Behind the Ronald Reagan myth: “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed”Roundup
William E. Leuchtenburg, is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Over the course of six decades, he taught at Columbia University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and, as a visiting professor, at Harvard, Cornell, Duke, William and Mary and other American universities, as well as at Oxford where he held the Harmsworth chair. He served as presidential elections analyst for NBC and as presidential inauguration consultant for CBS, PBS, and C-SPAN.
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.”
In all fields of public affairs—from diplomacy to the economy—the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded. His mind, said the well-disposed Peggy Noonan, was “barren terrain.” Speaking of one far-ranging discussion on the MX missile, the Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, an authority on national defense, reported, “Reagan’s only contribution throughout the entire hour and a half was to interrupt somewhere at midpoint to tell us he’d watched a movie the night before, and he gave us the plot from War Games.” The president “cut ribbons and made speeches. He did these things beautifully,” Congressman Jim Wright of Texas acknowledged. “But he never knew frijoles from pralines about the substantive facts of issues.” Some thought him to be not only ignorant but, in the word of a former CIA director, “stupid.” Clark Clifford called the president an “amiable dunce,” and the usually restrained columnist David Broder wrote, “The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears is a challenging one for his aides.”
No Democratic adversary would ever constitute as great a peril to the president’s political future, his advisers concluded, as Reagan did himself. Therefore, they protected him by severely restricting situations where he might blurt out a fantasy. His staff, one study reported, wrapped him “in excelsior,” while “keeping the press at shouting distance or beyond.” In his first year as president, he held only six news conferences—fewest ever in the modern era. Aides also prepared scores of cue cards, so that he would know how to greet visitors and respond to interviewers. His secretary of the treasury and later chief of staff said of the president: “Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks.” Those manipulations, he added, seemed customary to Reagan, for “he had been learning his lines, composing his facial expressions, hitting his toe marks for half a century.” Each night, before turning in, he took comfort in a shooting schedule for the next day’s television- focused events that was laid out for him at his bedside, just as it had been in Hollywood.
His White House staff found it difficult, often impossible, to get him to stir himself to follow even this rudimentary routine. When he was expected to read briefing papers, he lazed on a couch watching old movies. On the day before a summit meeting with world leaders about the future of the economy, he was given a briefing book. The next morning, his chief of staff asked him why he had not even opened it. “Well, Jim,” the president explained, “The Sound of Music was on last night.”
“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.” ...
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