Getting Reagan right

Mike Deaver, who spent 30 years as a political adviser to Ronald Reagan and who was one of his closest aides in the White House, has written a fine memoir about all this, in the course of which he corrects what I believe to be the grossly misleading 1999 biography of Mr. Reagan by Edmund Morris.

Mr. Morris had remarkable access to Reagan and his papers and diaries for some 13 years, but somehow was never able to penetrate what he perceived to be the mystery and aloofness of a man who in my view was uncomplicated and outgoing. Nor did I find Reagan, as Morris appeared to do, vapid and empty-headed.

My vantage point of the Reagan presidency was limited. I was an assistant secretary of State and State Department spokesman in Reagan's administration, which afforded me peripheral, but nonetheless meaningful, observation of him in the White House and on our foreign travels.

My conflict of interest is enormous, for I consider him one of our more impressive presidents. He ended the cold war without firing a shot. He also survived an assassin's bullet, a couple of major surgeries, and a serious riding accident, all after the normal retirement age for men of lesser stamina.

Mike Deaver was in my city on business recently, and at a dinner I had the opportunity to hear him expound on Morris's misjudgments of the former president. Ironically, it was Mike Deaver - drawn to Morris by the eloquent prose in his Pulitzer Prize-winning treatment of Theodore Roosevelt - who was responsible for introducing him to Reagan as a potential biographer. It would be a historical plus, Deaver thought, to give Morris rare access to Reagan. It was, as Deaver now wryly admits, "an opportunity lost."

Deaver was startled in the mid-1990s to hear Morris advancing the theory that the former president's Alzheimer's was brought on by the assassination attempt, and that Reagan was never the same thereafter.

After Deaver's vigorous denial, Morris advanced the thesis that Reagan was given "cold blood" during a transfusion immediately after the 1981 assassination attempt and that he never recovered from the experience. This is vehemently disputed by Deaver and the physicians who attended the stricken president.

Deaver does concede that there was a change in Reagan after the assassination attempt, but says it was not physical but metaphysical. Always a believer in a divine power, Reagan believed that his life had been saved for a purpose and decided that "whatever time I may have left is left for Him."

This intensified religious sensitivity played into Reagan's first meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. As Deaver recounts in his book "A Different Drummer," Reagan told him after the meeting: "He believes." A startled Deaver replied: "Are you saying the general secretary of the Soviet Union believes in God?" Responded Reagan: "I don't know, Mike, but I honestly think he believes in a higher power."

Deaver's memories of Reagan are of a shy man, who could just as soon never have gone to another reception or cocktail party, but who warmed to people individually. One of his chummiest relationships was with fellow Irishman Tip O'Neill, a Democrat. On the late House speaker's 70th birthday, he offered this toast: "Tip, if I had a ticket to heaven and you didn't have one, too, I'd sell mine and go to hell with you."

Now Mrs. Reagan has decided that it is inappropriate for the former president to have visitors any more. Mike Deaver has paid his last visit. It was an emotional experience. When Deaver entered the president's office, Reagan was sitting at his desk reading a book. When he at last looked up, his gaze was questioning and unrecognizing of the man who'd worked with him for 30 years.

Deaver sat beside him and asked "Whatcha reading?" Replied Reagan : "A book." "What book?" asked Deaver. "A horse book," replied the former president quietly.

It was a picture book about Traveller, Gen. Robert E. Lee's horse. As Deaver puts it: "As he begins his 90th year, Ronald Reagan should be basking in the warmth and love of a thankful nation. The Evil Empire is gone. Democratic capitalism is triumphing over totalitarianism all across the globe. But the sunset he has ridden off into is one without colors. For a man who loved life so much, it's a cruel, cruel end."

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is the editor of the Deseret News. He held a number of senior positions in the Reagan administration.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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