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Reagan's America : innocents at home /
Garry Wills.
1st ed.
Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1987.
viii, 472 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., ports.
0385182864 :
More Details
Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1987.
0385182864 :
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
Bibliography: p. 391-451.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Reagan Legacy

Modern conservatism in America is, for all reasonable purposes, Reaganism. That is its weakness. The aftermath of Reagan's presidency has proved, over and over, that Reaganism without Reagan is unsustainable. Even with him, it was a tottering edifice. He had inherited multiple tendencies rather than a single movement. In the 1950s, William F. Buckley Jr. made conservatism intellectually respectable, jettisoning its anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual baggage. In the 1960s, Barry Goldwater made the movement politically viable by bringing into the Republican party a South that was resisting racial integration. Nixon combined these efforts, joining a sophisticated form of anticommunism with a Southern strategy based on the backlash from civil rights. But even before Watergate, Nixon's synthesis was coming apart. His and Kissinger's opening to China, their detente and arms-control efforts, offended the fundamentalist branch of Nixon's constituency, which was apocalyptic in its hatred of all Marxist regimes.

Reagan united the fissiparous movement around his radiant personality. He comforted the comfortable and disarmed the afflicted. He was too obviously nice to mean whatever meanness appeared in his programs. He gave conservatism the elements it had signally lacked--humanity, optimism, hope. Buckley had wit, but of a chilly sort. Goldwater's followers had passion, but it was the anguish of those who feel persecuted. Nixon had intelligence, but it was cramped by paranoia. Reagan, without much wit or passion or intelligence, had a humanity that made up for anything he lacked. He was the first truly cheerful conservative, and America is a country that does not recognize itself unless it sees, in the mirror, a confident face looking back at it. When William F. Buckley founded National Review in 1955, he said that its task was to stand "athwart history yelling `Stop!'" Reagan was never comfortable with a purely obstructionist conservatism. He was too swoony over the wonders of science and technology. In one of his favorite stories, a student issued him this challenge: "You didn't grow up in an era of space travel, of jet travel, of cybernetics, computers figuring in seconds what it used to take men years to figure out." Reagan triumphantly produced this response: "It's true . . . we didn't grow up, my generation, with those things. We invented them." When Reagan worked for General Electric, he let the company make his home a well-advertised display of the company's latest luxury products. Many of the items showcased there went into G.E.'s Carousel of Progress, created with Walt Disney for the 1964 World's Fair in New York--which, in turn, was absorbed into Disney's Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. Progress was always Reagan's favorite product.

A parable for Reagan's brand of conservatism could be fashioned from his rejection of the historic Lincoln Steffens house, lived in by former governors of California. He had a new place built with the help of financial backers, one with all the modern conveniences. That is what Reagan did, symbolically, for conservatism itself--took it from its historic home and gave it a new operating center. Some of the charm he found in the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, was precisely its complex of barely conceived technologies. He hated nukes, partly because they were old-fashioned. He loved lasers, partly because they were so "far out" as to remind him of the ray gun in his old Brass Bancroft serials. With his repeated mantra that "Nothing is impossible," he believed that technology could make the space weapon entirely benign--so incapable of offense that we would give it, for free, to the Kremlin.

Older-style conservatives were not comfortable with Reagan's fondness for a citation from the radical Tom Paine: "We have it in our power to start the world over." Reagan also said: "I don't think we ought to focus on the past. I want to focus on the future." He said that about the Holocaust, in connection with his visit to a German cemetery with the graves of storm troopers in it, but it expressed his confident futurism. The cognitive scientist George Lakoff claims that conservatives think of themselves as punitive parents, while liberals think of themselves as caring parents. But President Reagan was benign and grandfatherly in style, not harsh and retaliatory--in this regard, more a Democrat like Franklin Roosevelt than a dour Calvin Coolidge. And his resemblance to Roosevelt was not merely a matter of sunniness. Reagan had to disarm his followers as well as his foes when he made surprising departures from conservative doctrine.


Roosevelt campaigned on a promise to cut spending and balance the budget. Instead, his first term increased spending--significantly, but not on Reagan's scale. Reagan nearly tripled the deficit in his eight years, and never made a realistic proposal for cutting it. As the biographer Lou Cannon noted, it was unfair for critics to say that Reagan was trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, since "he never seriously attempted to balance the budget at all." Even Reagan's ideological ally and defender, George Will, made no effort to defend him on this. The six budgets Reagan had most control over "produced deficits totaling $1.1 trillion," Will wrote. "The budgets Reagan sent to Congress proposed thirteen-fourteenths of that total. Congress added a piddling $90 billion a year."

