By Gil Troy, The News & Observer, 2-3-09
“The Reagan I Knew” by William F. Buckley Jr., (Basic Books, 240 page)
William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were the conservative revolution’s odd couple. Buckley was the movement’s elitist prophet, scolding Americans polysyllabically. Reagan was its populist preacher, inspiring millions to join him in repudiating “big government.”
In this herky-jerky yet compelling valentine, “The Reagan I Knew,” Buckley recalls their relationship through 40 years of correspondence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, interspersed with adoring commentary.
Readers should not expect to find thoughtful discourses on conservatism from Buckley or detailed reflections on governing from Reagan. The book — Buckley’s 55th and last, completed just before he died in February 2008 — is impressionistic. The book’s limits suggest the friendship’s boundaries, demonstrating one of the great Reagan paradoxes.
For all his legendary affability, Reagan was remarkably remote. Even his devoted wife, Nancy, called him an emotional “brick wall.” Reagan filled his letters to friends and strangers with homilies preaching conservative doctrine, but he neither shared doubts nor engaged in tortured debates. His governing philosophy seemed hatched fully formed. He lacked the capacity to regret, replay mistakes in his mind or apologize. In some this remoteness provoked anger, as evidenced through a series of scorching memoirs by spurned aides, especially David Stockman and Donald Regan.
Instead of moping about his powerful friend’s enigmatic distance, the aristocratic, infamously secure Buckley delighted in whatever contact they had. Marinated in a 1950s sensibility, the Buckley-Reagan exchanges reek of cigarette smoke and vodka martinis. They evoke a time when gentlemen corresponded rather than chatted on the phone or e-mailed, and delighted in their flirtatious, twinkle-in-the-eye banter.
They met in 1961. Buckley, 36, the National Review’s founding editor, was lecturing in Los Angeles. Reagan, 50, was a disenchanted Democrat and aging movie star slated to introduce the conservative wunderkind. Alas, the auditorium’s control booth was locked with the microphone off. Unruffled, Reagan opened a window, slid along a parapet two stories high, broke into the booth and turned on the microphone. This act — done with Reagan’s characteristic grace — anticipated their roles in the coming conservative revolution. Reagan’s bold moves helped broadcast Buckley’s ideas.
That bonding experience began a 30-year friendship. Despite Buckley’s swagger as one of America’s smartest smart alecks and Democrats’ caricature of Reagan the dummy, Reagan’s repartee easily matched Buckley’s.
Buckley flirted with Nancy Reagan, addressing her as “Cherie” and imagining a rendezvous in Casablanca. He also befriended Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s two children, Patti and Ron Jr., occasionally mediating between the oft-neglected offspring and their frustrated parents.
Buckley and Reagan agreed that Communism was evil and America’s government was overgrown. By 1966, Reagan was running to be California’s governor and Buckley had started his public affairs television show, “Firing Line,” which would run until 1999. Reagan was an occasional guest.
For one memorable moment in the late 1970s, the two buddies clashed over returning the Panama Canal to Panama. The story of their televised debate is the book’s highlight, as the friends dueled with civility, wit, and flair. After the opening statements, Reagan, who opposed the treaty, paused, flashing his charming smile, then said, “Well, Bill, my first question is, Why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you’ve seen the light?” Buckley retorted: “I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you.”
Although Buckley was suitably deferential after Reagan became president, the jesting continued as did the occasional frank exchanges. In July 1981, after nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Reagan reported, brusquely, “I am going forward on this first court appointment with a woman to get my campaign promise out of the way.” He added, however: “I’m happy to say I had to make no compromise with quality.”
Regarding Reagan’s other towering accomplishment, Communism’s collapse, Buckley feared Reagan was too wowed by Mikhail Gorbachev. He warned the president not to mothball America’s Pershing missiles too quickly under 1987’s sweeping disarmament treaty. Reagan told Buckley he relied on “our verification provisions and on the fact that Gorby knows what our response to cheating would be — it’s spelled Pershing.”
In the spirit of the book — and this remarkable friendship — Buckley credits Reagan for being right, knighting him the world statesman most responsible for defeating Communism. Buckley’s disagreement with Reagan regarding Gorbachev highlights the contrast between the two men.
An ideologue with political savvy, Buckley packaged his ideas to popularize them but ultimately cared more about staying consistent.
A politician with an ideological edge, Reagan rooted his policies in a broader vision but cared more about staying popular — and winning. Reagan’s surprising nimbleness was a key to his success; he was far more willing to compromise and change than his allies or his opponents expected. Reagan governed in America’s great centrist tradition of muscular moderation, balancing the ideal and the real, the politics of what should be done with the politics of what could be done.
This easy-reading, illuminating volume adds to the growing literature celebrating Reagan’s style and substantive achievements, especially in ending the Cold War. Reagan once again comes across as a deeper, smarter, suppler leader than Democrats acknowledged. Buckley offers an inspiring example, too. At a time when issues were just as serious, Reagan and Buckley showed how to talk politics and do politics, with a lighter touch, keeping a wry perspective that diluted the partisanship. This book commemorates William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan as successful revolutionaries and true gentlemen.
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.