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America in the 1980s was marked by moments of high drama. In the political sphere, there was the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and later, in Berlin, Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet Union to “tear down this wall.” The Iran-contra scandal broke, the U.S. and USSR held a high-stakes summit in Iceland and researchers put a name to a strange disease that was terrifying the gay community – aids. A new novel set in the 1980s captures it all. For those who lived through it, the novel brings memories alive. For younger readers, it’s a history lesson with flair. We talk with the author of a new novel on the Reagan years.
- Thomas Mallon Professor and former director of creative writing at George Washington University, author of nine novels, including "Watergate," "Henry and Clara" and "Dewey Defeats Truman." Among his nonfiction books are "A Book of One's Own," "Stolen Words" and "Mrs. Paine's Garage." He's a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines.
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Excerpted from Finale by Thomas Mallon Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Mallon. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Ronald Reagan has been called the Teflon president. Coined by a Democrat, it refers to the sense that criticism of Reagan did not stick. Not only did Reagan survive and assassination attempt, he weathered the Iran Contra scandal and enormous other low points in office seemingly unscathed. A new novel by the author of "Watergate," and "Dewey Defeats Truman," details a year of Reagan's tenure, Cold War dramas, covert operations in Central America and the AIDS epidemic.
MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled, "Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years." The author, Thomas Mellon, joins me. Throughout the hour, we'll be happy to take your calls, your questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Tom, it's good to see you.
MR. THOMAS MALLONVery good to be back.
REHMTom, I'm just looking at a New York Times review of your book, that's coming out next week that is very positive. Congratulations.
MALLONThank you very much.
REHMNow, you know, all these Republican candidates are bringing up Ronald Reagan now. And he is both myth and reality in their minds.
REHMHow come he wasn't simply reality in your mind?
MALLONWell, you know, his mythic status really comes later. And it's amazing the degree to which he emerged unscathed from a tumultuous presidency. Reagan is big, whether you like him or not, he's big. It was a consequential presidency. It was funny, when I think of -- I compare him, you know, to Bill Clinton, that it -- the next eighty-year president to come. And Bill Clinton, who could be so personally reckless, was in many ways very cautious while in office. It was a -- he tended to be quite incremental in what he did domestically, foreign affairs, whatever.
MALLONReagan was very bold, delegated a lot of authority that got him in trouble and may have led to some accomplishments as well. But I do think he was very hard to know. And the closeness of his marriage, which is another part of the Reagan legend, even Nancy Reagan, who figures largely in this book, even she, in her memoirs, says there were portions of him that she could never quite get to.
REHMShe could never quite capture. The interesting part is that you sort of have to get inside, not his head necessarily, but the issues surrounding…
REHM…what he did to create this novel. And embellish them.
MALLONRight. I mean, that's really what historical fiction does. It's not alternate history fiction. I stick with the events, you know. I don't overturn what happened. But you try to show what might have happened in addition to what people already know. And what might have motivated the people who were making the history. It's an intimate kind of speculative history. But Reagan was very difficult to inhabit. And I decided early on I'm not going to see him from the inside out.
MALLONI don't know what it says about me or my character that I never felt I had any trouble getting inside Richard Nixon. I always feel very comfortable there. And as if I understood him. But with Reagan, I -- there were moments when he would seem very, very big to me. There were other moments he would seem kind comically small. And I really understood early on in the writing of this book what Edmond Morris, one of his biographers, had been up against, who was so baffled by him that he wound up making his biography about 20 percent a novel.
MALLONHe invented characters. He didn't really know what to do with him. And I decided I would instead adopt the Gore Vidal technique -- an old mentor of mine. And see Reagan almost entirely from the outside, through the points of view of six or seven other characters because I think everybody around him spent a great deal of time trying to figure him out.
REHMWell, and of course the first thing we recall about President Reagan is that he defeated Jimmy Carter. And on the day he won the election, I mean, here come the hostages freed from Iran. I mean, how do you deal with that?
