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The Reagan Presidency: Every Night at the Movies : White House: A creature of Hollywood, Ronald Reagan drew his reality from the films he watched, not from his aides or his briefing books.

April 28, 1991|Lou Cannon | Washington Post reporter and columnist Lou Cannon has covered Ronald Reagan for more than 25 years. This article is adapted from his book, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (Simon & Schuster)

President Ronald Reagan's aides became accustomed to figuring out things for themselves, for he managed by indirection when he managed at all. Aides who had worked for more directive presidents found this disconcerting.

"He made no demands, and gave almost no instructions," said Martin Anderson, a veteran of the Nixon Administration. Anderson thought Reagan's management style odd but rationalized that it was "a small thing, an eccentricity that was dwarfed by his multiple, stunning qualities."

And yet Anderson was bothered more by this "small thing" than he let on in his useful book "Revolution," or maybe even more than he realized. It was Anderson who told me that when he returned to the campaign in 1980, after a long absence, he was not quite sure if Reagan realized he had ever been away. Others less self-secure than Anderson or less convinced of Reagan's greatness were bothered even more by the way their leader distanced himself.

By keeping his emotional distance from the lives and struggles of his subordinates, Reagan was less affected by what happened to them than were presidents with closer relationships. It did not matter all that much to him who was in the supporting cast. Actors came and went in Washington as they had done in Hollywood and Sacramento, without altering his purposes or changing his conception of himself. Reagan remained serene in the center of his universe, awaiting his next performance.

While his distancing of himself from others may have been useful or even necessary for Reagan, it took a heavy toll among the entourage. Principal members of the Reagan team were misled by his manner or misled themselves into an expectation of friendship. They competed to be Reagan's favorite person.

"Here he was, enormously successful in things that he had done, very confident, comfortable with himself, and a very likable man," said White House aide Robert B. Sims. "And he had these other people who were mature adults, most of them successful in their own right--the George Shultzes, the Caspar Weinbergers, the Bill Clarks--who had done things on their own and been successful, but Reagan was always up there at a level above these advisers and they all seemed to want to get his favor." Reagan did not consciously play these subordinates off against one another, as Franklin D. Roosevelt might have done. Instead, he bestowed approval in a general sense on all "the fellas" or "the boys," as he was wont to describe his inner circle, while withholding his approval from any one of them in particular.

Republican congressional leaders found Reagan uninterested in political strategy, although he was always willing to place a call to a wavering congressman if provided with the script of what he ought to say.

What animated Reagan was a public performance. He knew how to edit a script and measure an audience. He also knew that the screenplay of his presidency, however complicated it became on the margins, was rooted in the fundamental themes of lower taxes, deregulation and "peace through strength" that he had expounded in the anti-government speech he had given in 1964 for Republican presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater.

The Speech was his bible, and Reagan never tired of giving it. Its themes and Reagan's approach to government were, as his friend William F. Buckley put it, "inherently anti-statist."

But on other issues, especially when the discussion was over his head, Reagan's participation was usually limited to jokes and cinematic illustrations. This is not surprising, as Reagan spent more time at the movies during his presidency than at anything else.

He went to Camp David on 183 weekends, usually watching two films on each of these trips. He saw movies in the White House family theater, on television in the family quarters and in the villas and lavish guest quarters accorded presidents when they travel.

On the afternoon before the 1983 economic summit of the world's industrialized democracies in colonial Williamsburg, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III stopped off at Providence Hall, where the Reagans were staying, bringing with him a thick briefing book on the upcoming meetings. Baker, then on his way to a tennis game, had carefully checked through the book to see that it contained everything Reagan needed to know without going into too much detail. He was concerned about Reagan's performance at the summit, which had attracted hundreds of journalists from around the world and been advertised in advance by the White House as an Administration triumph.

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