Assessing the Reagan presidency - and the man

REVOLUTION by Martin Anderson

New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

400 pp. $19.95


Edited by Sidney Blumenthal and Thomas Byrne Edsall

New York: William Morrow. 320 pp. $19.95. Pantheon paperback, $9.95


by Mark Hertsgaard

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

408 pp. $22.50


by Michael Reagan with Joe Hyams

New York: Kensington Publishing Corp. 286 pp. $17.95

AMERICAN presidencies are regularly assessed in three dimensions: (1)what the president is like personally - his ability, style, and character; (2)how his administration is managed, which includes such matters as the kinds of key executives he recruits and the way he interacts with them; and (3)what his policies are and the extent to which he succeeds in carrying them out. In this last year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, there has been a cascade of books treating these several dimensions of it.

The third is by far the hardest to cover at present. For one thing, we don't know how many of the policies will work out. More important, the policies are the subject of intense contemporary debate. After a time, emotions will be substantially disengaged. Thoughtful liberals and conservatives these days can examine Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency and reach substantial agreement on his policy successes and failures. But liberals and conservatives can't yet find common ground in evaluating the Reagan policy record.

Martin Anderson (``Revolution'') is a thoughtful conservative who held important posts in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Sidney Blumenthal, Thomas Byrne Edsall, and their five collaborators (``The Reagan Legacy'') are thoughtful journalists who occupy varying places on the liberal-left end of the US political spectrum.

Both books start from the premise that Reagan's policies have had enormous, lasting impact on American life - but otherwise they differ so totally that they might be thought to treat different presidencies. Anderson admires Reagan's policies; Blumenthal, Edsall, et al., oppose them. These contending judgments take charge and dictate the respective accounts.

I am not suggesting that all evaluations of Reagan's policies are equally sound (or unsound). I am saying that liberals and conservatives are now doing battle on this question, and no book is going to change many minds.

In ``On Bended Knee,'' Mark Hertsgaard gives what is, unfortunately, an outstanding example of how partisan feelings can overwhelm analytical judgment in writing about a contemporary political leader. Hertsgaard is profoundly unhappy with Reagan's programs. He has, of course, every right to his opinion, but the strength of his feeling serves him poorly. The book is an elaborate effort to establish a preposterous argument - that the national press has been ``adulatory'' in its coverage of Reagan administration actions. Hertsgaard gives many accounts of efforts by Reagan aides to put a favorable ``spin'' on events - efforts that are made daily.

BUT he never tells how it is that a national press corps shown by a number of careful studies to be dominated by views well to the left of Reagan's, and which in 1984 gave between 85 to 90 percent of its votes to Walter Mondale, could be duped into adulatory coverage of a conservative Republican. What Hertsgaard, in fact, means to say, I believe, is that the press has not done nearly as much as he would like to hold the President up to blame and ridicule.

The contemporary literature on what a president is like personally and on how his administration is managed is probably of greater long-term value than that which judges his programs. Martin Anderson writes to defend the programs of the man he served so ably as White House policy chief in the first term, but he also explains how the president and his administration really functioned. Indeed, ``Revolution'' is one of the most informative ``I was there, this is how it was'' books ever written about an American presidency. It ranks right up there with William Safire's ``Before the Fall,'' a superb account of the workings of the Nixon administration in its first term.

Some of Anderson's insider perspectives are simply fun or interesting. We learn that Reagan never used 3-by-5 cards for notes, despite the abundant press references to them. The cards were 4 by 6, and Reagan used them and his own special shorthand in a system for preparing, editing, and delivering speeches.

OF real importance is the answer Anderson gives to the most intriguing management question of the Reagan presidency: How is it that a man notoriously inattentive to details of policy and management, who made few demands on his aides and political executives, could so dominate his administration and ensure that, with few exceptions, it would move as he intended?

When Ronald Reagan took office, most literature on the presidency held that in the modern era the office inevitably chewed up its occupant. A president's institutional resources were simply insufficient for public expectations for presidential leadership. Though his party had large congressional majorities, the fragmentation imposed by separation of powers meant that President Jimmy Carter could not really ``form a government'' coherent enough to see his policies into law, argued Carter aide Lloyd Cutler in 1980. Despite all this handwringing, Reagan not only mastered his executive branch but - facing for all eight years a Democratic majority in the House - also managed to turn the American ship of state.

One factor contributing to his success, Anderson writes, was his toughness, even ruthlessness, in pursuit of his goals. We have been taught to expect ruthlessness to be packaged in sternness of visage and an authoritarian management style. We find it far easier to see Richard Nixon as ruthless than we do Ronald Reagan. But Nixon was, in fact, a softie, while Reagan, though he smiles a lot and is affable, ``may be unique,'' Anderson writes, ``in that he is a warmly ruthless man.''

