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Getting Reagan Right

The Reagan I Knew, William F. Buckley Jr., Basic Books, 279 pages
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The casual reader might be tempted to dismiss this book as an exercise in nostalgia. What could be more retro in 2009 than a memoir about Ronald Reagan—whose term in office expired 20 years ago—by William F. Buckley Jr., who founded National Review more than half a century back? All too many right-wingers still lead saprophyte-like lives in the shadows cast by these men. They recycle Buckley mots and sunny Reagan platitudes without ever knowing just when they turned into merchants of kitsch.

But those are the imitators. Buckley, on the other hand, was more mentally alive at 82—up to the moment he died at his desk last February working on the manuscript of this book—than his epigones are at 30. Proof of this is that The Reagan I Knew could just as fairly have been called The Reagan I Didn’t Know, for after a 40-year friendship, Buckley suddenly realized he had misjudged the man. At National Review’s 30th-anniversay gala in 1985, he toasted the then-president as the consummate cold warrior: “What I said in as many words, dressed up for the party, was that Reagan would, if he had to, pull the nuclear trigger,” writes Buckley. “Twenty years after saying that, in the most exalted circumstance, in the presence of the man I was talking about, I changed my mind.” Reagan would not have unleashed a nuclear holocaust, even in retaliation.

Buckley is by no means the first to underscore Reagan’s absolute horror of atomic warfare. The young scholar Paul Lettow in 2005 wrote Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. But Buckley adds the authority of a participant to this revisionist enterprise, whose implications are profound. Conservatives look to Reagan as the embodiment of their beliefs. But if Reagan was not who he seemed to be, what becomes of conservatism? Was the 40th president a crypto-liberal—a spiritual descendant, as John Patrick Diggins has suggested, of Tom Paine and Ralph Waldo Emerson? Or is conservatism itself not what its adherents have long taken it to be?

Those are bigger questions than The Reagan I Knew can answer, and in any case Buckley is not trying to press a thesis with this book. Instead he has assembled a collage: material old and new from an array of sources, and whatever conclusions arise from this book come naturally and unbidden. About half of the volume consists of correspondence between Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Nancy Reagan: there are rather more letters from Buckley to Nancy, in fact, than to her husband. Several chapters excerpt Reagan’s appearances on Buckley’s “Firing Line” program. Christopher Buckley and Danilo Petranovich, WFB’s son and last research assistant respectively, contribute a foreword and introduction. Rounding out the package is an appendix of vintage Buckley articles about Reagan, spanning 1968 to 1991.

“This book is one in which the large scale of things is quite intentionally diminished or, better, maneuvered around,” writes Buckley, “to make way for the cultivation of personal curiosity about someone who became a good friend.” This serves to humanize a famously elusive leader. Buckley’s Reagan is robust: when we (and Buckley) first meet him, he is about to introduce a Buckley talk at a Los Angeles high school. But the microphones are dead and can only be switched on from a locked booth above the auditorium.

“His diagnosis seemed instantaneous,” Buckley recalls. “He was out the window, his feet on the parapet, his back to the wall, sidestepping carefully toward the control-room window. Reaching it, he thrust his elbow, breaking the glass, and disappeared into the control room.” In a moment, “we could hear the crackling of the newly animated microphone.”

At their final encounter, in 1990, the ex-president again demonstrates his adventurous streak. He holds out his cup of tea to Buckley: “Stick your finger in this.”


“Yeah. Go ahead.”

The drink is scalding. “Now, watch this,” Reagan says as he swigs from the cup. “See? The tolerance of your mouth tissues is infinitely greater than that of your hand! … You know who taught me that? It was Frank Sinatra.”

Innocent mischief animates the exchanges between Buckley and both Reagans. In his letters to Nancy, Buckley jokes about eloping with her to Casablanca. With President Reagan, the running gag is that Buckley has been appointed secret ambassador to Afghanistan. (Speaking of ambassadors, we learn from a Dec. 30, 1980 Reagan letter that Buckley has urged him to send Russell Kirk to Great Britain. Unfortunately, Reagan replies that he cannot see “how anyone could hold that post at the Court of St. James’s unless he was possessed of personal wealth.”)

The Buckley and Reagan families do not see much of each other, yet are surprisingly close. Buckley encourages Reagan daughter Patti’s efforts at poetry, finding in her work “sadnesses that were striking, and youthful melodrama, but also a pronouncedly live ear.” He mediates between rebellious son and agitated parents one Thanksgiving when Ron Jr. decides to ditch Yale for ballet school. Thereafter “Ronald Reagan was as determined to subject his son to poverty as Ron Jr. was to live in it. Ron Jr. was entirely submissive in his sequestration—austerity was a part of his theatrical occupation.”

