We’ll never get a handle on this man. Edmund Morris is a great writer. His books on Theodore Roosevelt are brilliant. So he was made Reagan’s “official” biographer, getting access to Reagan in the White House that was unprecedented and not repeated. The result, Dutch, was a punt. He had no idea what made Reagan tick, so he wrote a sort of fictional account of who Reagan was. A complete bust. I’ve read half a dozen Reagan biographies, and don’t think I have a lot to learn. But I did get some insight from the latest, H. W. Brands’ Reagan, The Life.
Brands is not a conservative. He chides Reagan for saying the states created the federal government. Uh, sorry, H. W., but the Gipper knew a few things you don’t. But if he’s a liberal he hides it very well. He’s quite fair.
If you haven’t read a Reagan biography lately, I’d recommend it. A good Christmas gift.
One of the things that struck me was how much Reagan cared about people, as individuals, not in the abstract sense. The whole Iran-Contra thing happened because he felt he had to do everything in his power to get those hostages back. He couldn’t get them out of his mind. His subordinates mis-served him, but they were trying to do what he wanted. If you wanted to get President Reagan’s attention, it always helped if you could put a face on a problem. He liked people. He really did.
As a boy, and a young man, Reagan was not a bad ass. The only way he made it in college football was because he went to a tiny school where everybody made the team, and he was third string. He loved the ladies, but he didn’t have the kind of masculine sexuality you see in real movie stars. Nancy picked him out and got her man. She had to take the initiative.
And he was whipped. I suppose we all are, but it got a little ridiculous when he let Nancy and her astrologer pick the best dates to hold events. Sorry, Mr. President, that’s a bit much. He was a little docile around her, let her get a little pushy on personnel. None of this is a criticism. The Reagans had a ridiculously successful marriage, but her hatred of Reagan’s first wife poisoned the relationship between Reagan and his first two kids by her, Michael and Maureen. Nancy tried to erect barriers between them and their father, and succeeded. Reagan agreed to give the commencement speech at Michael’s graduation, and pass out diplomas. When Michael came up to get his, Reagan didn’t recognize him. Michael had to identify himself to his own father.
In December of 1979 Reagan came up to Anchorage for a rally and speech. It was a complete waste of his time. I was Chairman of his Alaska campaign, and we had it in the bank. No problemo. But our national committeeman, Eldon Ulmer, a pharmacist, had extracted a promise from Reagan to campaign in Alaska, and he insisted on making Reagan keep it. I tried to talk him out of it, but it was a big feather in his cap, so the Reagans and their entourage fly up from Seattle for a one night stand. Reagan was not happy. The only thing he agreed to do was go to the hotel, give a speech, and go to bed. I had the opportunity to ride from the airport with him and Nancy, and I must say I was looking forward to it. Then Ellis Conklin, the liberal reporter for the Anchorage Times, asked me to let him ride with them instead of me. It was a big deposit into the favor bank, which I later redeemed in full. Ellis blew his chance, asking Reagan about things like his hair. So I didn’t get to spend any time with the Reagans, just very briefly introduced them to the crowd and got off the stage. Nobody was interested in anything I had to say.
I shook his hand after I introduced him, but he didn’t seem real friendly, at least to me. I think he blamed me for not getting him out of this stupid trip, or for having to answer dumb questions from Ellis..
He was a great man, but just a man.