In late February, 1987, President Reagan called to former Republican Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker to ask him to take over as White House chief of staff. Baker was not home; a family member reported he had taken his grandkids to the zoo. “Great,” replied Reagan with characteristic wit, “wait until he sees the zoo I have in mind.”
“Landslide” chronicles the arrival and antics of the most curious menagerie of presidential assistants to appear on the White House stage in some time. By the end, the reader is convinced that these outlandish characters have been fairly portrayed and that their harebrained schemes have been plausibly untangled. It is a credit to the tenacity and skill of Washington journalists Jane Mayer of the Wall Street Journal and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times. Collecting and making sense of hundreds of interviews and unraveling the chronology from thousands of pages of convoluted testimony and documents churned out by congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra affair were daunting tasks the authors handle superbly.
For their effort, Mayer and McManus root out more than the usual fare of tantalizing revelations. In case you missed it, the book’s promotional prologue reveals that incoming Chief of Staff Howard Baker and his assistants briefly considered invoking the 25th Amendment to relieve President Reagan of power after hearing unsettling reports of depression. The real strength of “Landslide,” however, lies less in its revelations than in piecing together a coherent (and absorbing) story that finally makes sense of the dimly recalled, confusing testimony and news accounts.
This is not a story of Machiavellian intrigue or masterful strategy. There is no brooding King Richard moving Watergate inexorably down its tragic path. The characters are too flamboyant, their motives too transparent, and their actions sometimes too ridiculous for there to have been any deep structure to the chronology. Ollie North’s brow may be furrowed, but his strategic thinking appears to have never ventured beyond the realm of “neat ideas.” Rather, the story twists and turns with events and the loosely coordinated behavior of a sizable group of independent participants, who as soon as the news begins to break, quickly discern their separate self-interests. When Donald Regan panics and declares, “It’s my reputation. I’m not going to be hung out on a limb, goddamn it,” he speaks for the class.
The characters who drive the plot range from those who directly serve the President to the Mideast arms merchants. The latter, North’s “sleazebags of dubious repute,” are so thoroughly duplicitous yet so unbelievably inept that Donald Westlake could use them without embellishment in one of his espionage comedies. Among the President’s advisers, Regan receives the most unflattering treatment. Entering the chief of staff’s job at the outset of the second term bent on imposing discipline to the White House staff, he only succeeds at fomenting rivalries shutting the President off from other advisers. This is not the Regan of his memoirs, the well-meaning if politically naive presidential servant, victimized by the President’s astrology-fixated wife. Here he is a mean-spirited bully, prone to gossip and caught up in his own bravado and the pomp of the office. Nancy Reagan is the President’s most staunch, and ultimately, resourceful ally. Wracked with fear that her husband will be impeached, she summons her allies by political force, rather than private means, and boots Regan out of the White House.
Mayer and McManus keep an eye out for George Bush. They find that he dusted his tracks fairly well, but not well enough to escape the conclusion that he concurred with trading arms for hostages and knew about North’s private operation in Nicaragua.
By the end, virtually everyone is managing to concoct a self-serving version of what happened or, if hopelessly entrapped, is busy shredding evidence and forgetting. All except for President Reagan, who is too uninformed even about his own actions, much less those of his aides, to be able to put a favorable spin on events. After contradicting himself badly in interviews with the Tower Commission, he finally confesses, “I don’t remember--period.”
“Landslide” is this kind of story because of Ronald Reagan. The simple truth is that the White House needs a President. Without one, the place becomes a zoo indeed. The conclusion here is inescapable: By the second term, Reagan had crossed over from delegating authority to abdicating his duties as President. The book’s 400-plus pages offer in graphic detail instances of his failing consistently to give direction, to ask questions, and until the end, to even show much surprise when presented with reports about his staff’s initiatives. More than one aide left the President, mildly bemused by his unquestioning acquiescence to their ambitious proposals. He simply signed off on whatever was presented to him. He admitted as much when he conceded that he could not recall formally authorizing the sale of Hawk missile parts to Iran in 1985. The one issue that preoccupied the President was the hostages. But his concern took the form less of an active search for a solution than of persistent inquiries about news of their welfare. By the end, the prologue’s revelation seems altogether plausible.
The portrait of an enfeebled President is a stark and troubling one, and it leaves the reader wondering if the extraordinary vitality with which Reagan came roaring out of convalescence after the assassination attempt in 1981 to overwhelm Congress with his legislative program was genuine or a brilliant feat of public relations.
Undoubtedly, some who read “Landslide” will conclude that the Great Communicator was never more than an actor. But advancing age aggravated by ill health offers an alternative explanation to the discrepancy between the public man of the first term and the incommunicative, irresolute figure found here. Earlier portraits of the President (recall Stockman’s “Triumph of Politics”) also complained of his passivity, but he came across as one who knew his own mind and who would, when he got his back up, aggressively resist his aides’ designs.
“Landslide” is a model of contemporary journalism, but it shares a couple of the genre’s faults. The authors are too liberal in wrapping quotes around reconstructed conversations. Some of the characters belie their portraits by speaking in such nice punchy sentences. Dialogue strengthens the narrative flow, but at the risk of distorting history. Also, the conventional journalistic convenience of quoting authorities and sources to bolster prior conclusions is overworked. Whenever Mayer and McManus have another go at Donald Regan, they too quickly summon his most unrelenting critics. Measured against its accomplishments these are quibbles. “Landslide” is one of those rare books that offer both an engrossing story and civic education.