Behind the Ronald Reagan myth: "No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed"

Reagan embarrassed himself in news conferences, Cabinet meetings. Recalling how GOP cringed at his lack of interest

Published December 28, 2015 10:15PM (EST)


Excerpted from "The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton"

No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed. At presidential news conferences, especially in his first year, Ronald Reagan embarrassed himself. On one occasion, asked why he advocated putting missiles in vulnerable places, he responded, his face registering bewilderment, “I don’t know but what maybe you haven’t gotten into the area that I’m going to turn over to the secretary of defense.” Frequently, he knew nothing about events that had been headlined in the morning newspaper. In 1984, when asked a question he should have fielded easily, Reagan looked befuddled, and his wife had to step in to rescue him. “Doing everything we can,” she whispered. “Doing everything we can,” the president echoed. To be sure, his detractors sometimes exaggerated his ignorance. The publication of his radio addresses of the 1950s revealed a considerable command of facts, though in a narrow range. But nothing suggested profundity. “You could walk through Ronald Reagan’s deepest thoughts,” a California legislator said, “and not get your ankles wet.”

In all fields of public affairs—from diplomacy to the economy—the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded. His mind, said the well-disposed Peggy Noonan, was “barren terrain.” Speaking of one far-ranging discussion on the MX missile, the Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, an authority on national defense, reported, “Reagan’s only contribution throughout the entire hour and a half was to interrupt somewhere at midpoint to tell us he’d watched a movie the night before, and he gave us the plot from War Games.” The president “cut ribbons and made speeches. He did these things beautifully,” Congressman Jim Wright of Texas acknowledged. “But he never knew frijoles from pralines about the substantive facts of issues.” Some thought him to be not only ignorant but, in the word of a former CIA director, “stupid.” Clark Clifford called the president an “amiable dunce,” and the usually restrained columnist David Broder wrote, “The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears is a challenging one for his aides.”

No Democratic adversary would ever constitute as great a peril to the president’s political future, his advisers concluded, as Reagan did himself. Therefore, they protected him by severely restricting situations where he might blurt out a fantasy. His staff, one study reported, wrapped him “in excelsior,” while “keeping the press at shouting distance or beyond.” In his first year as president, he held only six news conferences—fewest ever in the modern era. Aides also prepared scores of cue cards, so that he would know how to greet visitors and respond to interviewers. His secretary of the treasury and later chief of staff said of the president: “Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks.” Those manipulations, he added, seemed customary to Reagan, for “he had been learning his lines, composing his facial expressions, hitting his toe marks for half a century.” Each night, before turning in, he took comfort in a shooting schedule for the next day’s television- focused events that was laid out for him at his bedside, just as it had been in Hollywood.

His White House staff found it difficult, often impossible, to get him to stir himself to follow even this rudimentary routine. When he was expected to read briefing papers, he lazed on a couch watching old movies. On the day before a summit meeting with world leaders about the future of the economy, he was given a briefing book. The next morning, his chief of staff asked him why he had not even opened it. “Well, Jim,” the president explained, “The Sound of Music was on last night.”

“Reagan,” his principal biographer, Lou Cannon, has written, “may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest.” (He spent nearly a full year of his tenure not in the White House but at his Rancho del Cielo in the hills above Santa Barbara.) Cabinet officials had to accommodate themselves to Reagan’s slumbering during discussions of pressing issues, and on a multination European trip, he nodded off so often at meetings with heads of state, among them French president François Mitterand, that reporters, borrowing the title of a film noir, designated the journey “The Big Sleep.” He even dozed during a televised audience at the Vatican while the pope was speaking to him. A satirist lampooned Reagan by transmuting Dolly Parton’s “Workin’ 9 to 5” into “Workin’ 9 to 10,” and TV’s Johnny Carson quipped, “There are only two reasons you wake President Reagan: World War III and if Hellcats of the Navy is on the Late Show.” Reagan tossed off criticism of his napping on the job with drollery. He told the White House press corps, “I am concerned about what is happening in government—and it’s caused me many a sleepless afternoon,” and he jested that posterity would place a marker on his chair in the Cabinet Room: “Reagan Slept Here.”

