Saint Ronald, Part 2
Richard Pipes' new memoir adds ballast to CBS's miniseries.
Richard Pipes is an eminent scholar of Russian history who taught at Harvard for many years. In the early 1980s Pipes served on President Reagan's National Security Council staff, where he successfully pushed for a hard line against the Soviets. Pipes has recently published a memoir, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, in which he recounts his years in Cambridge and Washington. Sam Tanenhaus, who profiled Pipes in the Nov. 2 Boston Globe, alerted Chatterbox that Pipes' book was quite blunt about Ronald Reagan's lack of mental and emotional engagement during his presidency, a subject made newsworthy by the cancellation of CBS's miniseries The Reagans, which reportedly portrays the 40th president as a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
"Reagan," Pipes writes,
was a poor judge of people; he basically liked everyone, which was part of his charm but also a source of weakness, for a politician must be able to distinguish friend from foe. … Reagan was remote: even his children complained they could never get close to him. His amiability served as a shield that protected him from more intimate relationships. He drew on his inexhaustible reservoir of anecdotes to avoid serious conversation. …
Unquestionably, Reagan's political and economic ideas were in some respects simplistic: I once heard him say that one million Sears Roebuck catalogues distributed in the Soviet Union would bring the regime down. …
Pipes goes on to say that Reagan nonetheless "instinctively understood, as all great statesman do, what matters and what does not." Pipes resolves this seeming contradiction by arguing that in dealing with Soviet Russia, "you must have a simple mind," because "the USSR was a crude system, based on force and the exploitation of fear." Reagan apparently fit the bill. Pipes quotes some notes from his diary about his first NSC meeting in Oct. 1981:
RR totally lost, out of his depth, uncomfortable. After making some commonsensical remarks did not speak for forty-five minutes or so; when he finally spoke up it was to sigh "Oh boy"—meaning "what am I to make of this mess?"… He did not listen attentively, looking away or staring at the papers in front of him—except when Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke up and he briefly engaged in a dialogue with her. … All this—both the substance and human conflict—is above and beyond him. He has not enough of either knowledge or decisiveness to cut through the contradictory advice that is being offered to him. …
Admittedly, the president was still relatively new on the job. But he didn't demonstrate a much better grip during his second term, which was dominated by the Iran-contra scandal. The president's incoherence on the subject was captured most memorably in his address to the nation on March 4, 1987:
A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
Five months later, in a letter to former campaign aide Stuart Spencer that appears in the newly published Reagan: A Life in Letters, Reagan had reverted back to his earlier denial:
I was not trading arms for hostages but as it developed [Defense Secretary] Cap [Weinberger] and [Secretary of State] George [Shultz] were right when they argued that if our arrangement ever became known, it would look like trading.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Ronald Reagan by Wally McNamee/Corbis.