The way his aides told it, Ronald Reagan was going to raise a hands-off management style to a high art. In 1980 the new President’s advisers acknowledged that their boss was not a detail man like his predecessor, Jimmy Carter— but then Carter’s attention to detail had failed to get him re-elected. Instead, they said, Reagan was going to use his skills as a communicator to paint a broad policy picture, then let others fill in the specifics. Recently,
Reagan described his style in the following way: “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.”
That comment appeared in a Fortune magazine story titled, “What managers can learn from manager Reagan.”
The article ran in September, 1985, just six weeks before Reagan’s hands-off style helped push his presidency to the brink of disaster.
Detached: Suddenly, viewed in the harsh light of the Iran-contra scandal, manager Reagan’s supposed strength looks remarkably like a weakness. The Tower Commission report released last week found that Reagan was too detached from foreign-policy deliberations and should have insisted upon the accountability of his subordinates. Former senator John Tower, the commission chairman, told a news conference that “the President clearly didn’t understand the nature of this operation, who was involved and what was happening.” Nor did Reagan inspire confidence when, after contradicting himself twice before the commission, he said last week that he simply could not remember whether he had officially approved the first U.S. arms shipments to Iran in the summer of 1985. Even Reagan’s optimism now
clearly worries many close associates. Two weeks ago he said that, like an old actor, his administration was “saving the best stuff for the last act”—a determined rosiness that made him appear dangerously out of touch.
Reagan’s disengaged style is evident in his work habits. The 76-year-old President gets up at about 7:30 a.m., reads newspapers over breakfast and
begins morning briefings in the Oval Office at 9 a.m. Sources say that former chief of staff James Baker used to present Reagan with condensed policy options. But his successor, Donald Regan, who was fired last week, did not so much give Reagan options as instructions. That makes Regan’s statements of innocence in the Iran scandal seem all the more implausible.
Schedule: The President’s days often include meetings—and photo opportunities—with everyone from charity-drive poster girls to visiting heads
of state. About once a month he holds cabinet meetings, at which Baker revealed two years ago that Reagan sometimes dozed off. He generally leaves the office at 5 p.m., except on Fridays when, at 3 p.m., a helicopter takes him and his wife, Nancy, to the Camp David presidential retreat for the weekend. And his health—two cancer operations in 11 months and prostate surgery last month—have periodically foreshortened his schedule further.
Exposure: White House image makers have taken pains to stage-manage Reagan’s public exposure carefully. They have ample reason for concern: the
gaffe-prone President once addressed Liberian leader Samuel Doe as Chairman Moe and, on a trip to Brazil, he toasted the people of Bolivia. One tactic is to limit media access. As he boards the presidential helicopter, the motor is intentionally left roaring; TV viewers have become familiar with the sight of Reagan, one hand cupped to his ear, responding to reporters’ shouted questions with a shrug or at best a hollered few words. He has held only seven news conferences in the past year. And at those, his aides have reportedly used a tiny teleprompter to repeat the question for the hard-of-hearing Reagan —although the White House denies it.
Of course, Reagan’s media tactics and his nine-to-five schedule prompted little criticism when he was riding high politically. If anything, his modest working hours made him seem more of a master manager, effortlessly presiding over tax cuts and a massive military buildup. Now, however, the fabled Reagan magic seems to have vanished, and his longtime failings are plainly—and painfully—apparent.
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