8. The private Reagan
Los Angeles — There are two exaggerated public images of Ronald Reagan: the hawkish superpatriot who wants to dismantle most of government and return the United States to the 1920s; and the former governor who brought unprecedented efficiency, order, and other wonderful things to state government and would do the same for Washington.
But what of the man himself? Is he compassionate? Intelligent? Honest? How does he relate to others privately or display anger? What is his "philosophical rudder" (to use a friend's term) or religious sense?Who are his heroes, and does he want to be one himself?
To many, the answers to these kinds of questions may be as important as his political record or public pronouncements.
It is hard to find anyone -- even among some of his most severe critics -- who says that Ronald Reagan is other than an honest man. His eight years as governor were virtually scandal-free. "I think his character is generally good, " says Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, the former California governor whom Mr. Reagan chased from office in 1966.
"He is an honest man. He tries hard. He doesn't take his responsibilities casually, lightly, or cynically," says former appointments secretary Paul Haerle , who drew the ire of Reagan supporters when he sided with Gerald Ford in 1976. "He doesn't speak privately of manipulations, or deals, or anything like that."
"I've always said that he had integrity to a fault," says Holmes Tuttle, a wealthy conservative, longtime friend and key supporter. "We were trying to get a tax bill through [the California Legislature] in '68. He was sitting there at midnight and needed only one vote. Two legislators came in and said, 'Governor, if you give us two judgeships apiece, we'll vote for the bill.' He kicked them out of the office."
There is this strong moral sense about Reagan that no doubt is the result of his small-town, Midwestern upbringing, particularly the influence of his mother, Nelle. He expects honesty and forthrightness in others. On those relatively rare occasions when he becomes angry, it tends to be when someone has tried to manipulate him or withhold information.
Part of this may be a bit of naivete, which has been earlier described.
'He's still the innocent guy who finds it hard to believe bad about anybody," says his older brother, Neil.
Helene von Damm (his private secretary in Sacramento) recalls that he "was deeply hurt and disappointed" when Richard Nixon was forced to resign the presidency of the United States.He had been one of Mr. Nixon's last defenders.
Unlike his wife, Nancy, Reagan is not one to brood or simmer when angry. He is more likely to erupt briefly, but not too violently -- perhaps slamming the desk or flinging his glasses. Again, unlike Nancy Reagan, he tends to be relatively forbearing with those who cross him politically, especially staff members.
He enjoys locker room jokes, but would never think of telling one in the presence of women. When he wants to say "hell" in a speech, it will be spelled "H -- L" on his hand-written note card. Remembering the needym
Mr. and Mrs. Reagan for years have attended the Bel- Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, but have never formally joined.They are close friends of the pastor, who sat with Governor Reagan on the night the one execution he refused to stay was carried out.
Friends say the Reagans are religious, but apparently the subject is not talked about much.
"I don't think I have any idea if Dad prays," says his oldest son, Michael. But Michael Reagan (whom his father dutifully took to Sunday School) also says, "He gets a lot of inner peace from having a relationship with God."
Friends and longtime associates say there is this inner peace of serenity about Reagan, that "the world would not end tomorrow for him" if he loses this year's election. Part of this probably comes from his mother's abiding faith that "things will work out" in the face of adversity.
"He's a guy who probably has more inner security than any other politician," says California pollster Mervin Field. "He's happy with himself, with his inner strengths and limitations."
"It is this faith which sometimes approaches fatalism that not only is one of the governor's greatest strengths but also is a trait that frustrates some of his associates who from time to time worry that nice guys don't always finish first," writes Miss von Damm in her book containing much of Reagan's correspondence.
Reagan's strong moral sense can sometimes cross the line to become moralistic , in which case the more rigid and (to some people) troubling side of him appears. His attitude toward anti-Vietnam war protesters, urban rioters, and the "passive resistance" tactics of farm workers leader Cesar Chavez might have been more healing, some observers feel, if his public statements had been less caustic.
Thus, there is a "nice guy vs. Mr. Grouch" dualism about Reagan. Most people interviewed for this series say he is much less rigid than is his rhetoric. He is a man who could talk about a "bloodbath" at Berkeley, yet increase student scholarships by record amounts. He raised welfare payments considerably, yet could privately joke that perhaps "botulism" was the answer for poor people scrambling over food handouts in the Patty Hearst case.
The private Reagan can be a "soft touch," to use his brother's term. He once sent one of his own suits to a needy 80-year-old man about to be married and, on another occasion, packed off his rocking chair to a man confined because of a serious illness.
When his old high school in Dixon, Ill., needed new theatrical facilities, he not only sent $50 but also exchanged letters with a 14-year-old girl who was involved in the project, giving encouragement and advice about how funds could be raised. Reagan was undoubtedly sincere. But it was a scene straight out of an old Mickey Rooney- Judy Garland movie.
But in the same letters, the governor could not resist adding little economic sermonettes about taxes and the high cost of government. The episode was -- in microcosm -- his "bootstraps" self-help, good neighbor attitude, his vision of a world in which welfare would disappear.
It is this vision that may, in part, have prevented him from ever being politically attractive to blacks and other minorities. Yet those around him, including former political adversaries, say almost without exception that he is not bigoted.
"I don't think anyone who knew the man would ever accuse him of being a racist for any reason whatsoever," says Wilson Riles, California Superintendent of Education and the highest-ranking black official in the state.
