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 Magazine Watch

Tuesday September 28, 1999 (Vol. One; No. 18)

14-Year Search for Reagan Finds Him "Vacuous"; Al Gore is Horny?; The West Wing Not "Left Wing"

1. Newsweek featured exclusive excerpts from Edmund Morris’s highly anticipated "memoir" of Ronald Reagan and highlighted how the former president was a "vacuous" man and in the words of Morris, a cultural "yahoo."

2. Time Executive Editor John F. Stacks embraced Morris’s perception of Reagan as a "floundering and uncomprehending Chief Executive." U.S. News wondered who will like it.

3. Campaign 2000 Update: Time proclaims on its cover that Bill Bradley is "The Man Who Could Beat Gore." Eric Pooley cheered his idealism throughout, but mentioned his flirtation with race-baiter Al Sharpton -- on the tenth page of the package. Newsweek noted that Al and Tipper are still telegraphing to people that they have sex, and Jonathan Alter thinks comparing Pat Buchanan to Hitler is fair.

4. U.S. News was the only news magazine to notice that FBI agents charged the Justice Department with foot-dragging on the DNC-China fundraising connection. And they barely noticed.

5. Fresh from a media analyst’s slot at the liberal Web site Salon, Time TV writer James Poniewozik cheered the conservative-trashing idealism of NBC’s The West Wing.

On the covers of the October 4 issues: Newsweek led with "In Search of Reagan," including a look at Reagan biographer Edmund’s Morris’s unique sourcing, a brief interview with the author and a series of excerpts from the new book. Time promoted a look at Bill Bradley’s run fo the White House. U.S. News & World Report featured "Gold Rush," a look at the battle between scientists and hunters over underseas treasure.


In Newsweek, Evan Thomas and Jon Meacham looked at the lengthy and bizarre story behind the scenes of Morris’s new "memoir" and wondered whether Ronald Reagan was really the endlessly puzzling figure Morris portrays him to be or just a simpleton who stumbled into the presidency: "He seemed placid, even becalmed, but Ronald Reagan swept over the nation like a wave. Was he, as so many of his detractors believed, an amiable dunce? If so, how did he change the course of history?"

As for his use of fictional characters in what was supposed to be the definitive work on Reagan, Thomas and Meacham note: "The author is well aware that his unorthodox approach is risky, but he defends it as both intellectually honest and the only way to let the reader see the world as Reagan sees it: cinematically and imaginatively."

Morris’s depiction of Reagan as feeble-minded will no doubt delight members of the media who always suspected as much: "Though he saw no signs of Reagan’s Alzheimer's until after the president left office, Morris found his subject sometimes vacuous. ‘After three or four meetings, I realized that culturally he was a yahoo and extremely unresponsive in conversation. When you asked him a question about himself, it was like dropping a stone into a well and not hearing a splash. I never got anywhere in interviews, except for odd moments of strangeness, like the time I showed him a leaf and he began talking about his boyhood.’"

Morris defended the creation of a fictional anti-war protesting son for the character based on himself (got that?) by claiming he was just trying to be fair to history: "I had to acknowledge that this was a biography of someone who was violently controversial, who a large portion of the population detested and was afraid of."

In sum, "Morris's Reagan lived in the theater of his own mind, where the president created an ideal world that sometimes bore little relation to reality. That Reagan was able to make the real world more like his imagined one at times is a testament to his will and his manipulative powers."

In an interview with Newsweek, Morris explained Reagan was a great President after all: "I have gradually, over the course of many years, come to the conclusion that he was a great president. More interesting to me than greatness, however, is that he was throughout his life such a strange combination of innocence and wisdom, charm and hard force, gregariousness and aloofness, egocentricity without conceit, aggression without cruelty, imaginativeness and cultural ignorance, sentimentality and emotional coolness. I could go on for a quarter of an hour and not exhaust his contrary opposites. He is also -- to finish with a simple statement --the bravest and most incorrupt figure I've ever studied."


In "Making It Up as He Goes," Time Executive Editor John F. Stacks begins with a reminiscence about his encounter with then-Governor Reagan: "I was ushered into the Governor's office in Sacramento, and there sat Reagan, suit coat buttoned, appearing to pore over some documents. I clicked on the tape recorder, or thought I did. Assured of a magnetic record, I neglected to take notes. We talked for nearly an hour. Back at the hotel, I discovered that the tape had not worked. When the panic subsided, I replayed the conversation in my head, for in those fine days, my memory was still crisp. Reagan had said nothing of interest. Blank tape, empty notebook, shallow man."

