Understanding Ronald Reagan
President Reagan was leaving the country far better off than he found it. The situation in foreign affairs had been transformed in one of the truly revolutionary periods in the international politics of the century. A sea change of immense importance had occurred.
I thought about Ronald Reagan the man and the rhythm of his time in office. He had frustrated me with his unwillingness to come to grips with the debilitating acrimony among his national security advisers, with over-reliance on his immediate staff, with a sometimes wishful approach to an issue or program. He could rearrange facts to make a good story better, and he could allow himself at times to be deceived, sometimes almost knowingly. He and his administration paid the price, most dearly in the Iran-Contra affair.
Sometimes President Reagan simply did not seem to care that much about facts and details. That bothered the press and it bothered me. On occasion I would try to correct the inaccurate chronology of a favorite story about something he had done earlier in his presidency. When he told me how the release of the Russian Pentecostals was linked to his subsequent lifting of the grain embargo against the Soviets imposed by Jimmy Carter , I pointed out that he had lifted that embargo shortly after taking office, over two years before the Soviets allowed the Pentecostals to emigrate. He nodded in agreement and kept right on telling the same story. More importantly, no matter how often I pointed out to him that he had indeed traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra affair, he found that almost impossible to accept.
Over time, I began to see another side to his love of storytelling: he used a story to impart a larger message – and sometimes that message was simply more important to him than the facts. He was a gifted storyteller, who could use a story effectively to make his point take on a deeper and more vivid meaning or to defuse a tense situation. People, he felt, believe in and act on the stories they hear and tell about the past. Stories create meaning. Facts are the unassembled parts of an apparatus that do not operate until put together in an individual's own unique way. Stories bring facts to life. To Ronald Reagan , today's events always seemed rooted in some piece of wisdom, some story he had incorporated long ago. When he quoted the Russian proverb “Trust, but verify” to General Secretary Gorbachev at the signing of the INF Treaty, it was simply another way of conveying his favorite saying of “Mr Dooley ” – Finley Peter Dunne – Midwestern America's Irish-American humorist: “Thrust ivveribody, but cut the ca-cards.”
I understood what a central role Nancy Reagan played in his life, and an experience I had with her as the administration came to a close was in its own way vintage Ronald Reagan . On October 25, 1988, I had accompanied her to the United Nations, where she would speak on behalf of the administration about the problem of illegal drugs. She had fought a battle over the text of her speech, particularly her emphasis on the obligation of the United States itself to do a better job of curbing the use of drugs. Those opposed argued that such a statement would only make more difficult our efforts to persuade other countries to fight against the suppliers of drugs. I disagreed with them and agreed with Nancy . President Virgilio Barco of Colombia had told me, “The profits to be made from selling drugs in the United States are staggering, and those profits are fueling what amounts to another government in my country.”
Nancy insisted that we come early to the UN session at which she would speak. “If I want people to listen to me, I should come in time to listen to them,” she said. She sat in the delegate's seat and I right behind her in the seat assigned to the U.S. alternate. When we arrived, well before her announced time to speak, the large room was virtually empty. She looked around and then turned apprehensively to me, “ George ,” she said, “doesn't anyone want to hear what I have to say?”
“People know when you are scheduled to speak and the room will be full by then,” I reassured her. By the time she spoke, the room was jammed and the atmosphere expectant.
She surprised the delegates with her candor: “If we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand. We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America's own mayors, judges and legislators. You see the cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellin [Colombia]. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold.”
Afterward, delegates from all parts of the world came over to her with their congratulations. The critics of her speech had been dead wrong: delegates told her that her candor would make them even more resolute in their efforts to combat the production and trafficking in illegal drugs. Nancy had spoken the simple truth, a trademark of her husband.
Before he became president, Ronald Reagan had been a successful governor of California, and had left office there after eight years as a popular figure: the state was much better off when he left than when he arrived. Now he had achieved on a national level, and most especially on an international level, a changed landscape – and for the better. He had faults, at which critics hammered away. But what about his great achievements, his success? That question must be addressed by critics and historians. What did he bring to the party? I remembered Bud McFarlane , in the months before his resignation, shaking his head and saying in bewilderment, “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.”
