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Fred Greenstein: Reagan's Style of Politics and Governing

Fred Greenstein, in the Political Science Quarterly and reprinted by TomPaine.com (2000):

Ronald Reagan presents an interpretative puzzle. Although he was innocent of much that went on in his own presidency, he managed to be a powerful force in his times. Early in his first term, Reagan presided over a fundamental reorientation of his nation's domestic policies, and in his second term, he played a critical part in the peaceful termination of a global conflict that threatened the survival of humankind. It is a challenge to arrive at an understanding of the man, as well as of his political accomplishments. Like his early political idol Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan had impressive social skills but was distant as a human being, denying even his closest associates access to his inner self.


In 1985, Edmund Morris was afforded a unique perspective from which to take the measure of this elusive figure. Reagan and several of his aides had been entranced by Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the young TR. Reagan's staff invited Morris to become their boss's authorized biographer. Morris accepted, set up shop in the White House, and met regularly with Reagan. He attended Reagan's public appearances and sat in on many of his official meetings, although he was excluded from national security deliberations.

To Morris's distress, he found little new to say about his protagonist. His interviews with the highly private Reagan proved to be singularly unrevealing. Moreover, by the time he was ready to write his book, Reagan's life and political career had been thoroughly explored by others. Even before Morris began his project, Reagan had been the subject of a perceptive 1982 biography by Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, who devoted much of his journalistic career to covering Reagan in California and Washington. In 1987, Garry Wills published a contextually rich book on Reagan's background and personal qualities. In 1991, two more important volumes came out, a detailed history of the Reagan presidency by Cannon and a comprehensive account of Reagan's role in the events that spelled the end of the Cold War by Don Oberdorfer.

Morris's solution to his predicament is by now well known. After an extended battle with writer's block, he arrived at a way to write Reagan's biography that is, if nothing else, original. Morris casts his book as the memoir of a fictional contemporary of Reagan's, who has observed him in Illinois as a young man and in California as a movie actor, conservative political activist, and governor of the state. That memoir-writer is an altered version of Morris himself. The actual Morris was born in Kenya in 1940; the invented Morris was born in Chicago in 1912, the year after Reagan's birth. In addition to his fictionally aged self, Morris populates his book with no fewer than nine made-up members of the Morris family, including a 1960s University of California student radical, who provides a highly selective account of Reagan's governorship.

Morris's book is an intellectual embarrassment. It blurs fact with fiction, substitutes effusion for rigorous analysis, and is riddled with errors. It also is seriously incomplete, especially in its treatment of the aspect of Reagan's experience to which Morris might have been expected to have the most to add -- his White House years. A mere nine of the book's thirty-seven chapters are devoted to the Reagan presidency. Of these, Morris allocates only one to the entirety of 1987 and 1988. These are the years of the two final Reagan-Gorbachev summit conferences, which produced the first arms reduction agreements in the history of the Cold War.

Another indication of the book's incompleteness is its failure to mention Robert Bork, whose 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected by the Senate in one of the most heated controversies of the Reagan presidency. Also ignored are Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy, all of whom Reagan succeeded in appointing to the Court, and William H. Rehnquist, whom he elevated to chief justice. Yet there are over one hundred entries in the book's index for members of Morris's make-believe family. More could be said about the deficiencies of this idiosyncratic work, but the interested reader can use the Internet to consult the many, mostly critical, reviews of it that appeared following its publication in October 1999.


The real Ronald Reagan can be characterized without resort to novelistic techniques. He was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, a small town sixty miles west of Chicago, and raised in the somewhat larger nearby town of Dixon. His father was an ebullient salesman with the gift of gab and a drinking problem. Reagan's deeply religious mother taught her children to think of their father's alcoholism as an illness. He emerged from childhood with a sunny disposition as well as a number of traits that are common in children of alcoholics, including discomfort with conflict, distance in personal relationships, and a tendency to put a rosy gloss on harsh realities.

Perhaps because of the attraction of fantasy to those who have had painful formative experiences, Reagan developed an early ambition to become an actor. He took part in dramatics in high school and college and found employment as a sportscaster after college. (He specialized in embellishing the teletype's bare-bones accounts of games with imagined descriptions of ballpark atmospherics.) On a 1937 trip to California, Reagan was signed to a contract by Warner Brothers. During his time in Hollywood, he performed in fifty-three films, earning a reputation as reliable and able professional. He also was active in the Screen Actor's Guild, serving as its president during the postwar controversies over alleged communist infiltration of the film industry, and leading it in collective bargaining negotiations.