It is claimed that Reagan brought down the Soviet Union by forcing it to spend so much on defense that it collapsed. Perhaps. But in the process he made America spend so much on its military that interest payments on the national debt more than doubled (according to Will, "a regressive transfer of wealth to buyers of government bonds"), savings dropped, and cutbacks caused severe neglect of the national infrastructure. Even when the cold war was over, few in America seemed to be celebrating. It is not given to many presidents to spend two world empires toward decline.

How on earth did a Republican, an enemy of "big government," give us the greatest government debt ever? No single cause can explain such a mystery. But the elements of disaster arranged themselves around a campaign ploy the Reagan team rejected in 1976 as too kooky but eagerly adopted in the 1980 race--the "supply side" claim that tax cuts pay for themselves in increased productivity. This notion was given a visual aid (always helpful with Reagan) when the idea- merchant Arthur Laffer drew his famous curve on a napkin.

Reagan entertained the exhilarating Laffer heresy without giving up Republican orthodoxy on the balanced budget, smaller government, and no inflation. Supply- side purists could accept on principle any short-term deficits while tax cuts had time to generate greater productivity. But that was asking too much of Reagan, whose life had been spent preaching (though not practicing, even as governor) frugality. Jude Wanniski, the supply-side guru, was able to satisfy this orthodox Reagan with a second doctrine, that of an inflation-busting stable money supply. (Actually, what Wanniski wanted was a return to the gold standard.)

David Stockman, the man asked by Reagan to sell the supply-side tax cuts to Congress, later complained that he was given, in effect, two napkins to reconcile--the Laffer Curve napkin and the gold-standard napkin--and the two were irreconcilable. To make things worse, Stockman had to accommodate another part of Reagan's constituency--the neoconservative Committee on the Present Danger, which claimed that Jimmy Carter had engaged in unilateral disarmament. The only way to cure that was by major leaps upward in defense spending. Stock- man was being lobbied by his friend George Will, whom he called "adamant" on the need for huge defense expenditures. Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's defense secretary--his reputation as "Cap the Knife" notwithstanding--was determined to flex financial muscle even before he knew what the new money would be buying. During the campaign, Reagan had called for a 5 percent increase in the Pentagon budget, but in the aftermath of Carter's attempt to rescue hostages in Iran ("Desert One"), the outgoing Administration had itself upped defense costs by 5 percent in its 1981 budget. Sitting in Weinberger's office with his pocket calculator, Stockman suggested a 7 percent increase. Weinberger said, "In light of the disgraceful mess we're inheriting, 7 percent will be a pretty lean ration." Stockman sweetened the deal by figuring the annual raises from the projected Reagan defense budget of 1982, not the lean Carter budget of 1980. Stockman had been doing this, in other areas, to construct rosy scenarios, counting on income down the line from supply-side magic. That produced lower projected costs elsewhere, but it had the opposite effect for defense--a fact that Stockman discovered, with chagrin, after the Reagan military budget worked out to a 10 percent increase in real growth over six years, ending up with 160 percent higher outlay by 1989. It was too late to cancel the announced rates-- the last thing Reagan would do is back off on defense. Stockman says he groaned when he saw that "they were squealing with delight throughout the military- industrial complex."

Stockman became a sorcerer's apprentice as each problem "solved" created another one. For instance, cutbacks that slowed inflation led to revenue losses not at first counted on, since inflation had, through "bracket creep," raised the annual tax intake. It was hard to make the numbers work with that income, too, going down. Stockman gave up, at one point confessing to the journalist William Greider, "None of us really understands what's going on with all of these numbers." His own forecasts were "absolutely doctored," he said.

It did not end there. Another Reagan belief that mired Stockman in deficits was the deregulation mania. Stockman considered it a blessing that his cuts would force agencies to cut back their regulatory tasks, staff, and inspections. One of the areas where this had most impact was the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, where Reagan's appointee, Richard Pratt, abolished a regulation requiring savings-and-loan associations (S.&L.'s) to have at least 400 stockholders. This allowed single operators--like James McDougal, of later Whitewater infamy--to turn such institutions into "a huge casino" (as U.S. News and World Report described them).

The savings-and-loan crisis had been set up by Democrats in Congress, who lowered restrictions on the associations while raising the limits on Federal Deposit Insurance (from $40,000 per account to $100,000). The trouble this created was aggravated by Pratt's hands-off attitude toward the banks, and by a new law that let the S.&L.'s move out from their original home loans to virtually any kind of investment. The prospect of billions of dollars shelled out by the government to make good on these bad investments was literally unthinkable to Stockman. He said this would make wallpaper of his rosy scenarios about the tax cut's good effect. He did not even want to consider S.&L.'s, as William Seidman, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, discovered: "No matter how many requests were made to him to focus on the troubles of the S.&L.'s, he passed the problem down the chain of command and, as far as I know, never took any interest in it."