In truth, Ronald Reagan knew far more about the big picture and the matters of salient importance than most people – perhaps especially some of his immediate staff – gave him credit for or appreciated. He had blind spots and a tendency to avoid tedious detail. But the job of those around him was to protect him from those weaknesses and to build on his strengths. Some of them did just the opposite. He had a strong and constructive agenda, much of it labeled impossible and unattainable in the early years of his presidency. He challenged the conventional wisdom: on arms control, on the possibility of movement toward freedom in the Communist-dominated world, on the need to stand up to Iran in the Persian Gulf, on the superiority of market- and enterprise-based economies. The world learned when Ronald Reagan faced down the air-traffic controllers in 1981 that he could dig in and fight to win. The world learned in Grenada that he would use military force if needed. He did not accept that extensive political opposition doomed an attractive idea. He would fight resolutely for an idea, believing that, if it was valid, he could persuade the American people to support it. He changed the national and international agenda on issue after issue. He was an optimist; he spoke the vocabulary of opportunity. He had a vision of what he stood for and what we aspire to as a nation.
Critics said Ronald Reagan read too many letters and not enough briefing books. I often wished he would spend more time on the briefing books, mastering details more fully and following up more aggressively on the management of foreign policy. But the letters buoyed him up and also gave him a continuing sense of contact with the people, selective though the letters might be. The shoot-from-the-hip, saber-rattling, jackbooted image was not in the nature of the man. He had and could express a clear and simple view of a complex world. Every Sunday he brought acorns down from Camp David to feed the squirrels outside the Oval Office. The squirrels at the White House hadn't had it so good since Ike cleared the area to put in a putting green. His most endearing aspect was his fundamental decency. He appealed to people's best hopes, not their fears, to their confidence rather than their doubts.
Ronald Reagan had clear objectives, and at the end of the day he truly did look for the right thing to do. I remembered vividly his argument with Vice President Bush – and with almost everyone else – over his approach to getting strongman Manuel Noriega out of power and out of Panama. To those who told him that he had “no support in Congress” for his proposed course of action, he countered simply and fervently that he would take his case to the American people and argue it flat out: he would do what he felt was right for the country, whether it was popular or not.
Ronald Reagan was not at the end of his presidency what he was when he started out: he was not a man who would stay labeled or stay put. He was ever changing, on the move, ever evolving in new and surprising ways. He was a doer, a pragmatist, a man who enjoyed hard physical tasks, as in the ranch work he loved to do. But that brush clearing and fence fixing was a symbol, too; he wanted to be doing it himself because from the land came not only strength and clarity, but a vision – the vision of the West and the endless horizon. The American people liked Ronald Reagan and reelected him in one of the biggest landslides in history because he trusted them and he conveyed to them that they need not be bound, tied down by class, or race, or childhood misfortune, or poverty, or bureaucracy – they, the people – could make something of themselves; indeed, they could remake themselves, endlessly.
But beneath this pragmatic attitude lay a bedrock of principle and purpose with which I was proud to be associated. He believed in being strong enough to defend one's interests, but he viewed that strength as a means, not an end in itself. He was ready to negotiate with his adversaries. In that readiness, he was sharply different from most of his conservative supporters, who advocated strength for America but who did not want to use that strength as a basis for the inevitable give-and-take of the negotiating process. All too often, they lacked confidence in the ability of democratic leaders, including Reagan , to negotiate effectively with our adversaries. Ronald Reagan had confidence in himself and in his ideas and was ready to negotiate from the strength so evident by the mid-1980s.
He was a fervent anti-Communist who could comprehend and believe that people everywhere would choose to throw off the Communist system if they ever had the chance. And he worked hard to give them that chance. He favored open trade because he had confidence in the ability of Americans to compete, and he had confidence that an integrated world economy would benefit America. He stuck to his agenda.
The points he made, however consummate the delivery, were unmistakably real in his mind and heart, an American creed: defend your country, value your family, make something of yourself, tell the government to get off your back, tell the tyrants to watch their step. Ronald Reagan conveyed simple truths that were especially welcome because “nowadays everything seems so complicated.” What he said ran deep and wide among the people.
Reagan as president was a Republican, a conservative, a man of the right. But these labels will mislead historians who do not see beyond them, for Americans could see some of Ronald Reagan in themselves. You couldn't figure him out like a fact, because to Reagan the main fact was a vision. He came from the heartland of the country, where people could be down-to-earth yet feel that the sky is the limit – not ashamed of, or cynical about, the American dream. Not far from Ronald Reagan 's small town of Dixon, Illinois, is Jane Addams 's small town of Cedarville; not far from Cedarville is Ulysses Grant 's small town of Galena. And not far from Galena is Carl Sandburg 's Galesburg. Reagan had something of them all: his heart going out to the people; his will ready to fight for the country; his voice able to move the nation. And, as Carl Sandburg wrote it,
The republic is a dream. Nothing happens unless first a dream.