Related topics

Books and Authors: Decade of Buffoonery

March 9, 1990

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Bombs are exploding in Beirut, Marines are dying and Americans are worried. White House spokesman Larry Speakes is asked if President Reagan has read a House report on the latest attack in Lebanon.

″I don’t think he’s read the report in detail,″ Speakes says. ″It’s 5 1/ 2 pages, double-spaced.″

For Paul Slansky, author of ″The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American 80s,″ that 1984 glimpse of the Free World’s leader said it all.

″And then, three weeks later, Reagan says that he reads every comic strip in the newspaper,″ Slansky said. ″That to me is definitive.″

Almost everything the Great Communicator said or did seemed brainless to Slansky. Most ignored Reagan’s gaffes, misstatements and blemishes. Slansky seized upon every one of them, packing 10 filing cabinet drawers with newspaper and magazine clips documenting a decade the author describes as ″wallowing in mediocrity.″

″The Clothes Have No Emperor″ (Fireside Books, $12.95), the resulting book, is a digest of dirt, a chronological collection of items documenting American culture’s lowest moments.

In 1981, Reagan failed to recognize his only black Cabinet member, Housing Secretary Samuel Pierce, at a White House reception. ″How are you, Mr. Mayor?″ Reagan asked Pierce. ″I’m glad to meet you. How are things in your city?″

Vice President Bush, touring an Auschwitz death camp in 1987, said, ″Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?″

In 1988, Vice President Dan Quayle takes his turn with the Holocaust, calling it ″an obscene period in our nation’s history.″ Correcting himself, he says ″in this century’s history″ is what he meant. ″We all lived in this century,″ he says, adding, ″I didn’t live in this century.″

It’s not that Slansky picks only on Republicans. His victims also include such Democrats as ex-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (″an arrogant little fool″) and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, and a range of celebrities, including Vanna White, Michael Jackson, Tammy Faye Bakker and even the movie ″Ishtar.″

″Satirical is just a word applied to it,″ said Slansky, a contributor to Esquire, Spy, Village Voice and The New Republic. ″All I’m basically doing is chronicling what people say. It’s just the truth, that’s all.

″This book is not irreverent. This book is contemptuous. ... It happens to be funny, but it is very serious ... a history book of the ’80s. This book should be a textbook, it should be taught in journalism courses. This is a serious piece of work that has a goofy cover.″

The cover, sporting silly pictures of a broken-nosed Geraldo Rivera, Gary Hart with Donna Rice, and Mr. T in the lap of Nancy Reagan, belies an admittedly unforgiving, obsessive account of almost every presidential misstep.

Slansky does show isolated affection for some of his friends, including comedian Harry Shearer and artist Robbie Conal.

On page 232, Slansky recalls Reagan’s visit to Notre Dame, where he presides over the unveiling of a Knute Rockne stamp. Flubbing the one line he’s probably used more than any other, Reagan says, ″Win just one for the Gippet.″ Gipper was the nickname of football star George Gipp, who Reagan portrayed in ″Knute Rockne, All American.″

″This book is not written for anybody who voted for Reagan and liked Reagan,″ Slansky said. ″They’d be foolish to buy this book. This was written for everybody who, for the last eight years, was made to feel like they were freaks of culture by the media. ...

″Nixon was hilarious. He was the best show there was. He had this need to self-destruct in public. What better theater can you get than that?

″Reagan was much less funny for me. I can’t stand his ignorance - the fakeness of it. There wasn’t a moment in eight years when I thought he was amusing. Not only was he an actor, but also, to me, such a lousy actor.″

Mark Weinberg, a spokesman for the former president, declined to comment on Slansky’s depiction of Reagan as an incompetent. ″We don’t comment on other people’s books,″ Weinberg said.

″The Clothes Has No Emperor″ is sprinkled with celebrity lows. From March 1988, the books offers this gem from a Geraldo Rivera interview with a man named Tommy Arthur: ″Your wife wants you to die. Your reaction, quickly.″

Said Slansky: ″This wasn’t an era that was totally enamored of excellence. ... This is a country that was wallowing in mediocrity for years - and here was the guy who completely reflected us just as we reflected him. And when I say ‘we,’ I sure don’t mean me.″

Were there times when he considered Reagan too easy a target?

″No. Because nobody else was shooting at him. Quayle could be considered too easy a target. ... But I am after Dan Quayle. He is my enemy in public life right now. He is the stupidest man I’ve ever seen there, and I don’t want a stupid man like that running the country. I was raised to think that intelligence mattered.

″Reagan did whatever they said. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the administration. One of his aides said, ‘If we told Reagan to walk outside, turn around three times, pick up an acorn and throw it out to the crowd, we’d be lucky to get a question from him asking why.’

″He just wasn’t there,″ Slansky said. ″I think he was emblematic of the ’80s - totally style over substance. Here was the emptiest suit we ever elected.″