MALLONThe, you know, foreign leaders didn't know what to make of him. He perplexed them and he worried them. I mean, I remember one time a Soviet official, after the end of the Cold War, was being interviewed. I think it was by Ted Koppel on "Nightline." And Koppel said, you know, when did you know you were dealing with a different sort of president. And, you know, was it when he invaded Granada? Was it when he did this?
MALLONAnd the Soviet official kept saying, nope, nope, nope. And Koppel said, when was it. And he said when he fired the air traffic controllers. And that had an impact abroad. That was not expected and they thought this may be a very tough customer to deal with. And so that's kind of an interesting way that, you know, domestic politics can sometimes impact what's going on abroad.
REHMAnd of course, the other huge issue in this country. People remember him for not dealing with -- until it was almost too late -- was the AIDS epidemic.
MALLONThe AIDS epidemic figures in this novel. It's a kind of dark motif in it. And AIDS policy was the shining achievement of the Reagan administration. There were a few bright spots. Dr. Koop, the surgeon general energized the country about it. But Reagan was very late to even saying the word. One of the things that I was kind of astonished by in my research on the book is that -- this book is set mostly in '86, kind of the low point of his administration.
MALLONAnd Reagan had an AIDS test early in '87, which was very shortly after the test had become available. And his White House physician wanted it because he had had so much blood transfused during the assassination attempt and he had subsequent surgeries. But it was mostly the '81 shooting and those transfusions that they wanted to be absolutely certain. And that's not the greatest part, by any means, of Reagan's record. And history will judge him harshly on that score. But it's a piece of things.
REHMDid Nancy Reagan play a role in the fact that he did ignore the AIDS outbreak?
MALLONI think that's kind of hard to prove. You know, there was recently a story, a flurry of old memoranda surfaced, when their old friend Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS and was really dying and was in Paris. And they tried to get Mrs. Reagan to intervene to get him into a better facility over in Paris. And she did not intervene on Hudson's behalf. But it's sort of a damned if you do/damned if you don't situation.
MALLONBecause I can imagine that had she intervened and had that become a new story, people would have said, oh, well, Nancy's willing to help her fancy Hollywood friends, but, you know, people are dying on the street in New York. It was a terrible, calamitous time. It was not the kind of crisis that he was made for because it did not penetrate him. It didn't penetrate the sunniness and optimism.
MALLONIt was not something he could focus on, I think. So it's a dark spot on the administration, which in other respects was sometimes quite consciously and sometimes lurchingly, headed towards some big accomplishments in the world.
REHMBut are you saying he -- because of his sunny, upbeat demeanor, simply didn't want to pay attention to what was happening with AIDS or it just fell below his understanding?
MALLONI think some of it had to do with his nature. Some of it had to do with his sense of what the government was about, what the presidency was about. You know, what it should focus on, what it shouldn't focus on. But -- and I think he, in some ways, counted much too much on others to take care of those things. He -- his diaries are quite interesting. They're not especially reflective, but they're very steady. He keeps them throughout the eight years. And…
MALLONOh, nearly daily.
MALLONCertainly I don't think a week goes by when he doesn't make at least one entry. They're quite voluminous. And, you know, sometimes he'll have people coming into the Oval Office, bitter opponents, people he's really tangling with on Capitol Hill or, you know, they're leaders of, say, the NAACP, things like this. And they'll come in and he'll -- they have this meeting.
MALLONThey're, of course, polite to the president. The second they leave the White House they're in front of the microphones ripping him apart, whatever. But in his diary, he often says things like, well, I think I made a friend, you know. He -- and he did charm many people during the moment. I'm not a believer in the Reagan/Tip O'Neill friendship myth. I think that's been very oversold. But in many ways his personality was tremendously important to the way he governed.
REHMThomas Mallon, his new book, his ninth novel is titled, "Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years." You can join us, 800-433-8850. Stay with us.
REHMAnd here in the studio with me, Thomas Mallon. He's written nine books, his latest, "Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years," and it is very, very different, Tom, from what you did in your previous novel, "Watergate." Tell us why.
