Reagan in Space

Although it's a fine book, I hesitate to recommend Frances Fitzgerald's Way Out There In The Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon & Schuster, 2000), because it's also a dense and depressing read. Facts and figures about arms control pile up numbingly, and nuclear accounting must be the dreariest of dreary sciences. That's the dense part. The depressing part is Ronald Reagan, or rather the fact that such a man was ever elected President of the United States. Ms Fitzgerald's book shows Reagan to be even less fit that I'd thought: in addition to possessing very little interest in or grasp of the details of public affairs, Reagan couldn't make difficult personnel decisions, and for two administrations his White House rocked back and forth between the doctrinaire conservatives who gradually took over the Republican Party and their pragmatic opponents. Here I'd thought - admittedly not very hard - that George Schultz and Caspar Weinberger, both of whom came to government from the Bechtel Corp., were natural allies; in fact, Weinberger schemed to get rid of Schultz, who for his part did what he could to soften Weinberger's intransigence about negotiating with the Soviets. Reagan contented himself with hoping that the conflict between the two Secretaries would just go away.

This clicked with the understanding of Reagan that I had developed from a series of pieces by Joan Didion that appeared in The New York Review of Books, ending sometime last year as I recall. Didion's take on Reagan focused on his training as an actor. Reagan memorized his remarks, appeared punctually and well-turned out wherever he was expected, and performed impressively. The terrible irony of Reagan's sojourn in the White House is that few have acted the part of President as well, and, arguably, none better. But just as actors look to directors to make the difficult decisions, so Reagan appeared to long for a determining script. The wonder is that none of his aides took advantage of the opportunity to set up as shogun (and I suspect that Henry Kissinger, by now off stage, would have been eager to do so). The inevitable deadlocks could only be cleared by buttonholing Reagan at the end of meetings. Again and again, Ms Fitzgerald's account shows Reagan vacillating between opposing views and adopting the position of the last person to speak to him.

Reagan and his team have garnered credit, over the past ten years, for ending the Cold War by spooking the Russians with Star Wars and bankrupting them with an arms race. Ms Fitzgerald demonstrates that this credit is undeserved. She attributes the end of the Cold War to the slightly reckless bravery of Mikhail Gorbachev, who broke his party's monopoly on power while steering his country away from supporting Communist regimes elsewhere. Gorbachev also recognized Star Wars for the bluff that it was. He emerges from Fitzgerald's account a strong and intelligent leader, an image that provokes sad thoughts about what might have been had Reagan been capable of meaningful engagement.

The climax of the Ms Fitzgerald's story is the Reykjavik summit. Reagan offered to junk the entirety of America's very real nuclear armory but refused to abandon the dream of missile defense. It's hard to know what to think about missile defense, especially the space-based systems known as 'Star Wars,' because there's very little to think about beyond a handful of infant technologies that so far have failed to deliver on their promise. I recall reading, perhaps in The New York Review's review of this book, that missile defense is a kind of faith, pursued by true believers in the teeth of formidable logical hurdles. Reagan, like many Americans (according to polls), had trouble believing that missile defense remained stubbornly impracticable, but what's harder to assess is the commitment of a sharp cookie like Jeane Kirkpatrick. The faithful stand in a line, as old as North American settlement, of exceptionalists who believe that this country fulfills the scriptural promise of a City on the Hill (the title of an earlier book by Frances Fitzgerald). They appear both absurd and dangerous to anyone who accepts that Americans are neither more nor less human than the people of other nations. (March 2001)

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