Posted: August 30, 2004
t an uncertain moment late in Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency, National Review offered the following editorial observation: "It's time to stop worrying about Ronald Reagan…. His mind has an unfashionable and even homemade quality, he knows a lot more than people expect him to know, and he will win or lose as Ronald Reagan."
The "homemade quality" of Reagan's political thought came back to mind during the week of his passing in June when Irving Kristol wrote that Reagan was the first "neoconservative"—that is, "a liberal mugged by reality." It is not correct to call Reagan a neoconservative, not merely because of the protean character of neoconservatism, but because Reagan doesn't fit the intellectual and temperamental prerequisites. Nonetheless, Kristol is on to something. Reagan's conversion from a New Deal liberal to a Goldwater conservative is yet another sign that Reagan was ahead of his time. What happened to Reagan ideologically in the 1950s happened to numerous liberal intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan's switch required considerable courage. Reagan abandoned his Democratic Party liberalism and joined the Right at a time when conservatism was still in the political wilderness and regarded by the respectable elites as beyond the fringe, if not plain nutty.
Even when thoughtful liberals began to have misgivings in the 1960s, few of the rising neoconservatives recognized Reagan as a kindred spirit or as a leader who might stem the tide. My favorite example is James Q. Wilson, who in his famous 1967 Commentary article, "A Guide to Reagan Country," confessed not only that he did not sympathize with Reagan, but that "even if I thought like that, which I don't, I would never write it down anywhere my colleagues at Harvard might read it." Wilson is today the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.
How did Reagan see so much earlier than anyone else that liberalism's lack of a limiting principle would be its undoing, especially since the most severe derelictions of liberalism lay in the future? Why did he change his mind?
The first clue is contained in National Review's observation that Reagan's thought was "homemade." Like Lincoln and Churchill, Reagan was self-taught in decisive respects. His detractors assumed that someone—his second wife Nancy, perhaps—had talked him out of his liberalism. But Reagan himself explained in 1976: "Eventually what happened to me was, because I did my own speeches and did the research for them, I just woke up to the realization one day that I had been going out and helping to elect the people who had been causing the things I had been criticizing. So it wasn't any case of some mentor coming in and talking me out of it. I did it in my own speeches."
Q.E.D. perhaps, but this does not shed much light on Reagan's idiosyncratic conservatism, which combined forward-looking optimism with his deep regard for our heritage. The past was not mere prologue for Reagan. Though it is wrong to call him a neoconservative, it is mistaken as well to try to squeeze him into any standard conservative category. Reagan once said "I believe the heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism," but his libertarianism was confined chiefly to economic matters, as his criticisms of pornography and social permissiveness attest. (When Johnny Carson asked Reagan on the "Tonight Show" in 1972 if he might go back to making movies, Reagan replied, "Oh, no, I'm much too old to take off all my clothes.") And he was certainly not a paleoconservative; despite his wide reading, Reagan's conservatism did not emerge from the pages of Russell Kirk. A copy of Odyssey of a Friend, Whittaker Chambers's letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., is on the shelf at Reagan's ranch house. One can imagine that Reagan instinctively understood Chambers's comment to Buckley about Kirk: "Would you charge the beach at Tarawa for that conservative position? And neither would I!" To the contrary, rather than invoking Edmund Burke, Reagan liked to quote Burke's antithesis—Thomas Paine—to the point that Kirk and other Tory conservatives took umbrage. George Will complained: "He is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Any time, any place, that is nonsense."
On the surface, then, Reagan appears to be the beau ideal of Frank Meyer's famous call for fusionism. One can imagine how Reagan might have answered if asked whether he was a "fusionist." He'd probably have said he favored all forms of nuclear energy! Not that we should humor the liberal slander that Reagan was un-intellectual or anti-intellectual; rather, we should recognize that Reagan represents a woefully unrecognized category: he was an American conservative. This kind of conservatism is not so much a fusion of the best of the various sects as it is an expression of the deeply American combination of belief in optimism and progress along with the suspicion of human nature that requires limited government. Above all, as a form of practical wisdom it resists schematic description.
Georges Clemenceau reportedly said that Americans have no capacity for abstract thought, and make bad coffee. Perhaps there is a connection: the quality of American coffee (and our beer) has increased markedly over the last generation, just as the quality of conservative thought has improved. But most conservative thought, whether Hayekian libertarianism or Burkean traditionalism, emphasizes its derivation from European sources and outlooks. The original contributions and outlook of the founders, or of Lincoln, are still treated as poor stepchildren.
