This week I got my copy of Quotations From Chairman Ron, a handy, fresh compendium of Reagan howlers that was put together by Morton Mintz. Mintz is an excellent reporter for The Washington Post, and his effort goes right up on my shelf, taking an honored place next to Reagan for Beginners, by David Smith and Melinda Gebbie; There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error, by Mark Green and Gail MacColl; and Reagan Speaks, by Paul D. Erickson. In this corner of my library I can readily put my hand on almost every damnfool remark, cretinous simplification, historical falsehood, fatuous self-contradiction, "deniable' racist innuendo, pigignorant anecdote, sly misrepresentation and senile discourtesy ever uttered by the village idiot now in occupation of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This little retrieval system is, you might think, enough for my simple needs as a Nation columnist. And yet, and yet . . . With the unappeasable dissatisfaction that is the mark of my kind, I crave just one more book. It could be fat or it could be slim, but it would have to say what the volumes above do not say. It would not dwell on Reagan the Klutz or Reagan the ignoramus. It would make the point that hasn't been made in six years of fixed press conferences and stage-managed interviews. Ronald Wilson Reagan is not a hapless blooper merchant. He is a conscious, habitual liar.
Even the reporters who cover the President, and who get together to submit the regular "Reaganism of the Week' that adorns the bottom of Lou Cannon's column in The Washington Post every Monday, are a trifle shy about what stares them in the face. Cannon himself, who has seen more of the man than most, has gone no further than to say, "More disquieting than Reagan's performance or prospects on specific issues is a growing suspicion that the President has only passing acquaintance with some of the most important decisions of his Administration.' That hardly counts even as a euphemism. In fact, the whole concept of a "Reaganism' is an affectionate collusion with the notion of a genial oldster who's a bit out of his depth. The White House managers can live with that idea. Why, it even attracts sympathy. Many voters of all ages are sure they would fluff if they had to make speeches, meet foreign potentates and face the allegedly adversary press.
But there is a difference between a lie and a slip, and you don't have to be a Boy Scout to notice it. On November 29, 1983, Reagan told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir that he himself had assisted in the liberation of the Nazi death camps. On February 15, 1984, he repeated this claim to Simon Wiesenthal. On March 3, 1984, Cannon wrote a column confirming that both Shamir and Wiesenthal had heard the preposterous claim. Shamir had even retailed the story to the Israeli Cabinet, an incident corroborated by the Cabinet Secretary, Dan Meridor. In The Nation for March 4, 1985, Alexander Cockburn made some pithy comments on the claim in the light of Bitburg. Just after his column went to press Reagan told a group of foreign journalists: "Yes, I know all about things that happened in that war. I was in uniform for four years myself. …