The little boy’s father has a good heart, but he drinks. Goes on weeklong benders. It’s the early 1920s, a bad time to be a drunk: Prohibition has arrived and the Depression isn’t far behind. The boy recalls childhood fears of an absent father followed by “loud voices in the night.” At age 11, he comes home “to find my father flat on his back on the porch, drunk, dead to the world.” The boy must somehow drag this great snoring, overcoated bulk to bed.

The father, a shoe salesman, has trouble holding jobs. So the family moves constantly. Usually to small towns—Tampico, Galesburg, Monmouth, Dixon—but also to the rough South Side of Chicago. Sometimes they sleep in the car. A dubious business venture leaves the family with few assets. Yet when the boy is a man and looks back on it all, he calls his childhood “one of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls.”

The boy is young Ronald Reagan, and this account of his childhood can be gleaned from his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, published in 1965. Between-the-lines reading is required, because Reagan goes to some length to paint his youth as, in truth, a Huck Finn escapade. Now and again Reagan mentions his father Jack’s drinking, but at no point does he remind the modern reader what a stigma drunkenness caused in small-town, Prohibition America—what shame and humiliation it meant for the whole family. (In fact, the word “Prohibition” isn’t in the book at all.) Nor does Reagan even remark on why the family moved so often. It’s difficult not to conclude, given the times, that Jack Reagan’s alcoholism was the primary cause.

There’s a haunting similarity here to the childhood of another new Republican leader, Jerry Falwell. Falwell’s father was a drunk who bankrupted the family business and died of cirrhosis of the liver when Jerry was only 15.

What makes these stories important, besides the human sadness they reflect, is the lessons learned. Reagan came away from it all able to describe his childhood as an idyll. A line buried in Where’s the Rest of Me? explains how: having discovered his father on the porch in a snoring stupor, Reagan “wanted to let myself in the house and go to bed and pretend he wasn’t there.”

And pretend he wasn’t there. Acknowledge the good, seal out the bad. Everyone does this to a certain extent, of course, but the mechanism seems especially prominent within the new Republican wave. Reagan’s book presents his childhood as Norman Rockwell would have painted it—a series of amusing, idealized anecdotes of Americana, with the hurt deeply buried if indicated at all. It betrays a conviction central to the new Republican world view: that Rockwell’s pleasing images depict the sum of actual life. As if Rockwell had been a social scientist, not a painter. As if there were a Rockwellville, a scheduled stop on some bus line. A town of bemused fathers, cookie-cutting mothers, freckled lads building model planes, houses with lawns, clean-shaven immigrants assured of success. A town where effort is always rewarded and losers go away somewhere and disappear.

Of course, some pure Normal Rockwell scenes do take place in American life, and they are well worth recording. If life imitated Rockwell’s art on a regular basis, we would all be happier. But it doesn’t. In real life there are industrial accidents, bigots, and slums; forgotten old people; missing limbs and broken hearts. The unfortunate realities of life seem lost, however, on the new Republicans so enamored of Rockwell’s interpretation. So the rationales Reagan, Falwell, and others use to back their political positions are to truth what the two-dimensional images of a Rockwell painting are to reality: evocative and instructive, but simplified to the point of delusion. Rockwellville is where the new Republican soul goes to rest.

The great internal contradiction Republicans harbor is, few could contest, the desire to cut 14 government benefits to the poor while maintaining or even expanding favors for the well-off. David Stockman believes those without resources have “no right” to the legal system, but he appears silent on the fact that profitable corporations can deduct legal fees from their taxes. Jesse Helms thunders with rage when he attacks food stamps, but defends subsidies to prosperous tobacco farmers, whose product serves mainly to spread disease. George Gilder has lived most of his life off the benevolence of the Rockefeller fortune and its tax-exempt foundations, yet believes that unemployed ghetto mothers struggling to raise their children would be happier without any assistance.

