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.
There is also too much in the book about the network that employs one author and used to employ the other. It is hard to understand why they included a lengthy commercial for CBS' famous interview with Gerald Ford during the 1980 Republican convention, unless it was to lead up to a CBS employee's vulgar put-down of a competing journalist for trying to get into the booth. A CBS producer named Janet Leissner gets her name in for her startling revelation that she was glad to have taken along a down-filled coat when she covered the Iowa campaign in January, 1988.
CBS sources are also behind the book's most heralded disclosure, that George Bush's handlers used cue cards to guide him through his live confrontation with Dan Rather early in the 1988 campaign. Curiously, while describing in great detail Bush's strategy for the interview and his rage when he concluded that he had been ambushed, the authors did not exploit their privileged positions at the network to find out for us what the strategy of Rather and his handlers was.
Such preferential treatment is the book's greatest problem. For instance, James A. Baker III, Reagan's chief of staff and later secretary of the Treasury (and now secretary of state), clearly is the hero of the piece. "(W)hen the Reagan administration was at its best," the writers enthuse, "it had been people like Baker . . . who had kept the White House running."
William Casey, the late former director of Central Intelligence, is among the villains. "Baker felt," our intrepid mind-readers reveal, "that Casey had a rare ability to play to Reagan's 'dark side.' " And so there is much laborious periphrasis when they tell us that Baker and his men "instituted an elaborate system to monitor visitors to the Oval Office" since they "continually worried that . . . Casey might slip in quietly one day . . . " One imagines that if the authors did not so thoroughly abominate Casey or hold Baker in such high regard, they might simply have written, "Baker did not trust the President nor like his conservative friends, so he spied on them."
Incidentally, or maybe not so incidentally, Baker talked to the authors; you can tell by the "he told us" that appears with one of his quotes. In their acknowledgements, they coyly imply that some people who are on the record in some places appear anonymously in other places, a reporter's trick for fooling some of the people all of the time that strikes one as marginally acceptable on newsprint but thoroughly inappropriate between hard covers. This is of more than passing importance in Baker's case, since among his most celebrated talents is using the media in precisely this way. Tellingly, while Baker's virtues are extolled at considerable length in "The Acting President," his legendary press finesse is overlooked. So is the fracas after the last election over Baker's ownership of Chemical Bank stock at the same time he had been negotiating a Third World debt deal eagerly favored by American banks. This is a glaring oversight only because Schieffer and Gates did manage to squeeze in revelations aired as recently as April, 1989, about George Bush's alleged involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.
Don't get me wrong. For all I know, Baker harbors the living essence of Winston Churchill. But his and others' apparent hand in guiding Schieffer and Gates through their pro-moderate, anti-ideologue take on the Reagan Administration is a reason the general reader, whatever his predispositions, should not put too much trust in quickie wrap-up books such as this. Reporters pay for good background information by doing things such as downplaying bank-stock fracases for favored sources. Perhaps when the news is breaking, that kind of arrangement serves the public. But when the news is long broken, there is no substitute for well-meaning, well-done history, which requires public men to come out from behind the blinds their journalistic co-conspirators build for them.
In tone, "The Acting President" is gossipy and good-humored, though misgivings about the authors' motives and handling of sources make the hearty reader feel a little guilty, as he might after a double chocolate sundae. It also was gotten out quickly. One top-level official in the Reagan White House tells me (anonymously, of course) that he didn't even get a phone call from the authors. In their haste, perhaps, they committed a blunder or two of their own.
So to former President Reagan, who will not much like this book, I say: Here's one for the Gaffer. The authors write, " 'Power,' as (Henry) Kissinger once observed, 'is the greatest aphrodisiac,' and now that he had Reagan's first summit meeting firmly on track, McFarlane was eager to take on new challenges." I wonder what these fellows think "aphrodisiac" means. Kissinger wasn't talking about laying on summits.