The Perils of Leuchtenburg

When I heard a few weeks ago that there was a new history of the presidency, The American President, by William Leuchtenburg, my first thought was—Leuchtenburg is still alive?? Indeed he is, 92 years old now. It was over 30 years ago that I read one of his best-known books, The Perils of Prosperity: 1914-1932, published in 1958! It was a smug and lazy liberal narrative of entirely typical of the historiography of what might be called “the Age of Schlesinger.” It was not as bad as John Hicks’s Republican Ascendency, 1921-1933, which managed to misquote Calvin Coolidge along to way to delivering what amounted to a partisan Democratic Party pamphlet, but Leuchtenburg’s account is contradictory, superficial, and generally forgettable.

Looks like he has repeated this method in The American Presidency. Louis Gould’s generally kind review of The American Presidency in the Wall Street Journal suggests at one point the kind of breezy superficiality typical of Leuchtenburg:

One sentence seems odd. Writing of Nixon’s infrequent press conferences, the author says: “Eisenhower noted disapprovingly that, while FDR averaged eighty press conferences a year, Nixon held only four in all of 1970.” One wonders how the former president conveyed his disapproval of events in 1970 since he had died in 1969.

So naturally we shouldn’t be surprised that Salon (yes, I know) published an excerpt from Leuchtenburg that revived all of the liberal clichés of the 1980s that were long ago debunked, under the headline “Behind the Ronald Reagan myth: ‘No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed.’”

Where to begin? Well, might as well begin at the beginning, with short comments interspersed in [brackets]:

No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed. [Wrong.] At presidential news conferences, especially in his first year, Ronald Reagan embarrassed himself. [Did Leuchtenburg actually read any of the transcripts? If so he might have quoted something. Or he might have noticed Reagan’s startling economic literacy on display.] On one occasion, asked why he advocated putting missiles in vulnerable places, he responded, his face registering bewilderment, “I don’t know but what maybe you haven’t gotten into the area that I’m going to turn over to the secretary of defense.” [Details please? Would this have been the 1981 press conference where Reagan deliberately emulated Eisenhower’s intentional press conference practice of dissembling incoherently, in this case to clean up after an Al Haig mess? Or was this June press conference where Reagan dissembled in service of diplomatic ambiguity over our stance on Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, where clarity was exactly the thing to be avoided? Leuchtenburg is consistently uninterested in exploring or providing any such contextual details.] Frequently, he knew nothing about events that had been headlined in the morning newspaper. . . [This is not just wrong but stupid.]

In all fields of public affairs—from diplomacy to the economy—the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded. His mind, said the well-disposed Peggy Noonan, was “barren terrain.” Speaking of one far-ranging discussion on the MX missile, the Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, an authority on national defense, reported, “Reagan’s only contribution throughout the entire hour and a half was to interrupt somewhere at midpoint to tell us he’d watched a movie the night before, and he gave us the plot from War Games.”

Would this have been the legendary 1983 meeting where Reagan’s apparent ignorance was long ago debunked as a deception of the congresscritters present—Reagan knew the MX missile details cold—who only years later figured out that Reagan was having them on at virtually every such White House meeting? Leuchtenburg doesn’t give enough details to know for sure. Reagan explained several times that he didn’t speak up in meetings because he knew whatever he said would be in the paper the next day, and it served his purposes to be underestimated and to deflect the preening congresscritters ruining his afternoon.

The president “cut ribbons and made speeches. He did these things beautifully,” Congressman Jim Wright of Texas acknowledged. “But he never knew frijoles from pralines about the substantive facts of issues.” Some thought him to be not only ignorant but, in the word of a former CIA director, “stupid.” Clark Clifford called the president an “amiable dunce,” [Would this be the same Clark Clifford who was later convicted of bank fraud? Yes; who’s the dunce now?] and the usually restrained columnist David Broder wrote, “The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears is a challenging one for his aides.” [No mention that Broder later recanted this judgment.]

His White House staff found it difficult, often impossible, to get him to stir himself to follow even this rudimentary routine. When he was expected to read briefing papers, he lazed on a couch watching old movies. [Not true.] On the day before a summit meeting with world leaders about the future of the economy, he was given a briefing book. The next morning, his chief of staff asked him why he had not even opened it. “Well, Jim,” the president explained, “The Sound of Music was on last night.” [So how did Reagan perform the next day at that summit, Mr. Leuchtenburg? Turned out to be a triumph for him by all accounts, including a nice smackdown of Pierre Trudeau. Too much trouble to mention that I guess. More generally, any mention of when and why Reagan wrote his own talking points for his summits with Gorbachev, not to mention how Reagan actually performed in these high-stakes meetings? No mention in this excerpt at least.]

Leuchtenburg does include this:

He was able to forge agreements with Democrats in the capital because he had the advantage, as a veteran of Screen Actors Guild battles, of being an experienced negotiator. (In later years, he said of his haggling with Mikhail Gorbachev: “It was easier than dealing with Jack Warner.”) His chief Democratic opponent in the legislature, who started out viewing Reagan with contempt, wound up concluding that he had been a pretty good governor, “better than Pat Brown, miles and planets and universes better than Jerry Brown”—the two most conspicuous Democratic leaders of the period.

You would think these observations would prompt some reflection on Leuchtenburg’s part about whether there wasn’t some artfulness or depth to Reagan not visible on the surface, but apparently not.

Then there’s this:

When he announced that he was planning to run for governor of California, he encountered ridicule. At a time when Robert Cummings was a prominent film star, the Hollywood mogul Jack Warner responded, “No, Bob Cummings for governor, Ronald Reagan as his best friend.”

Every other account of this anecdote I’ve ever seen has Warner saying, “No no, Jimmy Stewart for governor; Ronald Reagan for best friend,” rather than Cummings. I certainly makes more sense than Cummings, who was no longer very prominent in the mid-1960s. Maybe the book offers a source for this?

I could go on, but I guess I’ll just take this to the bank:

Yet he was to leave office regarded as a consequential president, and a number of scholars were even to write of an “Age of Reagan.”