It’s tempting, therefore, to condemn the new Republicans as troglodytes, screwing the helpless while throwing subsidized roses at the feet of their friends. Some of that’s involved, but less than meets the eye. Many Republican leaders are, in their personal dealings, warm and thoughtful—far more so than the splenetic intellectuals who make up so much of the liberal elite. Helms, for instance, is regarded as a man of genuine charm. He often invites tourists and other strangers to ride the “senators only” elevators of the Capitol. It’s a sure bet he’d be a more welcome houseguest than, say, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. And, like Reagan and Falwell, many Republicans know from their own experience what it means to go without. True, the party continues to have its faction of people who feel that wealth, usually inherited, makes them superior beings having nothing in common with and no responsibilities to their lessers. But it was the self-made, the middle class and the aspiring who gave Reagan his electoral majority. So the Republican soul cannot be dismissed as one unable to feel compassion, nor one seduced and abandoned by the expediencies of the rich. Something else must be at work.

To learn more, let’s return to Reagan’s life, as he himself tells it. Young Reagan has few memories of Chicago but fondly recalls the small-town life: “We moved to Galesburg, Illinois. I was deeply impressed with the big green trees and dark red brick streets. They fitted into a picture of bright-colored peace, the way some primitive lithographs do.” His days are a succession of cute if suspiciously perfect anecdotes: “In a toddling expedition, my brother and I crawled under a train snorting steam in the station. We got to the other side just before it gave a mighty jerk and chugged out. Our narrow escape would have been all right except that Nelle [his mother] saw us. She nearly collapsed in the kitchen. She caught up with us as we were swiping bits of ice from the ice wagon (our target for the day) and earlifted us home.”

In high school Reagan loves playing football. He heads for little (250 students) Eureka College in nearby Eureka, Illinois, because it is cheap enough to afford and small enough that he might make the football team. Eureka’s president imposes an austerity plan—this is 1928 and Depression signs are showing—against which the students and faculty rebel. A student strike emerges, with Reagan a leader. One football game goes practically unwatched, Reagan says, because the local paper rushed out an “extra” on the strike and everyone in the stands was reading it instead of watching the game. Next, the college board meets into the night to consider student demands. Reagan describes the following scene: “When the trustees came out that night with gloomy dachshund faces, our committee was waiting. The old college bell started tolling—it was prearranged as Paul Revere’s ride. From dormitories and fraternity houses the students came, almost all of the faculty from their homes—until the chapel was filled. Everyone but our committee was clad only in nightclothes under hastily donned overcoats.” By morning “news of our unique strike had spread across the country. Reporters swarmed over the campus.” It’s as though Reagan were actually living a thirties movie: Extra, extra, read all about it.

After freshman year Reagan finds he can no longer afford school. But a stroke of luck. He rides with his Eureka girlfriend, Margaret, to see her off and bid goodby to the campus. He runs into the football coach. Reagan explains his plight. “In twenty minutes” the coach has arranged a part-time job and deferred tuition to see Reagan through the year.

As college ends the Depression is at its peak. Reagan doesn’t know what to do with himself, and seems likely to drift back home. But a grandfather figure, Sid Altschuler, befriends him. Sid is a successful businessman whose daughters Reagan is teaching to swim. He gives Reagan some valuable advice, then offers to set him up with a job. But Reagan boldly decides to try his luck in acting, a field where Sid has no connections. Still, Sid advises Reagan on how to look for work.

He starts calling on radio stations. One of the first is WOC in Davenport, Iowa. What should they be looking for but a football announcer? Reagan gets a trial and, calling on his considerable talents, wins the job. Next a full-time announcer’s job at $100 a month. He sends $10 a month to his older brother, Moon. “Then, just to gild the lily, I pocketed a dime each morning and, as I walked from my room to the studio, I gave the dime to the first fellow who asked for a cup of coffee.” WOC, for various reasons, has to let Reagan go. But on the day they do, a call comes in from WHO in Des Moines, a much larger and more prestigious station. Do they have a sports announcer who can cover track? They do, and Reagan is on his way. Soon he is at WHO making $75 a week. About this time Jack Reagan has a heart attack. “Not only was he unemployed, but physically unable to work,” Reagan writes. “But it never entered into his mind that he could apply for public assistance.” Luckily, with young Reagan holding down a decent job, he can see to his family’s financial needs.

Reagan, now covering the Chicago Cubs, travels to their spring training camp near Los Angeles. Turning on the charm, he talks his way into a screen test. The studio is impressed; they tell him to come back again later in the week. But the team is leaving town, and Reagan must leave, too. What seems like a cruel twist of fate, however, turns out to be another stroke of luck. The studio interprets Reagan’s leaving as a sign he really doesn’t want the job. Thus they promptly offer an attractive contract—for far more than Reagan hoped—in order to lure him. Reagan, of course, jumps at the chance.

