Thomas Mallon’s Real Reagan

“He’s still winking at us,” Thomas Mallon says of our 40th president. Ronald Reagan’s essential quality (as official biographer Edmund Morris discovered with some embarrassment) was being “ungraspable.” In Finale, Mallon’s panoramic fiction of “the Reagan years,” being “not knowable” is a source of the man’s power and of his great charm in memory. In conversation, I am testing my own half-obsessive notion that Ronald Reagan was an extra-terrestrial, more spirit than flesh, and Tom Mallon is indulging me.

Many public figures, Mallon observes, summoning Bill Clinton for example, are “complicated but not mysterious.” Reagan is the other kind. The lady president of Iceland, host of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik toward the end of 1986, gets to voice Mallon’s own assessment:

“He seemed all at once very close and very far away,” mused the real Vigdis Finnbogadottir in a made-up soliloquy — “rather silly and a little mystical…” She could hear herself telling her friends “that he might be the most deeply shallow man she’d ever met. It would not be a witticism, and she would mean it, she thought, more as compliment than criticism.”

We need more novelists writing politics. Standard journalism, ever with a New York POV, has to see California governors (Jerry Brown, too) first and last as nut-cases. Ronald Reagan was branded a B-actor, an extremist, a dangerous man – by those wonderful “moderate Republicans,” meaning the Rockefeller Brothers of Wall Street and the global oil game, with retainers like the New York Times and Henry Kissinger, who made his reputation rationalizing “limited” nuclear wars.

With Tom Mallon here, I’m venting my 40-year impression (up-close, back in the day) that the real Reagan chose to play the good cowboy — affable, a little lazy; a “don’t tread on me” isolationist, a secret peacenik, a fantasist who never let go of his days in radio and the movies. For me on a long flight once, he joyfully reenacted his first professional trick: bringing high drama to Chicago Cubs baseball broadcasts from the mere numbers in the ticker code. He could still do it.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, Jimmy Carter & Co. bruited the warning that the US might have to use nukes to keep the Russians away form the Persian Gulf. On the contrary, said candidate Ronald Reagan. We might answer a further Russian advance by quarantining Cuba, or by seizing Mexico’s oil; but thank goodness, he added, there’s more oil under Alaska than all the Middle East. That was fantasy, too, of course; but it was Ronald Reagan’s way of saying that nuclear war and nuclear threats were beyond the pale.

Listen here for Tom Mallon’s marvelous impersonation of Reagan in a dream encounter, ten years after Reykjavik, with his pal Gorbachev, when they return to bury the last nuclear weapon and throw “a party for the whole world.” That’s my Reagan, too, ever spinning movies and happy endings in his head. Is it any wonder, really, that he beguiles us still?

Ronald Reagan and guest at his Santa Barbara ranch in 1976.

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