image added 2018 Credit: Simon & Schuster

“If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward,” writes Ronald Reagan in the first chapter of his autobiography, “I suppose I would never have left Illinois.”

Sherman, set the Way Back machine to 1932, Dixon, Illinois. We have to have a little talk with the personnel department at Montgomery Ward. Please, sir, could you give this man a job? You don’t know what an important opportunity you have to change the course of history, to save this country from no end of ills–the sound bite, the photo opportunity, Ollie North buttons, spin control, plausible deniability, Edwin Meese, James Watt, maybe even Donald Trump . . .

And while we’re at it, let’s consider what a better place the world would be without the megabucks publishing deal. Then this–this mound of verbiage, this appalling “memoir”–would never have been published. I’m reading it so that you won’t have to, all 726 pages. It is an experience I feel I can’t recommend, or fully describe for that matter. So imagine what it’s like to take a little trip down Selective Memory Lane, to relive the glories of the 80s through the eyes of a man whose powers of self-delusion cast immediate doubt on the veracity of every tiny crumb of historical interest. What part is truth and what part is convenient fiction, dreamed up by speech writers and spin-doctors and Reagan’s ghostwriter? Impossible to say.

Or simply imagine reading two or three hundred of Reagan’s radio editorials back-to-back and then plowing through his personal diaries and letters, heavily edited no doubt by White House staff, with perhaps 40 or 50 pages of Reader’s Digest-like exposition thrown in for purposes of lucidity, along with innumerable clean jokes, homilies, parables, logical reductions, contradictions, dubious facts, and quotes of disputable origin.

“That night over dinner at Buckingham Palace,” writes Reagan of the first night of the London economic summit, “Pierre [Trudeau] mentioned that he had read someplace that I could recite by heart ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ . . . I’m not sure he really believed I could do it. Maybe he just wanted to put me on the spot and see how I’d handle it. Sitting between Pierre and me was the Queen Mother, and as it turned out she was a great fan of that story and one of its characters, ‘the lady known as Lou.’ So when she heard what Pierre said, she turned to me and said, ‘Oh, do you know “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”?’

“I said, well, yes, then she started urging me to say it. She wouldn’t let up, and the whole table fell silent waiting to see what I would do. Across the table were Prince Philip and the Queen. Everybody was waiting for me. I was on the spot, and so I plunged into reciting that poem I’d memorized when I was a lad back in Dixon, and every time I said, ‘the lady named Lou,’ the Queen Mother chimed in with me. When we were through, everybody at the table applauded. All in all, it was a memorable evening.”

No kidding? “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Amazing. A man who wakes up in his hospital bed after an assassination attempt, tells his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” says to the nurse when asked how he is feeling, “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” and murmurs to the attending surgeon, “I hope you’re a Republican,” is not easily dismissed. There is a method to his drollery. It has a kind of demonic force.

But you have to wonder, does this guy ever stop pulling our leg? “If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois.” This is not merely an imaginative chapter starter but a central theme of the book. Reagan never planned on any of this; he was a passive agent of fate and the will of the people. This unceasing humility, so engaging on the TV screen, is irritating on the printed page.

For example, he never wanted to run for governor. He had to be courted, drummed into it. “I’d never given a thought to running for office,” he writes, “and I had no interest in it whatsoever. After doing as much research as I had on the operations of government, the last thing I wanted was to become part of it. . . . ‘I’m an actor, not a politician,’ I said several times. ‘I’m in show business . . .’

“No matter where I went, in San Jose or Modesto, Los Angeles or Newport Beach, after I’d give a speech, people would be waiting and they’d come up to me and say, ‘Why don’t you run for governor?’

“I’d laugh and give my standard response: ‘I’m an actor, not a politician,’ then ask them to suggest someone who was really qualified to be governor. But all I heard were voices of more people chiming in to urge me to run against [Pat] Brown.”

But they, the people, kept after him. They begged, they pleaded. Again and again he said no. “Then I’d go and give another speech and hear the same things again and again. Before long, we were having trouble getting to sleep again; we’d lay in bed [he and Nancy] and say, ‘Will we ever be able to live with ourselves if we turn our backs on this and Pat Brown wins a third term?'”

When he ran for president, he had to be called yet again, though not as persistently. “I wasn’t the reluctant candidate I’d been in 1965 and 1976,” he writes. “I wanted to be president. But I really believed that what happened next wasn’t up to me, it was up to the people; if there was a real people’s movement to get me to run, then I said I’d do it, but I was going to wait and see.”

