The Washington Times

Shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, People magazine (in an uncharacteristic nod to highbrow culture) ran a profile of the neoconservative intellectual couple Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz. She, a former editor at Basic Books, had founded the Committee for the Free World, whose purpose was to make the intellectual case for the institutions of freedom and against communism. He was the editor of Commentary magazine and had been mentioned as a possible head of the United States Information Agency (USIA).

People magazine naturally asked Mr. Podhoretz what he thought of Mr. Reagan. Mr. Podhoretz, unsurprisingly, spoke of him with enthusiasm. But for some reason, he also felt obliged to note that Mr. Reagan didn’t “have the kind of mind generally admired by intellectuals.” So much for Mr. Podhoretz’s USIA gig. More important, though, this 20-year-old, offhand comment from a Reagan supporter precisely captured the Reagan problem among the nation’s cultural elite.

To his enemies, Mr. Reagan was a fool; an “amiable dunce” – an actor of no real talent but sufficient charisma to sway the rubes. Yet to his friends and supporters, he was no less an enigma. Robert McFarlane, who would serve as his national security advisor, once said, “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.” Shortly after he took office, conservatives could be heard crying, “Let Reagan be Reagan” – a phrase intended to recall the president to his conservative roots, but unintentionally deprecatory in its portrait of a man beset and manipulated by his closest advisors.

The problem here is that it’s all too short a leap from the proposition that someone has a mind of the sort not “generally admired by intellectuals” to the proposition that that someone doesn’t have a mind at all; or that someone who is not well-informed on the details of an issue therefore knows nothing about it; or that a decision that comes as a surprise and an affront must not have been a deliberate decision, but one coerced by hidden puppeteers.

Mr. Podhoretz, Mr. McFarlane and the “Let Reagan be Reagan” crowd may never have made the leaps described in the preceding paragraph. But the cumulative impression of their assessments dovetailed alarmingly well with the view of Mr. Reagan propounded by his ideological opponents; that he was a dunce, and all the more dangerous for it.

Over the past few years, we have been learning just how wrong this view was. The latest installment comes today, on Mr. Reagan’s ninetieth birthday, with the publication of “Reagan in His Own Hand” (Free Press), the bulk of which is a collection of scripts for his daily radio commentary that Mr. Reagan himself set to paper from 1975 to 1979 – without benefit of ghostwriting assistance. The handwritten documents were unearthed mainly in the archives of the Reagan Library by scholar Kiron K. Skinner, the volume edited by her and Martin and Annelise Anderson, both veterans of the Reagan administration now affiliated with the Hoover Institution.

The idea that Mr. Reagan was anything but well-informed on the full panoply of issues that would be of interest to a politician with presidential aspirations in the 1970s can now be dismissed. It’s all here, from the wheat deal with the Soviet Union to Taiwan to land usage in Western states to indexation of income tax brackets. He had a working command of all of it. He could and did explain his positions on these matters clearly in his own words, a surefire test of comprehension. Case closed.

Why, then, the contrary impression? In the case of the left, the answer is obviously in part a response to the conservative ideological view consistently propounded in Mr. Reagan’s commentaries. To the left at the time, the conservative view was simultaneously benighted and unfamiliar. It was antique and reactionary thinking that, ipso facto, couldn’t possibly have relevance as a forward-looking critique of government policy. Hence the left’s ongoing astonishment at Mr. Reagan’s political successes over the years (which the left mistakenly attributed to the lingering backwardness of the American people, for whom Mr. Reagan had natural appeal).

And then, most important, there is the fact that Mr. Podhoretz’s assessment was not wrong – it’s just that it tells us more about the intellectual class than it does about Mr. Reagan. Intellectuals generally prefer the company of intellectuals, and their favorite politicians tend to be intellectuals as well. Mr. Reagan was a politician first and foremost, and while he did not seem in the least to mind the company of intellectuals, his self-esteem didn’t depend on their opinion of him. He had a party to take over, elections to win and a political agenda to pursue (something about reinvigorating capitalism at home and fighting communism abroad, you will recall). His success or failure on these matters was a large question, and one that did not have much to do with even the most sophisticated transient judgments of him, whether favorable or unfavorable.

Mr. McFarlane’s assessment remains noteworthy for several reasons. First, unlike many, he understood that Mr. Reagan was indeed accomplishing something; he didn’t just leave matters at “someone who knows so little,” the point at which the curiosity of so many of Mr. Reagan’s critics switched off. Second, this statement, like so many others, ultimately tells us less about Mr. Reagan than about the quality of the judgment being passed on him at the time.

How is it possible for someone, anyone, to know so little while accomplishing so much? Ah. It isn’t.