Gore Vidal on the Reagan presidency… ‘The Great Obfuscator’. A memorable phrase in the history of political journalism if ever there was one and who better to pin it on than Ronald Reagan? For many, the Reagan administration was a devisive period in American politics. Like George W Bush his grasp of domestic and foreign policy was at best, limited but as with any good actor worth his proverbial salt he could deliver a line. Like Bush he could read and rehearse his advisors speeches, stare into the camera and tell the audience what they wanted to hear. Remove the auto cue and you could rely on him to deliver a faux pas with astonishing ease. But Reagan could always be counted on for receiving praise whether due or not. He collected false credit like his compatriots collected food stamps. A trillion dollar debt to win a race already long since won, and whilst the American lower and middle classes bore the brunt of the fiscal carnage Reagan declared himself the winner over the evil empire in a hollow moral victory.
Vidal’s dislike of Reagan was deep and long, he crushed William F. Buckley Jnr’s defence of the aspiring Reagan during the television debates of 1968 where he reminded Buckley of Reagan’s shift from democrat to republican and his backing of a republican senator in 1962 who campaigned for segregation in Louisianna. ‘Hardly a friend of the negro’ said Vidal. But it is to his 1987 piece written for The Observer (London newspaper) from which I draw this wonderful title. In the article Vidal highlights Reagan’s frightening propensity to seek comfort and, more frighteningly, guidance from the fanatical stalwarts of the era such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. Following a Whitehouse lunch Reagan asked Graham if he “believed that Jesus Christ was coming soon and what would those signs be”. Graham took little time in answering him; “The indication is that Jesus Christ is at the very door”
Vidal tells how Reagan told the governor of the California state senate that “Libya had gone communist as foretold by the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament and that was a sure sign the day of Armageddon wasn’t far off”. Whilst Vidal was never going to be a fan of Reagan, his piece in The Observer is a considered one. The ending defines the difference between Reagan and Gorbachev. Reagan told Gorbachev at a summit in Geneva that if the planet was invaded by Martians then the two countries would indeed unite in a common cause. Gorbachev suggested preparing for such an attack was somewhat premature and perhaps they should concentrate on a common enemy, nuclear weapons. In the end we had two opposing presidents, an American who believed in the afterlife and a Russian who declared his belief in life and that being the only life meant the arms race must surely come to an end. So spoke ‘The Great Satan’.