A people’s movement? Yes, Reagan saw himself, sees himself, as part of a spontaneous popular movement. “A lot has been written about college students and other young people who rebelled against society in the 1960s, but there was another quieter revolution sweeping across the land during the same decade. It was a rebellion of ordinary people. A generation of middle-class Americans who had worked hard to make something of their lives was growing mistrustful of a government that took an average of 37 cents of every dollar they earned and still plunged deeper in debt every day.

“People were growing resentful of bureaucrats,” he says, “whose first mission in life seemed to be protecting their own jobs by keeping expensive programs alive long after their usefulness had expired. They were losing respect for politicians who kept voting for open-ended welfare programs riddled with fraud and inefficiency that kept generation after generation of families dependent on the dole. And they were growing mistrustful of the self-appointed intellectual elite back in Washington who claimed to know better than the people of America did how to run their lives, their business and their communities. There was unrest in the country, and it spread across the land like a prairie fire.”

In those early years, however, it was hardly a popular rebellion. If there was some tiny, flickering flame of rebellion, it was fanned by a handful of Birchers, antitax fanatics, and conservatives of the Taft-Goldwater wing of the Republican Party.

By that time Reagan’s screen career had faded and he had been working as a public-relations man for General Electric, giving talks about free enterprise and the dangers of too much government. He campaigned in the 1960 election as a “Democrat for Nixon,” and then vaulted into political prominence with a nationally televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater.

“I have spent most of my life as a Democrat,” he said. “I recently have seen fit to follow another course. . . . I believe that the issues confronting us cross party lines. Now one side of this campaign has been telling us that the issues of this election are the maintenance of peace and prosperity. The line has been used, “We’ve never had it so good!’ But I have an uncomfortable feeling that this is not a prosperity upon which we can base our hopes for the future.”

Tip O’Neill speculates in his memoir Man of the House that Reagan’s conversion had to do with taxes. “When he hit it big as a movie actor after a brief career as a radio announcer,” says O’Neill, “he must have been astounded at how much of his paycheck went straight to the government. What a shock it must have been for this young man from a poor family who suddenly found himself in the ninety percent bracket.”

In Reagan’s view, it wasn’t he who changed but the Democratic Party. “The ‘classic liberal,'” he writes, “believed individuals should be masters of their own destiny and the least government is the best government; these are the precepts of freedom and self-reliance that are at the root of the American way and the American spirit. But then came the ‘newfangled liberals’ who rejected these beliefs. They claimed government had a greater wisdom than individuals to determine what was best for the individual and it should engineer our economic and business life according to its goals and values; dictate to states, cities, and towns what their rights and responsibilities were; and take an increasing bite out of the earnings of productive workers and redistribute to those who are not productive. To them, government was the fount of all wisdom–the bigger government was, the better–and they rejected the principles of the Democrats who had gone before them.”

Perversely, to this day Reagan clings to his youthful reverence for Franklin Roosevelt. “The press is trying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal,” he writes in a January 28, 1982, entry in his diary. “I remind them I voted for FDR four times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led us to our present mess . . . ”

Like his father, an Irish American New Deal Democrat, the young Reagan “idolized” Roosevelt, whose “strong, gentle, confident voice resonated across the nation with an eloquence that brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured us that we could lick any problems. I will never forget him for that.

“With his alphabet soup of federal agencies,” Reagan admits, “FDR in many ways set in motion the forces that later sought to create big government and bring a form of veiled socialism to America. But I think that many people forget that Roosevelt ran for president on a platform dedicated to reducing waste and fat in government. He called for cutting spending by 25 percent, eliminating useless boards and commissions and returning to states and communities powers that had wrongfully been seized by the federal government. If he had not been distracted by war, I think he would have resisted the relentless expansion of the federal government that followed him.”

It was Jack Warner who suggested that Reagan was miscast as a president. Jimmy Stewart would have been better. A very literal mind, Jack Warner’s, but he had the right idea. Reagan projected a vision of mush-headed optimism right out of a Frank Capra movie–in some circles this is what passes for populism–a vaguely worded belief in the little guy, the natural goodness of the American people, and the unlimited potential for growth and fulfillment in a democratic society. This is not the conservatism of Thomas Hobbes but the conservatism of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of Ideals. Reagan’s politics were like those of a movie made in the 40s, with a communist for a screenwriter, a fascist for a director, and a Republican for a producer, all closely monitored by studio bosses anxious to expunge any reference that would cause offense to either the Roosevelt administration or the chamber of commerce.