MALLONWell, two reasons, I think. One is, as I say, I really did not see Reagan from the inside out. And it's -- the subtitle was sort of carefully chosen, "A Novel of the Reagan Years." It's not a novel that is going to unlock the mystery of Ronald Reagan, but it's a portrait of the times. "Watergate" had a juggernaut plot that was governed, of course, by the scandal: It starts with the break and ends with the resignation and the pardon. This novel, necessarily more diffuse, there are more things going on. But it's a kind of panorama of the Reagan years.
MALLONAnd there is the Iran Contra scandal going on, there are the negotiations at Reykjavik, and there's the battle for the Democrats to retake the Senate, which they're successful in doing in 1986, led by Pamela Harriman, who's one of my real-life characters in the book.
REHMYeah. She plays a rather prominent role. But before we get to her, talk a little about the Iran Contra scandal. What happened there?
MALLONWell, the Iran Contra scandal was really two scandals that merged. The first was arms for hostages. Did the United States and did the president sell arms to the Iranians and their proxies in exchange for the release of hostages? That more or less did happen. It became the Iran Contra scandal -- the second part of it was when profits for those arms sales were diverted to the Contras who were battling the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And so it was kind of a two-fer and it engulfed Reagan's presidency in November of 1986, just a month after the summit at Reykjavik with Gorbachev. And he finally, after some months, rose above it in a way that Nixon never succeeded with in "Watergate."
MALLONNixon -- the Nixon-Reagan relationship is very interesting. They're on the phone a lot during Reagan's presidency.
MALLONAnd the calls are initiated on both ends. Reagan will want to talk to him about something, Nixon will pass on advice and memoranda, calls, whatever. And Nixon, early on in the scandal is saying, apologize for the damned thing and get it over with. And he had learned his own bitter lesson. And Reagan eventually, some months later, gives a very kind of abashed and winning-sounding apology and he survives the scandal.
REHMAnd, of course, Oliver North plays a role there.
MALLONMm-hmm. Yes. And, I mean, there really were times when it did look as if it was going to engulf him. Somebody asked me recently, how did Reagan emerge relatively unscathed historically -- because, you know, Iran Contra was big at the time.
REHMIt was huge.
MALLONAnd how does it become a kind of minor thing in the Reagan legend? And I think, in a way, he was lucky -- and Reagan was a very lucky man overall, although George Shultz, his secretary of state said, well, when you're lucky all your life, it's not luck -- he clearly had some skills too. But I think one of the advantages historically, in the long historical view, is the second part of that scandal, the Contra part because it allows people to see the scandal as being, in a way, maybe one ill-advised skirmish in the much bigger Cold War. Because the Contra part involved the United States versus the Soviet Union in some fundamental way.
MALLONAnd it looks like a lost battle, maybe, you know, a battle that shouldn't have been fought, a battle that shouldn't have been picked. But the fact that it's part of a big thing that Reagan is viewed as having ultimately won, I think, shrinks it in history. It might have been worse if it were just the arms-for-hostages part.
REHMDo you think he knew every detail?
MALLONNo. That -- no, he was not a detail-oriented man, he was a big-picture man. And that, in many ways, I think, was his strength. I think, the stubbornness that he showed at Reykjavik may well have turned the tide in the Cold War. He went there and he really terrified some of his advisers by the looseness of the negotiations. He and Gorbachev, they're ready to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether. And then, of course, it -- he refuses to give way on the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars and that sort of forces Gorbachev to go home and the Soviet Union sort of is spending itself into a death spiral to keep up.
MALLONBut the negotiations are fascinating at Reykjavik. There's a transcript of -- not a verbatim transcript, but the note takers took very voluminous works -- notes. The transcript -- almost transcript -- is at GW in the National Security Archives. And when they get to that moment, Reagan says to Gorbachev -- there are only a handful of people around the table -- he says, Mikhail -- he uses his first name -- he says, 10 years from now I'll be a very old man. He said, we can come back here, we can bury the last nuclear weapon and have a party for the whole world. He says, you'll say to me, Ron, is that you? And I'll say to you, Mikhail, it's good to see you.