He goes on to success in B adventure movies. Slowly he learns the actor’s craft and breaks into the A movies. (In those days there was a simple distinction between A and B. An A movie had name stars and was top-billed in the traditional double feature.) When Reagan lands the role of George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American, his name is made.

Reagan stays in the Hollywood spotlight a considerable time, about ten years. But then his star fades. He makes several stink bombs. In 1952, he mentions, he is offered a picture by producers Pine and Thomas. Reagan doesn’t explain who Pine and Thomas were, but movie buffs will recognize them as several steps down from David 0. Selznick. Pine and Thomas specialized in taking washed-up stars, like Sally Forest and Sonny Tufts, attaching their names to features filmed in a week or two, and trying to pass off the result as an A picture. Audiences may have been fooled, but the movie community was not. If you dealt with Pine and Thomas, people snickered behind your back; the equivalent today would be taking a job in a neon box on the Hollywood Squares. Reagan notes this in the most oblique fashion. A few pages after mentioning Pine and Thomas he writes, “One of the first signs of Hollywood chill is not only who doesn’t call—it’s who does.” But he never explains how close to the rocks he is; Patti has just been born and Nancy’s ill. Then, another lucky break. General Electric Theatre arrives on the scene, and tabs Reagan as host. Reagan gets a fresh start in a new medium, a chance to establish his name before an even larger audience. His second of three careers (movies, television, politics) is on its way.

Reading the book, one is struck by three things. First is how many anecdotes are just too good to be true. Naturally we all augment and reorchestrate the details of our pasts, through pride or simply the desire to tell a good story. But Reagan, striving to portray his life as one cheery Rockwellian vignette after another, sometimes exceeds even what dramatists call the willing suspension of disbelief. The newspaper puts out an extra edition for all of the 250 Eureka students. Reporters are swarming over the campus. The coach just happens to walk by as Reagan bids farewell. A toddler can waddle all the way to the train station and crawl beneath a locomotive undetected. His eagle-eyed mother can observe the scene from her kitchen window.

Twice in the book, Reagan describes boys-will-be-boys incidents where a man is knocked cold with a single punch. In one Reagan the actor accidentally kayos a stuntman. “Naturally I felt terrible,” Reagan writes. “At the same time, it was the first time I ever knocked anyone out, and it was kind of nice knowing I could do it.” Here is an annotated version of reality if ever there was one. Sending a man straight to dreamland with a single punch requires a lucky shot to a glass jaw, or a blow so mighty it breaks the fist. But in thirties-movie reality, it’s easy. Any casual tap will do. Just as in thirties movies, people who are shot die instantly without pain or wounds, merely a trickle of blood from the corner of the mouth. Reagan is claiming that his own life, at least, actually did imitate art.

The second striking thing about the book is how many times luck intervened to help the future president along. What if he hadn’t dropped Margaret off at the campus that fateful day? What if he’d left Davenport the hour before WHO called? What if the Cubs had taken spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona, instead of outside Los Angeles? (Reagan might today be a shopping-center developer.) How could sick, jobless Jack Reagan have pulled through the Depression if his son hadn’t happened to land a decent job just before the heart attack?

Third and most striking is the absence, except in the most roundabout way, of any bad times. Life, for Reagan, is one uninterrupted march to the top. No setbacks, no despair, and certainly nobody falling by the wayside. The sorrows, like Jack’s alcoholism, fold into the landscape as Reagan pretends they aren’t there. Potentially painful stories are introduced but quickly capped by a happy ending, as if to suggest that every story ends happily. For instance, Reagan relates (in five sentences) the story of Lump Watts, Eureka’s star player, a black fullback who once hit a 50-yard dropkick. He concludes, “I often daydream what the next three years would have been like if Lump hadn’t dropped out of school, a Depression victim. Today he has his own successful trucking company.”

Dismissing the existence of bad times means more than the desire to rearrange the past into a pleasant haze. It means more than restorationist nostalgia for the good old days, a standby of politics and a longing that tugs on us all, to one degree or another. It means the desire to see the world literally the way Rockwell saw it, a powerful element of the Republican soul. In Rockwell’s art bad luck and injustice are not depicted; therefore they do not exist. Rockwell will deal with an unpleasant subject, but only with its most polite and presentable manifestations. The death of a boy at war, for instance, is told by the image of a grieving mother hanging a star in her window. All but the stone-hearted are touched by this image, sad and empty yet somehow, through it all, a little proud; the boy has gone with honor and mother will preserve his memory.

