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Rewriting the script

by Open-Publishing - Friday 11 June 2004

Governments USA Sidney Blumenthal

Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Reagan
was willing to improvise on the far-right script, which
is what ultimately saved his presidency.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Ronald Reagan’s presidency collapsed
at the precise moment on Nov. 25, 1986, when he
suddenly appeared without notice in the White House
briefing room, introduced his attorney general, Edwin
Meese, and instantly departed from the stage. Meese
announced that funds raised by members of the National
Security Council and others by selling arms to Iran had
been used to aid the Nicaraguan Contras. Anti-terrorism
laws and congressional resolutions had been willfully
violated; eventually 11 people were convicted of
felonies. In less than a week, Reagan’s popularity
plunged from 67 percent to 46 percent, the greatest and
quickest decline ever for a president.

On Dec. 17, 1986, the day William Casey, the mumbling
director of the CIA, was scheduled to testify on the
Iran-Contra scandal before the Senate Intelligence
Committee, he collapsed into a coma, suffering from
brain cancer, never to recover. Lt. Col. Oliver North,
Casey’s action officer on the NSC, explained to members
of a select congressional investigation that the
profoundly conservative Casey had been the mastermind
in creating an "overseas entity ... self-financing,
independent," that would conduct U.S. foreign policy as
a "stand-alone." Called the "Enterprise," it was the
apotheosis of the Reagan doctrine, the waging of a
global war for the rollback of communism.

The hard-line secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger
(who was later pardoned before his trial by President
George H.W. Bush), and his neoconservative underlings
were summarily dismissed, the NSC purged. "Let Reagan
be Reagan" had long been the cry of conservatives. Now
they screamed that Reagan was either being held
prisoner or had sold out. "There was no Reagan
revolution, only a Reagan rest stop," wrote an editor
of the National Review, the leading right-wing journal.

In interviews with investigators, Reagan said dozens of
times he couldn’t recall what had happened. But he
retained his utopianism and idealism that had propelled
him from left-wing liberal in Hollywood to right-wing
man on horseback, switching his ideologies but never
his temperament.

At his first meeting with new Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev in November 1985, Reagan had perplexed him by
talking about how they might work together if there
were an invasion of aliens from outer space. Colin
Powell, who became the national security advisor in
1987 after the Iran-Contra scandal decimated the NSC,
later revealed that he and others had tried to contain
Reagan’s talk of "little green men," as Powell put it.
Reagan had got his idea from the 1951 science fiction
movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which an
alien warns of Earth’s apocalyptic destruction if
nuclear weapons are not abolished.

At the October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland,
Reagan had agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons, to
the consternation of his advisors, until Gorbachev
insisted that testing for the Star Wars missile defense
shield in outer space be suspended. Two of Reagan’s
utopian dreams collided. But after the exposure of the
Iran-Contra scandal, Gorbachev furiously rewrote the
script, dropping the objection to Star Wars. (Nuclear
physicist Andrei Sakharov told him it was a fantasy.)
Instead, he crafted a practical arms reduction
agreement, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
Despite the opposition from ideological conservatives
and "realist" conservatives, including Henry Kissinger
and Reagan’s own vice president, George H.W. Bush,
Reagan seized upon the treaty. He was encouraged by his
ultimate handler, his wife, Nancy, who was also
instrumental in empowering Secretary of State George
Shultz to act as negotiator.

With script in hand, Reagan was Reagan again. In
September 1987, he addressed the United Nations General
Assembly: "I occasionally think how our differences
worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien
threat from outside this world." That December,
Gorbachev came to the White House to sign the INF
treaty. Reagan, through the succeeding months, kept
musing, "What if all of us in the world discovered that
we were threatened by a power from outer space, from
another planet?" Then, in June 1988, Reagan, the arch-
anticommunist, went to Moscow, where he declared that
"of course" the Cold War was over and that his famous
reference to the "evil empire" was from "another time."

Reagan did not bring about the downfall of the Soviet
Union, which was crumbling from terminal internal
decay. But to the degree that he gave Gorbachev
political time and space, he lent support to the
liberalizing reform that hastened the end. In reaching
out to Gorbachev, Reagan blithely discarded the right-
wing faith that totalitarian communism was unchangeable
and that only rollback, not containment and
negotiation, would lead to its demise.

Reagan was acutely self-conscious about his about-face,
and on his trip to Moscow he explained it in the terms
with which he was most comfortable. "In the movie
business actors often get what we call ’typecast,’" he
said. "The studios come to think of you as playing
certain kinds of roles, and no matter how hard you try,
you just can’t get them to think of you in any other
way. Well, politics is a little like that too. So I’ve
had a lot of time and reason to think about my role."

Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev rescued his own political
standing. His rise in popularity to the mid-50 percent
was essential in lifting his vice president’s
presidential ambition, for elder Bush was moon to
Reagan’s sun. Yet Bush distanced himself, adopting the
realist’s view that Reagan suffered from "euphoria" and
that nothing fundamental in the world was changing.

Now, President Bush eulogizes Reagan as his example. To
the extent he was studying the Reagan presidency at the
time, he took away the myths, not the lessons, of
history. Bush has his own doctrine, a Manichaean battle
with evildoers and an army of neoconservatives to lend
complex rationalizations to his simplifications. Reagan
was saved by the wholesale firing of the
neoconservatives, the rejection of conservative dogma
and a deliberate strategy to transcend his old
typecasting. It is why he rose above his ruin, and
rides, even in death, into the sunset of a happy
Hollywood ending.