BOOKS

America as Huck Finn

REAGAN’S AMERICA: INNOCENCE AT HOME By Garry Wills

THOMAS S. AXWORTHY March 23 1987
BOOKS

America as Huck Finn

REAGAN’S AMERICA: INNOCENCE AT HOME By Garry Wills

THOMAS S. AXWORTHY March 23 1987

America as Huck Finn

REAGAN’S AMERICA: INNOCENCE AT HOME By Garry Wills

(Doubleday, b72 pages, $26.95)

As a critic of American society, Garry Wills has a wonderful gift for using individual lives to illustrate larger truths. A celebrated historian, Wills first burst into public view with Nixon Agonistes, a

study that portrayed disgraced president Richard M. Nixon as a symbol of the ambitions and resentments of a rising middle class—America as the archetypal salesman, Sammy Glick. In The Kennedy Imprisonment, Wills explored the twin drives of power and sex—America as Hugh Hefner. Now, in Reagan’s America, he focuses on septuagenarian President Ronald Reagan’s career, beaming insight on com-

plex questions of myth, culture and democratic practice. From his boyhood in Dixon, 111., to Hollywood and finally the White House, Reagan has been a true believer in individualism, optimism and moralism. Just as faithfully, Americans, whether going to his movies or electing him as president, have believed in him—America as Huck Finn.

Wills’s thesis is that both America and Reagan have been living a lie. The individualistic West of solitary marshals facing down gunslingers, which Reagan so often portrayed in films, is a sham. Frontier towns were settled to aid the railroads and, according to Wills, the West “had little use for the lone outlaw or the lone lawman.”

As with social history, so too with Reagan’s biography. While the American myth decries government interference, the Mississippi Valley into which Reagan was born depended for its prosperity on a government-sponsored canal system. In fact, during the Depression Reagan’s father and brother both worked for the New Deal, handing out federal relief. Wills methodically demonstrates that almost every episode in Reagan’s past has been distorted—or invented. Facts, contradictions or discontinuities are simply written out of the script. “With Reagan, the perfection of the pretense lies in the fact he does not know he is pretending. He is the sincerest claimant to a heritage that never existed.”

There is a compact between Reagan and Americans. He tells them what they want to hear and they reciprocate by finding in their president everything they want to believe about themselves. Such myths are important reference points in a democracy. The danger comes when reality intrudes on myth. Reagan may have believed that he was riding to the rescue in his attempt to free American hostages in Lebanon by selling arms to Iran. But in the cruel real world, Tehran did not keep the bargain, and the White House staff used the President’s authority to conduct a secret war in Nicaragua. Delusion, too, carries a price.

Wills’s book is not conventional biography. A study of ideas rather than events, it skims over Reagan’s time in office both in California and Washington. But the question raised in Reagan ’s America deserves to be pondered by all who value self-government: are democracies capable of facing truth? The strong medicine administered here is a step toward therapy.

THOMAS S. AXWORTHY

Thomas S. Axworthy, vice-president of the Montreal-based CRB Foundation, was principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1981 to 198b•