March 19, 2015

Did Ronald Reagan hate reading?


Regardless of whether or not he read intelligence reports, this was not our most bookish president.

Regardless of whether or not he read intelligence reports, this was not our most bookish president.

The CIA, like other intelligence communities around the world, has long formulated psychological and political profiles of world leaders in order to prepare Presidents for meetings and foreign affairs decisions. Last month, Mother Jones published the CIA’s conclusions on Hitler, Khrushchev, Castro, Qadaffi, and Hussein, among others.

Perhaps the most interesting sentence of the piece, however, appears in parentheses as an aside: “(Fun fact: After realizing that President Ronald Reagan was not a big reader, the CIA started presenting him its leader profiles as videos with narration and music.)”

Hold up. Are there facts to support this casual statement? Is this not a deeply embarrassing allegation, one that should constitute a state secret in itself if it’s true? Shouldn’t someone in charge of a nation of almost 250 million for eight years be able and willing to read about, well, whatever he wants? And wait, did the CIA profile its own nation’s leader and come up with a disheartening take on his intellectual capacity?

Were books Reagan’s vegetables? Is this why Reagan made ketchup a vegetable? Did the CIA ever threaten to send Reagan to his room when he refused to read their briefings, like a petulant third grader? Why didn’t anyone care that a man in charge of the well-being of God’s chosen nation (or whatever it is Reagan thought America was) *and* the well-being of other nations, “was not a big reader”?

Of course, there are more attractive explanations than lack of curiosity or intelligence. I don’t need to be a CIA profiler to know that different people have different learning styles. Maybe Reagan was an auditory learner. Yet, the limited technical capabilities of the 1980s meant it was impossible for Reagan’s team to brief him with videos daily. So, then, how does a man who was “not a big reader” absorb the necessary information to run a country? How did his presidency work, logistically?

 Reagan’s presidency was (fortunately) before my time, so I was not as up to date on my RR knowledge as I should be. I knew Reagan was a conservative icon and that he ushered in a new wave of fervent patriotism (for some). I learned about “Reaganomics” from my libertarian high school teacher. (ed. note: Same.) I knew that although he ran on lower taxes and limited government, Reagan actually raised taxes eleven times over the course of his presidency and significantly expanded federal government. And I’m well versed in Killer Mike’s thoughts on him, and Kendrick Lamar’s.

So naturally my first reaction was to make fun of the late president, and I spent the weekend scheming in an effort to cope with the immense blow to my faith in humanity (If we could all, as humans across partisan lines, agree on one stipulation for our leaders, it should be that they are well read, right? Right?!). I thought about writing my own psychological profile of Reagan (he was undoubtedly a rare ENFJ personality type, like Lincoln and Obama). Or, a list of Things Ronald Reagan Probably Didn’t Read Even Though He Signed, the most obvious being The Boland Amendment. I had a running list of things “Recently watched by Ronald Reagan” Netflix-style, with guesses on the CIA’s musical and narratorial choices (help? what music and whose voice goes well with Khrushchev?).

But I spent the entire weekend reading up on Reagan’s reading, because it seemed to me that even if my own political biases made it easy for me to believe that Reagan was not a big reader, part of me hoped it couldn’t be possible.

I also wanted to see if any of those instructional intelligence videos survived. And so did Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA historian, who wrote a report on the subject in 2011 entitled “Ronald Reagan, Intelligence, William Casey, and CIA: A Reappraisal.” With this report, Dujmovic aims to combat the “the perspective among many liberals, Democrats, even some Republicans, and most definitely public intellectuals (including historians) was that Reagan was never very intelligent, never very curious, and never read much; as president, he liked to watch movies and tell funny but pointless stories, delegated all hard choices, worked very little, and took lots of naps.”

Dujmovic insists that Reagan’s preference for audio-visual briefings does not mean he did not read intelligence, but he does not shy away from including quotes by Reagan’s detractors. He mentions that “Gore Vidal joked that the Reagan Library burned down and ‘both books were lost’—including the one Reagan had not finished coloring.” He also cites several studies that concluded

“Reagan ‘wanted a show’ instead of traditional printed reports, so he received ‘intelligence briefings in video format in which predigested facts were arranged like decorations on a cake. . . a mode of presentation [that] blurred any distinction between fact and judgment, intelligence and advertising, reality and artist’s conception.’”

And there we have the crux of the problem. Although everything, writing, documentaries, TV, films, dance, is imbedded with bias, writing is perhaps the most honest about it as a medium. One can write something as if it’s a fact, and a reader has to be able to interpret it and make up her own mind about it, but think about all the subtle tools video has in its kit for persuasion: music, narration, video style, cuts, color, etc. As a mode of presentation of such sensitive information as international intelligence, the video format seems to have too much room for artistic license.

Dujmovic argues that since 2001, historians have undertaken a reappraisal of Reagan, and that there are “voluminous personal and professional writings that demonstrate he was a voracious reader, a prolific and thoughtful writer, a fully engaged mind with a clear, reasoned, and consistent philosophy.” His “voluminous personal and professional writings,” are, according to Dujmovic, his self-drafted radio commentaries, letters, and diary entries. Dujmovic also looked through Reagan’s Presidential Daily Briefings and gives examples of the President’s mark-ups as well as testimonies of his ability to absorb information and write clear summaries, particularly as part of the Rockefeller Commission. In the CIA’s Reagan Collection, we find “Gorbachev, the New Broom,” a summary of Gorbachev’s first 100 days with a personal cover letter to the President from William Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence, which said Reagan might find it “good airplane reading.” This document seems to corroborate the Dujmovic’s argument that Reagan did in fact read intelligence.

 Whether Reagan’s resistance to reading is a product of spin, as Dujmovic suggests, or whether the CIA is now retroactively helping to improve Reagan’s image, one thing stands true. There should be some sort of tenure-track to the Presidency, some way to test hopefuls based on their ability and willingness to read. Otherwise we end up with this.