No wonder the deficit began to scare people so. The stage was set for Ross Perot's entrance into the 1992 Presidential race. The government was not working, and we were paying exorbitant sums for it not to work. In effect, Reagan had made his case for governmental fecklessness and oppressiveness by making it practice what he preached against. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a mentor to Stockman, wondered whether supply-side economics was not just an indirect way of dismantling the government, by creating a debt that dried up its resources. Stockman denied that was the plan's intent (while admitting that it was its effect), but others always saw supply-side as more a political tool than an economic theory.

In Neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, the influential Republican thinker, confessed as much. "I was not certain of its economic merits," he wrote, "but quickly saw its political possibilities." His ignorance of supply-side realities did not hinder him from berating Stockman for being a mere accountant concerned only with cutting spiraling costs. Kristol kept on seeing light at the end of the deficit. If debts mounted, the Fed could just print more money. Kristols's son, William, faced up to the reality of the deficit, but still liked the Reagan program for its political, not its economic, effect. He reversed his father's analysis to reach the same approval of supply side: "The balanced budget hurts the Democratic Party for the next decade. It will force a number of budget-cuts- versus-tax-increase fights and that's good for us." So government at home was to be defeated (like the Soviet Union) by big government spending.

Despite the supply siders' claim that their tax cuts would increase savings and investment, both of them went down in the 1980s. Reagan had cut taxes on the very income that was supposed to give a jolt to growth--the top rate fell from 70 percent to 28 percent over seven years. But the lost growth of the 1981-82 recession was not made up (despite a sharp rise from that trough, which is what Reagan fans remember). Lou Cannon, taking stock of the Reagan years, wrote: "The nation's private wealth, adjusted for inflation, grew only 8 percent in the last five Reagan years compared to 31 percent in the period between 1975 and 1980, years that Reagan had derided as inflation-prone and unproductive." Yet, while income growth for the many was slow, it was rocket-fast for the rich. When income for the bottom 10 percent of the population fell by 10.5 percent from 1977 to 1987, that for the top 10 percent went up 24.4 percent--and that for the top 1 percent went up 74.2 percent.

And the Reagan trends continued. By 1996, the ratio between the earnings of chief executives and those of the average workers in their companies exploded from 41 to 1 in the '70s to 225 to 1 in the '90s. The share of national wealth owned by the top 1 percent of families jumped from 22 percent in 1976 to 42 percent in 1992. Stockman had confessed to Greider that supply side was simply a disguised form of "trickle down" theory--the view that the only way to get money to the poor is to give it to the rich, from whom in dribbles it will descend. But this was not even trickle down, disguised or undisguised. It was trickle up. While the government was spending more and more, the mass of the people were not profiting by this expenditure. The profiteers were.

Reagan's strategy-by-accident for trimming the government tied President Clinton's hands when he took office. There was simply no money for the kinds of programs he advocated in his campaign--New Deal measures like public works to restore the nation's infrastructure, or public service to create jobs. Bob Woodward traced in his 1994 book, The Agenda, how public fear of the deficit, striking Democrats in Congress, made Clinton create a tax package to close the budget gap.

Republicans later said that they "converted" Clinton to the balanced budget in 1995, when they "shut the government down" over the issue. But he had been dragged to that position by his own advisers in 1993, when he raised taxes (mainly on the upper brackets). As a result of his austerity, he cut the deficit in half, though Representative Dick Armey, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, had said the tax hike would raise the deficit. Clinton still gets little credit for his accomplishment since he enraged Republicans with the tax increase and offended traditional Democrats and his own campaign staff by abandoning programs he had promised. Policy was held prisoner to the deficit. The Reagan legacy was still at work.


Part of Reagan's legacy is what we do not see now. We see no Berlin wall. He said, "Tear down this wall," and it was done. We see no Iron Curtain. In fact, we see no Soviet Union. He called it an Evil Empire, and it evaporated overnight. Alexander Haig, Reagan's first secretary of state, wrote recently: "We did not storm the trenches. The enemy suddenly rose up and left, and the Soviet Union was no more. Few in Washington and even fewer in Moscow expected that." But Reagan did. Admittedly, Reagan did not accomplish all this by fiat. But it was more than coincidence that the fall began on his watch. People agree he had something to do with the collapse of communism; but even his admirers are not clear on the exact chain of causality. Did he spend the Soviet down, bankrupting the system as it tried to respond to his military buildup? Or did he scare them into surrender, with a Star Wars proposal that the Soviets (quite reasonably) saw as an offensive threat, despite all the defensive talk? Or did he talk them down, greeting Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika with enthusiasm, terrifying his own aides at Reykjavik by seriously entertaining Gorbachev's offer to destroy the Soviet nuclear arsenal if we would do the same?