MALLONAnd I read this and I realized, he's seeing it as a movie. It's, you know, the two of them sort of saving the world. It's a kind of buddy picture. And it was -- it was strangely visionary. And then it comes to a halt the same day.
MALLONBecause of SDI.
MALLONAnd you will -- people will argue about who won the Cold War, who ended it, whatever. But you will find a very strong school of thought that says that his saying, no, at Reykjavik, to getting rid of SDI may have been the decisive act.
MALLONYou'll find, I think a lot of historians will make that point. You'll find many who will argue full-throatedly against it. But Reykjavik, at the time, is a bitter disappointment. It's perceived as a fiasco. But in the fullness of time, the Soviet Union proved to be so close to collapse that this may have pushed it over.
REHMWell, that -- and that's the point, that people on the other side argue, the Soviet Union was about to collapse anyhow.
MALLONWell, you know they -- yeah, they started to argue that. A lot of the same people, though -- I mean, Reagan's Democratic opponents, in the early '80s, they're arguing the Soviet Union is too big to oppose. We've got to accommodate it. It's a fact of life. And then very quickly they say, ah, it was too weak to have worried about all along. So, I mean, they try to have things both ways too.
MALLONWhat the long-term effects of Reykjavik are, are fascinating. There's an excellent book about it by a local -- he lives in Washington -- a local historian, James Graham Wilson, that I urge people to read. They'll learn a lot.
REHMTom, talk about the president's relationship with his wife and the importance of that relationship, not only in your novel, but in terms of what those diaries indicate as to whether she was playing a role in his decision making.
MALLONMrs. Reagan was tremendously important. And she was a kind of emotional gatekeeper for him. She was very suspicious of a lot of people around him. She was highly alert to people who were out for themselves and not for him. She -- I think she's viewed sympathetically. In the book, she has some rough edges. Nancy Reagan could be a very tough person to tangle with, but you never doubt that she has his interests at heart. But as a character, she's a kind of raw nerve in the book. I don't think she enjoyed herself in the White House for 10 minutes at a time.
MALLONBecause she was always looking for the next danger to him. She was very conscious of his legacy and so forth. And I talked to George Will the other week very briefly, and he said to me, about the two of them, he had one friend and he married her. He was not close to a lot of people. He did not have a lot of buddies. And the Reagan marriage was tremendously close and intimate. And there's a lot of Nancy in the book. There's a lot of Hollywood in the book. Her friends -- she's on the phone with her pal Merv Griffin a lot in the book.
MALLONAnd the show-biz connection is apparent in the book because the Reagans are in California a lot and they keep up with their show-biz people. And there are these people who are links between the two communities like, say, the Annenbergs at Sunnylands.
REHMYes. And someone has asked, give us a brief explanation of how Reagan was involved with Walter Annenberg.
MALLONWalter Annenberg had been the United States Ambassador to Great Britain during the Nixon administration. He was an extremely wealthy publisher. He published TV Guide. He and Reagan knew each other going back to the 1950s. And he had a fabulous estate outside Palm Springs called Sunnyland, so -- which is open to the public today as a wonderful art collection. The Reagans went there every year for New Year's Eve. And it was a party that put together a lot of show-business people as well as political figures. This was catnip to a novelist. I decided that, you know, I had to have the New Year's party, so I went out to Sunnylands and I saw all the photographs from the party, the guest lists, the menus, everything, got the layout of the house, knew where everyone was staying. And then, of course, being a novelist, I added some people to the party who weren't even there.
REHMWho weren't even there.
MALLONBut that, I think, out there -- the Annenbergs really represent that nexus of politics and show-business that the Reagans were propelled by.
REHMAnd then there is Nancy Reagan's astrologist.
