November 14, 2003

Notes: Richard Pipes on Ronald Reagan

Timothy Noah tells us what Reagan advisor and Russia hawk Richard Pipes thought of Ronald Reagan:

Saint Ronald, Part 2 - Richard Pipes' new memoir adds ballast to CBS's miniseries. By Timothy Noah: "Reagan," Pipes writes, "was a poor judge of people; he basically liked everyone, which was part of his charm but also a source of weakness, for a politician must be able to distinguish friend from foe. … Reagan was remote: even his children complained they could never get close to him. His amiability served as a shield that protected him from more intimate relationships. He drew on his inexhaustible reservoir of anecdotes to avoid serious conversation.

"Unquestionably, Reagan's political and economic ideas were in some respects simplistic: I once heard him say that one million Sears Roebuck catalogues distributed in the Soviet Union would bring the regime down."

Pipes quotes some notes from his diary about his first NSC meeting in Oct. 1981: "RR totally lost, out of his depth, uncomfortable. After making some commonsensical remarks did not speak for forty-five minutes or so; when he finally spoke up it was to sigh "Oh boy"--meaning "what am I to make of this mess?". He did not listen attentively, looking away or staring at the papers in front of him--except when Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke up and he briefly engaged in a dialogue with her. All this--both the substance and human conflict--is above and beyond him. He has not enough of either knowledge or decisiveness to cut through the contradictory advice that is being offered to him."

Posted by DeLong at November 14, 2003 11:54 AM | TrackBack

Comments

That's perhaps the first time I've agreed with Richard Pipes on anything.

How many years later did Reagan negotiate an agreement with the Soviets at Reykjavik that immediately had to be cancelled by his advisers?

How many times did he confuse a part he had played in a movie with an event from real life?

The fact that such an amiable dunce could have been installed as president demonstrates how ineffectual our media is in explaining issues.

Posted by: Charles on November 14, 2003 01:02 PM

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I am always floored when Reagan is spoken of with reverence. His own advisors thought him a fool who didn't really understand the descisions he had to make. There is a reason he was made fun of for being a dolt during his administration -- he was.

Now, he isn't the first or last simple guy to be president but he surely is the most respected by the right (I'll not comment on the current example). Why might this be? Well, and this is the cynic in me, the right needs an icon. After hearing the trumpeting on the left for LBJ, FDR, Kennedy, Clinton (cough), the right needed somebody to point to and say -- "that guy was one to emulate, look at everything he did for us!" Reagan was president during the fall of the Soviet Bloc, he wasn't taken out by a scandal (though he should have), and he was around for eight years. Too bad he was such a nimrod.

To make this post topical to this blog -- one supposed contribution was his bought and paid for zealous use of "voodoo economics." If a president really understand the issues, he won't let advisors sell him snakeoil on behalf of special interests.

Posted by: Zach on November 14, 2003 01:47 PM

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I am always floored when Reagan is spoken of with reverence. His own advisors thought him a fool who didn't really understand the descisions he had to make. There is a reason he was made fun of for being a dolt during his administration -- he was.

Now, he isn't the first or last simple guy to be president but he surely is the most respected by the right (I'll not comment on the current example). Why might this be? Well, and this is the cynic in me, the right needs an icon. After hearing the trumpeting on the left for LBJ, FDR, Kennedy, Clinton (cough), the right needed somebody to point to and say -- "that guy was one to emulate, look at everything he did for us!" Reagan was president during the fall of the Soviet Bloc, he wasn't taken out by a scandal (though he should have), and he was around for eight years. Too bad he was such a nimrod.

To make this post topical to this blog -- one supposed contribution was his bought and paid for zealous use of "voodoo economics." If a president really understand the issues, he won't let advisors sell him snakeoil on behalf of special interests.

Posted by: Zach on November 14, 2003 01:54 PM

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Reminds me of Edmund Morris's summary of Reagan's personality in Dutch. Although the book was highly controversial because of the narrative format used by Morris, I believe many of the character assessments made by Morris were quite consistent with what we're hearing from his former advisors. Reagan was intellectually incurious, a home body who was never weened from Nancy's emotional protection, completely emotionally distant from everyone other than Nancy, and certainly a little naive.

It's not a slam on Reagan necessarily to make these claims, but it does make us wonder if he ever deserved the title, "The Great Communicator."

Posted by: brayden on November 14, 2003 01:55 PM

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Reminds me of Edmund Morris's summary of Reagan's personality in Dutch. Although the book was highly controversial because of the narrative format used by Morris, I believe many of the character assessments made by Morris were quite consistent with what we're hearing from his former advisors. Reagan was intellectually incurious, a home body who was never weened from Nancy's emotional protection, completely emotionally distant from everyone other than Nancy, and certainly a little naive.

