Michael KreponWho was Ronald Reagan?

Ronald Reagan remains a mystery. During his first term, he was vilified by the Left. During his second term, when he sided with the deal makers around him and when hard liners began to take their leave, Reagan was slammed from the Right. An accomplished biographer, Edmund Morris, was given extraordinary access to write an account of the man and his presidency. He was so unable to gain a fix on his subject that his botched result, Dutch, was partly fictionalized.

Historians will have a difficult time to settle their accounts of the Reagan presidency. His record of accomplishment on nuclear issues should speak for itself, but what role the President played in this drama is hard to pin down. The first chapter of this history, written primarily by U.S. journalists, wasn’t kind to Reagan, picturing him as woefully deficient on substance and easily manipulated by those around him. These accounts gave most of the credit for the breakthroughs reached during his presidency to Mikhail Gorbachev and to George Shultz and Paul Nitze. A second wave of accounts, relying more on declassified documents and Reagan’s diary, picture the President in command of the momentous developments that occurred on his watch. Perhaps a third wave of historical accounts will depict Reagan somewhere in between.

For those with short memories, here’s a sampler of some of the flak President Reagan took:

[Reagan is] a man singularly endowed with an ability to hold contradictory views without discomfort.

— Reagan’s ACDA Director Kenneth Adelman

Formidable will, based on a mediocre understanding of the facts. As often in politics, ignorance sustains.

— Jacques Attali

Ronald Reagan, who taught us to distrust summitry, to disbelieve in treaties, to reflect always on the duplicity of our communist enemy, is investing his historic reputation and our security in arms control treaties co-signed by communists. The Great Communicator who preached Peace through Strength today preaches peace through parchment.

— Pat Buchanan

[He] let his name and his office be traded about by subordinates in an endless civil war within the executive branch.”

— McGeorge Bundy

To me, the White House was as mysterious as a ghost ship; you heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm?

— Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig

What’s going on right now is that the crazier analysts have risen to higher positions than is normally the case. They are able to carry their ideas further and higher because the people at the top are simply less well-informed than is normally the case.”

— Herbert York

What do you do when your president ignores all the relevant facts and wanders in circles?

— Reagan’s OMB Director David Stockman

[Reagan is] a President who confused nostrums with policies and dreams with strategy.

— Strobe Talbott

In relations with the Russians, the Reagan administration most resembles March: in like a lion, out like a lamb.

— Reagan’s ACDA Director Kenneth Adelman

Many other quotes could be added to this list. Feel free to add – especially one by President Reagan’s former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, which I vaguely recall but can’t find in my shoe boxes.


  1. yousaf

    “modern prophet of profligacy. The politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption.” — Andrew Bacevich on Reagan


    “…to understand the truth about President Reagan, is to understand why so much of what we imagined to be our politics is misleading and false. He was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. Government didn’t shrink during the Reagan era, it grew.

    He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn’t reduce it, it went through the roof, and the budget deficits for his time were the greatest they had been since World War Two.” – Bacevich

    “I am a contra [terrorist], too,” — Reagan

  2. blowback (History)

    The husband of Nancy Reagan?

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’d say that Regan responded to fear. Fear of the Soviet war machine, and if not a fear of the US war machine at least fear of the logical conclusion of it’s use in the day. The folks we call neo-cons today come across to me as people who feel cheated having missed a good exchange of views at Fulda, but I don’t think Regan went this far. In the end, I’d say he feared the mushroom cloud, and the second half of the 80’s resulted. Thus setting the road for Daddy Bush and the Russians to do the first big cuts.

  4. sineva (History)

    The great communicator calls reporters “sons of bitches!” – Jello Biafra

  5. Tim McDonnell (History)

    “My Fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

    Ronald Reagan before his 11 August 1984 national radio address—he didn’t realize the mic was on.

    Credit for bringing this to my attention goes to Nate Jones.

  6. antonio oliveira (History)

    The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.-War (quote by Peggy Noonan)

  7. MK (History)

    Many thanks. I owe you a beer.

  8. Sam Roggeveen (History)

    From Edmund Morris’ biography, p.443:

    “Trudeau made no attempt to conceal his contempt for Reagan. But Mitterand, fascinated, studied the President quietly and decided that he liked him, with reservations. ‘This a man without ideas and without culture…A sort of liberal, for sure, but beneath the surface you find someone who isn’t stupid, who has great good sense and profoundly good intentions. What he does not perceive with his intelligence, he feels by nature.”

    Also, to counter the impression that Reagan was an idiot, read this 1975 interview with Reason magazine:


  9. MK (History)

    Thanks for digging out the Mitterand quote. That’s about as shrewd an appraisal as I can think of.

  10. archjr (History)

    Not to make light of a serious subject, but I remember (maybe apocryphal) the Reykjavik summit began with a bang: Richard Perle had a bag containing a couple of salamis exploded by the bomb squad upon his arrival at the airport.

    It might also be notable that Reagan at that summit was attended by Rick Burt, Perle, and Ken Adelman (with the venerable and historically-neglected Dean Rostow out of government but very much in the background). I always wished I could be a fly on the wall when Gorby and Reagan agreed to ban all nukes, or at least in the room with the “Princes of Darkness,” when their agreement was announced.

