The Reagan years were a triumph of the imagination indeed—and a defeat of reality. So suggests presidential biographer Reeves (President Nixon, 2001, etc.), who offers a different Ronald Reagan from that of the hagiographers.
Reeves’s Reagan is sharper than he is given credit for, aware that ideas—not facts—are important, and that assuring words are even more so. Thus, when Jimmy Carter decried the national crisis of confidence in 1979, Reagan was there to say, “I find nothing wrong with Americans,” implying that the crisis was the Democrats. Entering office with just half the vote, Reagan, an ideologue posing as moderate, immediately set about fulfilling four goals: reducing taxes, strengthening the military, containing communism and restoring national pride. Reducing taxes, Reeves shows, meant massive giveaways to the rich; strengthening the military meant running the deficit up to historic levels; containing communism meant the dirty adventurism of Iran-Contra. But some sort of pride was restored, a blind trust that allowed Reagan a pass no matter what his errors. Thus, though fully two-thirds of respondents to a Washington Post poll believed that Reagan was lying about what he knew about said Iran-Contra, “his overall job approval was recorded at 53 percent.” By Reeves’s account, Reagan—at turns earthy, remote and ill-tempered, used to treating even friends as hired hands—could do all manner of wrong and never be called to answer for it. Even his conservative base turned on him when he made one embarrassing error too many, in this instance by failing to respond to the downing of KAL 007. Yet he survived and more, outlasting many a lieutenant against whom he looked quite reasonable (think Al Haig) and even making historical points for his dealings with Gorbachev.
Under Reagan, recently all but canonized, the economy suffered, big government grew bigger, the military got new toys but not better soldiers or leaders. And as for national pride…