Stacks concludes Reagan was one of the most out-of-it Presidents the nation has ever seen: "Reagan was, by the accounts of those who worked most closely with him, one of the most passive and incurious men to ever occupy the Oval Office. During his first term, one of his closest advisers swore that on his own, Reagan could not have found the office of the White House chief of staff. Morris' reconstruction of the Iran-contra scandal paints a devastating picture of a floundering and uncomprehending Chief Executive."

Morris’s unconventional approach has its appeal, according to Stacks: "The historical sleight of hand has one virtue, aside from creating commercially valuable buzz. Trying to thread one's way through what is made up and what is real in this book is not unlike being around the actual Reagan, who invented statistics, replayed movie plots as if they were history and answered questions with such bewildering non sequiturs that interrogators were stunned into silence...Morris is also a brilliant writer -- of both fact and fiction. His stylishness is so dazzling that the reader may want to forgive the manipulation he has employed. Again, this re-creates the experience of being around Reagan, who was so deeply likeable as a human being that even the most querulous reporter could be charmed into protecting him from his own vacuousness. "

In U.S. News, Jay Tolson argued liberals and conservatives can agree on something. They probably won’t like Morris’s book. "How the pre-publication brouhaha will affect the post-publication reception and sales remains to be seen. But the dust-up does give rise to speculation about the curious alignments that might emerge along conflicting cultural and partisan political lines. With its formal undercutting of distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity, fact and fiction, the biography could pose a particular challenge to conservative admirers of both Reagan and Morris, a group that by and large prefers meat-and-potatoes realism to flights of literary invention. And readers likely to be well disposed to such invention -- the leftish professors of cultural and literary studies -- are not generally drawn to the politics or person of Ronald Reagan."


Campaign 2000 Update: Time’s Eric Pooley hailed Bill Bradley as an idealistic reformer with solid credentials in a glowing cover story on "The Man Who Could Beat Gore." Pooley was charmed: "The former basketball star and three-term New Jersey Senator has just given what some are calling the most effective speech of his career, a fuzzy, conversational, unabashedly idealistic sermon that sells him as the savior of politics itself (‘The American people have a right to be skeptical, but I have a right to try to change that skepticism’). Polls in key states put him in a dead heat with Gore. In the new Time/CNN poll, he leads Gore in New Hampshire for the first time. While the Vice President is suffering the effects of Clinton fatigue, message confusion and a consultant-heavy campaign that's hemorrhaging money, Bradley is running a lean, focused operation. More and more it seems that Bradley's inscrutable nature -- high-mindedness, dogged integrity and apparent indifference to the game of politics -- might be tailor-made for the post-Clinton era. And surely it doesn't hurt that he had that wicked jump shot way back when."

Although not exactly a scintillating speaker, Bradley does connect with audiences, according to Pooley: "But when Bradley works hard to connect, when he really tries to project himself to an audience, his ironic detachment vanishes. He becomes earnest, a secular minister preaching a message that has only the most tenuous relationship to conventional politics. Bradley isn't comfortable delivering a tub thumper, and he isn't any good at it. But he is good at drawing people into his verbal world, creating a quiet space in which his ideals seem within reach."

On the tenth page, in the second to last paragraph, Pooley feigns an acknowledgment that despite all his tributes to Bradley, his "secular minister" of high-minded idealism has a few positions to defend, especially his flirtation with race baiter Al Sharpton. "Marketing one's virtue has its limitations. It magnifies each compromise he makes: his opposition to taxing products on the Internet, a big hit with Silicon Valley; his reversal on clemency for Puerto Rican terrorists; his overtures to New York's black power broker, the Rev. Al Sharpton; his sudden support for ethanol subsidies (which he once called ‘highway robbery’). Then he insists he isn't just another vote-grubbing pol."

As for Al Gore, Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty relayed the conventional wisdom facing the Gore campaign in "How Gore’s Campaign Went Off the Rails." Duffy and Tumulty paint Gore as a politician in big trouble: "To many anxious Democrats, it seems the only people Gore is connecting with these days are Jay Leno’s gag writers. It isn’t just that Gore is running an old-fashioned, adviser-laden operation that is high on endorsements but low on energy; it is that he has squandered formidable leads in two categories that matter: money and sheer inevitability."

In Newsweek, Bill Turque’s "Reinventing Gore" began by noting that Al and Tipper are still telegraphing to people that they have sex. "The Gores have decided that marital bliss sells in the post-Monica era, so when Tipper called her reserved husband to the stage, he made everyone know he was actually a tiger after hours. ‘I love it when she responds to me with her finger like that,’ Gore said, ‘I always respond.’"