MALLONYes, Joan Quigley. And Nancy -- the story of Nancy Reagan using astrology breaks in 1988, at the very end of the administration. Her bitter enemy in the White House was the president's Chief of Staff Don Regan. And she ultimately gets Don Regan fired. She presses the president to fire him. He's quite reluctant and eventually he gives way. And Regan writes his memoir for the record. And he was one of the few people who knew that the first lady consulted an astrologer and he blew the whistle on that in his memoir. And then Joan Quigley, who is the astrologer, she wrote her memoirs, a book called, "What Does Joan Say?" in 1990.
MALLONAnd this was very embarrassing to Nancy Reagan. She kind of got out of it and won a certain degree of sympathy from the public by saying, well, you know, she had been so traumatized by the assassination attempt in 1981...
MALLON...that she used it as a crutch. The astrologer would tell her what was an auspicious time for the president to travel or he should stay home, whatever. But, in fact, she had known Joan Quigley awhile back.
REHMA lot of years before.
MALLONYeah. And Joan Quigley was -- had, you know, consulted her on quite a number of things.
REHMWhat was the anger that Nancy Reagan felt for Don Regan? Did she feel he was not trustworthy? Did she feel he didn't have the president's best interests at heart? What was it?
MALLONHe was really in the wrong job. He had been the secretary of the treasury in the first administration, became chief of staff in the second, did not know how to manage people very well. And she thought his political instincts were poor, that he didn't realize what were the big crises and what were the small things. And he was, from her point of view, a credit grabber. He liked the trappings of office too much. And Mrs. Reagan's political instincts were very sound much of the time. And she was -- she was right about Don Regan. I think that if Don Regan had remained in office, the president would not have survived Iran Contra.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got some callers with questions. Let's go, first, to Medford, Long Island. Morgan, you're on the air.
MORGANYes, hi. I'd like to speak to the dark side of Ronald Reagan. When he received the nomination, the Republican nomination, the first place he went to was of no -- mostly unknown little town in Mississippi called Philadelphia. But it was known for one thing, the brutal murder of three civil-right workers who were trying to register people to vote. And what did he do when he went there? He went there first, foremost, and he delivered a speech. What was the speech about? States rights. If that isn't a vicious, vicious, vile thing to do.
REHMWhat do you think, Tom Mallon?
MALLONWell, I'm not going to get into the 1980 campaign. I mean, I'm a novelist, not a historian. I don't think President Reagan was vicious. I think that he knew how to throw some hard elbows, the way all politicians do. I think that if you look at some of the language that was used against President Reagan in the '80s by his opponents, it matches the language that's been used against President Obama by some of his more extreme opponents. The Reagan record has flaws and spots in it. But I think that -- and I do not like this, you know, the way we've put Reagan on Rushmore. And it's overdone and it's too much and the Republicans need a new hero -- somebody that will move us, you know, into the future.
MALLONBut I think it's a mistake to see Ronald Reagan as a cartoon villain. I think Reagan had some big accomplishments and he was a genial and quite mysterious figure.
REHMYou know, it's so interesting, because you've got Norquist, who has absolutely determined to put some symbol of Ronald Reagan in every town, community, city, state of the union...
REHM...because he feels the nation should regard him so highly.
MALLONMm-hmm. Well, I think there are many things to admire in Ronald Reagan. But as a novelist and just as a citizen, I want to see everybody from every side. And, to me, the big accomplishment of Reagan was the Cold War. I mean, when he was asked about the Cold War by Richard Allen, who became his national security adviser back in 1977 -- when Reagan was out of office and he was assembling a team, Allen was advising him about foreign policy -- and Allen wanted to know, well, what's your view of the Cold War, Governor Reagan, at that time. And Reagan looked him in the eye and said, well, we win, they lose. I think that's thrilling. I think that was electrifying. And it...
REHMDo you know who that sounds like?
MALLONYeah. My Reagan?
REHMDo you know who that sounds like?
MALLONI sound more like Rich Little than Ronald Reagan. No.
REHMWell, I mean, no, I mean, the black-and-white...
REHM...vision sounds exactly like Donald Trump. We win...
REHM...they lose. Period.
