Many folks make note that when George W. Bush was President, the government was actually run by VP Cheney. Few people knew or now remember that when Ronald Reagan was President the office was essentially unoccupied also. While I was quite aware of Reagan’s poor performance as president in a general way, I was unaware of some of the details of just how detached he was on a day to day basis. I offer this as a warning. Ronald Reagan is the gold standard by which the current crop of Republican jokers want to judged. In 1980, many folks laughed at Reagan convince that there was no way America could be so stupid as to elect a man such as Reagan to the presidency.
But Reagan was elected and the country still suffers from the hangover brought on by his (or rather his subordinates) policies. So be warned: If you choose to sit out the next election somebody whose grandest desire is to be an imitation Reagan will be ready to stick it to America again. Below are some excerpts to highlight how uninvolved Reagan was as President:
No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed. At presidential news conferences, especially in his first year, Ronald Reagan embarrassed himself. On one occasion, asked why he advocated putting missiles in vulnerable places, he responded, his face registering bewilderment, “I don’t know but what maybe you haven’t gotten into the area that I’m going to turn over to the secretary of defense.” Frequently, he knew nothing about events that had been headlined in the morning newspaper. In 1984, when asked a question he should have fielded easily, Reagan looked befuddled, and his wife had to step in to rescue him. “Doing everything we can,” she whispered. “Doing everything we can,” the president echoed. To be sure, his detractors sometimes exaggerated his ignorance. The publication of his radio addresses of the 1950s revealed a considerable command of facts, though in a narrow range. But nothing suggested profundity. “You could walk through Ronald Reagan’s deepest thoughts,” a California legislator said, “and not get your ankles wet.”
“Reagan,” his principal biographer, Lou Cannon, has written, “may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest.” (He spent nearly a full year of his tenure not in the White House but at his Rancho del Cielo in the hills above Santa Barbara.) Cabinet officials had to accommodate themselves to Reagan’s slumbering during discussions of pressing issues, and on a multination European trip, he nodded off so often at meetings with heads of state, among them French president François Mitterand, that reporters, borrowing the title of a film noir, designated the journey “The Big Sleep.” He even dozed during a televised audience at the Vatican while the pope was speaking to him. A satirist lampooned Reagan by transmuting Dolly Parton’s “Workin’ 9 to 5” into “Workin’ 9 to 10,” and TV’s Johnny Carson quipped, “There are only two reasons you wake President Reagan: World War III and if Hellcats of the Navy is on the Late Show.” Reagan tossed off criticism of his napping on the job with drollery. He told the White House press corps, “I am concerned about what is happening in government—and it’s caused me many a sleepless afternoon,” and he jested that posterity would place a marker on his chair in the Cabinet Room: “Reagan Slept Here.”
“Subordinates also found Reagan to be an exasperatingly disengaged administrator. “Trying to forge policy,” said George Shultz, his longest- serving secretary of state, was “like walking through a swamp.” Donald Regan recalled: “In the four years that I served as secretary of the treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy….I had to figure these things out like any other American, by studying his speeches and reading the newspapers. . . . After I accepted the job, he simply hung up and vanished.” One of his national security advisers, General Colin Powell, recalled that “the President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us,” and another national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, observed: “The Great Communicator wasn’t always the greatest communicator in the private sessions; you didn’t always get clean and crisp decisions. You assumed a lot. . . . You had to.” Numbers of observers contended that Reagan conducted himself not as a ruler but as a ceremonial monarch. In the midst of heated exchanges, a diplomat noted, Reagan behaved like a “remote sort of king . . . just not there.” After taking in the president’s performance during a discussion of the budget in 1981, one of his top aides remarked that Reagan looked like “a king . . . who had assembled his subalterns to listen to what they had to say and to preside, sort of,” and another said, “He made decisions like an ancient king or a Turkish pasha, passively letting his subjects serve him, selecting only those morsels of public policy that were especially tasty. Rarely did he ask searching questions and demand to know why someone had or had not done something.” As a consequence, a Republican senator went so far as to say: “With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don’t have a president.”
Reagan’s staff found especially exasperating the need to clear the president’s schedule with a first lady who placed so much reliance upon a West Coast astrologer, Joan Quigley. That had been true since the beginning in Sacramento when Reagan was inaugurated as governor at midnight because, it was reported, that was the hour this woman set after perusing the zodiac. On a number of occasions, Deaver would spend days working out an intricate itinerary for the president’s travels down to the last detail only to be told that he had to scrap everything because the astrologer had determined that the stars were not properly aligned. Horoscopes fixed the day and hour of such major events as presidential debates and summit meetings with Soviet leaders. The president’s most important aide said, “We were paralyzed by this craziness.”
Just this week it came to light that Reagan told Britain’s Margaret Thatcher that she could best understand the Soviet Union by reading Tom Clancy’s thriller “Red Storm Rising.”
This is what Republicans want to emulate? The Reagan legend is a myth. The legacy of Reagan has been misery for the poor, the middle-class, people of color and women. The Republican Party lives by the motto of sell the legend, ignore reality. It is time for Americans to start living in reality.