Not Even a Hedgehog
The stupidity of Ronald Reagan.
Not long ago, I was invited to be the specter at the feast during "Ronald Reagan Appreciation Week" at Wabash College in Indiana. One of my opponents was Dinesh D'Souza: He wasn't the only one who maintained that Reagan had been historically vindicated by the wreckage of the Soviet Union. Some of us on the left had also been very glad indeed to see the end of the Russian empire and the Cold War. But nothing could make me forget what the Reagan years had actually been like.
Ronald Reagan claimed that the Russian language had no word for "freedom." (The word is "svoboda"; it's quite well attested in Russian literature.) Ronald Reagan said that intercontinental ballistic missiles (not that there are any non-ballistic missiles—a corruption of language that isn't his fault) could be recalled once launched. Ronald Reagan said that he sought a "Star Wars" defense only in order to share the technology with the tyrants of the U.S.S.R. Ronald Reagan professed to be annoyed when people called it "Star Wars," even though he had ended his speech on the subject with the lame quip, "May the force be with you." Ronald Reagan used to alarm his Soviet counterparts by saying that surely they'd both unite against an invasion from Mars. Ronald Reagan used to alarm other constituencies by speaking freely about the "End Times" foreshadowed in the Bible. In the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, on two separate occasions, that he himself had assisted personally at the liberation of the Nazi death camps.
There was more to Ronald Reagan than that. Reagan announced that apartheid South Africa had "stood beside us in every war we've ever fought," when the South African leadership had been on the other side in the most recent world war. Reagan allowed Alexander Haig to greenlight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, fired him when that went too far and led to mayhem in Beirut, then ran away from Lebanon altogether when the Marine barracks were bombed, and then unbelievably accused Tip O'Neill and the Democrats of "scuttling." Reagan sold heavy weapons to the Iranian mullahs and lied about it, saying that all the weapons he hadn't sold them (and hadn't traded for hostages in any case) would, all the same, have fit on a small truck. Reagan then diverted the profits of this criminal trade to an illegal war in Nicaragua and lied unceasingly about that, too. Reagan then modestly let his underlings maintain that he was too dense to understand the connection between the two impeachable crimes. He then switched without any apparent strain to a policy of backing Saddam Hussein against Iran. (If Margaret Thatcher's intelligence services had not bugged Oliver North in London and become infuriated because all European nations were boycotting Iran at Reagan's request, we might still not know about this.)
One could go on. I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn't like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter's briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn't, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.
The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.
However, there came a day when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington and when the Marriott Hotel—host of the summit press conferences—turned its restaurant into the "Glasnost Cafe." On the sidewalk, LaRouche supporters wearing Reagan masks paraded with umbrellas, in mimicry of Neville Chamberlain. I huddled from dawn to dusk with friends, wondering if it could be real. Many of those friends had twice my IQ, or let's say six times that of the then-chief executive. These friends had all deeply wanted either Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale to be, presumably successively, the president instead of Reagan. They would go on to put Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen bumper stickers on their vehicles. No doubt they wish that Mondale had been in the White House when the U.S.S.R. threw in the towel, just as they presumably yearn to have had Dukakis on watch when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I have been wondering ever since not just about the stupidity of American politics, but about the need of so many American intellectuals to prove themselves clever by showing that they are smarter than the latest idiot in power, or the latest Republican at any rate.
Sen. John Kerry waited until the first week of June 2004 to tell us that he met Ahmad Chalabi in London in 1998 and that he didn't care for him then. That makes six intervening years in which the senator could have alerted us to this lurking danger to national security. But something kept him quiet. One must hope that that something wasn't the tendency to pile on. Cheer up, though. At least this shows that Kerry has no pre-emptive capacity.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Ronald Reagan by Gary Hershorn/Reuters.