In the 1950s, Reagan's film career began to wind down, and he secured a position as a public spokesman for the General Electric Company. In the course of a decade spent addressing corporate audiences, Reagan underwent a political conversion from liberalism to conservatism. In 1962, he brought his party affiliation in line with his new convictions, registering as a Republican. In 1964, Reagan suddenly became one of his party's leading figures after delivering a phenomenally successful fund-raising appeal in support of the party's presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Between 1967 and 1975, Reagan served two terms as governor of California. During his time in Sacramento, he instituted a variety of conservative programs, but he also proved open to compromise, going along with the Democrats to institute the largest tax increase in California history. Despite his much publicized conflicts with student protestors, the funding of the University of California doubled during Reagan's governorship. In 1976, Reagan competed with President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination and was narrowly defeated. In 1980, he again sought his party's nomination, won it, and went on to become the first two-term president since Eisenhower.


Reagan's political style was shaped by his enthusiasm for FDR, for whom he voted four times; his experience as a labor leader; and his background as an actor. He took Roosevelt's use of the presidential pulpit as the prototype for his own political leadership. His union leadership helped mold his bargaining skills. Hollywood prepared him to take part in the staged public events that were a central feature of his governorship and presidency, and his screen persona as an affable middle American was the basis of his political personality as a citizen-politician bent on restoring the nation to its traditional values.

Reagan's presidential performance illustrates the shortcomings of attempts to classify presidents in terms of whether they are active or passive in their stances toward their responsibilities. As the spokesman-in-chief and principal negotiator of his presidency, Reagan was unsparing in his efforts. He also was not only his presidency's star performer but also its producer, setting the tone and direction of its policies.

But when it came to the inner workings of his presidency, Reagan was the antithesis of a hands-on leader. Examples abound. His first-term treasury secretary, Donald Regan, relates that during his four years as the Reagan administration's chief financial officer, Reagan never sought him out for a one-to-one discussion. His White House aide, Michael Deaver, reports that at a reception for city executives, Reagan mistook his secretary of housing and urban development for a mayor. His budget director, David Stockman, notes that during the maneuvering that led to the enactment of the 1981 tax and budget cuts, Reagan was uninformed about the particulars of his program and allowed himself to be misled by his advisers.

Reagan's former domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson has provided an analysis of Reagan's leadership style that helps explain how he could have had such a great impact despite his hands-off manner. To begin with, his strong general convictions enabled him to set his administration's priorities. Yet he was tactically flexible, readily adjusting to political opposition and changed circumstances. He also had impressive negotiating skills, an ability to make decisions easily, and a readiness to afford his subordinates wide control of the programs they administered.

Reagan's openness to delegation was a source of weakness, as well as strength, Anderson notes. His practice was to make decisions on the basis of the options his aides presented to him, neither questioning the choices given to them nor seeking to shape them. When those aides were competent and responsible, matters tended to go well. But when they were deficient, the results could be disastrous. Both possibilities are illustrated in three major developments of the Reagan presidency: the tax and spending cuts of 1981, the Iran-contra affair, and the politics of the end of the Cold War.


Transforming Domestic Priorities

In his first eight months in the White House, Reagan presided over a display of political effectiveness that will be studied for years to come. By the summer of 1981, Reagan and his associates had persuaded Congress to institute the greatest change in government priorities since the New Deal. One of the principal sources of Reagan's success was the caliber of his staff. Included were budget director Stockman, who had a keen strategic sense and a Talmudic knowledge of the federal budget; White House chief of staff, James Baker III, who was one of the most accomplished Washington operators of his time; Edwin Meese III, Reagan's emissary to the Republican Right; and Michael Deaver, the choreographer of the news-making events that kept Reagan's program at the forefront of national attention.

Reagan himself was crucial for his program's success. He was a masterful public enunciator of his program. He even turned the March 1981 attempt on his life to political advantage, marking the end of his convalescence with a stirring defense of his legislative proposals before a joint session of Congress. He was also consistently prepared to make his communication skills available for tactical purposes, winning the votes of swing legislators by stimulating voters to contact them before key roll calls. The upshot of such efforts was the passage of a pair of measures that reduced the next year's domestic spending by $35.2 billion, while slashing taxes by 25 percent over the next three years. Whatever their substantive merits, Reagan's 1981 economic enactments were a political accomplishment of the highest order.


Reagan's second term began with a number of modest-seeming staff changes. Meese became attorney general and Deaver left the government. Baker and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan informed Reagan that they would like to swap positions. He gave them his blessing, raising no questions about the possible consequences of the change, which proved to be huge. Donald Regan was an ex-marine, a hard-driving former CEO of Merrill Lynch, and a practitioner of top-down management. In contrast to his predecessor, James Baker III, Regan was neither a Washington insider nor politically skilled.

Regan restructured the White House along hierarchical lines, putting himself in charge of all matters relating to the president. In focusing on the top of the White House pyramid, however, Regan was insufficiently attentive its base. In the second year of his tenure as chief of staff, a scandal of major proportions broke out at the lower levels of the White House. Its perpetrators were Lt. Colonel Oliver North, an obscure functionary on the National Security Council staff, and Vice Admiral John Poindexter, the fourth of Reagan's six national security advisers.