Once Reagan has made up his mind to do something, Anderson observes, he sticks to his goal relentlessly. That pursuing it may in some way cause pain for others is something Reagan never lets bother him. He does not act from malice or take pleasure from others' distress - ``but if it is necessary he will cause that discomfort, freely and easily.''

The special brand of political ruthlessness Anderson describes grows out of a key feature of Reagan's personality. He is a remarkably autonomous individual - less dependent on others than most people are. As President, Reagan has associates and courtiers, but no cronies or close friends. Martin Anderson, Donald Regan (``For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,'' Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), and Larry Speakes (``Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House,'' Charles Scribner's Sons, New York) all describe the distance Reagan has put between himself and even his closest aides. He was never cruel to his aides in the manner of Lyndon Johnson - indeed, he rarely criticized them. As long as they did their jobs, Reagan was largely indifferent. Anderson accepts this with equanimity, while Regan at times vents his frustration over it. Both see it otherwise in almost exactly the same terms.

To be respected, even loved, by one's subordinates while remaining distant from them can be useful to a president. The distance strengthens his authority. Avoiding emotional engagement is functional: Much more important matters should claim a president's psychic energy. But what works well politically may not seem benign in familial relationships.

In his painful account of being raised as Ronald Reagan's son (``On the Outside Looking in''), Michael Reagan describes a father who was rarely critical and always decent and civil - but who was in some fundamental sense distant from and even indifferent to his children. In his entire life, Ronald Reagan has seemingly had a deep emotional need for only two people: his mother, and later his wife Nancy. Anne Edwards helps us understand the first of these relationships in ``Early Reagan'' (William Morrow, New York).

A second factor contributing to Reagan's success in managing American government is his self-discipline and professional dedication. Press reports often described Reagan as a bit lazy - without explaining how a lazy man managed to cover the ground from modest beginnings in small-town Illinois to Hollywood stardom, president of the Screen Actors Guild, governor of California, and president of the United States. Anderson's portrait of Reagan squares with these achievements far more easily than does the popular stereotype. On a track where most show unusual discipline, Reagan stands out. A fierce will to win is masked by geniality. Edwards's early Reagan is a man of exceptional discipline; so is the later Reagan of Speakes, Regan, and Anderson.

A third feature of Reagan the manager of government is the singularity of purpose with which he has pursued his basic goals. Anderson quotes Nietzsche as remarking that ``many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.'' Reagan was always prepared to take part of what he wanted the first time, and then go back again and again for the rest. Certain where he wanted to end up, he had no trouble negotiating a circuitous path, making him an interesting - and effective - blend of the ``ideological'' and ``pragmatic.''

IT is ironic that most early reporting on Reagan's presidency suggested he was first and foremost the old movie actor, prepared to read the lines someone else had written and put before him. In fact, as Edwards documents, the young Reagan had problems as an actor precisely because his political passions were always ascendant.

She tells of other actors avoiding Reagan in the studio mess because all he wanted to do was talk politics, while for them advancing their acting careers was primary. Starlets he dated complained about his political seriousness. Rather than the old actor entering politics, it was a case of the politician, confined by a Hollywood role that did not suit him, at last finding full release in public life.

Probably the most discussed feature of Reagan's management style is his inclination to delegate authority. Delegation is, of course, a many-sided thing. In the hands of a president who is weakly attached to any larger set of policy objectives and who lacks moral authority over his subordinates, extreme delegation would produce an administration where it was every man for himself. As the Reagan experience attests, however, in the hands of a strong president committed to a distinctive program, delegation is entirely compatible with policy coherence.

Anderson describes Reagan's style of focusing on the big picture while delegating extensively on policy management as a ``high rolling, high risk [method] that served him so well earlier [but then, in the Iran-contra affair] now betrayed him.'' The style required that the right team of assistants be in place - assistants not only with enough ability to shoulder the load but also able to understand what Reagan's style required and willing to adapt themselves to it.

Anderson thinks the White House staff of Reagan's first term - headed by James Baker, Edwin Meese, and Michael Deaver - succeeded in large part because it was willing to adapt. ``We just accepted Reagan as he was and adjusted ourselves to his manner.'' Did the Iran-contra affair develop as it did because the second-term staff, headed by Donald Regan, was a second team, not up to the starters?

Interestingly, both Anderson and Regan provide testimony that this may be so. In ``For the Record,'' Regan does not convince this reviewer that he fully understood, as White House chief of staff, that his one overriding responsibility was compensating for the inevitable deficiencies of his President's unique management style.

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