Over the weekend I finished off Peggy Noonan’s wonderful When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan.
Noonan worked as a speechwriter for portions of Reagan’s presidency, and the book is a warm, leisurely accounting of a man she deeply and openly admires, but is not afraid to criticize. It is not a scholarly biography by any means, but a loose collection of anecdotes and reflections written in the wise, informal manner that reader familiar with Noonan’s excellent op-eds in the Wall Street Journal will recognize.
Written in the summer of 2001, the book already feels a bit out of date. She spends portions of the text fighting Clinton-era battles over the Reagan legacy that have felt settled since the nation took stock of the man when he died in 2004. I recall the spontaneous weeklong outpouring of grief that seemed to erupt across the country. Since then, even many of the most strident Democrats will acknowledge that Reagan’s presidency was successful and transformative. Most Americans today (including myself) remember him as a man who made us feel proud of our nation and what we stood for, and who enunciated a value system in a way that few other politicians have ever been able to manage. The thesis of Noonan’s book is that the depth of Reagan’s character – his steadfast convictions, his gentle generosity, and his grounded optimism – allowed him to flourish as a great president who used the office to its full potential. In addition, she suggests that those who dismissed him as simple and aloof were correct in a sense, but they missed the larger picture Reagan was busy painting to his audience, the American people.
Here are a few bits from the text I’ll take away with me:
-Noonan points out that Reagan rose from as dire a situation as any American president since the 1800s. He was born in Illinois in 1911 and raised across parts of the Midwest as the son of an alcoholic, embittered shoe salesman. His family was quite poor and forced to move from town to town as his father struggled to hold down a job. Though he rarely spoke of his father and only fleetingly of the troubles his family faced (he wasn’t one to dwell on the negative) he did inherit from his father a profound sense of the injustice of prejudice and from his mother a sunny optimism. In addition, Reagan’s love for his country came in large part from the fact that a man of his humble upbringings could, on his own merits, rise to become governor, and even president.
-Of all the American presidents, Reagan had the saggiest, most disgusting neck.
-I loved an early portion of the book describing the Reagans’ ranch and modest lifelong home in Santa Barbara, California. With its linoleum floors, wicker furniture, and stuffed jackalopes, it’s a place of simple, earnest charm and rugged appeal – like the man himself. Reagan made it a point to bring Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev there, because he believed it spoke volumes about America that this was the home of their president. Gorbachev in particular was flabbergasted, as a veteran of the Soviet system of hypocritical oligarchical spoils.
-Listening to conservative talk radio today, one hears the name Ronald Reagan dropped approximately four times a minute. These sources have confirmed that Ronald Reagan had a corncob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal. And he’ll be back again someday!
-Noonan’s complaints about Reagan: he repeated anecdotes ad nauseum, he had little patience for intellectuals (I can’t bring myself blame him for that one), and he was generally uninterested in details. Also, she spends time painting the complex picture of Reagan as a parent – engaged and imaginative when his children were young, aloof and perplexed as they matured. Though he is to be admired for his clear-eyed political courage and decency , Reagan was no role model as a father.
-When Ronald Reagan woke up in the morning and sat down on the executive toilet, he crapped American flags.
-The most compelling chunk of the book to me was probably Noonan’s account of when Reagan was shot in spring, 1981. He had only been in office a couple months when the assassination attempt occurred, and many of the most troubling details were shielded from the public at the time. He came frighteningly close to death, with the bullet from Hinkley lodging an inch from his heart. The public, which thus far had liked Reagan as far as they knew him, learned a lot about his good spirits and optimism when stories began to leak out of how he had been responding. Famously, when his tearful wife first saw him, he replied, “Honey, I forgot to duck”, and immediately before surgery to remove the bullet he quipped to the doctors, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Less famous were the notes he wrote after surgery, when he was weak and under doctor’s orders not to speak. Some of my favorites: “I left something out, I do have an allergy”; “”If I had this much attention in Hollywood I would have stayed there”; “What happened to the guy with the gun – was anyone hurt?”; “Will I still be able to do ranch work, ride horse, etc.?”
-Reagan was known to be absentminded. On one occasion, he accidentally swapped his copies of the START nuclear reduction negotiation papers with a bunch of Heathcliff comics. This explains the peculiar treaty provision that reads: “We must keep that cat from stealing the shopkeeper’s fish.”
-The Iran-Contra Scandal from Reagan’s second term is treated with circumspect fairness. The scandal itself was a Byzantine affair of Israelis illegally selling American-made arms to a moderate faction of Iranians with the permission of the U.S. State Department in hopes of securing the release of American hostages from Iran with the funds being diverted by the state department to fund anti-communist contra forces in Nicaragua. (Everybody got that?) Noonan treats it as an example of Reagan following his worst romantic inclinations and listening to the advice of those of his cabinet urging a daring, unconventional approach to advancing American interests. Instead, he should have sided with his savvy, shrewd Secretary of State George Shultz and seen the inevitable pitfalls. Regardless, in the broad scope of history, the scandal never amounted to much. Reagan recovered politically within the year, and at the end of his term he was still terrifically popular.
-Reagan and Gorbachev managed to share a remarkably warm relationship, given the frosty tensions between their two nations. One night in 1987, they built a fort in the Oval Office out of couch cushions and nuclear suitcases. According to sources, they shared whispered secrets and exchanged nurturing backrubs and dared each other to prank call the East German chancellor.
-The text became most emotionally affecting for me toward the end, when Noonan describes Reagan’s later years when his mind was afflicted by Alzheimer’s. She writes of visiting him in 1998 with her 11 year old son; the president now older, smaller, and often confused. At that moment, she does away with the questions she wanted to ask about his legacy and advice for the young people of today – it was clear that he would stumble through such talk. Instead, she tells him that she once worked with him and that she loves him. He is heartened to hear this and smiles. Not long after that, he can no longer recall that he was once president, or that he once dared Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The only job he can remember is having once being a lifeguard in Iowa.
-Famously, Reagan loved football and jellybeans. Less famously, he loved mixed martial arts fighting and bouncing checks. These shocking revelations can be found in my forthcoming book, Things That I Thought Of And Are Probably True.
-A favorite anecdote from the book that illustrates Reagan’s humor and grace: a 1981 formal state dinner featured a performance by Robert Goulet, he of the schmaltzy-Vegas variety. So Goulet was doing his act – perhaps a bit more colorful than the usual state dinner fare, but reasonably classy. At one point during his banter, however, he started talking about a recent Lake Tahoe performance where he spent the show flirting with a gorgeous gal only to find out later that she was “the biggest transvestite in Tahoe.” Amidst the tuxedoed ambassadors and various conservative supporters of the president, the joke was met with stoney silence before the show mercifully went on. At the end of the evening, Reagan stood to give his formal thanks and sendoff. Before finishing he added, “And thank you, Bob Goulet, not only for entertaining us with your wonderful voice but for remembering our night in Lake Tahoe.”
-If Ronald Reagan were alive today, he would be Mitt Romney.