Poindexter and North were discovered to have been engaged in the covert sale of arms to the revolutionary regime of Iran. Their hope was to persuade Iran to intervene with a group of Islamic militants who were holding a number of Americans hostage in Lebanon. Before long, it also emerged that North and Poindexter had secretly diverted the profits from the arms sales and used them to provide aid to the guerrillas who were seeking to overthrow the left-leaning government of Nicaragua. In so doing they ignored legislation barring the nation's intelligence agencies from aiding the Central American rebels. They also contravened two major policies of the president they served, violating the precept that one never negotiates with terrorists and abetting a regime the Reagan administration was seeking to isolate.

The Iran-contra revelations broke in November 1986. At that point, Reagan was riding high -- his approval level had exceeded 60 percent in the previous fifteen successive Gallup soundings. The following month, it plunged to 47 percent, remaining in that anemic range for most of the next year. The year of 1987 was not a total loss in that it was marked by the Washington summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. Nonetheless, it marked a period in which the "Great Communicator" was less than successful at controlling the nation's policy agenda.

Cold War Endgame

In the developments that spelled the end of the Cold War, Reagan relied heavily on one of the most dedicated and able public servants of his time, Secretary of State George Shultz. Reagan and his associates were by no means solely responsible for the end of the Cold War. They were dependent on the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union and find a peaceful modus vivendi with the West, and Gorbachev in turn was motivated by the disastrous state of the Soviet economy.

Nevertheless, Reagan played a critical part in the dramatic improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1989. Spurred by an abhorrence of nuclear weapons that was not widely known at the time, Reagan concluded that it would be possible for the United States to find a modus vivendi with Gorbachev's Soviet Union. His efforts were advanced by his ingratiating manner and skill as a negotiator. They also were furthered by his confidence in his own views, which were unshaken by the insistence of many of his aides that the Soviet Union had not changed its spots.

As the long-time Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, has observed, Reagan's conciliatory policies toward the Soviet Union enabled Gorbachev to forge ahead in his domestic and international initiatives. "If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986," Dobrynin commented, "Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who does not want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense."


What can we conclude about Reagan's strengths and weaknesses as political leader? His greatest liability clearly was in the realm of cognition. This was a chief executive who never grasped the logic of nuclear deterrence and genuinely believed that it would be possible to produce an invulnerable space shield. It also was a president whose inattention to particulars left him at the mercy of his subordinates.

Yet there was more to Reagan's intellect than met the eye. In attempting to identify that "more," Lou Cannon has drawn on the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's notion of multiple intelligences. Cannon concludes that while Reagan was not well endowed with logical abilities, he was gifted at interpersonal relations and the use of verbal and body language, traits that are more common in actors than politicians, but that Reagan turned to good political effect.

The emotional qualities of presidents are also of central importance for their performance. Reagan's leadership suffered from a discomfort with face-to-face disagreement that limited his ability to profit from vigorous debate on the part of his advisers. However, he showed no sign of the highly disruptive passions that doomed the presidency of Richard Nixon or the defective impulse control that led Bill Clinton down the path to impeachment. Despite having been the son of an alcoholic, Reagan projected a sense of self-assurance that enhanced his political effectiveness. He also was confident in his own perceptions, feeling free to ignore his conservative base, when he sensed that the United States could do business with Gorbachev.

Reagan's most obvious political asset was his ability as a public communicator. In this he is in a small class of oratorically gifted twentieth century presidents that includes Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and, intermittently, Bill Clinton. Reagan also excelled in the acts of face-to-face communication and bonhomie that add to a president's ability to sell his program to other policy makers.

Also on the positive side of the ledger was the firmness of Reagan's convictions. No one could mistake his opposition to big government, high tax rates, and the Soviet Union -- until Gorbachev changed the Soviet reality. As George Shultz has observed, Reagan's convictions provided a beacon for his administration and others in the political community: "Maybe you didn't agree with him and maybe you did. But there it was. What you saw was what you got."

Throughout his political career Reagan was advantaged by the tendency of others to dismiss him as a "mere" actor. A striking example of his native political gifts has been provided by Douglas Dillon, former secretary of the treasury under Kennedy and Johnson. In the mid-1970s, Dillon served with Reagan on a Ford administration task force charged with reevaluating the CIA's mission in the wake of its use for domestic political espionage by the Nixon administration.

In its early meetings, the task force became stalemated, with some of its members favoring a largely uncurbed CIA and others wanting to place severe curbs on the agency. Reagan, who had missed the group's initial sessions, spent a portion of the first meeting he attended listening to the debate. He then picked up a pen, began writing, and read off a compromise wording, asking the proponents of the polar positions if they could accept his formula. They agreed that they could, thus ending the impasse.

As Dillon's report shows, Reagan was far more than a political front man. He was a politically skilled chief executive whose talents were insufficiently recognized because he was cut from a different cloth than most of those who rise to the nation's highest office.

This article was first published by the Political Science Quarterly.