Nowhere in Rockwell do you see the boy die. You don’t see him trapped in a blasted tank, wildly pounding on a jammed hatch as the flames choke in. You don’t see him screaming in a combat ward, rolling in agony even morphine can’t help as nurses cover their ears. You don’t see him lying cold and forgotten in a ditch with his stomach shot open, watching his own organs slither out, crying his girlfriend’s name over and over again a hundred times until death finally takes him.

Similarly, in Rockwell you don’t see heroin addicts beating their wives and then moving on to the children; you certainly don’t see a black child who wants to study being knifed by a street gang behind an alleged school. This explains, for one, why so many of the new Republicans speak fondly of war; Reagan himself refers to Vietnam as part of the nostalgic good-old-days haze. More important, it explains how they might make decisions about war in the future— thinking of the sad-but-sanitized Rockwell images and pretending the horror and waste of combat isn’t there. (It’s particularly disquieting in Reagan’s case because he “served” in the “movie corps,” making films like Submarine D1, in which war was depicted as proud and bold, almost fun, and death was something that occurred off camera.) It explains, too, how the new Republicans can believe there is only a tiny core of “truly needy” grandmothers with broken ankles, juxtaposed against millions of carefree ghetto freeloaders living it up on the dole. It explains how fundamentally kind, gracious, and prosperous people can work themselves into a froth of anger over the pleas of the fundamentally downtrodden and sorrowful. All there is in Rockwellville is struggle, success, and warmth; despair and defeat belong in some other story.

Most new Republicans, after reading Where’s the Rest of Me?, might say it was fair for Reagan to portray his rise as inevitable because it really was inevitable. Perhaps so. Occasionally people exhibit such combinations of talent and effort that they cannot be held down. Most of us, however, operate on a more mortal level. Some stroke of fortune—like the many breaks Reagan enjoyed—is necessary for our merits to be recognized. But if you admit to yourself that success can depend on a bounce of the ball, you must admit that the ball is as likely to bounce away from you as towards you. If you also admit the influence of illogical, emotional forces like racial prejudice, which disrupt the random bounce and tend to force the ball away, then the present hierarchy of wealth and poverty becomes somewhat more difficult to defend. What about people who tried but the ball bounced away? What about people born into such dismal circumstances they never had a fair shot? You can pretend they’re not there, but occasionally, despite your best efforts, you might encounter one of them. What do you do then?

You dip into your soul for another conviction strongly held by Republican conservatives. It is that success in combat indicates a knight is pure, that the distribution of money and position is essentially just and logical.

Success from a lowly starting point has, in the real world, three components: talent, effort, and luck. But in the new Republican world, only talent and effort function. Luck has been vanquished, as vaccine vanquished polio; breaks are “made.” Underachievement results solely from failure to exploit the controllable factors. It’s not so much that the poor deserve to be poor. It’s that they choose to be poor.

Why do women make less than men? Because they choose lower-paying jobs. Why are so many blacks unemployed? Because they choose the dole. Why do many working blacks occupy menial positions? Because they choose to do poorly in school. There are no mysteries here.

It’s as if life were a voting booth and those at the bottom were freely pulling a lever marked “misery.” To conclude that all people who end up down and out do so of their own volition you must believe a number of startling things. You must believe some people prefer ghetto schools, where even a genius would be lucky to learn. You must believe some people prefer overcrowded homes, absentee fathers, and bleak streets so dangerous even children resort to hard drugs for a moment’s release from fear. That’s a bit much for anyone to swallow. And so, in the Republican soul, two explanations for this apparently illogical situation have been constructed. One is a cynical delusion; the other, sincere in theory if not in practice.