But again, there is this dualism, this difference between the private man who does not hesitate to help individuals and the public figure who may appear less than sympathetic to the nation's underclasses. Joking with Hope and Cagneym
"On the one hand, I think he has a tremendous sense of personal compassion toward poor people," explains Lawrence Chickering, who worked in state poverty programs under Governor Reagan. "But part of this bifurcated human being seems frequently to exhibit the opposite quality -- lack of compassion and sympathy for the underclass, especially when addressing the party faithful. His theatrical behavior before Republican organizations is a side of him which even his highest campaigners are constantly apologizing for."
Others say his own relatively impoverished childhood -- rather than his adult years as a wealthy man -- formed the more lasting impression.
"Once you have been poor, you know one thing for sure. You don't want to be that way again and you don't want anybody else to be like that if you can help it," says his daughter Maureen. "People like Ted Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller are considered to be great humanitarians, and yet they never knew what it's like not to be rich."
Part of this, too, is the fact that Reagan is a private man. He is, according to one of his former senior staff members, "hard to get to know."
"Unless you study Reagan closely, you will find that he is a mystery," says a veteran California legislator. "And even after you study him closely, he may still remain a mystery."
The Reagans are happiest at their 688-acre ranch in Santa Barbara. There are a few cattle here (admittedly for tax write-off purposes). The house is a small (two- bedroom) adobe dwelling, heated entirely by wood stove. The Reagans did much of the work themselves to restore the 94-year-old building. It is no potential "Western White House" a la San Clemente.
Only on rare obligatory occasions is the public -- through the news media -- allowed in to see the Reagans' "Shangri-La," as they call it.
Here, or at their more luxurious home in Pacific Palisades, the Reagans will relax informally with family or close friends -- most of whom come from the corporate or entertainment worlds.
"The best thing he likes is to have a group of friends like the [James] Cagneys or the [Bob] Hopes -- people like that -- sitting around the living room going over old vaudeville jokes and laughing," says his brother, Neil. "He can do, word for word, almost every old vaudeville or nightclub act there is. He loves to laugh. He would much rather do that than go out."
This carefully guarded privacy and small circle of well-to-do friends enforces the perception of Reagan as a man who might not be fully aware that there are many americans who -- through no fault of their own -- don't have a personal "Shangri-La." Or, as Dr. Riles gently puts it: "If you associate in the corporate world, that means you're not associating in the ghetto."
There also is the question of Reagan's intellectual capacity. The picture one gets from his 1966 autobiography ("Where's the Rest of Me?") may not help him in this area.
"It ism an unfortunate book, not at all for what it says, which is wholesome and intelligent, but for the way it is said," wrote his friend, columnist William Buckley. "There is no doubting that it is primarily responsible for the insiders' assumption that the governor is a hopeless cornball." Arguments with a Nobel laureatem
"I've never known him to be much of a reader," his brother, Neil, told the Monitor recently.
Said another close observer, an influential Republican who held a high post with the former California governor in Sacramento:
"Reagan's degree of intellectual curiosity seems to have definite metes and bounds, and the metes and bounds seem to be both chronological and geographical.He is the product of Tampico, Ill., and Eureka College, and his profession. He may be a little uncomfortable around the George Bushes of this world . . . the Ivy League Tories who have something he hasn't had, which is a really good college education and then exposure in a profession which requires them to be pretty knowledgeable about the world in which they live.
"I think from thence cometh the fact that he gets a little confused about Pakistan and Afghanistan, as he did earlier this year. Not being quite sure of who [French President Valery] Giscard d'Estaing was, these are subject matters that I don't think interest him particularly -- geography and history -- and that I've always found troublesome."
Reagan's supporters, on the other hand, say he has "a marvelously curious mind," and that questions about his level of intellect are mostly snobbery or elitism.
"If you want to be chic and sophisticated, you can't really be for Reagan," says Caspar Weinberger, an extremely intelligent and sophisticated man who has known Reagan for many years. "He's got plenty of intellectual capacity. Yes, he's going to make a mistake or two, but he shouldn't have to pass an oral examination every time he takes a question-and-answer period. There's nobody -- even an academic specialist -- who knows more about the farm subsidy or farm credit program than anybody else. . . . They aren't going to know everything about the veterans' programs, and they aren't going to know everything about education or federal budgets. Yes, he's going to make a mistake or two, but that doesn't bother me a bit."
H. Monroe Browne, president of the Institute for Contemporary Studies and a former Reagan administration official, recalls a time when Reagan spent several hours arguing the gold standard with Nobel laureate Milton Friedman.
"While he is widely read, I wish he had time for excursions into academic opportunities that I think he'd find valuable and interesting," Mr. Browne said. "As I see it, this is not a weakness of the man, but of the circumstances surrounding him."
Aside from those instances where Reagan has made factual errors in his public pronouncements, what is it that makes him do seemingly impolitic things, like defending America's role in Vietnam when it still is such a divisive issue?
"The one thing about the governor is that he has a sense of justice, or history, or values -- whatever you want to call it," explains Reagan staff chief Ed Meese. "And it's just hard to deter him from what he thinks is right, no matter what the political price might be. He just felt it was important to make that statement . . . it was, to him, a very important thing to say."
Perhaps even more than "the Gipper" in "The Knute Rockne Story," the film role Reagan would most have loved to play is the one for which George C. Scott won an Academy Award -- Gen. George Patton. As his former personal secretary has said, ". . . in films, as in real life, he prefers to wear a white hat."
Does Reagan himself want to be the kind of hero he loved to portray? Weinberger was asked. The answer neatly sums up Ronald Reagan as hero/homebody:
"No, I don't think so, really. I don't think so at all. He would be happiest and most contented if someone else were doing it and he felt it was going to get done and he could stay at home."
Next: What kind of Reagan White House?