Reagan’s ability to slash domestic-spending programs with such relish, enjoy the support of the Republican right, and continue to praise FDR is a key to his broad appeal among voters. He was himself a typical “swing voter,” a Democrat who voted his pocketbook.

There was a Jimmy Stewart giddiness to Reagan’s early years in office. If you put an ordinary, happy-go-lucky fellow like Reagan in the White House, the first thing he wants to do is show off his new powers. “One of the unexpected pleasures of the presidency has nothing to do with economic problems or international crises. It is the opportunity to lend a hand now and then to other human beings. I was outraged one day in May of 1982 when I read in the newspapers about a black family who lived near the University of Maryland. The husband and wife were both employed in a government printing office. They had been harassed and a cross had been burned into their lawn.

“I asked the staff to clear up my late afternoon schedule. I called Nancy, and she was happy to join me in visiting these victims of intolerance. They were a nice couple with a four-year-old daughter and a grandma, a most gracious lady, living with them. Their home was comfortably and tastefully furnished. We enjoyed our visit and when it was time to leave they saw us to our car. Our motorcade had naturally been noticed, so there was quite a turnout of people from the neighborhood, and our farewells at the curbside were warmly applauded by the neighbors. Needless to say, this family had no further harassment.”

Another time, he read a story in the New York Times about a young father of eight who had been out of work for months. “He was returning home from applying for a job when an elderly blind man broke his cane and fell to the tracks of the subway. The young man bravely jumped down onto the tracks and rescued him. We found out his telephone number and I called him. I asked him if he had gotten the job he had applied for before the incident; he said he was just leaving his home to go back for a second interview. I called the company; at first, the switchboard operator wouldn’t believe it was me and refused to let me speak to the manager. But I finally got through. I’m not sure my call had anything to do with it, but the young man got the job.”

I’m not going to say anything here about the savings-and-loan crisis, the crack epidemic, the tragic increase in homelessness, the HUD scandal, the sad state of the schools, or the unchecked growth of crime and decay in the cities. It would be easier to condemn Reagan personally for these things if Democrats hadn’t gone along with much of the Reaganomics program.

Most critics of Reaganomics see it as a cynical appeal to the principle that greed is good, but Reagan didn’t see it that way. What he said he believed was that the cause of most of society’s ills was government intervention, and that by releasing the American people from the fetters of bureaucracy, overregulation, heavy taxation, and boneheaded “social engineering,” the natural energy and goodness and creativity of the American people would come out.

“I hope history will look back on the 80s not only as a period of economic recovery and a time when we put the brakes on the growth of government, but as a time of fundamental change for our economy and a resurgence of the American spirit of generosity that touched off an unprecedented outpouring of good deeds.”

Why does he tell us these things that are impossible to accept at face value? At what point does “simple faith” and naive optimism become something more cynical and conniving? The ability to hold two contradictory points of view at the same time seems to be a key to Reagan’s thinking. Great good, as well as great mischief, can come of this. All those years of denouncing Soviet expansionism and bemoaning U.S. military inferiority–and then negotiating a sweeping arms deal with the Soviets? Reagan sees no contradiction.

One of the first things he did when he reached the Oval Office was to write a personal letter to Leonid Brezhnev “aimed at reaching him as a human being.” Not surprisingly, Al Haig was dismayed by the letter, and Brezhnev must have been astonished. “Is it possible,” Reagan asked, “that we have permitted ideology, political and economic philosophies, and government policies to keep us from considering the very real everyday problems of peoples? Will the average Soviet family be better off or even aware that the Soviet Union has imposed a government of its own choice on the people of Afghanistan? Is life better for the people of Cuba because the Cuban military dictate who shall govern the people of Angola?

“It is often implied that such things have been made necessary because of the territorial ambitions of the United States; that we have imperialistic designs and thus constitute a threat to your own security and that of the newly emerging nations. There not only is no evidence to support such a charge, there is solid evidence that the United States, when it could have dominated the world with no risk to itself, made no effort whatsoever to do so.”

Reagan refers here to the period immediately following World War II, when the U.S. had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. “If we had sought world domination then, who could have opposed us? But the United States followed a different course–one unique in all the history of mankind. We used our power and wealth to rebuild the war-ravaged economies of the world, including those nations who had been our enemies.”

If this book is to be believed, Reagan became convinced after a few years in office that the Soviet leadership was suffering from some basic misunderstanding about U.S. intentions. “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. In fact, I had difficulty accepting my own conclusion at first. I’d always thought from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were moral people who starting at the birth of our nation had always used our power only as a force of good in the world.”

