Ronald Reagan's presidency collapsed at the precise moment on November 25 1986 when he 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 wilfully violated. Eventually 11 people were convicted of felonies. In less than a week, Reagan's approval rating plunged from 67% to 46%, the greatest and quickest decline ever for a president.
On December 17 1986, William Casey, the director of the CIA, was scheduled to testify before the Senate intelligence committee. But 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 a select congressional investigation that Casey had been the mastermind in creating an "overseas entity ... self-financing, independent", that would conduct "US 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 hardline secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, 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.
In interviews with investigators, Reagan said he couldn't recall what had happened. But he retained his utopianism and idealism that had propelled him from leftwing liberal in Hollywood to rightwing man on horseback, switching ideologies but never his temperament.
At his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, Reagan had perplexed him by talking about how they might work together if there were an invasion of aliens from outer space. Reagan had got his idea from a 1951 science fiction movie in which an alien warns of earth's destruction if nuclear weapons are not abolished.
At the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, Reagan had agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons (to the consternation of his advisers) until Gorbachev insisted that testing for the Star Wars missile defense shield be suspended. Two of Reagan's utopian dreams collided. But after the exposure of the Iran-contra scandal, Gorbachev dropped the objection to Star Wars. Instead, he crafted a practical arms reduction agreement, the intermediate nuclear forces treaty. And, despite opposition from conservatives, Reagan seized upon it.
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 treaty. Then, in June 1988, Reagan 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. But he lent support to the liberalizing reform that hastened the end. In reaching out to Gorbachev, Reagan blithely discarded the rightwing 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 movie business actors often get what we call typecast," he said. "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-50s was essential in lifting his vice-president's presidential ambition, for the elder Bush was moon to Reagan's sun. Yet Bush distanced himself, adopting the "realist" view that Reagan suffered from "euphoria" and that nothing fundamental in the world was changing.
Now, George W Bush eulogizes Reagan as his example. Bush has his own doctrine, a Manichean battle with evildoers, and an army of neoconservatives to lend complex rationalizations to his simplifications. Yet 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.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and Washington bureau chief of Salon.com
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