The authors of The Federalist drew attention to the roots of Reagan's conservatism with their famous formulation: "But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." There is a complementary passage that is less well known: "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form." Reagan, like Lincoln, was perfectly comfortable with this moderate position. Men can be beasts to one another, but human nature also has "better angels."
Reagan exhibited the reverence for the founding and the Constitution that the authors of The Federalist had in mind. In Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom Andrew Busch conducted a content analysis of major presidential speeches from Lyndon Johnson through Reagan and discovered the astonishing fact that Reagan cited the founders three to four times as often as his four predecessors. And most of the references to the founding made by Reagan's predecessors, Busch found, were perfunctory and vague. Reagan mentions the Constitution ten times in his memoirs, often in a substantive way; Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Johnson mention the Constitution a grand total of zero times. (In light of Reagan's frequent recurrence to American constitutionalism, it is inexplicable how Lou Cannon could write, "The source of Reagan's inspiration was less the Constitution than the movies.")
But noting this reverence is not to explain how he came by it. It is unlikely that Reagan ever read The Federalist from start to finish, and though his speeches and writings are sprinkled with references to and quotations from the founders, the sources for these quotations are most likely the snippets that appeared in his periodical reading, such as Readers Digest, The Freeman, and National Review. This was probably to Reagan's benefit. Most of the leading books about the founding when Reagan was a college student and young professional, in the late 1920s, '30s, and '40s, were from the Progressive tradition that denigrated the founding. (Reagan's written recollections of his time in college are mostly limited to football, early acting ventures, and fraternity parties. His reading list is unrecorded.)
As we know, Reagan majored in economics instead of politics as a student at Eureka College. In addition to escaping the premises of Progressive politics, Reagan also benefited from learning economics before the arrival of John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. This helps explain Reagan's great economic literacy, as well as his quick embrace of supply-side economics. To the conventional wisdom, Reagan's pre-Keynesian education was a handicap; for the insurgent supply-siders, it was a great benefit. To the extent that supply-side economics represented a revival of certain pre-Keynesian precepts, it was not necessary to convert Reagan from a deeply ingrained conventional view.
Reagan's intuitive economic literacy was often best on display in the give-and-take of press questions or debate, where his pre-Keynesian education would manifest itself. In his campaign debate with Jimmy Carter, Reagan responded to Carter's charge that tax cuts would be inflationary with a sharp rhetorical question: "I would like to ask the President why is it inflationary to let the people keep more of their money and spend it the way they like, and it isn't inflationary to let him take that money and spend it the way he wants?" When unprecedented deficits mounted and pressure grew to raise taxes because high deficits allegedly "crowd out" private-market access to capital, Reagan retorted with a variation of this insight. Why is it, he would say, that a deficit crowds out investment, but taxes don't? No convincing rejoinder was ever offered.
Reagan gives only a few clues to his change of mind in his first memoir, Where's the Rest of Me?, which is more extensive than his post-presidential memoir. Reagan wrote that "the first crack in [his] staunch liberalism" occurred during his military service in World War II, where he observed first-hand the perverse incentive structure of the civil-service bureaucracy. This did not stop him, though, from enrolling as a member of Americans for Democratic Action after the war, or from campaigning for Harry Truman in 1948 and for Helen Gahagan Douglas against Richard Nixon in 1950. At the end of the 1940s, Reagan could still describe himself as a "near hopeless hemophiliac liberal."
It was about this time that he found himself in the 91% marginal income tax bracket—a phenomenon that has opened many liberals' eyes—and that he saw the nature of Communism up close in the Communist Party's efforts to control several Hollywood labor unions. Far from being a paranoid misadventure in McCarthyism, this was a serious episode that awakened the political animal in Reagan. Sterling Hayden, an admitted member of the Communist Party, later said that Communism was stopped in Hollywood by "a one-man battalion of opposition named Ronald Reagan."
Reagan would famously say during his political career that "I was a Democrat most of my adult life. I didn't leave my party and we're not suggesting you leave yours. I am telling you that what I felt was that the leadership of the Democratic Party had left me and millions of patriotic Democrats in this country who believed in freedom." If he was too easy on the Democratic Party, he was very clear that conservatism today has inherited the best of the liberal tradition, which is why he felt none of the sectarian's hesitation about quoting Thomas Paine (or admiring Franklin Roosevelt):
The classic liberal used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a long-time refuge of the liberals: 'Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.'