George Will claimed, in his essay sending Reagan off to retirement, that the President had sold the farm to Gorbachev:

How wildly wrong he is about what is happening in Moscow. Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West--actual disarmament will follow--by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy. . . . The mind boggles and the spirit sags at the misunderstandings--of Soviet history, of the twentieth century. Reagan blandly says that Gorbachev has just "come along." How is it that the Soviet Union suddenly fell into the hands of such a pleasant fellow? That does not puzzle our cheerful President.

At the very moment when the Soviet Union was toppling, Will thought it had prevailed. He was not alone in that illusion. The CIA was notoriously slow to recognize what was happening. Certain things were too obvious to be noticed-- like the fact, as Richard Barnet asserted, that Russia was the only regime in the world surrounded by hostile Communist countries (China, Romania, Hungary, Poland). It was Richard Nixon's opening to China that gave the Soviet Union four thousand miles of troublesome border with that country. With its resources stretched and its edges fraying, with dissent in its bosom, with economic shortages and malfunctions, the Soviet Union was not the giant terror of our dreams. We had entertained nightmares about nonexistent bomber gaps, then missile gaps, then spacecraft gaps. We were not so much scaring the Russians as scaring ourselves witless.

The hysteria peaked with Reagan's 1980 campaign on the issue of a "window of vulnerability," fast approaching, when the Soviet Union would have such a preponderance of accurate nuclear missiles that it could dictate our surrender with a single threat--"just take us with a phone call," as Reagan put it. This confecting of nightmares continued into Reagan's first term, a time when Newt Gingrich published the claim that "The Soviets have nuclear weapons in orbit." While we were imagining our own impossible Star Wars missile defense, we fantasized that they already had what we could barely imagine.

There were structural, psychological, and ideological pressures to exaggerate the threat. In Fall from Glory, Gregory Vistica traced John Lehman's effort as Reagan's secretary of the navy to create a nearly trillion-dollar budget for a 600-ship navy by disregarding or concealing evidence that showed the shabby state of Soviet naval forces. Vistica believes that much of the navy's later trouble came from the institutional deceit involved in that effort. Cap Weinberger's huge military budget, of which Lehman's trillion was merely a part, may or may not have broken the bank in Moscow; but it certainly mired us deeper in debt.

According to Reagan's admirers, the President turned this situation around by countering the window with Star Wars. It is not clear why, if the Soviets had such technological wizardry as to build an arsenal of awesomely accurate missiles, they could not match our Star Wars gadgetry. Sure, it would cost money; but they had been able to afford Newt Gingrich's phantom nuclear fleet in orbit--which could blow up our space defense in its construction stage.

Actually, if mere military superiority prevailed, then we should have won long ago, since we always had a huge advantage--in world bases, technology, and economic resources. Our weakness, dating from the day of Joseph McCarthy, was a strong willingness to believe that Communists were doing everything, everywhere. They were in our government, they had infiltrated every major government around the world. The Soviet Union, still reeling from World War II, was our equal if not our superior. Despite our claim that capitalism is the more productive system, we presented it to ourselves as unable to keep pace with Soviet socialism.

If superior American weaponry had not brought down the Soviet Union in preceding decades, it is doubtful that it was solely responsible for doing so in the 1980s. Other things were at work, not all of them in our control. Despite what Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's authority on authoritarianism, said about the impossibility of internal rebellion against totalitarian regimes, the internal dissent, contradiction, and demoralization that burst into the open when the Iron Curtain fell had long been at work. Richard Nixon had destroyed the myth of a monolithic communism by his opening to China. Nixon's policy of detente also gave dissidents channels to the outside world. Gorbachev was not just "faking" glasnost to trap us. He was containing pressures from within, trying to hold together a dissolving regime. Americans tend to give ourselves too much blame or credit for things that happen in the world. We are not the only agent in history. The dissidents within Russia (pace Jeane Kirkpatrick) deserve much of the credit we try to monopolize for the Soviet downfall.

Pressure from outside helped, but the pressure Reagan exerted was not confined to weaponry. We have always recognized that Reagan's achievement at home was largely rhetorical, his use of the bully pulpit on events abroad. While others, like President Nixon, thought mainly of national interests, Reagan cast the struggle with the Soviet Union as basically a moral encounter.