It's not a slam on Reagan necessarily to make these claims, but it does make us wonder if he ever deserved the title, "The Great Communicator."

Posted by: brayden on November 14, 2003 01:58 PM

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I am always floored when Reagan is spoken of with reverence. His own advisors thought him a fool who didn't really understand the descisions he had to make. There is a reason he was made fun of for being a dolt during his administration -- he was.

Now, he isn't the first or last simple guy to be president but he surely is the most respected by the right (I'll not comment on the current example). Why might this be? Well, and this is the cynic in me, the right needs an icon. After hearing the trumpeting on the left for LBJ, FDR, Kennedy, Clinton (cough), the right needed somebody to point to and say -- "that guy was one to emulate, look at everything he did for us!" Reagan was president during the fall of the Soviet Bloc, he wasn't taken out by a scandal (though he should have), and he was around for eight years. Too bad he was such a nimrod.

To make this post topical to this blog -- one supposed contribution was his bought and paid for zealous use of "voodoo economics." If a president really understand the issues, he won't let advisors sell him snakeoil on behalf of special interests.

Posted by: Zach on November 14, 2003 02:02 PM

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The reverence for Reagan, in spire of his his complete lack of understanding of what he was doing, is particularly enlightening when compared with their relative scorn towards Bush I. Bush I was intelligent; he couldn't (or, he didn't) embrace illogical or imaginary possibilities...

Therefore, he resonates less with the current crop of conservatives, who IMO have a economic and geopolitical 'strategy' which is explicitly based in unrelatistic projections and unsupported theories. Much better to lionize someone who dreamed of the conservative world "the way it ought to be"...

Wu

Posted by: Carleton Wu on November 14, 2003 03:16 PM

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"He did not listen attentively, looking away or staring at the papers in front of him--except when Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke up and he briefly engaged in a dialogue with her. All this--both the substance and human conflict--is above and beyond him. He has not enough of either knowledge or decisiveness to cut through the contradictory advice that is being offered to him."

And yet, America somehow managed to do just fine under his watch; taxes came down to far more reasonable rates, the regulatory ratchet slowed down for a while, America outspent the Soviet Union in the arms race, and eventually the Berlin Wall did indeed come down, just as the "simple-minded" Reagan suggested to Gorbachev. I'd say that Reagan was an outsized performer for someone supposedly so out of his depth.

Even if one grants that Reagan was the dunce some make him out to be, what does his tenure really prove, other than that having a high IQ and being a good president aren't necessarily related things?

Richard Nixon certainly had a brilliant mind, and Jack F. Kennedy was a womanizing rich boy with a measured IQ of 117, less than George W. Bush's estimated 125 (as inferred from his SAT scores). Jimmy Carter, Reagan's predecessor in office, was also a formidably intelligent guy, at least on paper, and yet his tenure in office was a disaster through and through, while Woodrow Wilson, the only PhD to hold the president's office in the 20th century was both an idealistic fool who helped unleash radical nationalism in the name of "self determination", as well as a racist who gave the Klan the freedom of Washington D.C. FDR was neither a scholar during his Harvard years or an intellectual after them, while Eisenhower and Truman, both fine presidents, weren't the sort who would have enjoyed an evening discussing the merits of consequentialism while nibbling on camembert.

Looking over the history of America in the last 100 years, I see no discernible relationship whatsoever between intellectual brilliance and presidential achievement in office. There's plenty one can criticize about both GWB and Reagan's presidential tenures without descending to the sort of petty snobbery that deifies "intellectual curiousity" as the be-all and end-all of governing ability.

Someone else (with whom I am in agreement about virtually nothing else) has said this already, but it really is odd how liberals downplay the importance of intellectual ability in other arenas, yet are fixated on it when it comes to politics: surely one's IQ is just as important if one wishes to be a doctor, an aeronautics engineer or a defense attorney as if one wishes to be president? Ah, but I suppose if the "Bush/Reagan is an idiot" stick is the only one at hand, a committed partisan will feel at liberty to reach for it, however much it may contradict what he professes to believe.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 14, 2003 05:51 PM

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Hey, look, Abiola Lapite has discovered some suggestive evidence that G.W. Bush had somebody take his SAT's for him! And clever stuff about Camembert nibbling from A.L. too. I hate it that liberals like french cheese, the bastards.

I like the date on Pipes' notes. We've been hearing a lot, after Morris, that Reagan lost it sometime late, probably as the Alzheimer's came on, (though Morris does suggest getting shot had something to do with it). Nice to see that Reagan's critics were probably right from the start. He was an idiot before he got sick (and, despite what the apologists would have us believe, the country suffered for it).