MALLONYeah, I mean, as for Trump -- if I start talking about Trump, I'm going to be looking if you have one of those seven-second delay buttons. I mean, Ronald Reagan compared to Donald Trump is Metternich, Churchill and Gandhi combined.
REHMAll right. Yeah. A short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd questions, comments for Tom Mallon on his new book, "Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years." Let's go to Mimi, in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
MIMIHi, good morning.
MIMII was wondering whether Mr. Mallon included a character named Carl Spitz Channell in his book at all.
MALLONI have indeed. He figures in the Iran-Contra affair. And he is somebody who was running something called the National Endowment for, I think it's Political Liberty. I'm getting the acronym wrong at the moment. But he is involved in some fundraising for the Contras and was a shadowy figure who died quite young. Died in the early '90s, I believe. But he's very much there as the scandal begins to engulf…
REHMMimi, tell me why you asked.
MIMIWell, I moved to Washington with my husband in late 1984. And we bought his apartment. And he was such a character. He was such a character. He was picked up every day in a liveried Town Car. And he and his partner -- he was gay, which was, I think, probably very sub rosa and -- because he was very conservative. They moved up to the top floor. And he was indicted and he died rather soon after that.
MIMIBut he was such a character. He -- after he died, I became friendly with the people who bought his big apartment upstairs. And having dinner with them one night, we said, you know, did you, you know, you know who used to live here, you know who this guy is. And we said did you find anything? And they said oh, my God, there was a whole closetful of minutes between -- with Oliver North and the White House. And my husband, who was at the New York Times at the time, said, and?
MIMIAnd they said, well, we just threw them out. They didn't know what they were. They just didn't know. And we were banging our heads, you know. But he, oh, my gosh, he was -- there was something of the, why I -- this inflammatory and he's dead, but of the fascist about him. I mean, he was very -- his compartment was very, very tight. And he died somewhat mysteriously. He was killed in a hit-and-run.
REHMIs that true?
MALLONYeah, I don't know that it was a hit-and-run, but he was -- it was a car accident. And the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty was the kind of shell organization.
MALLONThis was on Belmont Road, that you're talking about.
MIMIYes. That's where I live, on Belmont.
MALLONYes. And there's a party scene at Belmont Road that is in the book.
REHMI'm glad you called, Mimi. And let's see, here's Tony, in Rogers, Ark. You're on the air.
TONYYeah, I had a question -- a quick question for the author. I just finished reading a book by an investigative journalist called Mara Leveritt, down here in Arkansas. It's got some really good writing about the West Memphis Three and another one about -- it's called "Boys on the Tracks," about a murder of two teenagers in 1987 in central Arkansas.
TONYAnd what went from there is the relationship to the airport in Mena, Ark., and Barry Seals, that was estimated responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine being brought (unintelligible) in the 1980s. And the deal he made with the CIA to get off of charges on the Iran-Contra thing. I was wondering if Mr. Mallon had run across that whole incredible story.
MALLONThere are a few wisps of what you're saying that ring a bell, but, sir, I feel like I'm walking up the grassy knoll with that one. So I'm gonna avoid that.
REHMAll right. And to Valdosta, Ga. Neftalie, you're on the air.
NEFTALIEYes. Can you hear me?
NEFTALIEYeah, you know, I have a question. I read somewhere years ago that when Reagan -- when he spoke to the Soviet Academy of Sciences, that -- or somehow that the elite in the Soviet Union respected him more because of the story, the astrology story that, you know, there's a strand of mysticism that runs long into the -- in Russia's history. You know, as in Rasputin and such. And you have -- when they found out that he -- that his wife consulted the stars, they really -- they were even in more -- they were in awe of that fact. That, you know, in the States it was scandalous and ridiculous, but -- is that -- is this true?
NEFTALIEIs this true in any way? Do you know of this?