The Reagan-Buckley friendship en-dured two sharp fractures over foreign policy. The first has become legendary. In 1978, Buckley and Reagan, two paladins of the American Right, arrayed themselves on opposing sides of the Panama Canal treaties being negotiated by the Carter Administration. Buckley, who favored turning the canal over to the Panamanians, invited Reagan, opposed, to debate him on “Firing Line.” The knights had esquires: James Burnham, George Will, and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt stood with Buckley. Pat Buchanan, Roger Fontaine, and Admiral John McCain Jr., father of the senator, were with Reagan.

Back then, conservatives could disagree with one another about foreign policy openly and civilly. Reagan sounded notes familiar from recent debates over America’s role in the Mideast: “I think we would cloak weakness in the suit of virtue” if America were to surrender the canal, he warned. “With this treaty, what do we do to ourselves in the eyes of the world, and to our allies? Will they, as Mr. Buckley says, see that as the magnanimous gesture of a great and powerful nation? … I think the world would see it as, once again, Uncle Sam putting his tail between his legs and creeping away rather than face trouble.”

Buckley’s response would today get him branded an unpatriotic conservative. “We do negotiate under threats,” he told Reagan. “Ninety-nine percent of all the negotiations that have gone on from the beginning of this world have gone on as a result of threats. … The fact of the matter is that there are people in Panama who don’t accept the notion of Governor Reagan about the undisputed, unambiguous sovereignty that the United States exercises over that territory.” Likening Panamanian demands for sovereignty over the Canal Zone to the American Revolution, Buckley observed, “All of a sudden we find that we resent it when people say that they’re willing to fight for their freedom.”

“I profoundly disagree with the conclusion at which you have arrived,” Buckley wrote to Reagan after the debate, “but I know that you credit my disagreement with you as sincere and thoughtful, and only wish I could say as much for some of your continuing fans, and some of my erstwhile fans!” “Firing Line” continued, at least intermittently, to provide a forum in which conservatives could debate foreign policy. As late as October 1990, Buckley hosted a discussion between the antiwar Joseph Sobran and the interventionist Giles Lambertson on the justice of the then-impending first Gulf War.

But paradoxes abound. Buckley also helped introduce into the Right a new cadre of foreign-policy hard-liners who would be much less genteel than the host of “Firing Line.” As early as 1974, WFB cautioned Reagan that his foreign-policy credentials were inadequate for a presidential contender, a fault that might be remedied by choosing the right advisors. “The best pool is the young men around Scoop Jackson,” he urged—young men such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and others who would later be called neoconservatives.

In the 1980s, the Right looked to President Reagan to wage the Cold War—and hot wars if necessary. But Buckley and his associates were not pleased with Reagan’s second-term foreign policy, and this was the source of their second great disagreement. On May 22, 1987, NR ran a cover story on “Reagan’s Suicide Pact,” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with the Soviet Union. “I’m not a bit sure I am enthusiastic about your INF reductions,” Buckley wrote in a letter to Reagan. This time there was no debate, and the roles were reversed. Reagan supported the treaty. He pursued other arms-control negotiations with the Soviets as well, in the teeth of conservative—and especially neoconservative—opposition. And the year he left office, the Berlin Wall fell.

The Reagan I Knew is a brief, breezy book, yet it succinctly conveys some of the complexities of both author and subject. That’s where its strength lies: not in imposing an artificial uniformity on the conservatism of Reagan and Buckley, but in showing—without morbidly dwelling upon—the sometimes fruitful contradictions and discontinuities in their thought. This makes The Reagan I Knew a surprisingly timely book.

Reagan was born in 1911, Buckley in 1925. Both rose to eminence in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when the nation had only three television networks and nearly every adult male had served in the military. Mammoth corporations—AT&T, General Motors, General Electric—provided at least the promise of lifelong employment. The conservatism of that era was as monolithic as the rest of the culture. Libertarians and traditionalists had their differences, to be sure, but anti-Communism overawed both.

In the two decades since Reagan left office, however, American culture has fragmented. Three hundred cable and satellite channels have superseded the three networks (which are now four or five), and 3 million YouTube clips may yet displace television. The 21st-century American pursues niche interests and changes jobs like he changes tires. Little wonder then that conservatism too has differentiated—into neocons, paleos, crunchy cons, theocons, localists, and a dozen other splinters. The Right has become as diffuse and granular as the wider culture. In a world like this, there will never be another Reagan or Buckley.

But that is no cause for mourning. Reagan’s conservatism had its day, and Buckley believed that he had won his own wars. “There’s nothing I hoped for that wasn’t reasonably achieved,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2005, and now, without the Communist enemy, he said, “conservatism has become a little bit slothful.” The challenge for the Right today is not to attempt to relive the glories of the past but to rethink them, as Buckley rethought Reagan.

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