Reagan Agonistes — Thomas Mallon’s ‘Finale’

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Confronted with the enigma of enigmas, Christopher Hitchens throws up his hands:

He wondered if all the effort that Reagan’s nasty lieutenants put into figuring out his nullity – and perhaps projecting something onto it – didn’t give his government a peculiar centripetal energy. Did this grinning, infirm film star, himself so entropic and gaseous, actually keep accruing might and gravity, a sort of unconscious creativity, from all the cogitation by the courtiers in his orbit? Did their various hypotheses about the president’s nature somehow supply him with consequentially, as kind of superreality – whereas by himself he lacked any reality at all?

The nullity is Ronald Reagan, reeling from his first sustained bit of public obloquy after the downing of a cargo plane flown by Eugene Hasenfus over Nicaragua set in motion the events that almost wrecked his presidency. But his infirmity saved his ass too, for the Democrats who controlled the Senate for the first time since 1980 exercising their investigatory powers spared him Richard Nixon’s fate. The thirty-seventh president has a strong supporting role as a minor spirit of intrigue in Thomas Mallon’s novel about the Reagan administration in 1986, himself frustrated by Reagan’s reluctance to accept his counsel even with the tidbits of information fed to him by Anders Little, his mole in the National Security Council.

A fine chronicler of Beltway mores who considers Gore Vidal’s historical fiction as valuable as his essays, Mallon has chosen the setting with care. 1986 was the apex and nadir of the administration, peaking with a gaudy July 4 ceremony commemorating a restored Statue of Liberty with lasers and Neil Diamond and a TIME cover story whose cover rebukes the idea of a liberal press. Other narrators include Nancy Reagan, a concatenation of resentments and worry; Pamela Churchill Harriman, secure in the millions she inherited from her late husband and out to unseat the big-haired Paula Hawkins from her Senate seat in Florida; and, uh, an imprisoned John Hinckley, Jr. These and speaking parts for Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher threaten to turn the novel into a John Jakes extravaganza, adapted for eighties TV audiences and starring Leslie Ann Down as the Iron Lady and Ed Begley, Jr. as The Sage of Plains. But Mallon understands how power is the illusion of power, dissolved at the first stink of weakness. As much as the notoriously autocratic management style of Reagan’s second term chief of staff Don Regan is played for laughs, Regan covered for his master’s shall we say lax management, thus becoming the ideal scapegoat when the public leaned the identity of the CIA-NSC junta conducting foreign policy. Mallon, who was acquainted with the late Hitchens, presents his friend as both larger and smaller than life: nibbling away at the story by exploiting Little’s sexual insecurities, he’s closer to a caricature of a shoe leather reporter from thirties film, albeit one kissed by wit, at which Mallon is expert at simulating. Told that the president cannot attend the service for Averell Harriman because of a Rose Garden event, Hitchens replies, “Ah. Perhaps he can turn into a Victory Garden for Enrique Bermudez. He can still send vegetables even if the law now prohibits him from sending guns.”

For Reagan watchers like yours truly, Finale deserves a read if only for reminding its audience of the environment of puffed, camp versions of hyper masculinity in which his administration thrived. The real Hitchens broke the story about the Carl “Spitz” Channell circle, an unofficial consortium of rich homosexuals pumping millions in private contributions to the Nicaraguan Contras. Little’s sexual awakening coincides with his peripheral involvement in this crew and before the Hasenfus crash and AIDS stopped the party. Like Fellow Travelers, Mallon’s 2006 novel about gay men scrambling for cover at the dawn of the McCarthy era, Finale suggests a tenuous connection between jingoism and an admiration for muscle flexing in every sense. A protected enclave, however, existed around Nancy Reagan, who surrounded herself with courtiers like Merv Griffin (Mallon gets laughs at the TV host’s penchant for placing the emphasis on the noun modified by “great,” i.e. “Great movie!”)

If point of view is the novelist’s consuming problem, as Henry James theorized, then Mallon needs therapy. Hearing from Nixon, Nancy, and Little would have compressed Finale into a terser narrative about a lucky son of a bitch, a president whose disinterest in minutiae and who suffered from the slow erosion of his cognitive powers nevertheless demonstrated at Reykjavik that he was willing to eliminate the entirety of American nuclear arsenal if he could keep his dream of space lasers firing on phantom threats. Andropov would have taken the old man at his word and never proposed anything but a paper agreement; instead, Reagan had Mikhail Gorbachev as negotiating partner. Only an imbecile or a man who means what he says about wanting to live in a nuke-free world would have done that, the Soviet general secretary realized. Maybe it was both.

Whether it’s The Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane, American artists love dramatizing the powerful blank. Finale has the virtue of eschewing definitions for Ronald Reagan’s strategy; thanks to Reagan, these personalities, malevolent and otherwise, to whom Mallon cedes fictional space, thrived. And the book is pretty funny. About The Speech and the moonbeam-like focus not taught at Warner Brothers that Nancy brought to bear: “It was simple: she never listened to it.” Or when Maureen Reagan, the president’s eldest child and closest political kin, dizzy with frustrated love for him, finally getting the run of the White House after her stepmother and dad are out calls mother Jane Wyman and says, “It isn’t every Friday night that Falcon Crest gets tuned in from this house!” With his obsession with ceremony, Ronald Reagan showed employees and relatives alike that a successful life depends on knowing when the camera starts rolling.

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