The Age of Reagan: An Interview with Sean Wilentz (Part II)





Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Part one of this interview appeared in September.

One of the great ironies you draw attention to in the book is that the reason Iran was desperate for arms in 1986 was because of the success of Operation Staunch, a US government policy to block the sale of arms to Iran, then at war with Iraq. So when we traded arms for hostages to Iran we were blatantly violating our own policy. This is a sign of Carter-like incoherence. How then did these same folks manage to successfully handle the end of the Cold War? Seems like the gang that couldn't shoot straight pulled off the biggest bank job in history.

It’s important to realize that every administration has contending forces within it, pushing for different policies, pursuing different and even contradictory ends.  In the case of Operation Staunch, Secretary of State George Shultz was the prime mover.  Shultz, you will recall, opposed the covert arms sales to Iran from the very start, saying that, under existing conditions, the sales would violate the U.S. Constitution.  Reagan went ahead anyway, persuaded by a very different faction inside the executive – William Casey and Robert McFarlane above all, with the agreement of Vice President George H.W. Bush, and later John Poindexter.  They all thought, or said they thought, that the arms would end up in the hands of Iranian moderates unfriendly to Khomeini. It was a Middle East con job, and the White House basically got snookered.

As for the Cold War, though – remember, it was Shultz (whom I’ve come to admire in many ways) who was out in front in opening a quiet diplomatic track between Reagan and the Soviet leadership, even before Gorbachev rose to power.  And Reagan’s full embrace of Gorbachev (and vice versa) came only in the aftermath of Iran-contra, when Reagan fired his hardliners and difficult figures like Don Regan, and replaced them with more pragmatic, moderate and credible conservatives, like Howard Baker (as chief of staff) and Judge William Webster (as director of the CIA).  So, apart from Schultz, it was a very different gang by the end of 1987 than it had been in 1985 and 1986.        

How did Reagan succeed in convincing people that he was opposed to trading arms to hostages when he did so repeatedly? How did he explain this to himself? It happened more than just in the Iran-contra affair. You note that in June 1985 he announced the release of the TWA hostages without admitting that the deal came about after Israel agreed, under American pressure, to capitulate to the chief demand of freeing 700 prisoners.

There are those – Reagan’s biographer Edmund Morris is among them – who write of how Reagan could, at various points, seem totally divorced from reality.  And I do think that Reagan, for various reasons, was prone to a certain… well; let’s call it fabulist view of himself and the world around him.  But Reagan was also a very shrewd politician.  He knew very well that his liberal adversaries, the liberal sectors of the political press, and even some of his allies, thought of him as a doddering old pitchman, who napped in meetings and preferred watching old movies with Nancy, dressed in his pajamas, up in the residence. In the case of Iran-contra, he was perfectly happy to play up to that false image and appear as if he was a little befuddled, a little out of control, in order to deflect serious constitutional charges and turn the whole thing in a series of operational snafus, no more. Supposedly, a noble pursuit degenerated into a sordid arms-for-hostages deal.  It was all bunk, of course – from the very start Reagan’s primary interest was gaining freedom for the American hostages in Lebanon. But he played his part brilliantly once the scandal broke – and, though his poll numbers suffered in 1986 and early 1987, he escaped serious consequences apart from a scolding in the majority report of the joint congressional investigating committee.

Had Nixon been half as capable, instead of just resentfully manipulative, Watergate might never have become a household word. And by the time the true Iran-contra story began coming out, Reagan was off the hook.  In fact, I’m not at all sure the full story has come out.   

As for the TWA hostages in 1985, I think it was simply a matter of burying an important part of the story in order to come out looking pure and tough – not completely unlike burying the bargaining over the U.S, missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, although in this case the omission was far more egregious given the matter at hand (bargaining with terrorists as opposed to imminent nuclear warfare) and given that the release of the prisoners was known about and even reported. In any event, this exemplified a more common practice than the evasion of Iran-contra did.  

What does Reagan's ability to confuse the public about his real position on terrorists who take hostages say about American democracy?

I think the news media and political press could have done a much better job in following up once the scandal broke.  Generally, during the Reagan Administration, the press corps was content to let Reagan get away with a great deal, even if their own politics were very different.  Part of it was that, ironically, they didn’t take Reagan all that seriously. Some were swept up in the go-go atmosphere of ‘80s Washington – glitzy and even depressingly vulgar at times, but more exciting than, say, the Ford or Carter years. And as politics became, under the press’s aegis, as much about style as substance, a political pro like Reagan could take advantage of it. Which he did in early 1987 regarding Iran-contra. (I’ll refrain from doing more than mentioning how Oliver North’s boiling piece of right-wing performance art during the congressional hearings captivated the news media as well, even against their will.) 

But there is something deeper here, too.  Reagan did not thrive in the nation’s imagination to the extent that he did because he came across as a right-wing ideologue.  Of course, some Americans loved him as a right-winger, but many more looked at him simply as an American, a patriot, a man of principle who could do no serious wrong like (as they saw it) rewarding terrorists.  After the travails of Vietnam and Watergate, followed by Ford and Carter, there was a perceived crisis of leadership which paved the way for Reagan, and which Reagan exploited.  People were hungering for a strong, assuring leader, much as, in the early 1930s, they yearned for Franklin D. Roosevelt.  So I suppose the lesson, as far as American democracy goes, is that the country, for all of its disdain for privilege and (especially in the 1980s) assertive federal power, yearns for a strong figure in the White House, and, with the aid of the media, are willing to cut that leader a great deal of slack.  I think we saw some of that, in fact, during the early months after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush came across, thanks in part to a compliant press corps, as a steely, no-nonsense man of action. Different from Reagan, but you get the point.    