The cynical explanation holds that poverty really isn’t so bad. The poor are taking us all for a ride, prospering from—nay, luxuriating in— their freebie lifestyle. Reagan, in his presidential campaigning, would sometimes appeal to this base assumption: “Food stamps have become a massive subsidy for some of the exotic experiments in group living you have read about. Many taxpayers find it difficult to understand why a seemingly able-bodied and otherwise self-supporting individual can walk up to the grocery counter with a basketful of T-bone steaks and lay out free food stamps, while they are buying hamburger with hard-earned cash.” There are horror stories, it’s true, but how many poor people in the real world have actually been observed with a “basketful” of T-bone steaks’! Find one steak-stocked refrigerator in 100 poor houses and you have performed a noble civil service.

Republicans who have sincere reasons for opposing social welfare programs believe another spherically logical formulation: welfare actually harms the poor by encouraging sloth. Taking benefits away would really be in the poor man’s interest, for then he would have no choice but to get a job (he no longer would be able to choose the dole). This is the principal antiwelfare argument advanced by Gilder and Martin Anderson, Reagan’s chief domestic adviser.

In Where’s the Rest of Me? Reagan indicates early sympathy for this idea. He relates stories of his summers as a lifeguard. Thrashing swimmers he pulled from the water were angrier at him for the indignity of needing help, Reagan says, than cognizant of the fact that they were going down for the third time. “I got to recognize that people hate to be saved,” he notes. Later, during his days on the conservative speech stump, he would quote Plutarch as -warning” that “the real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations, and benefits.” Today Reagan expresses his support for the help-hurts concept by noting that the newspapers are full of help-wanted ads. If only ghetto mothers had their benefits yanked, they would get off their duffs and apply for all those chemical-engineering openings that go begging.

Of course some lazy welfare recipients, stripped of their benefits, would go find jobs. But others would become truly desperate. Is the 47-year-old uneducated unwed mother with four children going to land a good job, no matter how hard she looks? Reagan, if anyone, should know this. During the Depression nearly all of his family and his family’s friends were out of work.

But, as only survivors speak well of war, only successes in life rise high enough to proclaim the infallibility of opportunity. In order to make their “logical” help-hurts formulation sufficiently universal, conservative Republicans apply it to nearly every case. This makes them seem heartless and rigidly cruel. Dad run out on the family? Drop out of school and get a job. Knocked up at age 15? Sorry, forfeit your life, you chose to fool around. Such cruel attitudes are seldom expressed, but have powerful force among Republicans when the soul interrogates itself. Yet those who harbor such heartless views are generally not, by nature, heartless people. When their friends and soulmates—people they actually see—get into trouble, they respond compassionately. Corporate executive cheating on his taxes? That’s wrong, but we know he’s not a bad person at heart. Being caught is punishment enough, don’t make him suffer further. Besides, he has so much to lose.

Extending their logical framework to the limit, many conservative Republicans—among them Anderson—contend that even the poor base their lives on pure logic and cost-benefit analysis. Anderson, in his writing, paints a picture of millions of scheming welfare recipients maximizing benefits with an amazingly sophisticated grasp of the system. They can’t pass eighth-grade math, but they are computer programmers when it comes to welfare checks— racing down the alley, dodging bullets from the local drug gang, all the while performing regression analyses of marginal income curves in their heads.

Ronald Reagan-like Republicans, who’ve worked their way up the ladder of life, generally are honest believers in the Rockwell vision. But there’s another important component to the Republican party. When Reagan appeals so brilliantly to the goodness in Rockwell America—patriotism and religious conviction, warmth of family life and affection among old friends, the basic decency of the ordinary man— it means nothing to them. Having never seen the other side of life, they’ve neither experienced its little heroisms, nor acquired painful memories that must be shut out. They are the Republicans born into wealth, sometimes called the country-club set. Nancy Reagan—Smith graduate, raised by an influential doctor—symbolizes them.

A powerful motive of the country-club set is its desire to assert absolute programmed control over its environment. What’s the point of being wealthy if you can’t use money to drive out all of life’s hassles? A table must always be waiting; a limousine must be standing by (there’s never a cab when you want it). The driver must know to avoid the wrong part of town; the members-only airport lounge must be free of trash collectors and crying babies.

A low point for this crowd was the “Learlock” that struck National Airport the day after Reagan’s inauguration. Some 305 private planes (many of them jets) took off from National that Wednesday, causing hours of delay. The grounded executives, celebrities, and rootytooty types were fuming. What bothered them was not that regular old commercial flights were taking precedence; they, too, were held up. What bothered them was losing their command over their environment. Goddammit, I want to leave when I damn well please was the underlying emotion. Yet mere chance was telling them to have a seat.