MALLONI know that, you know, there is some evidence that the president shared his wife's interest in astrology, that he had a mild interest in the subject himself. But I do think that Reagan's personality appealed to a lot of the Soviets. I think Gorbachev was thrown off balance by him time and time again, in a way that ultimately played to America's advantage. And I -- Mrs. Gorbachev was never popular in the Soviet Union during…
MALLONWell, I mean, I think she was, first of all, it was odd for a Soviet leader's wife to be so prominent. They were usually very much in the background. And she and Nancy were absolute oil and water. The first time that they met, Raisa Gorbachev gave her more or less a lecture on Marxism. And Nancy Reagan was heard to observe to one of her aids, who does that dame think she is.
MALLONAnd then they Reykjavík, the Summit is a big portion of this novel. And Raisa sort of sucker punches Nancy. At first the two first ladies agree that neither one of them is going to go. And then Raisa shows up at the last minute. And Nancy is sort of fuming about that.
REHMAnd she's back here?
MALLONShe stayed in Washington.
REHMWow. I had forgotten that. I had forgotten that. Here's an email from Derrick, in Coco, Fla., who says, "Well, he couldn't focus on the AIDS crisis, but he did find lots of energy to deal with the nuances of the Iran-Contra scandal, which is arguably one of the most egregious examples of bypassing or defying Congress for a private agenda. In my humble opinion," says Derrick, "nothing since would seem to be at the level of scandal as this scandal."
MALLONIran-Contra was big.
REHMIt was big.
MALLONI would also say that if Reagan had governed by executive order to the degree that we're seeing it now, that would have caused a tremendous uproar in his day. This, you know, this novel's not an apology for the Reagan years. It's not a brief of the Reagan years. It's dramatization of the Reagan years. But I do think that we are so polarized today, politically, that in some ways we're -- it's beginning to affect the way in which we deal with even recent history.
MALLONWe square off about things. You know, usually history cools things down and we're able to take a more measured nuanced look at things. And I think that that's changing now. Because everybody is so dug in…
MALLON…in the present, that they're unwilling to concede anything to the other side in the past.
REHMWell, and think about the language that's being used these days. Certainly among Republican contenders for the presidential nomination. For Trump to talk about a woman's face, as how could you imagine that face as representing this nation. I mean, scandalous.
MALLONSomebody asked me the other day, are you gonna write a novel about Trump if he goes to the White House. And I said, no. I said, it's already a novel. It's so beyond reality. And, you know, they're all going to be at this debate this week. They're all going to be looking for the mantle of Ronald Reagan. The debate is at the Reagan Library.
MALLONAnd they're looking to, you know, capture some of that magic. I -- it's very difficult to ascribe positions to the dead, you know, and to say what somebody would have thought about what's going on now if they were here to see it. But I think Ronald Reagan would have been revolted by the personal style of Donald Trump. I mean, certainly where women were concerned, I mean, Reagan was, if anything, courtly. I think his head would explode if he saw something like the comments that Trump made about Carly Fiorina.
REHMThen we have an email from Don in Cincinnati, who says, "How much of his indifference was his early Alzheimer's Disease?"
REHMDo we know…
MALLONNo. And we never…
REHM…when it began?
MALLONWe never will. And, I mean, it's difficult to track that in any patient. You know, one of his biographers says that, you know, Reagan had very fully functioning intelligence for a couple of years after he left the White House. Edmund Morris -- it may have been Morris who said that. Morris talks about seeing a very tired man in that second term, having survived the assassination, having survived cancer surgery. There are moments, of course, when one wonders. In that diary, in August of '86, the president's in a helicopter, he's flying from -- between his ranch in southern California and L.A.
MALLONAnd he looks down upon this mountain range and he can't name -- he can't call up the names of the mountains, even though he's taken this trip 1,000 times and always pointed out these features of the landscape to friends who were flying on the helicopter. And Reagan himself is very raddled by this, enough to put it in the diary. And, you know, we know what happened later. You know, in another person we might just say, a senior moment, you know.
MALLONWho knows? It's -- I think it's very difficult to discern. But Ronald Reagan was in charge of his government, I think, up until he left office.
REHMTo Jacksonville, Fla. Hi there, Don. You're on the air.
DONHello, Diane. Oh, you sound wonderful.
DONGood to hear you again.