His team devised ingenious ways to get him to pay attention. Aware that he was obsessed with movies, his national security adviser had the CIA put together a film on world leaders the president was scheduled to encounter. His defense secretary stooped lower. He got Reagan to sign off on production of the MX missile by showing him a cartoon. Once again, the president made a joke of his lack of involvement: “It’s true that hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?” Cannon, who had observed him closely for years and with considerable admiration, took his lapses more seriously. “Seen either in military or economic terms,” he concluded, “the nation paid a high price for a president who skimped on preparation, avoided complexities and news conferences and depended far too heavily on anecdotes, charts, graphics and cartoons.”

Subordinates also found Reagan to be an exasperatingly disengaged administrator. “Trying to forge policy,” said George Shultz, his longest- serving secretary of state, was “like walking through a swamp.” Donald Regan recalled: “In the four years that I served as secretary of the treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy....I had to figure these things out like any other American, by studying his speeches and reading the newspapers. . . . After I accepted the job, he simply hung up and vanished.” One of his national security advisers, General Colin Powell, recalled that “the President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us,” and another national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, observed: “The Great Communicator wasn’t always the greatest communicator in the private sessions; you didn’t always get clean and crisp decisions. You assumed a lot. . . . You had to.” Numbers of observers contended that Reagan conducted himself not as a ruler but as a ceremonial monarch. In the midst of heated exchanges, a diplomat noted, Reagan behaved like a “remote sort of king . . . just not there.” After taking in the president’s performance during a discussion of the budget in 1981, one of his top aides remarked that Reagan looked like “a king . . . who had assembled his subalterns to listen to what they had to say and to preside, sort of,” and another said, “He made decisions like an ancient king or a Turkish pasha, passively letting his subjects serve him, selecting only those morsels of public policy that were especially tasty. Rarely did he ask searching questions and demand to know why someone had or had not done something.” As a consequence, a Republican senator went so far as to say: “With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don’t have a president.”

Instead of designating one person as his top aide, as Eisenhower had with Sherman Adams, Reagan set up a “troika”: James A. Baker III as chief of staff, Edwin Meese as counselor, and Michael Deaver as deputy chief of staff in charge of public relations—an arrangement that, for a time, left other appointees perplexed. The Reagan White House, said his first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr., was “as mysterious as a ghost ship; you heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm? Was it Meese, was it Baker, was it someone else? It was impossible to know for sure.” Similarly, Peggy Noonan ruminated: “Who’s in charge here? I could never understand where power was in that White House; it kept moving. I’d see men in suits huddled in a hall twenty paces from the Oval Office, and I’d think, there it is, that’s where they’re making the decisions. But the next day they were gone and the hall was empty.”

The first lady made her own contribution to the diffusion of authority. No one of his appointees, not even his chief of staff, exercised so much power. The New York Times, discussing Nancy Reagan, even wrote of an “Associate Presidency.” She understood her husband’s limitations and did all she could to make sure that he was well served. Their son Michael said, “Dad looks at half a glass of water and says: Look at this! It’s half full! Nancy is always trying to figure out: Who stole the other half from my husband?” She sometimes influenced Reagan’s policies, notably when she pushed for arms control, and she was thought to have been responsible for the removal of two cabinet officials and of the president’s latter-day chief of staff. During his tenure, she dismissed accounts of her impact, but in her memoir, she acknowledged: “For eight years I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does.”

Reagan’s staff found especially exasperating the need to clear the president’s schedule with a first lady who placed so much reliance upon a West Coast astrologer, Joan Quigley. That had been true since the beginning in Sacramento when Reagan was inaugurated as governor at midnight because, it was reported, that was the hour this woman set after perusing the zodiac. On a number of occasions, Deaver would spend days working out an intricate itinerary for the president’s travels down to the last detail only to be told that he had to scrap everything because the astrologer had determined that the stars were not properly aligned. Horoscopes fixed the day and hour of such major events as presidential debates and summit meetings with Soviet leaders. The president’s most important aide said, “We were paralyzed by this craziness.”