A controlled environment isolates the well-todo from many of life’s spontaneous pleasures. (Why not take a stroll on the Mall? Make friends with another Learlock captive?) But that’s their problem. It becomes society’s problem when they try to stack the deck in other ways. On the dark side of the new Republican soul is the idea, seldom stated but widely held, that it’s madness to make concessions, even concessions involving fundamental equity and fairness. Take, for instance, public schools. It’s often noted that the rich are not deeply disturbed by the low quality of public schools. One reason is that their children are safely ensconced in private schools. Another unconscious but perhaps equal reason is that dismal public schools ensure a large pool of slowpokes against whom rich children look good. That makes many of life’s favors nearly automatic for the privileged child. Suppose everyone could go to private schools, somehow, magically, without added cost to anyone. Would the rich favor that? No. Rich children would still receive an excellent education, as they should. But it would no longer be an advantage. A privately educated child would not be automatically more admirable and more employable, as he is today.

Most well-off Republicans feel this at some level but would never express it openly. Others, however, make no pretense. You can see it in their eyes as talk turns to the down-and-out; they show contempt for anyone who brings up the subject, considering him squishy at best, a flaming hypocrite at worst. “There are winners and losers in life,” the bolder among the country-club set will say. “I don’t know about you, but I intend to be a winner.” Republicans of this ilk absolutely revel in the stacked-deck advantages of private schools, Ivy League degrees, and other little amenities like insider stock deals.

Another insider mechanism all but mastered by the privileged is the American legal system. This explains, in large part, the burning Republican resentment against the Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers to poor people involved in civil proceedings. Many Republicans, deep down, think of courts as having little to do with justice (except in criminal cases, and of course there are public defenders to ensure fairness there). Courts are, to them, an auxiliary of wealth; lawyers are a servant class, like chauffeurs and kept women, just much better paid. People should have to work for the privilege of having a lawyer. Besides, what do the poor need lawyers for anyway? They don’t have tax shelters to manage or takeover bids to deflect. Giving them lawyers shuffles a crucial part of the stacked deck. It’s just asking them to make mischief, begging them to ruin a good thing. (This is translated, in Republican doctrine, into the complaint that Legal Services lawyers generate “impact litigation” that “makes social policy.”)

Once country-club Republicans are sealed into their controlled environment, two things are likely to happen. First, it becomes easy for them to believe that the worst elements of human nature run amok in the lower classes. The papers are full of random shootings, rapes, domestic violence. When you see striking miners on television, they’re fist-shaking drunk and shouting obscenities. Meanwhile the triumphs and sacrifices of day-to-day life are not making the news. So, to the wealthy distant observer, the lower classes appear as wounded animals turning against each other. They can’t be dealt with, they can only be kept out of the neighborhood so they don’t turn on us, too. The second feature of privileged isolation is a susceptibility to conservative prophets claiming to explain the whole of nature with a few logical formulas. Republican elites lack the personal experience with which to see that theories like Gilder’s break down when applied as master plans for all reality.

The level of Republican contact with reality was highlighted recently by Vice-President George Bush. Making a major speech on regulatory policy, he began with the folksy touch of reading a letter he’d just received, “written by a coal miner.” The “miner” told Bush that “due to excessive pressure, unjust regulations, and civil penalties that the federal government has imposed on the coal mining industry, our future in maintaining jobs in the coal fields is in great jeopardy . . . we feel that the Code of Federal Regulations is hampering our production and making it impossible to compete with foreign imports.” Who’s kidding whom? A coal miner wrote that? But Bush, obviously, believed the letter was the genuine article. So, too, did his staff. All took this volley of legalese, launched by some lobbyist’s word processor, for a bulletin from Middle America.

Ivory-tower isolation is an old story among Republican elites, and in the past has done most damage to the Republican himself, who someday must meet his Maker and give an accounting of his life. Now that the party has shifted to populist rhetoric [see “The Evolution of the Conservative Mind,” by Nicholas Lemann, May] it’s different. Now Republicans claim to have in mind the interests of their dear friends and allies the sanitation workers. It seldom comes out that way. When new Republicans concede that among sanitation workers and shoe salesmen there are a few deserving down-andouts, they still can’t abide the idea that government should compensate. They advocate, instead, private charity. The form of charity they seem to envision runs along the lines of a bake sale, a ball, and giving your used coveralls to the handyman. They advocate this informal and somewhat unreliable system for those they never see. But when their friends in business are struck by hardship it’s big government to the rescue. Republican conservatives are willing to admit the world is less than perfect only as it regards their personal acquaintances and soul mates.