How is it possible to claim that Reagan was a great president and also one who was guilty of impeachable offenses (in Iran-contra)? What does that say about the presidency? Were we right as a country not impeach Reagan?

That’s a good question.  I suppose it depends on the gravity of the actual offenses and the greatness of what the president in question achieved.  Iran-contra was a serious abuse of power, but it pales beside Watergate; and Reagan immediately halted the covert operation.  The irony is that the shame of Iran-contra helped paved the way for the rapprochement with Gorbachev.  So, Reagan’s worst hour (or one of them) prepared the way for his finest hour.  Should we have impeached him?  On strict constitutional grounds, I suppose we should have. (The Democrats’ cravenness on this was partly connected to their fear that they would be sthen as the party that impeaches presidents…yet 1998 happened anyway.) But, with hindsight, one also has to ask: what impact an impeachment proceeding late in Reagan’s term would have had on the momentous developments around the globe?      

Bill Clinton has a reputation among many as a synthetic person who changed constantly in response to forceful gusts. In your book he comes across as amazingly consistent. In your view it's Reagan who keeps reinventing himself (to the point that Edmund Morris found Reagan impossible to grasp). Please comment.

Second point first.  I think Reagan’s basic political mutations halted in around 1952 or so – or at the latest in the early 1960s.  Yes, he changed his approach to the Soviets in the 1980s, but even then he was consistent given his underlying idea of hoping to end the threat of nuclear annihilation while making the continued survival of Soviet Communism more difficult.  He was, I agree, difficult to grasp, but I think that has more to do with the split between surface appearances and inner life that one finds in many public figures, especially actors – a kind of dissociation of self that the individual finds necessary and functional, but is difficult for a historian to interpret. 

As for Clinton, I just think that historians, moralists, and pundits who pretend to understand politics but don’t, and who in fact dislike politics, cast Clinton’s politics of feint and maneuver – what got called triangulation, and was necessary given the political facts, especially after 1994 – as a sign of fickleness, insincerity, and fakery.  Clinton certainly made his full share of blunders and more; and some of his policies and positions have had terrible long-term effects (notably, given recent events, supporting the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act by the bi-partisan Gramm-Leach bill in 1999). But to mistake a successful political strategy for a political philosophy (or the utter absence of a political philosophy) is to misunderstand American politics and government as much as it is to misunderstand Clinton’s presidency.   

You say in the book that Carter lost in 1980 in part because his "brand of anti-politics" was not appealing to Americans. That left the suggestion that anti-politics can be appealing. What was wrong with Carter's brand? What brand might succeed?

Carter’s anti-politics was a surefire way to win election (even if only barely) after Watergate. It proved ineffective in dealing with Congress and a host of tough problems, domestic and foreign, that required something other than anti-politics, and eventually overwhelmed the administration.  So, by 1980, Americans, in their continuing search for a new kind of leader, decided to give Ronald Reagan a chance, even though they were not sold on his policies or ideology.

What might succeed?  We’ll have to see. Barack Obama looks today as if he will win the presidency by appealing, in part, to various anti-politician themes – ending partisanship, giving government back to the people, and so on. It will be interesting to see whether a President Obama would cling to those themes – and, if he does, whether he can make them work. But he’ll need to operate differently from how Carter did, that’s for sure.   

Knowing what you know now about the collapse of the Soviet Union was the country better off for electing George H.W. Bush in 1988, whom you credit with a masterful negotiation of the end of the Cold War

Since we – or, at any rate I – have only the cloudiest idea of what Michael Dukakis’s foreign policy would have been like, I’m not sure I can answer the question as you pose it.  But I do think that the elder Bush deserves more credit than he gets in this area, especially in the skillful negotiation of the reunification of Germany.  It looked like a non-starter, which would have made the close of the Cold War much more tumultuous and uncertain, to say the least.  Against long odds, it got done, and Bush was one of the key – if not THE key – participants.  I’m persuaded by Tim Naftali’s recent brief biography of George H.W. that there was more to the first Bush presidency than most scholars and commentators have been willing to concede – though, finally, Bush’s effort to build a center-right successor to the Reagan Administration was doomed.  Just as every effort to restore the political center since 1974 has been doomed – at least until 2008.


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William J. Stepp - 10/20/2008

that's "threw out the First Peanut Farmer"


William J. Stepp - 10/20/2008

Sean Wilentz makes some good points, but the (partial) repeal of Glass-Steagall under Clinton was a helpful thing, contrary to his assertion that it wasn't. It enabled J.P. Morgan Chase to buy Bear Stearns, and Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch.
The lack of a separation between commercial and investment banking didn't cause or prolong the Great Depression.
And the main reason the voters through out the First Peanut Farmer in 1980 was because of his disastrous economic policies.
Speaking of Clinton, bring Bill back for a third term. At least you knew what he was up to in the Oval Office late of a Friday eve, and that whatever his hand was on, it wasn't the nuclear button.