It seemed to many (and to me) that Reagan's talk of an Evil Empire was irresponsible. When a colleague was lecturing in Moscow, during a 1980s exchange effort, his wife taught French in a Russian high school, where a girl asked why President Reagan thought she was irredeemably evil. Moral absolutism looses fanaticism, a dangerous thing when nuclear weapons lie ready to a trembling hand. The gamble might not have worked. It might have blown us up. But it didn't. Reagan's comments on the Soviet Union were not a ploy but, for him, a statement of the obvious. His evident sincerity, even simplicity, gave weight to his view--not only abroad but at home. David Hume said that political efforts are sustained more efficiently by moral arguments than by appeals to mere advantage or self-interest. People will sacrifice for what they are persuaded is deeply right.

Our national cohesion for forty years of the cold war depended on a consensus that communism was an evil system threatening every value we hold precious. Harry Truman started it all with his own version of the Evil Empire--he always called it "godless Communism." That crusading fervor was revived by Reagan. In terms of military hardware, he put his money where his mouth was; but that mouth had said the right thing for getting the results he wanted.

And, besides, the Soviet Union was evil. Weak, but evil. Few could see the obvious weakness. But he made us see the obvious evil. And since he believed even more in the power of good than in the power of evil, he was ready to talk with repenting sinners--to George Will's disgust. He even found signs of hope that "in glasnost and perestroika and all that, there is much more smacking of Lenin than of Stalin." The hyperbolic bad cop could become, in the blink of an eye, the almost smarmily hopeful good cop--and both of them were Reagan. Even Jesse Jackson had to admire the result:

Kissinger types bitterly argued that it was absurd to expect a guy like Reagan could do anything with Gorbachev, who had about 597 volumes of Lenin, whole libraries of history and economics. And yet Reagan, not knowing any of all that stuff Kissing had learned, not knowing any Rus-sian except maybe vodka, sits down and gets an historic deal out of Gorbachev. He made history that all those little wannabe Kissingers in the future will spend their working lives analyzing. . . . That's the way it often is with the great creators. A real leader, once he moves and sets the pace and sends the word out, people say, "Well, now, that's what time of day it is."

While Reagan demonized the Soviet empire, he was also hollowing out our own government, denying its claims upon the citizenry. The belief in simple good and evil was just as strong in him when he decided that big government at home is evil--the problem, not the solution, the burden on our backs, the underminer of our freedoms. It is not given to many presidents to drain legitimacy--as well as solvency--from two world empires.


The fact that Reagan had to use a huge military complex, fed by high taxes, to fight communism led him to a compensatory denial that government should make other demands on people. The principle of small government, suspended for the one great crusade, must for that very reason be asserted with special force elsewhere. The government that could use secrecy and compulsion against foreign enemies had to be reined back from tyranny at home. Taxes, always a necessary evil, were an unnecessary and indefensible evil apart from the military.

Reagan campaigned against the New Deal when speaking for Barry Goldwater in 1964. He had softened his anger at Roosevelt's programs by 1980, but he still promised to end many kinds of regulation and dismantle useless agencies. After all, even Jimmy Carter had deregulated the airlines, trucking, and oil prices. A Republican would have to go much further, especially one who spoke with such moral assurance about governmental intrusion into business and private activities.

Yet Reagan surprised many by failing to deregulate a single industry or to abolish any important governmental agency. The conservative David Frum lamented that "only one spending program of any size was done away with, and even that-- the worthless Comprehensive Employment and Training Act--was instantly replaced by another program, the Jobs Training Partnership Act, meant to achieve almost exactly the same end." Reagan accomplished his own purposes by a malign neglect of governmental machinery rather than legislative abolition of it. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi puts it: "Reagan left all of the New Liberal state intact but made it almost impossible for it to work. Drastic tax cuts coupled with maintenance of defense and welfare commitments effectively killed governmental capacity." But it was not, as Lowi put it, simple impoverishment that defeated governmental capacity. There was a real animus against even diminished government action; a hatred of one's own tools.

Reagan signaled a lack of interest in, when not active dislike for, Federal agencies to which he appointed people with equal lack of interest, or even disdain. He did not abolish the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But he never went near the abomination, and he could not even recognize his own appointee, Samuel Pierce. In turn, Pierce was so neglectful of his department that he let a young conservative opportunist, Deborah Gore Dean, run it largely for the benefit of family, friends, and fellow ideologues--which led to her conviction on twelve felony counts, including fraud, taking a payoff, and perjury. For her, ripping off a hated agency could serve the ultimate cause of driving it into disrepute or desuetude. Dean and her circle were flip and cynical, forerunners of the young, conservatism-is-fun crowd that would pullulate in 1990s Washington.