When Dr. James Edwards, energy secretary, was asked what he thought about General Public Utilities, owner of Three Mile Island, he was obviously moved. Edwards said he saw “a company that’s in trouble and needs some help.” If he’d uttered these sentiments about an unemployed GPU worker he would have been scorned by his associates, but nary a Republican eyebrow was raised when he said it about the company (and, by inference, its managing executives). This indicates another fact of the Republican soul—it secretly longs to lose on many budget cuts. Reagan, Stockman, and the rest were concerned that the budget proposals be fair, since “all must share the burden.” As for what actually passes, that’s another matter. Reagan’s initial budget, for instance, proposed elimination of most of the multimillion-dollar yearly subsidy to private pilots (average income: $44,000). But the private pilots’ lobby started twisting prominent arms, and Stockman quickly seized on this as an excuse to abandon the cuts. Reason? “Political realities.” This theme—that no one may veer from the strict logic of budget cuts for the poor, but illogical “realities” of the real world may be taken into account when dealing with favors for the well-to-do— dominates much of budget maneuvering. [See “Less and More of the Same,” page 28.] In the Republican soul, fairness is now defined this way: Try to cut everyone equally. And if realities mean you can succeed only in cutting the voiceless poor, well, at least you tried.

But this subconscious conviction, like others, doesn’t carry the mail in the conscious world. So Republicans need official reasons why, Jeffersonian disclaimers to the contrary, they think government subsidies to high-living executives, Fortune 500 businesses, and the rest are good ideas. What’s at work is not the widely suspected fact that Republicans are closet monarchists, pining for the good old days when men were men and serfs were serfs and the poor laborer’s greatest thrill (besides cockfights) was contributing to the elevation of the rich. What’s at work is that Republicans have convinced themselves there are good favors and bad favors. The good favors—call them rewards—are available only to those who earn them by reaching high stations in life. The bad favors—call them handouts—are given away to anyone. School lunches are handouts, business lunches are rewards.

Seen in this light, many new Republican priorities become Waterford-crystal-clear. Amtrak must go, it’s a handout. Subsidized fares for janitors and able-bodied welfare cheaters. Anybody who can’t afford plane fare—we certainly don’t know anybody who can’t—ought to stay home and concentrate on looking for work anyway. Private aviation subsidies, on the other hand, are a reward. They go to doctors and executives and move them around the country quickly so they can be more productive. Aid to Families with Dependent Children must go. It’s a handout and a social experiment to boot, dictating living arrangements to a whole class of society. Interest deductions for home ownership (first or vacation), on the other hand, must stay. That’s a reward for putting together a credit history, and although it’s a social experiment, it’s one social scientist Norman Rockwell endorsed after exhaustive research. Solar-power subsidies must go. That’s a handout for a technology that can’t make it on its own in the marketplace. Nuclear power subsidies, on the other hand, should be expanded. That’s a reward for proving industry-government cooperation can bring great achievements to this nation.

Medicaid must go. That’s a handout for loafers who can’t be bothered looking after themselves. Tax deductions for employer-sponsored health plans, however, must stay. That’s a reward for holding down a job. And if it costs the Treasury $21 billion a year—$3 billion more than the entire Medicaid system—that just proves a little incentive goes a long way.

Sometimes even a carefully constructed world view breaks down, and there are Republican policies no reasonable explanation can satisfy. Defending the intense Republican desire to maintain tobacco subsidies, for instance, Agriculture Secretary John Block noted that without them, “the price of tobacco might be reduced. People would smoke more, maybe getting cancer from it.”

