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Lance Morrow: The mystery of Ronald Reagan lives on

April 19, 2000
Web posted at: 11:49 AM EDT (1549 GMT)

( -- Intellectuals have an awful time trying to cope with Ronald Reagan. Consider Edmund Morris, author of "Dutch," the lightly novelized Reagan biography published last year.

Previous Columns by Lance Morrow

One night in the mid-'80s, Morris and his wife, Sylvia, had dinner with Reagan at the White House. Morris was being considered for the role of official biographer. "Damned if I can figure him out," Morris said as they drove away. "Is he a political genius, or a bore?"

Morris brilliantly captured his subject in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." But he found Ronald Reagan so impenetrable that he resorted to inventing a fictionalized alter Edmund to give imaginative life and depth to "Dutch." The Wizard of Oz was a wizard indeed, and he worked great magic (the transformation of Americans' view of their country and the role of their government, for example). But Reagan could also seem to Morris an appallingly and mysteriously empty suit -- banal, passive, incurious, abstracted.

Now another intellectual, Frances Fitzgerald, takes a determined run at Reagan in her new book, "Way Out There in the Blue" (Simon & Schuster, 592 pages, $30). Fitzgerald goes for the unambivalent version -- a Reagan who is cheerfully, dangerously clueless, a simpleton actor who performs superbly when standing on chalk marks and reading from a script, the GOP's Prince Myshkin. Fitzgerald takes her title from the cliche in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman": "Willy Loman was a salesman... He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." Ronnie Reagan is Willy Loman done up as a sparkling success instead of a dismal burnout. (It might be said, by the way, that Franklin Roosevelt also conducted a presidency, at least in part, by means of shoeshine and smile.)

Fitzgerald, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning treatise on Vietnam, "Fire in the Lake," has devised a cunning booby trap. She equates the mystery of Reagan with the mystery of "Star Wars," his plan (visionary or goofy, depending) to erect an umbrella of space-borne laser and particle-beam weapons to protect America from nuclear attack. She examines Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI) and pronounces it no mystery at all, but merely an expensive, stupid idea. The same, she suggests, may therefore be said of Reagan. He cooked up SDI, she thinks, mostly to deflect the nuclear-freeze movement.

Conservatives believe that SDI, along with the massive American military buildup in the '80s, was the strategy by which Reagan forced the Soviets to bankrupt themselves, hastening the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The timing of those events, at the end of the Reagan years, disconcerts Reagan's critics. They claim that the Soviet collapse was the result of long years of economic inefficiency and deterioration, and of Gorbachev's loosening of the bolts through glasnost and perestroika.

Who is right? Jack Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has talked of Russian puzzlement that American intellectuals are so reluctant to give Reagan credit for his diplomatic poker playing. Genrikh Trofimenko, once a Brezhnev adviser and U.S. expert at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, has stated that "99 percent of Russian people believe that America won the Cold War because of your President's insistence on SDI."

Fitzgerald's most interesting chapter is her first -- her effort to locate Reagan as a figure in American myth, specifically, in exceptionalism and the salvation doctrine of the American civil religion. In 1979, Reagan visited the NORAD base hollowed out of the core of Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, the nerve center of American air defenses. The base commander told Reagan that from there, the military could track an incoming nuclear missile but could do nothing to stop it. Fitzgerald writes: "The story resonates with Biblical and mythological overtones... Reagan can be seen as the innocent, the American Everyman who on the eve of his election must undergo initiation into the terrible secrets of power. Led into the 'granite core' of a mountain -- into the innermost sanctum of esoteric knowledge -- he looks for the first time upon the horror that scientists and their masters have created for the country and for humankind." And so: "Reagan cuts through the arcane and dangerous knowledge with pure common sense and vows to deliver his people from impending doom." This is piffle, but interesting piffle, with a ring of truth.

Reagan's idea -- salvation by a defensive techno-magic that outwits apocalypse -- was hardly an ignoble one. It partakes of that masterful innocence and metaphysical optimism that is the essence of Reagan. In theory SDI does not seem more harebrained than, say, eventually putting colonies in space. So far, $60 billion has gone into Star Wars, and the idea is still alive.

As for Reagan, he has been dimming for some years now. Whatever the bright, infuriating mystery was, he has already taken it with him to an inaccessible place.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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