Posted by: david on November 14, 2003 06:14 PM

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Reagan reminds me of stories of mediocre (or worse) kings or emperors completely dominated by sharp advisers. It's a version of the reigns/rules division of labor in constitutional monarchies. On its own terms, it worked, though the Reykjavik conference was scary.

The second time around (Bush II) that strategy doesn't seem to be working so well. They got cocky, I think.

Posted by: Zizka on November 14, 2003 06:16 PM

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"Hey, look, Abiola Lapite has discovered some suggestive evidence that G.W. Bush had somebody take his SAT's for him! And clever stuff about Camembert nibbling from A.L. too. I hate it that liberals like french cheese, the bastards."

Don't project your own failings onto others, hombre; while we're at it, perhaps the ETS ought to look you over more carefully too? If you consider camembert a "fancy" cheese, or one eaten only by liberals, I'd suggest you buy yourself a plane ticket and see quite a bit more of the world. Over here in Europe, where I am right now writing this, 3 miserable dollars will get you a nice little portion of camembert (or brie, or stilton) at the local supermarket.

It's interesting though that you don't have anything of substance whatsoever to say other than the typical jejune resort to insults like "idiot" and the like. If you're so much smarter than Reagan, why not put your intellect on display on this forum for our edification? And why not enlighten us as to just how America "suffered" for Reagan's reign?

I suspect you have nothing worthwhile to offer on these fronts, though I can guarantee that you'll be back to fling a few more insults like so much monkey faeces - you are a troll, after all, and it's in your nature* to do so, isn't it? You remind me of Aesop's fable about the Scorpion and the Frog.

*No, my trolling friend, that line wasn't original to "The Crying Game."

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 14, 2003 06:37 PM

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Lets ignore the loony bit about Bushs IQ. Lets merely focus on the distortions of Reagans record in your post AL. Reagan didnt quite preside over some real rollback of taxes he presided over a shift in taxation from those with money to those who work for it. After the tax cuts that conservatives like to crow about they pretend that the hikes in FICA werent tax increases; they pretend that user fees werent tax increases; in fact, they pretend that none of the tax increases signed nearly every year of Reagans reign exist.

Then there is the notion that somehow we won the Cold War by outspending the Soviets. Nice fantasy. Too bad the record demonstrates that they were no where near our spending level even before Reagan. Reagans contribution to the Cold War was most likely to extend it by giving the people of the Soviet Union someone to be more afraid of than their government. Not the actions of a wise or intelligent man.

And let us not forget that the nation has still never recovered from Reagans orgy of borrowing. How much money is required every year to service the $2 Trillion borrowed under Reagan? How much has that debt grown because the childish Republicans are unwilling to act like adults and pay their bills?

All your ad hominems against david dont change the facts; they just make you look foolish (and it was your comment on camembert that he was mocking, but perhaps you had merely forgotten what nonsense you wrote).

Posted by: Lori Thantos on November 14, 2003 08:15 PM

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Let the record reflect that for all his failings,(and goodness knows there were many) RR was beloved for who he was: a simple amiable man who had some limited clear ideas about what he wanted to do. Too bad he was often manipulated by coniving staff and ill served by too many ideologues. Was he also a known 'fabricator of tales' and given to lying to advance a hard right agenda? Sure. But he makes the current bunch of malcontents and abject failures seem, well just evil doing, amateur plutocratic puppets by comparison. Sure he was not all there most of the time. He was still doing better than the current bunch just the same by most comparisons.

Posted by: VJ on November 15, 2003 02:23 AM

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"Lets ignore the loony bit about Bushs IQ. Lets merely focus on the distortions of Reagans record in your post AL."

What's "loony" about the fact that the old SAT was a psychometric test with a 0.85 correlation to the WAIS and the Stanford-Binet? I'd say the only "loonies" here are you and "david", and you've also just shown yourself to be an incredible ignoramus.

"All your ad hominems against david dont change the facts; they just make you look foolish (and it was your comment on camembert that he was mocking, but perhaps you had merely forgotten what nonsense you wrote)."

You're remarkably full of shit for someone who dares to accuse anyone else of ad hominem. It's certainly going to take a much finer intellect than the one you possess to make me look "foolish" in the eyes of those who matter, and being thought a fool by the likes of you is a mark of wisdom rather than the lack of it.

My God, where do ignorant trolls like you come from, I wonder? Do they manufacture you silly creatures in a workship under a bridge somewhere? I'll bet anything you and "david" are one and the same nuisance. Keep flinging the faeces, troll ...

