From the Executive Branch to the Texan RanchTim W. Brown
Robert Scheer, Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton -- and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush. Third edition containing new material and an sadded index. Akashic Books, 2006, 300 pp. ISBN 1-933354-01-1. $14.95.
Playing President is a new collection of previously published interviews and op-ed essays by long-time Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Robert Scheer. Scheer's close encounters with these ex-presidents have resulted in many valuable documents gathered in one book. The notorious Playboy Magazine interview with Jimmy Carter, in which he confessed, "I've committed adultery in my heart many times" (98), surely qualifies as historically significant. Sometimes, though, I'm not sure if Scheer knows what treasures are in his possession. In his preface, Scheer asserts that becoming President of the United States involves playing a role. To be president, one has to act presidential: "it revolves around a performer and a largely untutored electorate that is his jury and his audience" (15). This statement is a huge cliche, and has been known to political observers since at least Franklin Roosevelt's day (if not Theodore Roosevelt's), when FDR's handlers never let him be filmed or photographed in his wheelchair, because he would appear physically diminished, i.e., less than presidential. To pin his whole book around this thesis is like someone at Scientific American announcing his new discovery that gravity is a fact of physics.
Thus, Scheer spends a good percentage of the book arguing a point that virtually everyone concedes is true. Scheer would have done better simply to reprint his articles and interviews without editorializing, for there are dozens of passages in these writings that reveal a lot about the men who would lead us. Richard M. Nixon was self-serving. Jimmy Carter was the manufactured product of political consultants. Ronald Reagan was a scary true believer. George H. W. Bush was prickly and uninformed. Bill Clinton was a traitor to his liberal base. George W. Bush has basically slummed it as President. Most of these depictions largely accord with the public's perceptions. Yet these generalities were constantly undermined by the men's words and demeanor, and it is clear that Scheer has the appropriate talent and chutzpah for interviewing them and eliciting deeper truths.
In particular, Reagan and Clinton are shown as complex individuals who cannot be easily summarized in one sentence. As a resident of California, Scheer already had some experience with the personality of the elusive "Dutch" Reagan due to following and reporting on his gubernatorial career. In "The Reagan Question," originally published in the August 1980, issue of Playboy, Scheer dwelled on the contradictions of Reagan and his appeal to voters. "On the one hand, the puritanical and aged warrior intoning a death chant against the godless Communists, permissive government, the immoral homosexuals, the welfare cheats, unrelenting and simplistic in its enmity but always self-righteous and pure. On the other hand, the people drawn to him tended to be more varied and hip than one would expect from the campaign rhetoric" (39).
During the early years of his presidency, Reagan indeed drew a hard line against a long list of conservative bugaboos. Eventually seeing that this governing tactic only went so far, he moderated his stances, especially toward the Soviets, by 1986. And notwithstanding many dire predictions that Reagan would start World War III, he proved, nowhere covered by Scheer, to have greater vision than his contemporaries in how to hasten the demise of the Soviet regime--including rock-solid Cold Warrior Richard Nixon in "Nixon: Scorn Yielding to New Respect."
In "Forget Dole; Here's the Ideal GOP Candidate," an L.A. Times op-ed from August 6, 1996, Scheer wrote about Bill Clinton that "[t]he Democrats are better positioned to hurt the poor and favor the rich because they have so much credibility with liberals who care. Just as it took a hawk like Nixon to embrace Mao Tse-tung [sic] and legitimize Communist rule in China as a victory for the Free World, it required a 'New Democrat' like Clinton to force millions of additional children into poverty as an act of charity" (225-226). This statement probably mischaracterized Clinton's intentions regarding welfare reform, but it summed up the liberal consensus at the time. Scheer finally gave Clinton his due, not least for balancing the budget, in an L.A.Times essay reprinted from 2000, "Admit It; He's Not Perfect, but He's a Great President." Toward the end of Clinton's presidency, all was forgiven by Scheer, which makes me wonder why he spent so much energy raking Clinton over the coals in his articles from 1992 to 1999. The internecine battles waged among liberals over the minute degrees of their liberalism may have been responsible.
Here is a good point to pause and observe a general failing of the book. Scheer evidently believes in a Manichean universe -- Left versus Right, men in white hats versus men in black hats, you're either for 'em or agin 'em. It's been said that Reagan spoke from the Right but governed from the Center. The same could be said about Nixon and George H. W. Bush. Conversely, Clinton governed from the Left and spoke from the Center. My argument being that, in the U.S. political system, successful governing has required a delicate balancing act of pursuing your principals while simultaneously appealing to the middle position favored by a majority of the electorate. Scheer doesn't seem to recognize this point, or, if he does, he ignores it in favor of peddling a dualistic conception of American politics.
Unlike the earlier presidents discussed in Playing President, George W. Bush speaks from the Right and governs from the Right, yet he somehow got elected twice while defying the usual formula. Perhaps it was due to this fact that Scheer's "Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton" did not, as he claims in the book's subtitle, "Prepare Me for George W. Bush."
Playing President's last section deals with the current president and consists of recent op-ed essays that allow Scheer to rip "W." without the constraints of journalistic objectivity that beset him when conversing with Nixon, Carter, et al. The weakness of this section is that Scheer never sat down and talked personally with President Bush like the others. Still, he describes Bush deadly accurately, calling him a "perpetual adolescent." "Bush affected a deliberate air of diffidence from an early age, suggesting that he took on assignments only reluctantly, whether as student, businessman, or politician, interpreting each challenge in turn as more of a bother than an obligation. Winging it, but always propped up by a considerable retinue of those more disciplined than he, has proved an enormously effective ploy" (233).
The ploy to get elected twice may have been effective, but as a governing style it surely hasn't worked, as Scheer observed in piece after piece of outraged opinion published through 2006, where the book leaves off. Scheer criticized Bush for engaging in irresponsible fiscal policies, coddling the Taliban prior to September 11, 2001, taking his marching orders from the Religious Right and, especially, constantly changing his rationale for attacking Iraq. In at least two instances he demanded the president's impeachment. Never mind that this was an unrealistic option when these articles were written and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress -- another example of Scheer's curious political naivete.
Though he often guesses wrong about these men's trajectories, Scheer still successfully manages to share many psychological insights. The generously long articles allowed him by editors as recently as the 1980s, which enabled him to speak at length with his subjects -- disallowed today in our current sound bite culture -- were crucial to obtaining these penetrating exchanges. If I were assembling this book, I would have stuck to the superb primary sources rather than practicing hindsight in the chapter introductions. In her cover blurb, Joan Didion declares that "Robert Scheer is one of the best reporters of our time." I would agree that he is an excellent reporter, but his historical conclusions are sometimes facile.
Tim W. Brown is the author of four novels, Deconstruction Acres, Left of the Loop, the recently completed Time Trek, and the yet-to-be-published Walking Man. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in over 200 publications, including The Blomsbury Review, Chelsea, and Chirron Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics' Circle.