During his GE touring days in the 1950s, Reagan said he began to experience "the vindictiveness of the liberal temper…. Sadly I have come to realize that a great many so-called liberals aren't liberal—they will defend to the death your right to agree with them." The AFL-CIO—to which Reagan belonged as a member of the Screen Actors Guild—branded Reagan "a strident voice of the right wing lunatic fringe." Like Churchill, who read Gibbon and the classics on his own while a young officer in India, in the 1950s Reagan undertook a serious self-education in politics through reading Whittaker Chambers's Witness, Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson, Fredrich Bastiat's The Law, and F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom, among other titles. Yet he adopted neither Chambers's historical pessimism nor a blanket libertarian hatred of government. It is tempting to ascribe this outcome merely to Reagan's irrepressibly optimistic temperament. While this is obviously central to Reagan's character, it seems inadequate to explain his cast of mind entirely. And while his independent reading and speaking tours during his GE years of the 1950s are surely the key period of his self-education, in the end it is not Reagan's thought that was decisive, but his insight, imagination, and moral clarity—none of which can be taught in a classroom or a book.
Friends and critics alike have drained tankers of ink trying to decipher Reagan's unusual habits of mind. His asides and penchant for analysis-by-anecdote are frequently taken as signs of his limited intelligence, a false conclusion that conveniently overlooks Lincoln's similar fondness for jokes and stories. Modern social science tries to reduce thinking either to an orderly, replicable process of formal logic and quantitative models, or to the contexts of a person's life. Insight doesn't work this way. Insight, the philosopher Bernard Lonergan notes in his magisterial study of the subject, is reached "not by learning rules, not by following precepts, not by studying any methodology…. [I]nsight is a function not of outer circumstances but of inner condition…. [It] pivots between the concrete and the abstract, and passes into the habitual texture of one's mind." Insight is discovery, not deduction; it shares the same element of genius that creates great new art. "Were there rules for discovery," Lonergan adds, "then discoveries would be mere conclusions. Were there precepts for genius, then men of genius would be hacks."
Reagan and Churchill
Certainly there was insight at work in Reagan that was missing from other leading anti-Communist figures of his time. Sophisticated opinion, including much of conservative opinion, thought Reagan naïve or foolishly hopeful for saying in 1982 that Communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and that "even now its last sad bizarre chapters are being written." Here Reagan's insight must be compared with that of the other modern statesman who predicted the decline of the Soviet empire before the century's end—Winston Churchill. In 1953, when Churchill was prime minister for the second time and when he hoped to broker with Stalin a permanent settlement to the Cold War, he told his young aide John Colville that if he lived his normal span of life he would surely see Eastern Europe free from Communism. At the end of World War II, when Churchill contemplated the division of Europe that would necessarily come with Soviet occupation of the East, he remarked to Charles de Gaulle that while the Soviets were a hungry wolf now, "after the meal comes the digestion period." The Soviet Union, Churchill thought, would not be able to digest the peoples of Eastern Europe. Sure enough, every few years, like a dyspeptic belch, part of Eastern Europe would flare up and require to be put down forcibly—Hungary in 1956; Czechoslovakia in 1968; Poland in 1981.
Certainly Churchill had a wider intellectual range than Reagan, yet there are many similarities between them. Let us not forget what so many of Churchill's peers used to tell him: "Winston, you missed your calling in life. You should have been an actor." (As it was, Churchill almost took up Hollywood screenwriting at one point.) Reagan liked to quote Churchill and made a point of citing him in his first Inaugural Address ("To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I've just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world's strongest economy."). Dozens of other American politicians have mined Churchill's rich quarry over the years. Yet there are a number of affinities between Reagan and Churchill that go beyond borrowing a memorable quotation. As we can see now from Reagan's own handwritten editing of speeches and other documents, Reagan shared Churchill's flair for fine-tuning the English language, reaching for the right word, and achieving an economy of expression. Both expressed a sense of destiny. Reagan used to say that he thought the presidency sought the man, which might be dismissed as false modesty. But after he survived the assassin's bullet in 1981, few questioned Reagan's sincerity when he said that he thought God had spared his life for a purpose—the purpose of ending the Cold War. After Churchill became prime minister in 1940 he told his doctor: "This cannot be an accident. It must be design. I was kept for this job."
