Strong-willed president with Teflon quality

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Once, after a news conference, Ronald Reagan returned to the Oval Office where his senior advisers were waiting to tell him he had gone too far in flatly ruling out a tax increase. He needed to leave himself some "wiggle room," they said, so he would have space to maneuver in the congressional battle then looming.

Silently fuming, Reagan heard them out. One of the aides drafted a short statement backing off slightly from what the president had just told reporters. Reagan grabbed the paper from the aide and snatched a pen from his desk so fiercely that the inkstand went flying.


"Here's what I want to say," he said. Then he scrawled, "No new taxes" across the page and thrust it back at his lieutenants.

Reagan presided over a complex presidency, and he may have been a complicated man, but there was a simplicity to the political philosophy that guided his actions: Government was too big, taxes were too high, and the Soviet Union was not only an "evil empire," as he once famously put it, but a mortal threat.


He was not unwilling to compromise - he eventually agreed to a steep tax increase - but he did so reluctantly, and usually after getting most of what he wanted. Reagan changed course slowly, the way a battleship takes its time in responding to the helm. And he hardly ever went against the beliefs that had taken him from the Hollywood soundstages to the White House.

Nuclear shield

Perhaps nothing illuminates Reagan's willingness to take on all comers - Congress, commentators, even his closest advisers - more than his determination to build the space-based nuclear shield that he called the Strategic Defense Initiative, and that critics ridiculed as "star wars."

Within the White House, top aides saw SDI as a bargaining chip, a challenge to the Soviet Union that might persuade Kremlin leaders to severely scale back their nuclear arsenal in return for Reagan's scrapping of the space shield program.

It made sense. The Soviets believed in American know-how even if domestic critics said SDI wouldn't work. Moreover, the Soviet economy was weakening, making it problematic for the Communist state to redeem its pledge to build a space defense of its own. One of Reagan's national security advisers, Robert C. McFarlane, envisioned SDI as "the sting of the century."

No one told Reagan that the idea was to bargain it away. Or he chose not to listen. At a summit in Iceland in 1986, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, offered him an arms control deal he couldn't refuse. Except he did. The summit ended with a tableau of obviously grief-stricken aides, led by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, telling the international press that the meeting had broken down when Reagan refused to budge.

Reagan's recalcitrance was widely condemned. But within a few short years, the Soviet Union crumbled. While there is hardly a consensus on the issue, there is a respected body of opinion that holds that the Kremlin's recognition that its crumbling economy could not meet the challenge posed by SDI hastened that demise.

Few close friends


Reagan won the hearts of millions of Americans with a self-deprecating aw-shucks demeanor and a public affability that made you feel like you'd love to kick back and have a beer with him. But in private, he was different. His only truly close friend throughout his presidency was his wife, Nancy.

To the extent he socialized, he did so within a small circle of acquaintances, most of whom dated from his days as California governor.

If his affability extended to his aides, few, if any, qualified as friends. They were staff. Even Michael K. Deaver, perhaps the aide closest to him during his political career, fell into that category. When Deaver, the stage manager of the Reagan presidency, found himself engulfed by alcoholism and legal troubles, Reagan did little to ease his pain, for months not even making a friendly phone call. Yet associates, even Deaver, remained almost fanatically loyal.

The same was true when the Iran-contra scandal exploded in November 1986. Aside from a call to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North the day he fired him, Reagan offered little public defense of the men swept up in the scandal - Robert McFarlane and McFarlane's successor as national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, in addition to North - essentially letting them fend for themselves as their careers went into free fall and prison beckoned. All three, as it happened, had been doing precisely what they believed Reagan wanted them to do.

Military support

Reagan probably had no stronger supporters than the members of the armed forces, and he merited that support. The Vietnam War and its aftermath had made many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines feel like second-class citizens. Almost single-handedly, Reagan turned that around.


He called the Vietnam War a "noble cause," spoke often and loudly about his regard for the military, told service members to wear their uniforms proudly, that he counted on them. In the process he restored their pride, made them again feel like valued members of society.

He had a deserved reputation for decisiveness. But when a suicide bomber drove a truck into the lobby of the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 servicemen, the highest one-day casualty count since Marines hit the beach on Iwo Jima, his response was tepid: an airstrike against small and largely inconsequential targets that did little damage.

'Teflon president'

The moniker "Teflon president" was well-deserved. Few, if any, negatives stuck to him, even Iran-contra, though it ground up others who had served him loyally.

Much of this Teflon quality resulted from the high regard many Americans had for him. Some came from skillful orchestration.

After the barracks bombing, for example, a Pentagon investigation found enough blame to go around, including serious problems with the command structure presided over by Reagan. The Reagan White House released the scorching report days before Christmas, as a way to minimize publicity. It worked, as few seemed to notice, except the Marines, who have never forgotten.


Historians will debate Reagan's presidency for decades to come. He was many things to many people. For eight years he trooped the national and international stages as few before him. At the time, he was derided in certain circles as an actor who became president. But with his passing, he seems larger than life, a president who, by the way, had once been an actor.