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 15, 2003 02:48 AM

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Temper, temper, A.L. But your acute analysis of my and Lori's intellectual capacities does suggest you place a high value on smarts, something you seem to have conceded Reagan did not have. So what's your point?

Anyway, what Lori said about the Reagan economic miracle. And double what she said about the ludicrous spending the Soviets into submission theory of Cold War victory. But the War on Drugs escalation, the inability to address major health epidemics with presidential vigor, and the support for slaughterhouses in Latin America, at great expense to the U.S. conscience, all these ought to be put in there too. And the elevation in the Republican party of savages led by Tom DeLay is certainly a major part of the Reagan legacy, which must explain why so many nasty people spend so much time talking about how great Reagan was and how we should build at least 10,000 major monuments to him because he wasn't really lying about a welfare queen in Detroit, he was just making an important point about welfare that wasn't rascist at all.

Oops, must have let my ignorance show again. Sorry to respond, everybody.

Posted by: david on November 15, 2003 06:07 AM

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A.L., you framed the discussion as one of I.Q., which helped your case enormously. It's a clever move on your part, but one I'm not buying.

I don't know Reagan's I.Q., and I don't care. It's quite irrelevant to the discussion as I understand it. I.Q. does not measure the qualities exemplified in Pipes' account.

My reading of insiders' perspectives on Reagan was that he was almost entirely disengaged from the process of governing. For those of his supporters who accept this account, the common defense is that, since things worked out well anyway, having a president who is engaged is not so important after all.

At this point we could spend our time debating how well things actually worked out under Reagan. That's an interesting discussion, but more striking to me is this question:

If we grant that things did work out at least well enough under Reagan, does that mean we should feel comfortable electing another president who is similarly disengaged; or should we consider ourselves merely lucky and fervently hope that our country is never led in such a fashion again?

I vote for the latter.

Posted by: Brandonimac on November 15, 2003 09:29 AM

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"Temper, temper, A.L. But your acute analysis of my and Lori's intellectual capacities does suggest you place a high value on smarts, something you seem to have conceded Reagan did not have. So what's your point?"

Now you're being reasonable, which you certainly weren't before. I don't agree with any of the claims you make against Reagan, but at least we aren't discussing this as if we were in an elementary school playground.

"If we grant that things did work out at least well enough under Reagan, does that mean we should feel comfortable electing another president who is similarly disengaged; or should we consider ourselves merely lucky and fervently hope that our country is never led in such a fashion again?"

Yes, this is the decisive issue. I don't see any clear answer from where I'm standing, as it depends as much on what the other presidential candidate is like as on the personal qualities of the fellow in question.

Let me illustrate what I'm getting at. I won't pretend to like Bush's policies more than I have to. On nearly every issue I consider important as a small "l" libertarian, Bush has failed to deliver. The question then arises, to whom should I give my support in the upcoming election? If the Democratic Party candidate were Joe Lieberman or Wesley Clark, it might have been a difficult decision, but seeing as Howard Dean has practically snagged the candidacy already, I'll almost certainly have to go with Bush, however little I may think of his intellectual abilities and his record on economic policy.

Given a bad enough candidate on the other side, however clever, and the most incurious dunce can come to seem like a pretty good option. That is the problem with going on and on about Reagan's "incurious" nature; the discussion is being held in a vaccuum, as if the alternative to Reagan, i.e. the likes of Carter, Mondale and Dukakis, were really all that much more likely to have thrived in the White House. The verdict of the American populace in all three cases was *extremely* clear - most Americans thought (rightly, in my opinion) that it was better to stick with the "dumb" B-movie actor than to go with his Democratic challengers.

In short, if I am to be comfortable dismissing disengaged candidates from office, I have to be given palatable alternatives, and the Democratic Party's grassroots seem determined to deny me such an option, by going for the orneriest and most strident possible choice - Howard Dean.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 15, 2003 02:24 PM

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There's a funny bit in "Shakespeare in Love" in which the actor who plays the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" is asked what the play is about. "Well, there's this Nurse...."

The hired help, like Pipes and company, tend to think their job and how they do it is the essense of a presidency. It isn't. They are and were clever boys, but Reagan really wasn't about cleverness. He happened to have a set of core beliefs that, even if unexamined, served him extremely well. "We need to confront the Soviets with strength" may not seem all that profound, but as a guiding policy goes it's pretty effective. And it's less likely to be subverted by clever boys who are willing to give some ground as part of a very clever tactical maneuver.

Posted by: Ernst Blofeld on November 15, 2003 05:11 PM

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