Other agencies were being discredited by the very people asked to defend them. One of the leading advocates for despoliation of natural resources, James Watt, was cynically made secretary of the interior. The Department of Education, a target of Reagan's campaign animosity, which Ed Meese called "a bureaucratic joke," was given to Terrel Bell, who was perceived as a lightweight.

Reagan's Commerce Department drew up a hit list of regulations resented by business ("the Terrible 20") and recommended their nonenforcement. Vice President Bush was put in charge of a deregulatory task force. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had to be brought into court to perform its own acts mandated by law--and no wonder: Reagan put it under the leadership of Thorne Auchter, whose family construction firm had been cited for nearly fifty violations of safety rules. Reagan's lawyers cut back on legal services to the poor.

The Environmental Protection Agency became, under Reagan, something more like the Polluters' Protection Agency. Given the opposition of Reagan's followers to feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, there may have been a dismissive motive for putting women in charge of some despised regulation. We had not only Dean but Rita Lavelle, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for her responses to Congressional questions about her work in the hazardous waste division of the EPA. We also had Anne Gorsuch Burford, Lavelle's superior, forced out of the EPA by the White House chief of staff, James Baker, when her agency became a notorious embarrassment.

Republican blacks were also sent into these thankless bureaucracies--not only the invisible Sam Pierce at HUD, but Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he let cases of discrimination accumulate unacted upon. When the backlog on age discrimination complaints reached thirteen thousand, and with the statute of limitations running out, the Senate felt moved to investigate his inaction.

Reagan wanted no association with those parts of the government he despised. Here his temperamental detachment served him well. He could still attack Washington and the federal government; he took no responsibility for the parts of it he despised or disapproved of. Ross Perot would later say that the government needed hands-on management, someone who would "look under the hood." If Reagan had wanted to look under the hood at HUD, he would not have had the remotest idea where to find the latch. Most people put in charge of a major operation will try to defend it or restore its credibility. But Reagan had no intention of bringing respect to government. Let it rot under him. He always knew it was worthless. The better it worked, the more harm it would do. The attitudes of the Republicans who later wanted to shut the government down for their long-range ideological purposes grew naturally from this Reagan attitude.

Washington became the fons et origo of all that is wrong with the country. That attitude was fostered by Reagan as he voiced from the inmost center of government a low regard for governing. And, as is usual in such things, the little zealots under Reagan carried his contempt for government much further. Oliver North felt he was acting in Reagan's spirit when he broke laws to get things done. In the same way, a Deborah Dean or Rita Lavelle could abuse the offices entrusted to them because they felt the offices deserved no trust. There is something morally corrosive about performing tasks you despise.

Conservatives had for decades been concerned about "subversives" in government. But the real subverters of our government were the ones who worked in and against it at the same time, acting from a disloyalty they could not openly express. Their legatees were able to be more open in expressing their hatred for government. Representative Dick Armey, captain of the Republican revolution in 1994, said that the American government was engaged in the same activities as the old Soviet regime: "Behind our New Deals and New Frontiers and Great Societies you will find, with a difference only in power and nerve, the same sort of person who gave the world its Five Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward-- the Soviet and Chinese counterparts."

If our system differed from the Soviet Union's only in nerve, the task of the freedom fighter was to bring it down. It was not surprising that militia groups would express such feelings--or that even stray House members (like Helen Chenoweth of Idaho or Steve Stockman of Texas) do so. But it was a mark of how deep Reagan's legacy runs that a major House leader should agree with them. Patrick Buchanan said that his culture war aimed at the Clintons was more important than the cold war aimed at Russia. Some observers feel that the current confusion on the political scene comes from the loss of a clear enemy, the kind that united us in the cold war. But that was not a problem for the Armeys and Buchanans. They had an enemy clearly in view, and it was their own government. Irving Kristol agreed: "There is no `after the cold war' for me. . . . Now that the other `cold war' is over, the real cold war has begun." This battle, he explains, is against American liberalism, against "a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism."

This fierce attack upon our own is the result of what Theodore Lowi calls the false continuum of all political systems. Instead of recognizing that each different system has a different ethos, these critics of power see every degree of governmental power as an inch up toward the same kind of tyranny, whether Communist, or fascist, or liberal. In fact, the nearest encroachment is the most dangerous, because it is the least suspected. FDR was worse than Stalin because he lulled us toward Stalinism without showing the cloven hoof.