In these unpropitious circumstances, the troika managed much better than anticipated. Public administration theorists likened this three-headed makeshift to the mock definition of a camel: a horse put together by a committee. But Baker proved to be a highly effective chief of staff and Deaver a masterful maestro of staged events. Secretary Haig later remarked, “You couldn’t serve in this administration without knowing that Reagan was a cipher and that these men were running the government.” That judgment, however, failed to credit Reagan’s perspicacity. In setting up his team, he succeeded in taking to Washington two men who had served him faithfully in Sacramento—Meese and Deaver—while acknowledging that, since they and he had no experience inside the Beltway, he needed to salt his inner corps with a veteran of the Ford era. In choosing Baker, moreover, Reagan, stereotyped as a rigid ideologue, showed unexpected flexibility. Baker, a moderate, had been floor manager for Ford’s effort to deny Reagan the 1976 presidential nomination, and in 1980 he had run George Bush’s campaign against Governor Reagan.

From the start of his political career, commentators, especially liberals, had been underestimating Reagan. When he announced that he was planning to run for governor of California, he encountered ridicule. At a time when Robert Cummings was a prominent film star, the Hollywood mogul Jack Warner responded, “No, Bob Cummings for governor, Ronald Reagan as his best friend.” Yet Reagan easily defeated the former mayor of San Francisco to win the Republican nomination, then stunned Democrats by prevailing over the incumbent governor, Pat Brown, by nearly a million votes. Furthermore, he went on to gain reelection to a second term.

Reagan’s performance in Sacramento surprised both adversaries and followers. While continuing to proclaim his undying hostility to government intervention, he stepped up taxes on banks and corporations, increased benefits to welfare recipients, more than doubled funds for higher education, and safeguarded “wild and scenic rivers” from exploitation. A vocal advocate of “the right to life,” he nevertheless signed a bill in 1967 that resulted in a rise in legal abortions in the state from 518 in that year to nearly 100,000 in 1980. He was able to forge agreements with Democrats in the capital because he had the advantage, as a veteran of Screen Actors Guild battles, of being an experienced negotiator. (In later years, he said of his haggling with Mikhail Gorbachev: “It was easier than dealing with Jack Warner.”) His chief Democratic opponent in the legislature, who started out viewing Reagan with contempt, wound up concluding that he had been a pretty good governor, “better than Pat Brown, miles and planets and universes better than Jerry Brown”—the two most conspicuous Democratic leaders of the period.

Scrutiny of his record, however, also raised disquieting features. Months after he took office as governor, a reporter asked him about his priorities. Disconcerted, Reagan turned toward an assistant and said, “I could take some coaching from the sidelines, if anyone can recall my legislative program.” Expected to decide between conflicting views on the abortion issue, “Reagan,” Cannon noted, “behaved as if lost at sea.” His aides often found it difficult to get him to concentrate. On one occasion, in the midst of a vital discussion about the budget, he wandered off: “Do you know how hard it is to mispronounce ‘psychiatric’ once you know how to pronounce it right? I had to do it in Kings Row and at first I couldn’t do it.” He especially alarmed members of his staff by flying into a rage if the press reported that he had changed his position on an issue, even when he undoubtedly had. All of his disabilities—gross misperceptions and knowledge gaps—he carried into the White House. Yet he was to leave office regarded as a consequential president, and a number of scholars were even to write of an “Age of Reagan.”

Excerpted from "The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton" by William E. Leuchtenburg. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2016 by William E. Leuchtenburg. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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William E. Leuchtenburg, is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Over the course of six decades, he taught at Columbia University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and, as a visiting professor, at Harvard, Cornell, Duke, William and Mary and other American universities, as well as at Oxford where he held the Harmsworth chair. He served as presidential elections analyst for NBC and as presidential inauguration consultant for CBS, PBS, and C-SPAN.

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