Vanity Fair has an excellent excerpt of James Mann's new book on Ronald Reagan's relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan comes across as generally clueless but essentially right about his Soviet counterpart. Obsessed with lame jokes and stories, the former president is unable to focus on policy; he also "gets" Gorbachev before many of his advisors do. The most humorous example of Reagan's childish nature occurs during a summit in which he has decided to try to convince Gorbachev of the existence of God:

As the meeting ended, Reagan became even more direct and personal. He noted that his own son Ron did not believe in God, either.

“The President concluded that there was one thing he had long yearned to do for his atheist son. He wanted to serve his son the perfect gourmet dinner, to have him enjoy the meal, and then to ask him if he believed there was a cook.”

Mann's book was able to make use of some recently released documents, which is good because it confirms an ironclad rule of such disclosures: When new files are released, the person who always comes out looking the worst is Richard Nixon. 

Mann's excerpt starts with a 1987 White House meeting between Nixon and Reagan, in which the latter wanted some cooperation from the former. Nixon and Kissinger had been predictably and publicly doubting Reagan's trusting instincts, and Reagan wanted a united American line (he did not get one). Anyway, here are the two best Nixon anecdotes, the first of which reveals his storied understanding of world events and personalities:

Reagan asked Nixon for his opinion of Gorbachev. Nixon responded with skepticism. He “could not have gotten his present position or have retained it unless he wanted to be in a position to neutralize Europe or dominate it by either conventional or nuclear blackmail,” Nixon said.

And the second example, which reveals his character:

At one point, according to Nixon’s private notes from the session, Nixon told Reagan that a deal with the Soviets would not really help Reagan’s standing with the American public. Polls showed that military action helps a president far more than diplomacy does, Nixon said. “I pointed out that many people felt my popularity had gone up because of my trip to China. In fact, it had improved only slightly. What really sent it up was the bombing and mining of Haiphong.”

Lovely. Mann's book can be purchased here.

--Isaac Chotiner