A Churchillian Effort to Shape Reagan’s Legacy
Late in his life, as he churned out 10 full volumes of memoir and chronicle, Winston Churchill said of his efforts, “This is not history, this is my case.” The case, that is, for Churchill’s own greatness.
After all, as the historian Hayden White explained, “The facts do not speak for themselves. The historian speaks for them, speaks on their behalf, and fashions the fragments of the past into a whole.” In other words, there’s hope for anyone who wishes to make his or her case before the bar of history; it just takes a lot of work—a lot of fashioning of the fragments.
Without a doubt, Churchill lived a great life, performed great deeds, and eye-witnessed great events. So of course he should expect to be treated greatly by history. And yet why leave anything to chance? Why not hire legions of ghostwriters and researchers to help fashion the fragments to your maximum advantage? And why not, while you’re at it, pick up a Nobel Prize for Literature?
Such industriousness is one of many reasons why Churchill is regarded as one of the titanic figures of the 20th century. His volumes might not be read much anymore, but he lives forever in other people’s history books—as well as, of course, being ubiquitous in movies and on TV.
So now we can move closer to home and consider another figure who lived, died, and saw great things: Ronald Reagan, our 40th president. Reagan may not have faced down the Nazis during World War II, but he did face down the Soviets during the Cold War. In fact, in 1987—this is a cinematic scene if ever there was one—he stood in front of the Berlin Wall and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
It’s worth recalling that at that time, experts were saying that we needed to coexist with the Soviet Union and its wall, probably forever. Yet here was Reagan, proclaiming that the Evil Empire needed to come down. Two years later, in 1989, the wall fell. And two years after that, the USSR collapsed.
Actually the story is even better than that: Reagan wasn’t just a glorious speechmaker; he was also a devious maneuverer. He was fully capable of negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev, even as he plotted Soviet downfall. In other words, he was rope-a-doping the Russians, while working with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and other allies to push Muscovite communism onto the ash heap of history. Reagan achieved “regime change” without firing a shot, a lesson in subtle effectiveness lost on some of his successors.
If Reagan’s victory in the Cold War was epochal, his impact on America was substantial. Who says so? Barack Obama, to name one. In 2008, Obama said, with no small amount of admiration, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path.”
Continuing, Obama said, “He tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
So yes, this Reagan fellow merits some Churchill-level appraisal. And if the Gipper hasn’t always seemed so great, maybe one reason is that he never assembled a Churchillian writing factory.
Moreover, the first draft of history—daily journalism—was not kind to Reagan when he was in office. This author, who worked as a staffer on the Reagan presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984, and in the Reagan White House in between, well remembers the pounding that we took every day. The Gipper himself might have been nice and friendly, but the media were distinctly not nice and friendly.
In the ’80s, the typical fourth estate view was that Reagan was, at best, a semi-senile old coot (those were the days before the medically correct phrase “Alzheimer’s” came into use), and at worst a warmongering cowboy. And pressies of that era were happy to claim that “Reaganomics” was wrecking the nation, until they noticed that inflation and unemployment both fell during Reagan’s eight years, even as the real gross domestic product rose by slightly more than a third. (Admittedly, there was a Springsteenian decay in parts of the country—nobody said Reagan was perfect, and in any case, presidents don’t control everything.)
Fortunately, and justly, over the last quarter-century, Reagan’s stock has risen. There’s been an outpouring of admiring books, the most notable of these being Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw at the Revolution. Yes, of course, there’s been plenty of negative commentary, too, and yet in this “battle of the books,” the obvious reality of Reagan’s achievements has tipped the verdict in a Noonanesque direction.
In fact, in 2017 and 2018, two different public surveys showed Reagan at the top of the heap of the 13 post-war presidents, Truman to Trump.
Yet interestingly, Reagan has lagged in the arena that the former movie star should have owned: popular culture. It’s astonishing, for instance, that Hollywood has never seen fit to give him an honorary Oscar.
Happily, now pop culture is starting to get on the Reagan train, at least a little bit. A recent musical, In a Booth at Chasen’s, tells the story of when Ron Reagan and Nancy Davis first met, back on November 15, 1949, at Chasen’s, the legendary West Hollywood eatery. The show then carries their lives forward till their nuptials, three years later.
Chasen’s is tuneful fun, full of biographical tidbits about Reagan and knowing references to Old Hollywood, from his love of corny jokes to his sly takes on John Wayne’s gait and Marlon Brando’s method acting.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing element is the show’s depiction of Nancy Reagan. She truly loved him, and she enjoyed her public role as adoring wife, yet she also had a private role as driving force. To be sure, Reagan hardly lacked for talents of his own—he had, after all, become a Hollywood star and president of the Screen Actors Guild before he had so much as met Nancy. Yet Chasen’s shows that she helped organize his thoughts and ambitions throughout the rest of his career.
A half-century ago, the same point was made by journalist Bill Boyarsky in his 1968 biography, The Rise of Ronald Reagan. As the author detailed, Nancy was “deeply conservative” when Reagan was still a New Deal liberal. Indeed, Nancy enlisted her own father, Dr. Loyal Davis, to help mold Reagan into the conservative icon he became. So it’s fitting that in the musical, Ron’s main love song to Nancy is “She Makes Me Right.”
Still, there was always a certain passivity to Reagan. As one observer said to Boyarsky of the man, “I think he leaves work at five p.m., goes home to Nancy, and doesn’t worry about a thing until he comes back at nine in the morning.”
We can declare that such a work-life balance speaks well of Reagan’s overall good health, and we can further declare that relaxation helped him maintain his famously cheerful and winning persona. Yet we can also declare that cheerfulness doesn’t get one to the White House. Bonhomie plays well on TV, yet offstage, someone needs to be compiling a to-do list—or even knitting an enemies list. That was Nancy’s role.
Chasen’s made a soft debut in Los Angeles last year, and on September 25 of this year, a filmed version played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The screening was an occasion for surviving Reaganites to gather, stripping their sleeves St. Crispian-like to display the scars of past victories. There was the venerated Ed Meese, for instance; for more than two decades, Meese was Reagan’s close aide and trusted adviser, culminating in his service as the nation’s attorney general. Now 87, after the screening, he gamely made his way onto the stage to praise the show. He was joined by Jim Rosebush, once the first lady’s chief of staff, as the two comrades remembered with advantages the feats of those years.
One of those in attendance was Grover Norquist, who played a key role in Reagan’s 1986 tax reform legislation. Since then, Norquist has launched the Reagan Legacy Project, aimed at naming and renaming places in the 40th president’s honor. Norquist’s greatest success: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, complete with a welcoming statue of the hero.
So we can see: the burnishing of an historical legend takes conscious effort. As Hayden White reminded us, “The facts don’t speak for themselves.” So loyal Reaganites have helped to fashion the fragments of Reagan’s life into an articulate case, to be laid before the bar of history—or, as in this latest instance, the booth of history.
Indeed, the creators of In a Booth at Chasen’s have reminded us that the Reagan Legend should really be the Reagans’ Legend—the Ron and Nancy Legend. It’s a rousing saga of America in the 20th century, and the sweet love story inside is a heartening bonus.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.