June 24, 2004

How Reagan and Clinton learned to think.

Edmund Morris spins a theory in this week's New Yorker about how Ronald Reagan came to think the way he did. It all started with nearsightedness:
As a boy, “Dutch” Reagan assumed that nature was a blur. Not until he put on his mother’s spectacles, around the age of thirteen, did he perceive the world in all its sharp-edged intricacy. He did not find it disorienting, as somebody who had been blind from birth might. Perhaps his later, Rothko-like preference for large, luminous policy blocks (as opposed to, say, Bill Clinton’s fly’s-eye view of government as a multifacetted montage, endlessly adjustable) derived from his unfocussed childhood.

Clinton didn't somehow have fly eyes to correspond to Reagan's myopia, and both men are described as suffering from a lack of focus as a child, but somehow their ways of thinking came out completely different because of something having to do with their eyesight. I don't even get it as a silly, fake theory. I note that Reagan solved his eyesight problem by putting on his mother's glasses. You'd think the boy would from that develop a belief in taking steps to improve vision and see intricacy, not prefer the fuzziness. Or are we not to think of Rothko's paintings as fuzzy-edged? (But they completely are.)

Speaking of Presidents learning thinking patterns from their mothers, I was struck by this passage in historian Paul Johnson's essay about Bill Clinton on Best of the Web today:
Clinton's family background was unfortunate, to put it mildly, and there is no more to be said about it other than to applaud his strength in rising above it. His mother, Virginia Kelley, provided a clue in explaining how she survived her rackety life: "I construct an airtight box. I keep inside it what I want to think about, and everything else stays beyond the walls. Inside is white, outside is black. . . . Inside is love and friends and optimism. Outside is negativity, can't-doism, and any criticism of me and mine." Bill Clinton would not have been able to describe his defensive technique so clearly. But that is what he did, with great success. As a result, while never arrogant, he was always secure.

At least there, I can understand the theory. Whether any of this historian psychoanalyzing is true, I'm in no position to say. It can be pretty amusing to read.

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