DONI started -- I wanted to hit on the Iran-Contra issue, but I think I'm going to go to after Reagan was out of office and Lee Atwater and the rest of them were trying to get Bush in. And even though Bush, we now know, knew what was going on with Iran-Contra, they were really trying to put Dukakis down, who was -- and Dukakis was winning. And so Ronald Reagan had a press conference after the fact. And they said, well, what do you think about Dukakis. He came back with something like, well, I won't comment on anyone who has a disability, or something like that.
DONI'm not sure exactly what it was. But it started the Atwater and Grove and the rest of them going after Dukakis' psychiatric problems. And this -- I -- so when you say that he would be appalled by what he would see today, he was part of -- part and parcel of that. I mean, he did it. Come on.
MALLONI would urge you to read the campaign statements of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and all of the presidents' Democratic opponents and you will see that Ronald Reagan rhetorically was hardly on, you know, on the far end of the viciousness spectrum. I mean it's politics, you know.
REHMYou're saying everybody did it?
MALLONYeah, I mean, you know, the notorious 1988 business of the Willie Horton ad, which helps to sink Dukakis, who first brings up Willie Horton? Al Gore in the Democratic primaries in 1988. So, you know, politics is a rough sport.
REHMIt sure is. Let's go to Denise. She's in Tampa, Fla. Hi there, you're on the air.
DENISEGood morning, Ms. Rehm.
DENISEAnd to you, sir. Would you kindly comment, what do you think was the real influence of Margaret Thatcher on Ronald Reagan? Because President George Bush senior did say it was quite considerable. She had already made rapprochement with Mikhail Gorbachev. I think she had invited him to the United Kingdom before really Ronald Reagan was very much involved. And also she had a great influence there in Poland, in the beginning she went personally. Thank you very much.
MALLONThe Reagan/Thatcher relationship is tremendously interesting. There are a couple of books about just it. Reagan revered her. I think he was in awe of her. And yet, they have a surprising number of disagreements and arguments while he is in office. She was very much opposed to the way the United States invaded Grenada without consultation of the Brits.
MALLONAnd she was tremendously opposed to what he tried to do at Reykjavik. She was aghast at the way in which he and Gorbachev almost scuttled nuclear weapons because she believed that nuclear weapons had kept the peace in Europe. And that if we got rid of them the Soviets were likely to overrun Europe with conventional forces. And so she comes to the States a month after Reykjavik and she goes to Camp David with Reagan and she lets him have it.
MALLONShe said that this is not the way to go and she wanted him to return to the old mutually assured destructive -- destruction policies. And they sort of get back on the same page. But it was very…
MALLON…fruitful as a political partnership.
REHMI can't let this conversation end without hearing you talk about Pamela Harriman in reality and in your novel.
MALLONMrs. Harriman was a figure out of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde. Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, she had reinvented herself any number of times. She was -- at a very young age, Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law. And she then was divorced from Randolph Churchill. She was the wife of Leland Hayward, the theatrical producer. And then finally of Avril Harriman, the Democratic elder statesman with whom she had an affair when she was very young. And they kind of got back together again in the 1970s.
MALLONShe reinvents herself, yet again, as the Democratic Party's doyenne and fundraiser. And she was tremendously effective at it. She ran a political PAC that was always called Pam PAC. And she's a very important force behind the Democrats regaining the Senate in the 1980s. She is a force of nature, a shark. I don't think she has -- there's -- I would not say that self-awareness was her strong suit. But I don't think sharks are self-aware either. They just keep swimming and biting. She was tremendous. And…
REHMShe was very powerful, in terms of who she could draw in.
MALLONShe, in some ways, kept the Democratic Party's spirits up in the two years after the Reagan landslide in '84. And I think her effect was really quite significant. And she, too, is a gift to a novelist.
REHMTom Mallon, he's professor and director of creative writing at George Washington University. His latest book is a novel. It's titled, "Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years." Tom Mallon, congratulations.
MALLONThank you very much for having me, Diane. Bye, bye.
REHMThanks for being here. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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