It is said that disillusion with government began with the revelations of Watergate. But it continued to grow through the '80s and into the '90s, since Reagan governed by discrediting government. The distrust was not only for this or that abuse of government but for its very existence. As Lowi remarks, "Whenever Americans are fed up with government, they do not go after the allegedly hated and feared bureaucracy but after representative government itself." People express animosity toward the very people they have voted for. They try to limit their terms. They talk as if they wished their vote to put a person into office were simultaneously a vote to remove him or her. We spent decades opposing Communism by trying to introduce free elections around the world--only to tell ourselves that our elections do not matter.

Not orderly rule but violent overthrow is the fantasy haunting the minds of some of Reagan's heirs. Rush Limbaugh, expressing sympathy for the militias, said: "The second violent American revolution is just about--I got my fingers about a fourth of an inch apart--is just about that far away. Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving into town and telling them what they can and can't do." Representative John Boehner of Ohio called OSHA regulators the "Gestapo of the Federal Government."

It may be objected that all this is "just rhetoric"--an odd thing for any Reaganite to say. It was his rhetoric about an Evil Empire that helped destroy one system. Why should we take any less seriously his rhetoric about the evils of our government? Oliver North did not. The Freemen of Montana do not. The airwaves are filled with citizens' vituperation of the representatives they have themselves chosen. Though Reagan was too courtly and well mannered to use the caustic insults orchestrated on talk radio, he made the world safe for Rush Limbaugh. And Limbaugh, down through the ranks of his even less contained fellows (like Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy), made the world safe for the militias, the Freemen, the bombers of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. If the government was the enemy, these people would fight it, with guns if necessary; and feel that they worked under the aegis of the man who most effectively taught them that government is the enemy. One Evil Empire down, one to go.


Despite Reagan's love for a raptly imagined future, he never lost his love for an equally imaginary past. His optimism was able to rise above the worry over (or even awareness of) present discontents because he saw us so clearly poised between the Good Old Days and the Brave New World. We pass from one perfection to another, through an interspace it were best not to advert to. Even Vietnam, once it was passed, had slipped into that roseate glow that surrounds all other "noble causes" in our history. Reagan's view of the past was largely shaped by the movies he saw or made, with their celebratory approach to American exceptionalism. As Jules Feiffer once said, when dealing with Reagan's defense of religious creationism: "If Reagan had played Darwin in a movie, he would believe in evolution."

Reagan's religion emphasized that God has given the American people a special role in history. He liked biblical prophecies because they personalized issues. And he could be optimistic even about the End Time. After all, Armageddon is just the signal for "the second coming of Christ." Oliver North was telling lies, as usual, but was not very far from Reagan's thinking when he told representatives of the Ayatollah Khomeini:

We inside our Government had an enormous debate, a very angry debate inside our Government whether or not my President should authorize me to say "We accept the Islamic Revolution of Iran as a fact. . . ." He went off one whole weekend and prayed about what the answer should be and he came back almost a year ago with that passage I gave you that he wrote in front of the Bible I gave you. And he said to me: "This is a promise that God gave to Abraham. Who am I to say that we should not do this?"

It was also Reaganish to accompany the gift of a Bible with a sugary cake. (The TOW missiles were a different matter.)

Reagan was a great communicator because he was a great storyteller. That is why he preferred the Bible's story of creation to Darwin's lineup of fossil charts. That is why he liked prophecies and astrological assurances. Somebody up there likes us. The stories about our past were always better than any evidence about it. This explains the mysterious fact that our government, which can do nothing good now, could do nothing bad in the past. It screws up with OSHA, but it was benign in its wars with Indians and Mexicans. His heir in this reverence to the past is Lynne Cheney, who thinks any critical look at our history is mere political correctness. The authority of the past is, like that of the Bible, a matter of faith. To question anything about America that occurred before our lifetime is like an attack on God--since He was its guide. (In our lifetime, of course, you can beat up on government all you like.)

This strange worldview--strange, yet familiar--was articulated most dramatically by Reagan. For him, we were suspended between two glowing myths: the religious past and the technological future. Whatever trouble afflicts us now is caused only by doubters of our double myths--and Reagan had no gift for doubt. He did not invent this mythic complex. It speaks to very American attitudes toward past, present, and future, toward religious stability and technological change. But he gave the contradictory things a kind of magic absolution by combining them so easily in his performance at the peak of world power and public exposure. It was a bravura performance, one people are still stunned by and want to share. They hope for another Reagan. But who else could fuse so much of America's past, as celebrated on movie screens and radio waves, with the present of celebrity politics and nostalgic opportunism?

