil. I support big business. Why don't they trust me?" Probably because they thought he would blow them up, along with everyone else. He didn't, but they never did trust him, though they had a hell of a party while he was around.
The people who did trust Reagan were mostly white men, small-business owners, some (sometimes many) construction workers, many ordinary folk up and down the map who wanted a world much as it had been in the 1950s. Them he betrayed. Reagan's rhetoric was anti-government, but in fact he was pressing programmatically for a different use of government power, in which the major corporations would occupy a much stronger position. The tendencies he presided over were probably inevitable, given the balance of political forces after the postwar boom hit the ceiling in the late 1960s. Then it was a matter of triage, as the rich made haste to consolidate their position. It was a straight line from Reagan's crude attacks on welfare queens to Clinton's compassionate chewings of the lip (same head wag as RR's) as he swore to "end welfare as we know it". As a pr man, it was Reagan's role, as it was Thatcher's,m to reassure the wealthy and the privileged that not only might but right was on their side.
As Reagan shambled toward the stairway of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Inauguration Day, 1989, Bryant Gumbel mused to Tom Brokaw that this seemed to him "quite remarkable." It turned out that Gumbel was mightily impressed that the 78-year-old Reagan had not sought to stave off retirement by mounting a coup d'état. All around the world, Gumbel said, leaders "cling to power." James Baker, the man who, with Paul Volcker, ran the world for Reagan, probably could have done it. The press would have gone along. As it was, Baker just bided his time for twelve years.
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