Critics, and even some friends, regarded Churchill and Reagan as romantic refugees from the past and as simplistic Cold Warriors, though in both cases this judgment dissolves under scrutiny. While many liberals thought (and many conservatives feared) the Soviet Union or some benign variation of its system was the wave of the future, Churchill and Reagan both thought Soviet Communism was doomed for metaphysical reasons. Churchill's thumbnail diagnosis of Communism, given 20 years before the onset of the Cold War, sounds like something Reagan could have written for one of his radio broadcasts:
There is not one single social or economic principle or concept in the philosophy of the Russian Bolshevik which has not been realized, carried into action, and enshrined in immutable laws a million years ago by the White Ant. But human nature is more intractable than ant-nature. The explosive variations of its phenomena disturb the smooth working out of the laws and forces which have subjugated the White Ant. It is at once the safeguard and glory of mankind that they are easy to lead and hard to drive. So the Bolsheviks, having attempted by tyranny and by terror to establish the most complete form of mass life and collectivism of which history bears record, have not only lost the distinction of individuals, but have not even made the nationalization of life and industry pay. We have not much to learn from them, except what to avoid.
There are other striking similarities between the moral clarity that Reagan and Churchill brought to modern geopolitical conditions. In his much neglected 1967 TV debate with Robert F. Kennedy, Reagan remarked on the significance of the fact that the U.S. hadn't used its nuclear monopoly for conquest immediately after World War II: "Can you honestly say in your heart that had the Soviet Union been in a comparable position with that bomb, or today's Red Chinese, that the world would not today have been conquered with that force?" Churchill had said this in 1948: "What do you suppose would be the position this afternoon had it been Communist Russia instead of free enterprise America which had created the atomic weapon? Instead of being a somber guarantee of peace it would have become an irresistible method of human enslavement." It took a certain cast of mind to argue plainly in this manner.
Churchill took seriously that Hitler meant what he had written in Mein Kampf, a book few Britons bothered to read and would not have taken seriously if they had. Likewise Reagan took seriously the resolve of Lenin and his successors, quoting often Lenin's statement that "it is inconceivable that the Soviet Republic should continue to exist for a long period side by side with imperialistic states. Ultimately, one or the other must conquer." Churchill warned that weakness ("appeasement") would lead to war. He was attacked as a menace and a warmonger. Reagan held a similar view, warning as early as 1961 that "[t]here can only be one end to the war we are in. It won't go away if we simply try to outwait it. Wars end in victory or defeat." Even Cold Wars. Which is why Reagan said, before becoming president, that his idea of how the Cold War should end was simple: "We win, they lose." And like Churchill in the 1930s, liberals in the 1980s thought Reagan was a warmonger.
Little Green Men
Like Churchill, Reagan had a vivid imagination that was the source of much of the criticism that he confused fantasy with reality. But it was also the source of much of his strength. It was Reagan's capacious imagination that led him to embrace missile defense, just as Churchill's imagination led him to champion a variety of military innovations from the tank to radar. Then there was Reagan's fascination with "little green men," as Colin Powell called it. Reagan had been a science fiction fan during his acting career; the alter ego of Churchill's lone novel, Savrola, is diverted from politics by astronomy, "becoming each moment more under the power of the spell that star-gazing exercises on curious, inquiring humanity." When Reagan met Gorbachev for the first time in 1985, he attempted to disarm Gorbachev (so to speak) by saying that the differences between the U.S. and Soviet Union would instantly dissolve if the world faced invasion from aliens. It was a favorite theme that Reagan's aides worked to keep out of his public comments, but Reagan had his own mind. At the end of a speech to a high school audience shortly after the 1985 Geneva Summit, Reagan ad-libbed the theme (it is easy to tell from the fractured syntax that Reagan was departing from his written text):
I couldn't help but—one point during our discussions privately with General Secretary Gorbachev—when you stop to think that we're all God's children, wherever we may live in the world I couldn't help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet, outside the universe. We'd forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together. Well, I don't suppose we can wait for some alien race to come down and threaten us, but I think that between us we can bring about that realization.
In preparation for their first face-to-face meeting, Gorbachev had watched some old Reagan movies, and no doubt had read through the Soviet intelligence profiles of Reagan that included prominently the fact that Reagan read his daily horoscope and the comics before he read the news pages. But he was unprepared for this. Lou Cannon wryly notes that Gorbachev "did not have at his fingertips the Marxist-Leninist position on the propriety of cooperating with the imperialists against an interplanetary invasion," and he promptly changed the subject. Reagan said to Secretary of State George Shultz after the session, "Looks like I really threw him with that one."
If in the end it is impossible to nail down Reagan's cast of mind, it is because its most decisive aspects are precisely those aspects that cannot be taught. Despite all the differences between Churchill and Reagan, in the end the extraordinary political character of each rested on his self-education to a much larger extent than anyone has hitherto noted, at least in Reagan's case. Just as Churchill benefited from a military rather than an Oxbridge education, so too it is easy to imagine Reagan having been ruined in the Ivy League or in law school. "Homemade" he was, and we could use a few more homemade statesmen just like him.