The morning after Reagan's party

Jim Fain

April 29, 1991|By Jim Fain

Washington -- WHAT DIFFERENCE whether Nancy and Ol' Blue Eyes hanky-panked in White House nooners? They deserve each other in any case.

Far more interesting is how President Reagan got away with an eight-year gig as colossus of the American scene.

Lou Cannon, the reporter who covered him longest and best, lays out the theatrical illusions that framed his life and presidency in a new book, "President Reagan -- the Role of a Lifetime."

Cannon all but ruptures himself with generosity to his inert subject, lavishing praise on Reagan for rekindling national pride and crediting his military build-up for ending the Cold War. Historians are likely to disagree. Given the bankruptcy of communism, Reagan's overspending on defense hastened its demise at most by about five minutes.

The author's heroic effort at evenhandedness renders doubly devastating his documentation of Reagan's inability to master, understand or even care about the true nature of presidential leadership.

To Reagan, the Oval Office was a boffo turn, rewarding him, in addition to the applause that is an actor's mother's milk, with a license to dismantle such personal demons as the progressive income tax and the mechanisms of governance.

It was second nature to him to substitute the airy symbolism of patriotism for any semblance of sacrifice in behalf of society. War II movies were his guide. Sands of Iwo Jima and all that jazz.

In the process, the old Gipper managed to saddle his country with a debt of nearly $3 trillion, systemic deficit, enormous waste in defense procurement, megabuck S&L and HUD scandals, a widening gap between poor and rich, to say nothing of Iran-contra and 241 dead Marines in Beirut.

Cannon glosses over none of these. While he shares inner Washington's bent for blaming presidential shortcomings on staff, he also makes clear that Reagan's inattention to detail, inability to knock heads and reluctance to face controversy left him singularly vulnerable to such major screw-ups.

We'd had so many poor presidents by the time we got around to him that we were aching for anything less than a child molester.

It's no accident that Reagan went, with Alice-in-Wonderland rapidity, from pigmy to giant and back again (before, in and after leaving office). He was a skilled showman who could convince himself of almost any fantasy and knew how to make us feel good -- but not much else.

Cannon gives him high marks for reviving confidence but concedes that because he "believed in happy endings obtained with too little sacrifice, this renewed confidence became an end in itself that he rarely sought to focus on higher goals."

Exactly. We're more united now, but around what? More patriotic, but to what purpose? Where do we go after the show, Ronnie? George Bush obviously hasn't a clue.

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