Turque looked at attempts to reinvent the candidate yet again: "Election time is approaching, and once again Gore is trying to colorize his beige public image. This year, as in every national campaign since 1988, aides speak hopefully of a reinvented Gore. With warmer, earth-tone suits, a buffer build and a trimmed-down message, he is poised, they say, to reveal some of what family, friends and reporters working off the record often see: a spontaneous, engaging and even subversively funny man."

In his column "Crackpot Pat Plants His Flag," Jonathan Alter inveighed against Buchanan, who was repudiated last week by Sen. John McCain: "I actually thought McCain was too easy on Buchanan. Pat is a charming man off camera, kind to his wife and co-workers; Adolf was a vegetarian, kind to pets. Comparing Buchanan to Hitler? Awfully low blow. Well, not really, at least not according to Buchanan. In his view, communism was much worse than fascism, which means that Nazi comparisons should be less insulting to him than his long history of Red-baiting was to his targets." After trying to figure out how Buchanan can win over voters by lamenting our entry into World War II, Alter added: "Buchanan is not a Nazi, but he is unquestionably soft on Nazism -- softer than many he’s accused of being soft on communism."

Historical note: in the January 3, 1994 issue, Alter selected essayists to remember the decades from the ‘30s to the ‘90s. For the ‘30s, he selected Tillie Olsen, who told of being oppressed and jailed for communist activities: "I'd been working at Armour's and now distributed leaflets to meatpackers at Swift's, in a near blizzard, for the Young Communist League. Plenty of communists then, before it got so bitter and confusing abroad. Pushing for a 10-cent-an-hour raise was `communist inspired.'" Olsen wrote of the Cold War: "Some of us, bruised by the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, were anticipating the conflict to come." So it seems that Alter is Buchanan’s mirror image: finding fascism more evil than communism.


U.S. News was the only news magazine to notice that FBI agents charged the Justice Department with foot-dragging on the DNC-China fundraising connection. And they barely noticed. Angie Cannon and Chitra Ravagan examined the tensions between the FBI, the Justice Department and the Clinton White House: "Some days, especially when the political heat is cranked up, Louis Freeh dreams about life after the FBI. He's a man with more lucrative, less stressful options. But friends and associates say there is a powerful pull that keeps the FBI director from turning in his badge. So great is the disdain between the FBI and the White House that Freeh has told colleagues he would die with his boots on rather than quit and give President Clinton the opportunity to name a replacement."

In the midst of documenting the "soap opera" of conflicting personalities, the reporters offered only one sentence: "At another hearing, FBI agents accused Justice Department prosecutors of impeding their pursuit of targets of the campaign-finance investigation, long a sore subject between the two agencies."

The magazine also noted this sentence from the President speaking before the Congressional Black Caucus: "Make this election about assuming responsibility instead of ducking it."


Fresh from a media analyst’s slot at the liberal Web site Salon, Time TV writer James Poniewozik cheered the conservative-trashing idealism of NBC’s The West Wing. After chiding "serial over-emoter" Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet, he liked the passion shown in Sheen’s staged speeches against some straw-men religious conservative leaders: "Given the stacked deck in the pilot, detractors have claimed the series might well be called The Left Wing, and Sorkin has promised balance -- Bartlet is antiabortion and a military hawk, for instance. But the real and admirable radical idea here is that people might still be passionate about principle, about government, about their jobs. When he's not indulging his you-can't-handle-the-truth side, Sorkin spins witty, hypercaffeinated office jabber with an intensity that's easier to buy from folks who have the Bomb than from sportscasters."

So it’s admirable to see religious conservatives stereotyped as anti-Semitic wheeler-dealers who don’t know the Ten Commandments and refuse to condemn a group that sent the President’s granddaughter a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife in its throat.

Poniewozik wasn’t the only entertainment critic moonlighting in political commentary. In "Operation Desert Scam," Newsweek film critic David Ansen looked at the new George Clooney movie Three Kings and even managed to criticize George Bush’s censorious Pentagon and the goose-stepping public: "These are the tales the public, busy tying its yellow ribbons and watching news reports that were rigorously controlled by the Pentagon, rarely got to hear. That they should arrive in the form of a Hollywood adventure comedy is surprising. That this dark comedy manages to be both disturbingly powerful and powerfully funny is the most welcome surprise of all."

Maybe for his next project, Edmund Morris can invent another fictional son to represent that "large portion of the population" who less than robotically rooted for America in the Gulf War.

-- Mark Drake



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