Once again, this is a sort of 40s, New Deal, Hollywood fantasy, and Reagan believed, or so the book says, that if he could just reach the right person in the Kremlin and have a little heart-to-heart he could disabuse the Russians of this silly notion about U.S. imperialism. What must Soviet leaders have thought of these pleasant little notes from a man who had come into office warning of Soviet military superiority and the Kremlin’s unceasingly fanatical quest for world domination? Reagan writes with a note of disappointment that he received an “icy reply from Brezhnev.”

Even after giving his infamous “evil empire” speech in 1983, Reagan continued to bombard the Soviet leadership with positive vibes: Brezhnev, Chernenko, and finally Gorbachev. They must have thought he was playing some sort of loopy form of psychological warfare, assailing them as the source of all evil in the world and then softening them up with these “Dear Yuri” letters. As far as I can judge from this book, Reagan is still convinced that what turned the tide in Soviet-American relations, and arguably changed the fate of the world, was his fireside chat with Gorbachev at Geneva.

“After World War II, I pointed out, we had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but had not used them for aggression or to exert our influence because America was not an expansionist country. We had no designs on any people or any nation; we had built our force of nuclear missiles only to deter a Soviet attack.”

Lack of self-consciousness may be agreeable in a sound bite or a photo opportunity, but it makes pretty dull reading in an autobiography. Why can’t Reagan take this moment to reflect upon the fact that his own long-standing views on Soviet intentions were at least a bit paranoid, if not shamelessly exaggerated? Or give us a little wink and a nod to suggest that he knows we know he never really believed the Soviets planned to launch an assault on Brownsville, Texas, via Nicaragua? But no. It seems he has to see the crowning achievement of his administration, the end of the arms race, as some sort of miraculous fireside conversion.

Blue in the face, Reagan continues to argue that his policy of supporting the contras and the Salvadoran military was intended to halt Soviet expansionism. “Well,” he writes, “one of my greatest frustrations during those eight years was my inability to communicate to the American people and to Congress the seriousness of the threat we faced in Central America. In the early 80s, Soviet Communism was not just another competing economic system run by people who happened to disagree with us about the merits of capitalism and free enterprise; it was a predatory system of absolute, authoritarian rule that had an insatiable appetite for expansionism.

“Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans who would apply the same kind of heat on Congress that helped pass the economic recovery package. But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America.”

What? Americans not care about their neighbors down there in Nicaragua and El Salvador? That can’t be it. What about the simple goodness of the American people, the unparalleled outpouring of generosity once the government was lifted from their backs? The problem with Reagan–with this book–is that he wants to have it both ways. Apparently he plans to go to his grave arguing that the Iran-contra scandal was not an arms-for-hostages deal or a plan to flout the will of Congress, but an attempt to “open up a channel to moderate Iranians.”

“We were not trading arms for hostages,” he argues. “None of the arms we shipped to Iran had gone to terrorists who kidnapped our citizens.” No, of course not. The arms went to Iranian “moderates” who were supposed to use their TOW missiles to further the cause of moderation everywhere. And if, in the overall increase in greater goodwill, a few hostages managed to be released, well . . .

It’s surprising how flimsy Reagan’s arguments appear on the printed page. You would think that the people who worked on this book could have done better than that. I can imagine an interesting, if somewhat shorter book, arguing for Reagan’s place in history, highlighting his achievements, and passing gracefully over some of his boneheaded blunders. He did come through on many of his campaign promises, especially when it came to tax policy and domestic spending, which is more than you can say for most politicians. He did help set a right-wing agenda for the decade. And then, having accomplished all that and having discredited himself with the Iran-contra scandal, he managed to pull off an amazing about-face in Soviet-American relations, guaranteeing a happy end to his administration.

Reagan isn’t stupid, and he certainly isn’t “average,” as he tries to suggest with this humbug about being rejected by Montgomery Ward. He is a supertalented toastmaster with an instinctive genius for politics. He is also a shameless kidder with feeble analytical powers and a clinical inability to face facts. Obviously, the two-and-a-half-inch-thick biography is not the proper medium for someone with Reagan’s assortment of talents. “In Hollywood,” he writes, “if you don’t sing or dance, you became an after-dinner speaker.” If only he had learned to sing and dance, perhaps he never would have left California.

An American Life by Ronald Reagan, Simon & Schuster, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.