Slate: What about the last panels, of Reagan walking off into the sunset. Doesn't the image endorse his own fantasy image of himself?
Helfer: Well, it's clearly a fantasy sequence, with the birds fluttering around the "city on the hill" and all, so it was intended to be a visualization, rather than an endorsement, of his fantasy. Not trying to sound cruel here, but it's possible that at the end of his life his fantasies were all he had left.
But more seriously, Reagan's circumstances at the end of his presidency forced him off the public stage in a way that didn't allow people to look back and assess his performance, for fear they were somehow stepping over some sort of line and unfairly kicking the man when he could no longer defend himself. The image of Reagan at the end of the book is like the one shared by most of the public since his death, which lets the story go full circle back to the opening pages.
Slate: These days, Reagan revisionists are pointing to his letters and speech drafts to argue that he was engaged and in command of his policies, not a puppet of his aides. How do you square that picture of Reagan with the man who invented facts and seemed oblivious to so much of what went on around him?
Helfer: I don't think he was the puppet of anyone. But by his own account, he often didn't pay attention to the details. When he was questioned by the Tower Commission about Iran-Contra, he said words to the effect of—I don't remember the exact quote—"I get people to do the jobs I need them to do. I don't look at the details." He was very idealistic in that way. But I wasn't looking to sway anyone with an argument here. It's an objective account.
Slate: I would disagree with that assessment. Being objective or straight with your facts doesn't mean there isn't a point of view, and I think your take on Reagan is somewhat critical. He comes off well in places, but the book has a critical edge.
Helfer: Well, put it this way. There are enough books out there that praise Reagan and omit all the negatives. It's time for more books that talk about the problems he had, the problems with his presidency. Now he's mainly the guy who won the Cold War, because he said, "Tear down that wall." But what about all the other guys who came before that who also wanted the wall torn down?
Slate: In fact, in the book, you show that while Reagan was making that speech, Gorbachev was already embarked upon perestroika and glasnost. I thought that was pretty deftly done.
Helfer: That's part of it, too. How come Gorbachev isn't given credit for ending the Cold War?
Slate: To come back to your take on Reagan, you seem to attribute Reagan's election victories to his effective one-liners in debates against Bush, Carter, and Mondale—instead of on the appeal of his critique of the Great Society, and cultural permissiveness, and the Democrats' foreign policy.
Helfer: It is hard to illustrate something like that critique. I don't know how compelling it would be visually. But I think we do make clear Reagan's philosophy, especially on taxes and government. And in the campaign against Carter, we did show that under Carter, things were really a mess. There is the clear setup, with the Iranian hostage crisis, and with the failed attempt to rescue them, and with the inflation numbers.
Slate: Did your opinion of Reagan change at all?
Helfer: That's hard to say. I came to see that he believed 100 percent in himself. And the diaries confirm that. I don't feel there was much hypocrisy to him, right or wrong.
Slate: What's next?