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The Elusive Ronald Reagan

Reviewed by Timothy Noah,
a senior writer at Slate
Thursday, March 29, 2007

RONALD REAGAN

Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History

By John Patrick Diggins

Norton. 493 pp. $27.95

Ronald Reagan is a notoriously difficult nut to crack. Looking back on his presidency, historians and journalists have struggled to assess his character and measure his achievements, but their subject has proved maddeningly uncooperative. Was Reagan an "amiable dunce," as Clark Clifford famously branded him? Or was he an intuitive political master who ended the Cold War? John Patrick Diggins leans toward the latter opinion but summons little evidence to support it.

Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is a respected chronicler of political ideas, and in "Ronald Reagan" he sets himself the herculean task of locating Reagan's place in intellectual history. The trouble is that we know very little about how Reagan -- who was nobody's idea of an intellectual -- engaged the issues of his presidency. Even his more admiring Cabinet appointees have noted that in White House policy meetings Reagan tended to project an avuncular detachment, and he was no less enigmatic in his personal relationships.

Diggins confronts these obstacles by treating the 40th president mainly as an abstraction. Reagan's outlook, Diggins asserts, was a distillation of Tom Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson and perhaps a dash of Friedrich Nietzsche. As indirect influences, these seem plausible. But for Diggins to assert that Paine was literally "Reagan's hero" simply because Reagan quoted him in a few speeches is a stretch.

Not content to cast Reagan as political philosopher, Diggins goes on to portray him as theologian. In a 1951 letter encouraging a widowed friend to resume dating, Reagan advised, "My personal belief is that God couldn't have created evil so the desires he planted in us are good." To Diggins, this represents a breakthrough in theodicy, the branch of theology that struggles to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil. In an unconscious parody of academic hyperventilation, Diggins writes: "Reagan was the alchemist of American political and religious history, a leader who would deny the dualism between matter and spirit and so sublimate sin that he could convince us that evil is nowhere and God everywhere and that abundance need only be made abundantly abundant."

A more straightforward analysis would be that Reagan, like just about every other actor who ever passed through Hollywood, had a very hard time viewing sex as something to repress. This genial hedonism would later express itself in Reagan's embrace of supply-side economics. Tax cuts would pay for themselves, he told himself, and when they didn't, he left to his two White House successors the drudge work of reducing the huge budget deficit.

The two best parts of Diggins's book occur where the grand ideological struggles of the 20th century can be shown (with minimal extrapolation) to intersect with Reagan's life story. The first of these is the portion covering Reagan's postwar Hollywood experience, in which he wrestled directly with both the idea of communism and (in his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild) with Hollywood communists and former communists themselves. This topic is enlivened by Diggins's confident mastery of the period. (A nit, though: The blacklisted screenwriter Diggins refers to multiple times as Lester Coles was actually Lester Cole.)

The second highly successful portion of the book is Diggins's thoughtful analysis of the neoconservative hawks who exerted considerable influence over Reagan during his first term -- and hardly any during his second. Here the workings of Reagan's own mind are less easy to follow. Diggins notes, for instance, that Reagan was so impressed with Jeane J. Kirkpatrick's famous 1979 Commentary essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," that he made her his ambassador to the United Nations. Yet Kirkpatrick's essay described communism as irreversible, whereas Reagan believed communism could be defeated.

Or did he? There's no question that Reagan devoutly wished for communism's end, but neither Diggins nor anyone else I've read persuades me that, before Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent, Reagan consistently believed that the long twilight struggle was coming to an end. According to Diggins, it's an urban myth that Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union by forcing it to keep up with Pentagon spending. Reagan's achievement, Diggins argues, wasn't that he stood up to the "evil empire" but that he was able to extend convincingly the arm of friendship when Gorbachev decided that mutual hostility with the United States was no longer in his own collapsing nation's interest.

This lack of guile leads Diggins to conclude that Reagan "may be, after Lincoln, one of the two or three truly great presidents in American history." I can't agree. The epitaph "He didn't blow it" just doesn't rank up there with "He saved the union." Still, at a crucial moment, Reagan chose not to meddle with the Soviet Union's quiet disintegration, and for that we can all be grateful.

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