And who else has Reagan's personal qualities--self-assurance without a hectoring dogmatism, pride without arrogance, humility without creepiness, ambition without ruthlessness, accommodation without mushiness? How can you beat that? Jules Feiffer ruefully discovered that you can't. Back in the 1970s, when vacationing at Malibu, Feiffer took a lonely walk at dawn along the beach. Only one other figure was out--the soon-to-be-ex-governor of California (not yet a candidate for president). Feiffer resolved to be ostentatiously nonchalant, to prove he was not starstruck. He would walk by with a distant nod, if he could not prevent himself from any acknowledgment. But, just as they were about to pass each other, Reagan loosed one of his melt-an-iceberg grins, and Feiffer came apart. "I was waving like an idiot," Feiffer says. Reagan had a stealth charm, even for his critics. He flew under our radar.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1987-06:
Not a conventional biography, this book does not resemble the monographs and popular treatments of Ronald Reagan's life or his impact on US politics. Wills seeks, instead, to plumb the ``heart of darkness'' within the American character by examining in depth key episodes in history as they shaped Reagan and his America. Readers are offered disquisitions on western expansion, 19th-century religion, Hollywood, communism, the New Deal, and California politics, among other themes. The ostensible focus of the book-Ronald Wilson Reagan-is offstage so much of the time that some readers will wonder whether Wills is mining insights or simply showing off. He is doing both. Reagan's America is ostentatious and much too wordy, but it succeeds in weaving together a coherent thesis that will provoke angry and thoughtful responses. It offers a treasure trove of little-known information about the 40th president, and a convincing explication of Reagan's tendency to ignore inconvenient facts when they get in the way of a good story. Readers seeking a clear narrative of Reagan's life should turn to Lou Cannon's fine journalistic biography, Reagan (1982). For a provocative interpretation of Reagan's rise and his appeal, however, Reagan's America is rewarding. All libraries.-M.J. Birkner, Millersville University of Pennsylvania
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1987-12-04:
Adding a new chapter on Reagan's legacy that did not appear in the hardcover edition, Wills examines aspects of the President's life and career that account for his personal popularity with the American public. PW voted in favor of this study, which ``succeeds admirably in isolating the sources of Reagan's appeal.'' (February)
Appeared in Library Journal on 1987-02:
Wills has written the first major social biography about Ronald Reagan. He focuses largely on the institutions that have molded the man rather than on Reagan himself. Parents, alma mater Eureka College, and the industries that provided employmentjournalism, radio, and motion pituresinstilled in Reagan views about life both real and stereotypical. According to Wills, roiling institutional contradictions have molded Reagan into a believing and believable bearer of modern myths. In turn, Wills explodes many of the myths that pervade the Reagan persona, including his evocations of an idyllic childhood, the virtues of the Wild West, and his distrust of government. As eloquent and provocative as the author's Nixon Agonistes , Reagan's America will receive a wide readership. Highly recommended. BOMC, Quality Paperback Book Club, and History Book Club alternates.Karl Helicher, Wolfsohn Memorial Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Publishers Weekly, December 1986
Library Journal, February 1987
Choice, June 1987
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Table of Contents
Introductionp. ix
Huck Finn's World
Jackp. 9
Nellep. 20
Lifeguardp. 33
Eurekap. 44
Strikep. 52
Pap Finn's World
Depressionp. 67
Gabrielp. 77
G-Menp. 86
"Govment"p. 93
Individualismp. 103
Davenportp. 115
Des Moinesp. 127
Journalistp. 137
Sportsp. 149
Announcerp. 157
The Charlie Skidp. 169
Chastity Symbolsp. 177
War Moviesp. 192
Could He Act?p. 202
Costarringp. 213
Being Upp. 227
Hollywood on the Potomacp. 237
Union Man
SAG: Actors and the New Dealp. 255
IATSE: Controlling Exhibitorsp. 266
CSU: Hot Setsp. 274
HICCASP: G-Men IIp. 286
MPIC: Rituals of Clearancep. 298
Company Man
MCA: The Dealp. 311
MCA: The Investigationp. 323
GE: The Speechp. 332
Basico: Behavior Engineeringp. 344
Citizen Governorp. 355
Government Manp. 365
Unique Selling Intelligencep. 374
State of Grace
The Sears Interregnump. 387
War Movies IIp. 396
Home Basep. 406
Silver Bulletp. 417
Reaganomicsp. 429
Greenfield Village on the Potomacp. 440
Original Sinlessnessp. 448
Notesp. 461
Acknowledgmentsp. 549
Indexp. 551
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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