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Killing Reagan and Historiographical Integrity


by Gordon M. Hahn

The recent dustup over FOX news commentator Bill O’Reilly’s recent book Killing Reagan demonstrates the depths to which American intellectual life has fallen. Conservatives and Republicans are beginning to challenge one of the book’s self-proclaimed revelations—that President Ronald Reagan never fully recovered from the attempt on his life made by John Hinkley Jr. The scandal or more precisely the gap between the book’s popularity and reliability as accurate history points up the bankruptcy of American political-intellectual life today.

Despite his general recovery from the crime, Reagan continued, according to O’Reilly, to suffer both physical and mental impairment throughout his two terms thereafter. The book’s one-sided conclusion follows from one-sided research, which neglected to interview those closest to Reagan on a personal, indeed daily basis. Reagan’s Secretary of State George P. Shultz and several other former Reagan friends and officials have come forward to challenge O’Reilly’s take and they are right in doing so. Although it is common knowledge that near the end of his second term President Reagan began to feel the early effects of the Alzheimer’s disease that ultimately took his life, there is no evidence that the bulk of Reagan’s presidency was plagued by physical or mental difficulties.

Having been a close Reagan watcher during his presidency and his Soviet counterpart, General Secretary and then President Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ era—which overlapped the last three years of Reagan’s second term when he would have been presumably the most debilitated—of whom I am somewhat of a specialist, there was absolutely no visible evidence from either President Reagan’s movements, speech, or any other external appearances that he was handicapped in any way during that period – the last three years of .

On a more scholarly level, I have read perhaps a hundred memoirs and and other writings by the participants on the Soviet side during the period when Reagan and Gorbachev reduced armaments, eliminated Soviet-American tensions, and ended the Cold War. Some of that reading informed my first book Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2002 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002).

At about the same time I was writing that book, I coordinated an oral history project on the making of the end of the Cold War. Sponsored by the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and the Gorbachev Foundation. I and my counterpart from the Gorbachev Foundation, Viktor Kuvaldin, conducted more than 50 interviews with some 45 former Soviet officials from the Reagan-Gorbachev era, including Gorbachev himself, his closest aides and advisers such as Georgii Shakhvazarov, Anatolii Chernyaev and Alexander Yakovlev as well as his nearest nemeses such as Soviet Defense Minister and August 1991 coup plotter Dmitrii T. Yazov and KGB chief and August coup organizer Vladimir Kryuchkov.

Several of our interviewees were in the room and intimately involved in all or almost all the Gorbachev-Reagan private discussions and broader meetings: Gorbachev’s translator Pavel Palazhchenko and Shakhnazarov, for example. Not in any of their memoirs, other writings, or interviews did a single one of them describe Reagan as anything but an intelligent, vital, interesting, dignified, and affable interlocutor for whom they expressed great respect.

It is important to note that many of these meetings or summits took place after the long arduous flight across the Atlantic and Europe to Geneva, Reykjavik and Moscow with little time to adjust to the nearly full 12-hour time inversion in the case of Moscow. The summits were marathon sessions with various meetings between the two leaders or between the leader and elements of his government and staff. These marathons sometimes lasted 10 or more hours.

The travesty created by O’Reilly around the name of Ronald Reagan is just one more piece of evidence of our country’s intellectual degradation. It is unclear whether O’Reilly’s interpretation was intended to take Reagan’s reputation down a notch as part of an effort by establishment Republicans to undermine conservatism in the face of an insurgent insurrection in the present primary campaign. The only blessing is that the book was not written by a liberal or leftist, but then again many books about Reagan have been published by such writers and given the publishing community’s leftist bent, the results have been even worse.

What is clearer is that for the sake of more public acclamation and/or dollars in the bank, O’Reilly hurried out a book that to achieve truly scholarly level should have been given many years serious research and analysis. Unfortunately, as in the rest of the mainstream media, publishing, think tank, and policy-making communities, this was not done. It is not truth or facts that matters today, but the perception one can create and the career, fifteen minutes of fame, and riches the lie or ‘spin’ can bring. This now drives our increasingly distorted discourse; one as distorted and surreal as that typically produced in authoritarian states.

Other subjects that through Reagan we might gain clearer visions of include the state of America and its foreign policy, Russia policy, and portrayals of Russia in the media. But those are topics for another, no less alarming commentary.

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