Frequent guests to HTV know my fascination with Ronald Gatsby, sovereign of the United States for eight years. Forget the sycophants and mountebanks. Unless declassified FBI files revealed that he and Mikhail Gorbachev had joyous, unprotected sex in the Rose Room, nothing I’d learn in 2016 would surprise me about Reagan. But as the presidential primary season enters its thermonuclear stage William Leuchtenburg compiles a handy list of Teflon Man’s flaws. There were no depths of ignorance to which Ronnie would not sink. I wish he’d stop printing the man’s admittedly decent self-deprecatory remarks; I rather like “I am concerned about what is happening in government—and it’s caused me many a sleepless afternoon,” and from George W. Bush and Fred Dalton Thompson to Scott Walker, professions of indolence bestirs a formidable part of the GOP electorate.
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.”
Leuchtenburg, a Depression scholar who wrote the first Hoover bio in decades, skims the consequences of such chipper ignorance: stationing Marines in Beirut so that they can serve as sitting ducks for Islamic Jihad (then pulling them out months later because 1984 was an election year, but not before implying House Democrats were cowards); and allowing sentimental and lachrymose NSC creeps to run a junta out of the White House are just two. Staging the second GOP primary debate in the empty husk of Reagan’s Air Force One plane was symbolism worthy of Michael Deaver.