In the chronicling of events there is a moment, belonging neither to the journalist nor the scholar, when we are between an event and the time when our lengthening perspective will let us draw useful lessons from it. These historical purgatories produce books such as "The Acting President," an account of Ronald Reagan's White House by CBS' chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer and his colleague Gary Paul Gates. It is not a useful addition to the growing Reagan bookshelf principally because the blunt instruments of daily newsgathering did not permit the authors to trace the kind of exacting conclusions that are better left to serious historians.
Instead, the reader is distracted too often by the background noise of old scores being settled and reputations burnished. To borrow the authors' extended theatrical analogy, too much action in "The Acting President" occurs behind the curtain of anonymity they evidently offered to drape in front of anybody who asked for it. Further complicating matters is that their personal views on the issues of the Reagan era also intrude upon the narrative. Picking through all these authorial predispositions and perpetrators and victims of ax-grinding and ox-goring require the reader to spend so much time puttering around between the lines that this ends up being less a book than 397 pages of tea leaves.
The star of the story is the Ronald Reagan his detractors know and love. He reads from the wrong note cards during White House meetings. He expresses horror at the mandatory provisions of a deficit-reduction plan he had favored and signed expressly because of its mandatory provisions. He tells the visiting Lebanese foreign minister, after a detailed briefing on events in that troubled land, "You know, your nose looks like Danny Thomas."
Speaking of noses, Otto von Bismarck is well known for having turned up his Prussian one at the making of sausages and laws alike. This book is at its best in taking us behind the scenes during the similarly untidy making of lawgiver Reagan, whose court made Byzantium look like Romper Room. "Just as (Michael) Deaver had been willing to accept (Jim) Baker as chief of staff in order to keep (Ed) Meese out of the job," they explain, "now Meese was willing to accept (Bud) McFarlane as national security adviser in order to block Baker." Whew!
The book's greatest contribution to the common weal is getting all the grudges and alliances that swirled around Reagan during his political career onto paper in one place. (They cast Nancy Reagan, who evidently did not cooperate in their project, in her accustomed role of the protective, center-leaning eminence noir behind her genial, right-leaning leading man.) Also, the reader who may have missed some of the intricacies of the Iran-Contra mess will appreciate the clear account provided by Schieffer and Gates.
The out-to-lunch version of Reagan is always good for a cheap laugh among the national media, and the authors play to that particular peanut gallery with gusto. On the other hand, in one corner of the book they admit that "Reagan had made good on many of his 1980 promises," and in another they concede that "the vast majority of Americans" liked him--which, when you add the two together, is more or less the way the system is supposed to work. The canny Reagan debunker must therefore tread carefully, for if he is too critical he risks accusing the American people, who after all elected the man twice and sent him home with a 67% approval rating, of being foolish.
Hence the theme of the book: It's not that Reagan was all that wonderful, folks, it was that he used his old Hollywood tricks and charm to appear wonderful. Now that the Great Mesmerizer has finally exited stage right, it is high time for the people who are supposed to dominate political storytelling--including TV newsmen such as, for instance, our two authors--to repossess the set. A good subhead for Schieffer's and Gates' book would have been: "Give us a President who will jump when we say 'boo' again."
When the authors dislike a man, they give him scant credit even for his good moments. Meese, Reagan's beleaguered attorney general, is not on their hit parade, so they cannot bring themselves to mention one of the most dramatic moments of Reagan-era TV: Meese's live announcement of his discovery of the diversion of Iran arms-sale money to the Nicaraguan Contras. Nor is Ollie North a national hero to them, so they deal with his holding the nation in thrall during the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 by saying, "There was some drama in the testimony of Oliver North." Yes, and there was some difficulty last June in Tian An Men Square.