As the presidential election season unfolds Republicans are faced with a candidate that calls for a major shift away from its roots that emerged in the 1980s. During the primary season when candidates fought for the mantle of Ronald Reagan, another candidate introduced us to Trumpism. What Trumpism purports to be is anyone’s guess, but it certainly does not conform to the ideology that was the core of Reaganism. Thomas Mallon’s latest historical novel and ninth book, FINALE: A NOVEL OF THE REAGAN YEARS explores the last few years of the Reagan administration focusing on the Gorbachev-Reagan relationship and nuclear diplomacy, the developing Iran-Contra scandal, and the domestic politics of the period. In doing so Mallon has conducted a tremendous amount of research that produces a novel, aside from a few fictional characters that is essentially historically accurate. Mallon writes in a breezy manner that captures Washington’s political and social world and allows the reader to experience hard ball politics, cattiness, and all the emotions that are on display on a daily basis as the Reagan administration and its supporters and detractors strive to achieve their agenda.
FINALE is a wonderful blend of history and fiction that begins with Richard Nixon watching the 1976 Republican national convention on television offering negative comments about Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, and Ronald Reagan. Mallon immediately introduces us to the former president who only two years after resigning his office is calculating how to restore his reputation. Mallon focuses a great deal of attention on Nixon as he tries to influence the nuclear diplomacy of the period through a wonderful fictional character, Anders Little, an Assistant Director, Arms Control, National Security Council, who on the one hand becomes Nixon’s mole throughout the nuclear talks at Reykjavik, Iceland, and on a personal level is trying to figure out his own sexuality. Nixon comes across as a very solicitous husband in dealing with his wife Pat’s health who experienced two strokes over a short period of time. But when one thinks of how Nixon treated her during most of their marriage I wonder if Mallon was trying to humanize the disgraced president or pose comic relief.
Mallon does not miss a beat as his characters take verbal swipes at each other throughout the dialogue. Nancy Reagan, who can only be described as a self-centered nasty individual who cares only for what is best for her husband. Mrs. Reagan seems to despise a number of people, particularly her husband’s Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, former president Jimmy Carter and his family, and most everyone else except for Merv Griffin who is her confidante. Nancy, known as “mommy,” within her small circle plans her husband’s trips, negotiations, and politics by consulting her “astrological” advisor and the description offered is extremely accurate. Mallon’s writing drips with wit and sarcasm, particularly in describing the “gaze,” that appears each time she looks over at her “Ronnie.” Her rivalry with Pamela Harriman, the wife of former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averill Harriman who recently passed away, is fascinating as two powerful women with different agendas describe each other in a rather petty fashion, and it appears that each has their own enemies list. Richard Nixon’s petty hatreds are also present for all to observe as he rehashes his past enemies list.
The novel seems to center on arms control talks with the developing relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev as the key component to producing a successful treaty. Many familiar historical figures are present; Secretary of State George Schultz, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, NSC Head John Poindexter, arms negotiators like Paul Nitze and others are intermingled with a number of fictitious characters, like Anders Little and Anne Macmurray, divorced from a failed politician who has ties to the Contras in Nicaragua, as well as being an anti-nuclear activist. Aside from the arms talks, Mallon integrates many actual historical events of the period. The Senate vote concerning sanctions against South Africa, the Florida Senate race between Governor Bob Graham and Senator Paula Hawkins, parole hearings for John Hinckley, and constant allusions to the aids epidemic among the history of the period that is intertwined in the story. However, the most important issue that emerges are the events leading up to the Iran-Contra scandal.
A number of the historical and fictional characters are involved with illegal aid to the Contras who are fighting the Sandinistas for control of Nicaragua. Oliver North and company make their appearance and a few fictitious individuals will inadvertently become involved. The history of the scandal Mallon describes follows the pattern of historical accuracy tinged with fictional dialogue. To enhance the novel Mallon employs Christopher Hitchens, an English journalist for the Spectator, who recently passed away from cancer as a vehicle to uncover information dealing with events and as a foil for a number of characters that moves the novel forward. In addition, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appears to “buck up Ronnie” when things don’t go her way.
Obviously the protagonist of the novel is the Republican Party’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan. Throughout the novel Reagan’s legacy seems to be on the line, as Nancy Reagan reminds us throughout the book. There is a sense of panic within Reagan’s inner circle as events lead up to arms talks in Reykjavik at the same time the Iran-Contra scandal is brewing. The reader is presented with a 40th president who either bordering on issues is related to later Alzheimer’s or is a very effective and shrewd negotiator. As the novel progresses it is interesting to think of Reagan as a “Teflon president,” because a number of his actions were illegal, but so soon after Nixon the country did not have the stomach to endure another impeachment process. Reagan’s propensity to always see the positive is repeatedly used by Mallon. As Robert Draper describes in his New York Times review, Mallon makes a virtue out of Reagan’s opacity. “Is the principal character, as one observer in the book puts it, an idiot or an idiot savant? Mallon all but dares us to consider him to be the former.” (NYT, September 16, 2015)
Overall, the book is a fascinating read as Mallon provides real and fictional glimpses into how historical events evolved in 1986 and 1987. For history buffs the material will satisfy, and for general readers it is a tight and revealing portrait of personal relationships of the powerful and how they conducted themselves with so much on the line developing around them.