  11. bobbymike (History)

    Yes let’s hear all the intellectuals cluck their tongues and stroke their beards and say “What are we to do with Ronald Reagan”

  12. bradley laing (History)

    As understand it, the ABC made-for-television movie “The Day After” deeply distrubed Reagan. Which means he had to wait for ABC to tell him what a nuclear war would do for him to understand it.

  13. Distiller (History)

    Kind of agree with Mitterand here.

    No idea what made Reagan tick, but I think he was a cowboy who trusted his gut feeling more than anything else.

    And regarding these dismissive comments about him not being a intellectual – yes, probably. But then it’s not like the average “intellectual” has anything more to offer than his/her own narrow specific view. Very few “integrators” among intellectuals!

    In the end in very large and complex systems you’ll never have enough factual information as secure decision guideline – so the right strategic gut feeling is worth more than anything else. And in that I think Reagan was better than most.

  14. 10lizy

    “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

  15. John F. Opie (History)

    First of all, Morris himself was highly conflicted with Reagan, as Morris’ son felt driven by Reagan policies to break with his family and to go underground because of his own leftist politics, which he thought were going to get him arrested/prosecuted. Morris still does not have contact with his son, and blames Reagan for that.

    To make things even stranger, Morris himself was rescued from drowning by Ronald Reagan when Morris was a child, and the book is full of the difficulties that Morris had in dealing with Reagan. It’s one of his more tortured biographies, and nothing like his better ones on Teddy Roosevelt (and I think he should have finished the third volume before doing the Reagan bio).

    Further: what’s the point of the post, other than some gratuitous Reagan-bashing?

    I think, much like only Nixon could have gone to China (old Klingon proverb), that only Reagan could have gotten the arms deals that he did. Or would it have been ideologically cleaner that someone of the Left could have achieved this for you?

    If you want to belittle the man for that, to try to reduce his role to nothing, I think that you’re getting awfully close to trying to establish a revisionist history that does nothing to help arms control. To reiterate: only Reagan could have gotten the deals he did get with the Soviets, and only Reagan could have persuaded the Soviets that it really was worth their while to make the deals they did.

    Ridiculing Reagan via quotes is to be as shallow as you seem to be claiming he was. really: the relevance to actually achieving arms control (as opposed to fervently wishing for it) is?


  16. Frank (History)

    Keep in mind that the Morris biography is partly fictional so stories about being saved from drowning, a son who went underground, etc. are just stories. Check out the reviews from 1999 or so. A worthless book.

  17. Sağlık (History)

    demedim mi la önemli şeydir diye. Ama de lazım

  18. Josh (History)

    “The Day After” disturbed many people. Seeing is believing, you know — never mind how primitive the visual effects in that movie would seem to us now.

    And Reagan, for whatever it’s worth, seems to have taken movies more seriously than most.

  19. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I can’t remember where I heard/read this … “War and Peace In the Nuclear Age”? … Maybe … but my pea brain remembers a report of Regan being deeply shaken after his first ride on the E-4. I was a teenager and I can’t remember if it was on the PBS broadcast or in the book. Let’s also remember the alert spikes in the early 80’s, if those would not spook you, nothing would.

  20. Tom

    Thinking about presidents who were publicly ridiculed for their (alleged) intellectual limitations… For most of the past decade, I wish we’d had Reagan back in the White House.

  21. sineva (History)

    Yes RR did some great things,but he also did some truly dreadful things as well,yes he played a big part in ending the cold war,although without a partner like Gorbachev I think it would have been cold war business as usual,but he also helped to prop up and encourage some truly vile and evil groups and governments,his support for sth africas apartheid regime is infamous,sadly a lot of this seems to be overlooked in favour of remembering him as either a senile old duffer who didn`t know what was going on most of the time to the cunning cold war warrior who bankrupted the soviets and won the cold war for the west,anything else doesn`t really matter,heres an article I found interesting

  22. bradley laing (History)

    To: Josh

    Couldn’t Reagan have talked to some Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, if he wanted to know what nuclear weapons could do when used?

  23. manofwar

    It seems some prefer –

    I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

  24. MarkoB

    Reagan was a criminal (Central America for example). Let us assume that he was, as those who dedicate themselves to building a cult of personality around him insist he was, “in charge of the momentous events” of his era.

    That means he was in charge of the US terrorist wars in Central America (for example, and the supply side part for America’s rich) knowing full well what he was doing and the human suffering that resulted.

    According to the premise of this blog post it’s assumed that if he was “in charge” then we should view him positively.

    In fact it is the opposite. The more in charge he was the more we should despise him. The same applies to George W. Bush.

  25. Major Lemon (History)

    One way maybe to consider former President Reagan is to understand what he wasn’t. For instance, compare him to Carter.

  26. Steven Dolley (History)

    Read Reagan’s diaries. Came out a year or so ago, now in paperback I’m sure. He kept a journal throughout his presidency and made entires almost every day. Obviously it’s been heavily edited, but it’s the ultimate first person account of how Reagan himself saw things.

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