Ronald Reagan was neither an intelligent nor a well-read man. When members of the Congress first met him in person, almost universally their first impression of him was that he was astoundingly ignorant. He knew nothing about how government actually operated, nothing about other countries, nothing about treaties, and little about the functions of his own agencies. In The Power Game (1989), Hedrick Smith draws a clear picture of a man who was extremely good at acting the role of a “president” yet lacked nearly all the knowledge and most of the governing skills one would consider minimum in the leader of the most powerful country on earth. Or any country, for that matter.
In other words, Ronald Reagan was pretty much a stooge/figurehead. He looked good on tv but the real work was being done by others. Reagan bragged about being a “delegator” and he was. He delegated virtually every responsibility of his office to others. On closer inspection his vaunted political skills, for instance, turn out to have been not his but Bush Family consiglieri James Baker’s, at least in the first term. Baker beat back his sillier ideas and protected him from his own political and intellectual stupidity. When Baker left in the second term to become Treas Sec his place was taken by a member of the California Mafia Reagan had brought with him to DC, Atty Gen Edwin Meese, who had been Reagan’s Chief of Staff when he was Gov of California. Meese was an ideologue, not a politician. Like most far-right ideologues, including Saint Ronnie, he looked down his nose at politicians and made no attempt to cultivate members of Congress. As a result of his arrogant naivete, Reagan’s so-called “political skills” deserted him in the second term and in pretty short order we had the public relations disasters and Constitutional crises of Bitburg, Reykjavik, and Iran/Contra. Among others.
But if his political skills actually belonged to someone else and his intellectual quotient was negligible, it’s undeniable that he looked good on television. He was the Grandad we never had, the old man whose pithy comments sounded like wisdom if you didn’t think about them for more than 12 seconds and who gave you quarters for ice cream cones when your parents wanted you to wait til after supper. He was sweet, he looked harmless, and if he said stupid stuff once in a while (OK, a lot), he was nevertheless kind and mostly harmless. We liked him. And we didn’t like it when the press kept picking on him, making fun of him for saying that trees pollute and debunking his funny stories, like the one about the welfare queen and her Cadillac. So what if it didn’t happen? So what if she didn’t even exist? So what if he heard it at a cocktail party for his rich corporate executive sponsors and believed it? What difference did that make? Leave the guy alone.
The reason for Reagan’s huge popularity has always escaped me. He struck me as an incompetent clown who had somehow escaped from the John Birch Society Circus. I could believe California could take a mental midget, raging right-wing fruitcake and professional corporate mouthpiece seriously – everybody in CA is nutz – but it never occurred to me that the country-at-large would do anything but tell him to shut up, go home, eat his porridge and quit bothering the grown-ups. I should have known better. We voted for Tricky Dick twice and he was a paranoid-schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur and a mean streak. But our feeling for Reagan went far beyond mere approval. It approached love, and that baffled me. Still does. But then as a director and actor I’m used to separating actors from the roles they play. The country clearly wasn’t. They fell for all of it, the whole childish performance, cowboy boots and all. In fact, they adored it. And him.