Reagan: “Like Death Not Knowing Itself”

Brian Cook

There have been a few exceptions to the seemingly endless stream of pious treacle dripping forth from the mass media in commemoration of Ronald Reagan's death. And while not enough to slide the bile back down one's esophagus, the commentaries by (among others) Jeffery St. Clair, Greg Palast and even Christopher Hitchens give those of us who actually remember the 1980s a Ronald Reagan much more recognizable than the man currently appearing in our nostalgia-tinted television screens. But as satisfying as these (much deserved) attacks on Reagan are, they do little to reveal how or why Reagan was so popular, or to illustrate just how closely linked his popular aura was to his pernicious politics. There is much mud-slinging and atrocity-accounting in these commentaries (and just about all of it sticks), but little understanding or explication of this truly horrifying phenomenon, or its poisonous legacy still haunting us today. As a corrective, then, I would suggest hunting down Liberty Under Siege: American Politics: 1976-1988 by the late historian Walter Karp. What follows is an extended quotation from this masterful work, which, aside from an eloquent argument for a democratic republic, takes no prisoners (Democrat or Republican) and illuminates how the considerable flaws of Reagan must always be guarded against in our selves. "The President-elect has fine and potent gifts, fully commands the arts of popularity. He is a speaker, a rhetor, a master of euphemism and the perfect half-truth, has immense powers of personal attraction, has about him an air of manly resolve, invincible self-assurance, unblemished candor, yet, withal, lightness and charm and ebullience. 'There was an ease in his manner.' So J. Copperfield describes J. Steerforth, hero of the school. 'A gay and light manner it was, but not swaggering-which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it. I still believe him, in virtue of his carriage, his animal spirits, his delightful voice, his handsome face and figure, and, for aught I know, of some inborn power of attraction besides (which I think a few people possess) to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield and which not many persons could withstand.' Much like Steerforth, hero of the school, does Ronald Reagan appear in public. Yet what brutal truncation, what cutting back of the plant, produces that splendid bosom! What lopping away of knowledge, of curiosity, of truthfulness, to produce that public aura of candor and confidence. What lopping away of realism, foresight, even the very capacity to govern. Reagan is ignorant, deliberately, willfully ignorant, scarcely knows who works for him, rarely asks a penetrating question. William Casey, his campaign manager, his intelligence director, the innermost member of his inner circle, describes Reagan as passive, friendless, 'strange.' 'He gave no orders, no commands, asked for no information, expressed no urgency.' So a startled David Stockman [Reagan's budget director] observes at his first informal meetings with the President-elect, who will spend two years in the White House without learning that most Soviet missiles are based on the land. His arms control proposals sound fairer to him if he does not know and so he never inquires. The new budget director tells the President-elect, that no revenue 'feedback' will be forthcoming from the Kemp-Roth tax cut. Reagan looks puzzled, but says not a word. What happened to the heart and soul of his promise to the people? Reagan does not care to know. What good would the knowledge do him? How can he maintain that marvelous air of candor if he knows for certain he is telling a lie? For candor's sake of seeming, intellectual honesty must be lopped away and with it the ability to see the true aspect of things. A Democratic governor warns Reagan of forthcoming deficits, to which Reagan angrily replies, 'We didn't invent deficit spending'-the idea of it is not his and so how can he be held responsible for the deficits? 'He seems unable to acknowledge that he might have made a mistake,' Gerald Ford says of Reagan in his memoirs. Bottomless self-deception protects the public blossom-the self deception of a man who spent World War II serving in the Air Force at home describing himself as 'coming back' from the war, eager 'to make love' to his wife. 'All his war-making has been in his mind,' says Gary Wills, 'and he will make it the way he wants.' An appalling capacity for repelling truth and believing falsehood is the only truly outstanding gift of the fortieth President… What, then, is the source of Reagan's wonderful air of resolve? It, too, is mainly a hothouse bloom, artfully cultivated. 'What's so incredible is Reagan's sense of confidence, but it is like death not knowing itself,' says an oddly poetical ex-aide of the President's. No real inner strength supports that air of assurance, but rather a desperate clinging to dogma-the virtues of 'the market' and the evils of 'government'-and headlong evasion of the terrors of doubt…. Reagan does not govern because he dares not govern, for reality rushes in upon governors-facts and figures, harsh and conflicting, sparing no dogmas, bursting all bubbles, and the Reagan blossom-resolute, candid, ebullient-would wither and die." -Walter Karp, Liberty Under Siege, p. 131-133.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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