HE IS THE ULTIMATE role-model to all those in search of a second career. In a previous incarnation, a generation or two back, he was a B-movie actor hungry enough to stand on his head beside a chimpanzee. He never won an Oscar, but he won a reputation for speechifying and for compromise, so he cut his losses and became a union boss, then a television star. Somehow, like Sammy Glick, he always managed to snatch mediocrity from the jaws of defeat. Now he is the 40th president of the United States.
When he was elected governor of California, Sam Goldwyn thought him miscast. "No, no," he said, "Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronnie Reagan for best friend." the son of New Deal Democrats, he had joined the Republican Party in his fifties (age, not tax bracket, though you may be forgiven for asking). He didn't let the grass grow. It took him all of 16 years, and three attempts, to become leader of the free world. He has survived an assassination attempt, pushed some major legislation through Congress, and will shortly be declared immortal. He is rather partial to jellybeans. He has a wife, his second, called Nancy, whose favorite color is pink. If he drops by your house, offer him macaroni and cheese. He'll be in clover.
I sometimes wonder if we already know all there is to know about President Reagan. He has in his time been gravely underestimated, but he can scarcely be described as a man with hidden depths. His past was a more than familiar landscape long before he won office last fall; his present is all around us; and, for all the suspense attaching to his great economic experiment, he will surely remain the most predictable of men (and of politicians). It should therefore, perhaps, come as no surprise that neither The Reagan Revolution nor Blue Smoke and Mirrors tells us anything new.
Even a much-trumpeted "exclusive interview," granted expressly for their volume to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, adds little to the store of our knowledge. We have grown accustomed, despite ourselves, to hearing this president quote such eminences as Von Mises, Hayek and Bastiat. Asking Reagan to name the "philosophical thinkers or writers" who "most influence your conduct as a leader, as a person," Evans helpfully interrupts the president with a few suggestions. Adam Smith? Thomas Hobbes? Spinoza? No, says Reagan, John Bright and Richard Cobden. What a relief to hear him quoting Britons other than Margaret Thatcher.
It was gracious of the president to grant Evans and Novak this exclusive interview, especially on the day he was thinking of firing Al Haig, but it now appears to me to have been a mistake. The unedited transcript presented here as chapter 11 reminds us how fundamentally inarticulate is this greatest communicator among recent presidents. Bereft, as the authors proudly inform us on his behalf, of his 5x8 prompt cards, Reagan is unable to answer any question without rambling off into sententious anecdotes about people singing "America the Beautiful" when he and Nancy turn up in a Broadway theater, or recalling the movies he turned down after reaching the top tax bracket as "I wasn't going to work for six cents on the dollar." Now, that's the spirit that made America great.
Evans and Novak's central assertion is that "the Reagan revolution" constitutes the most radical realignment of American social, economic and political life since FDR and the New Deal. That, of course, is how every journalist with half an eye on his man summed up Reagan's aspirations throughout the 1980 campaign, and ditto ever since. Like the president himself, the authors are much more interested in domestic economics than foreign or social policy; their brief chapters on U.S.-Soviet relations and the military balance read as incisively as Pentagon handouts. Yet their obsession with supply-side economics occupies the three central chapters of the book.
And there's the rub. As with most of their journalism, this volume from the team who most openly supported Reagan's candidacy ends up as thinly disguised propaganda. They never say so explicitly, but the clear inference throughout this sustained encomium is that Reagan is too much of a trimer for their taste. They are clearly disappointed, for instance, by his failure to appoint supply-side purists to every senior position in the administration; disproportionate amounts of space are devoted to the dastardly deeds wrought in dead of night to keep the radical likes of Bill Simon, William van Cleave, Laurence Silberman and Lewis Lehrman out of the mighty councils of the land. The extent to which they otherwise lean over backwards to present Reagan as a paragon among presidents is aptly illustrated by one remarkable sentence, noteworthy also as a taster of their racy prose style. Reagan's first 100 days they argue, could be compared to FDR's "if measured in overall governmental change rather than the journalistic standard of legislative accomplishment." First 200 days, perhaps; as I remember it, he had formed barely half his administration after 100.
Germond and Witcover, that other dynamic duo of many an Op-Ed page, are more dispassionate, if no less worked up about everything. Not for them Evans and Novak's attempts to sum up the Reagan years after just three months (their conclusion, after 246 heavy-duty pages, being "Will it work?"). G & W are intent merely on making it first to the stores with the 1980 version of An American Melodrama -- now a quadrennial publication rite so familiar that its only remaining interest is whether Teddy White will come out of retirement more often than Frank Sinatra.
The Washington Post team, if memory serves, had their paperback on the stands in a matter of days. I divine no advantage to Germond and Witcover in slaving a few more months over their hot typewriters. The ground could not be more familiar if the networks rebroadcasts two years worth of nightly news shows.
They begin, granted, in what I do consider the right place: at Camp David, in July 1979, when Jimmy Carter abandoned all pretense of making any further decisions with anything but reelection in mind. It makes dispiriting reading to be reminded of the way the First Lady and the First Pollster began pulling the strings of the presidential puppet. What a noble mind was there o'erthrown.
We are then led by the hand, chronologically, through the long sequence of events that was the undoing of Jimmy Carter and the making of Ronald Reagan. The only live question for historians, it seems to me, is whether the continuing plight of the hostages tipped the scales against Carter that last weekend before the election in November 1980. Germond and Witcover seem to think so, rightly emphasizing that Carter brought it all on himself by playing politics too long with the lives of those hapless public servants. My own view, for what it is worth, is that Carter was a goner anyway. Brushfire inflation and contemptuous Soviet belligerence never got anyone reelected to anything.
Which may, in time prove President Reagan's problem. Not only Americans wish him well in his bold economic gamble, and itch to see him frighten the Russians back behind their own borders. The question, which both these books pose but neither dares answer, is: Will it work?