David Greenberg: Reagan in 100 Pages
[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, has two new books out: Presidential Doodles and Calvin Coolidge.]
This week, Slate is serializing Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography, a 100-page comic-book account of the 40th president's life, to be published next week by Serious Comics and Hill and Wang. Slate's resident historian David Greenberg spoke with Andrew Helfer, who wrote Ronald Reagan—Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton drew the art—and co-founded Serious Comics.
Slate: Whom do you see as the audience for this book?
Helfer: It's either a good reminder of this bygone era—of 1986!—if you're an adult who's forgotten these things, or it's a good first reading if you're a high-school kid. By now, Ronald Reagan is one of these people that the dominant generation knows only in death. We started with his death because that's what most people remember—the 21-gun salutes, the images of the wife lying on top of the casket. You saw that on TV so much, we put Nancy crying over the casket in the book three times. Now, she truly loved that man, but at the time, it seemed like such a strange show.
If anything, the relevance of Reagan has increased because of the current administration. They clearly revered Reagan as president. A lot of this administration has been an effort to reopen those wounds of the Reagan years, or those glories, depending on how you see it. Bush has a lot of surface idiosyncrasies that are like Reagan's. But what I saw in reading about Reagan, and what you see in this book, is that Ronald Reagan was in a different league from George Bush.
Slate: Journalist Lou Cannon has written an 800-page book about Reagan's presidency. How do you do it in 100 pages?
Helfer: We're not saying it's an authoritative volume. We could've done hundreds of pages. You could probably do a whole book just on Reagan and the firing of the air-traffic controllers. That was a very important part of his presidency. So, you tip your hat to it, and you move on. The idea is to convey a sense of the sweep of his life and give the reader enough of an interest to pick up something else.
Slate: I was pleased to see that you had at least a mini bibliography in the back.
Helfer: I'm not an expert on Ronald Reagan. I'm enough of an expert to have written this book. What I bring to the table that's different is I can do a comic book of it. But I must have read 15 or 25 books. That Lou Cannon book [President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime] was like an appendage of mine for weeks. But I think Cannon was too close to Reagan. He would make a negative point about Reagan, and another negative point, and another negative point, but then draw a positive conclusion. Richard Reeves' book [President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination] was the first one I found that added up all the points to come to some critical conclusions. And Garry Wills' book [Reagan's America: Innocents at Home] covers his early life and the years as governor, and then kind of skips ahead to his presidency. In terms of getting a glimpse into someone's brain, that's the best one.
Slate: What advantages do you see to writing Reagan's life in graphic form?
Helfer: Reagan is a particularly interesting subject for this kind of book because, first of all, he reinvented himself so many times. He was a radio broadcaster, a movie actor, the work for General Electric [hosting a TV series and making speeches], governor. And second of all, because almost every phase of his life was so picturesque. There are not too many sitting-around-talking shots until he becomes president.
Slate: The drawings of Richard Nixon by Herblock in the 1950s really did a lot to shape perceptions of Nixon. Were there illustrators who drew Reagan that influenced you or your colleagues?
Helfer: I would say that the editorial cartooning inheritance we have is really a satiric institution. When you have pictures that can comment on the action, you can have the words saying something very straight, very objectively, and then the pictures provide another angle, maybe a less objective angle.
Slate: Can you give me an example?
Helfer: Well, I'm looking here on Page 59. Reagan has these Little Orphan Annie eyes showing this kind of vacancy, hearing the age difference between him and Giscard d'Estaing. It's kind of a subtle comment. Or look at Reagan when he's giving the speech after the Challenger goes down. It's a great image of Reagan, in a speech when he said all the right things. I really like what he said then, and the goodness comes through.
Slate: The flip side, though, is that the use of comic-book drawing might reinforce some of the same mythmaking that Reagan engaged in. Overall, I think this book casts a refreshingly critical eye on Reagan's mythmaking. But the images of Reagan's family struggling financially might be seen as giving those days the same romantic gloss that Reagan did in his own accounts of them.
Helfer: Well, in the childhood, you have a lot of different images. It seemed to me there was a failed father, a mother he relied on a lot. His mother had a bit of the acting bug and she pulled him in her direction. But I don't think it's romantic. We show him finding his father passed out on the front steps. We're always looking for little moments in time that are revealing.
Slate: What about the last panels, of Reagan walking off into the sunset. Doesn't the image endorse his own fantasy image of himself?
Helfer: Well, it's clearly a fantasy sequence, with the birds fluttering around the "city on the hill" and all, so it was intended to be a visualization, rather than an endorsement, of his fantasy. Not trying to sound cruel here, but it's possible that at the end of his life his fantasies were all he had left.
But more seriously, Reagan's circumstances at the end of his presidency forced him off the public stage in a way that didn't allow people to look back and assess his performance, for fear they were somehow stepping over some sort of line and unfairly kicking the man when he could no longer defend himself. The image of Reagan at the end of the book is like the one shared by most of the public since his death, which lets the story go full circle back to the opening pages.
Slate: These days, Reagan revisionists are pointing to his letters and speech drafts to argue that he was engaged and in command of his policies, not a puppet of his aides. How do you square that picture of Reagan with the man who invented facts and seemed oblivious to so much of what went on around him?
Helfer: I don't think he was the puppet of anyone. But by his own account, he often didn't pay attention to the details. When he was questioned by the Tower Commission about Iran-Contra, he said words to the effect of—I don't remember the exact quote—"I get people to do the jobs I need them to do. I don't look at the details." He was very idealistic in that way. But I wasn't looking to sway anyone with an argument here. It's an objective account.
Slate: I would disagree with that assessment. Being objective or straight with your facts doesn't mean there isn't a point of view, and I think your take on Reagan is somewhat critical. He comes off well in places, but the book has a critical edge.
Helfer: Well, put it this way. There are enough books out there that praise Reagan and omit all the negatives. It's time for more books that talk about the problems he had, the problems with his presidency. Now he's mainly the guy who won the Cold War, because he said, "Tear down that wall." But what about all the other guys who came before that who also wanted the wall torn down?
Slate: In fact, in the book, you show that while Reagan was making that speech, Gorbachev was already embarked upon perestroika and glasnost. I thought that was pretty deftly done.
Helfer: That's part of it, too. How come Gorbachev isn't given credit for ending the Cold War?
Slate: To come back to your take on Reagan, you seem to attribute Reagan's election victories to his effective one-liners in debates against Bush, Carter, and Mondale—instead of on the appeal of his critique of the Great Society, and cultural permissiveness, and the Democrats' foreign policy.
Helfer: It is hard to illustrate something like that critique. I don't know how compelling it would be visually. But I think we do make clear Reagan's philosophy, especially on taxes and government. And in the campaign against Carter, we did show that under Carter, things were really a mess. There is the clear setup, with the Iranian hostage crisis, and with the failed attempt to rescue them, and with the inflation numbers.
Slate: Did your opinion of Reagan change at all?
Helfer: That's hard to say. I came to see that he believed 100 percent in himself. And the diaries confirm that. I don't feel there was much hypocrisy to him, right or wrong.
Slate: What's next?
Helfer: There are not a lot of politicians who provide as many pictures as Ronald Reagan. But the next one from Serious Comics is going to be J. Edgar Hoover. It's written and drawn by Rick Geary. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.
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