In another area, the Reagan administration opposes safety regulations for products sold overseas. The position stems in part from extending its Rockwell view to the entire world: how can water ever be so bad it makes infant formula kill little babies? Why, here you can drink from a garden hose. But there is also a backup explanation. Regulation magazine, organ of the American Enterprise Institute, editorialized that most overseas safety regulations are not logical because “the cost-benefit tradeoffs are simply not the same abroad.” That’s the country club’s way of saying, “Life is cheap over there.” And if that doesn’t sell you, Regulation adds that “products not complying with our solipsistic standards would simply be sold by manufacturers from other countries.” There’s another one of those “realities,” ones that count for beleaguered businessmen but not for unemployed mothers. It recalls Lyn Nofziger’s statement when confronted with his ownership of slum housing: “If I didn’t own them, somebody else would.”

Perhaps the favorite all-purpose Republican rationalization, however, is the “trickle-down” theory. No matter how outrageous the lifestyles of the well-to-do, and however greatly those lifestyles are enhanced by tax breaks and the like, we’re all better off the way things are because money spent at the top eventually trickles down to the bottom.

Among the most productive tricklers of our day are the members of Ronald Reagan’s social circle—the Walter Annenbergs, the Justin Darts, the Charles Wicks, the Alfred Bloomingdales. They’ve moved into Washington in a big way. The Washington Post’s Stephanie Mansfield recently reported that this group has taken up residence at the once-again-chic Watergate Hotel. The Annenbergs are spending several thousand dollars weekly for a suite; the Wicks prefer a $260-a-night arrangement. The group eats three nights a week at 23 Watergate’s Jean Louis restaurant, where dinner costs about $250 a couple. Lee Annenberg has a hairdresser up to her suite every morning. Parties are nearly continuous: “The Wicks for the Reagans, the Wicks for the Annenbergs, the Bloomingdales for the Wicks, the Darts for the Annenbergs.” The group is partial to veal, consomme with truffles, and passion-fruit sorbet. The hotel spends nearly $10,000 per month on gifts for these and other new Republican VIPs: “fresh raspberries flown in from Chile, chocolate truffles, orchids, champagne, copies of The Los Angeles Times on their doorsteps every morning, marzipan elephants on their pillows at night, his-and-her Christian Dior bathrobes with a large ‘W’ embroidered on the breast pocket.” Watergate official Diane Sappenfield told Mansfield, “They’re our royalty.”

Naturally, the lives of the super-rich seem comical in their profligacy. But if you’re that well-heeled, why not have truffles every night? You couldn’t spend all your money if you dedicated your life to it, so why “save”? Why, indeed; how the super-rich spend their money is nobody’s business but their own. Except in one special case. These are the people President Reagan hangs out with. He sees them socially almost every day. His life is no longer a Huck Finn idyll. It’s marzipan elephants and $250 dinners.

Those who know Reagan say that, when alone, he is an excellent listener. He is interested in what people tell him and sympathizes with the trials of daily life; if you tell him a tale of misfortune, he is genuinely moved. That’s when he’s alone. When he returns to his glittering social circle, however, the corks begin to pop, the bubbles bite the nose, and he forgets what was troubling him. Nancy chatters with Jerome Zipkin about her $1,650 handbag, Punky Dart shows off her latest necklace, and somehow it’s just hard to believe a little $92-per-month cut in food stamps is going to make any difference to anybody.

Perhaps Reagan’s desire to be surrounded by the super-chic is the natural outcome of his small-town roots. Not only did he make it big in life, he married the girl at the top of the hill, and was accepted into her society. Acceptance into society is, as we know, one of the few things money cannot always buy. Whatever Reagan’s personal reasons for choosing his friends, it’s clear why they chose him. Upper-crust Republicans know their “let them eat quiche” philosophy will not sell in the political world. But they don’t ever, ever want to get involved in talking through the ideas and programs that will. Welfare, hospital costs, defense; it’s so boring! There are parties to go to! The Wicks for the Annenbergs! The Bloomingdales for the Wicks!

Yet the Republican upper crust needs someone who is willing to talk about worldly problems, at least nine-to-five; someone who genuinely believes a politics that will not trouble the anointed. That’s the politics of Rockwell, and Reagan is its spokesman. Thus highborn and self-made Republicans make a compact: they’ll all either believe in Rockwell, or at least pretend they do. Those who believe, like Reagan, will sell the product to the public. Those who don’t believe, like the Annenbergs and the Bloomingdales, will shelter Reagan from the real world to ensure that he is never distracted by snoring drunks and jobless shoe salesmen. And if somehow he is, well, then we’ll all pretend it isn’t there.

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.