Dreams of the 2004 US Presidential Election: A Research Update

Terrors of the Liberal Night

As the US Presidential election enters its final tense weeks, liberals are becoming increasingly agitated in their dreams, with a rising number of nightmares featuring aggressive attacks by President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and hordes of zombie Republicans.

That is the initial finding of Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher at the Graduate Theological Union and John F. Kennedy University, both in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Dr. Bulkeley has been studying the connection between dreams and US Presidential elections since 1992, and this year he has found that people on the left side of the political spectrum are having a surprising number of bad dreams about the election:

From a 57-year old man in a Western swing state, where the political advertising barrage is inescapable: “The dream seemed to have lasted all night long.  There were thousands and thousands of photographic images of Bush like a montage of photo ops.  They were all remarkably bland and dull.  Many of the photos had a caption attaching saying things like “George Bush is President, isn’t he?”  “Yup!”  They were all very insipid and bland.”

From a 43-year old man in California: “At first I talk with President Bush, and think he’s a friendly guy.  But then I’m part of some meal ritual with a bunch of his followers.  Bush makes me eat disgusting food, meat, mustard.  I do it, though it’ll make me sick, to prove I’m tough.”

From a 22-year old college student, a liberal woman at a predominantly conservative school in a Midwest swing state:  “I’ve got to catch a flight, so I enter the airport and walk down a long, downhill hallway.  I enter into a cave/tunnel that is very dark.  I see  bloody people everywhere (lots of bright red zombie-like people) and lots of  people in blue who are clean and pure-looking.  I don’t want to be rude, so I don’t comment or ask why this is.  I come out of the tunnel into light, and am in some kind of theme-park.  Tons more people in bloody red or blue are all around.  A blue person grabs me and says she is trying to protect me from the red.  I see that she has the Kerry/Edwards logo on, and this is what all the blue people support.  All the reds are Bush supporters.  They all look like zombies, and I see them attacking people.   I hop onto the Kerry Campaign trail-literally.  It is a long line of connected wooden boats.  I climb from the back car towards the front.  I find Edwards on one boat, and Kerry is in the front boat.   I feel safe, but there is a huge disruption of some kind and I find myself alone again with all of the zombie Bush supporters pulling me in every direction and trying to feed me some kind of processed meats from their barbecue (sausage/hot dog looking things).  I don’t trust this meat and find that it is human flesh from the Kerry supporters. I try to get away and am suddenly falling down a huge waterfall or waterslide with zombies grabbing me.  I wash into the dark tunnel again, and that’s when I woke up.” (As pointed out by the dreamer, the red and blue colors match the “red state, blue state” division of the electoral map.)

From a 35-year old woman from New York City: “I’m driving through the Bush ranch in Crawford, where I pass a pen in which a couple of impossibly obese dogs snap and growl at each other, fighting over something I can’t see. At a small pond nearby, a duck swims up to me and hops into my hands, resting for a moment before it returns to the water.  I’m pleased in that way most people feel when a wild animal eats out of your hand or offers some similar display of trust. As it swims away I notice drops of blood on my hands, and then realize that the fracas in the dog pen is over ducks that are being tossed in there for no reason other than pure sadism. I feel ashamed that I had simply enjoyed holding the duck without realizing that it was looking to me for rescue.”  The woman said she felt the dream reflects “my very real concerns about the beating that the weak and helpless are getting under this administration,” and she credits the dream’s emotional power with giving her the motivation to do something socially constructive—“In fact, the dream led me to take up a weekly volunteer gig at a charity for the homeless.”

From a 34-year old woman in Pennsylvania: “The closer we get to this upcoming election, the less able I am to sleep because of the nightmares I’ve been having. They range in topic from a multi-city nuclear attack on the US on election day (though not in my city), which scares voters into staying home and therefore allowing a Bush re-election; horrible things that happen to the people I love after Bush wins re-election (people lose jobs or houses, die of diseases because they don’t have healthcare, starve to death or become homeless); futuristic dreams where humanity and the environment are in shambles and historians point to George W. Bush and this election as the catalyst; terrorists manage to take over the whole US on election day and I and my family get kidnapped, tortured, shot because I’m an elected official {in waking life]; a situation where Kerry wins the election but Bush & Co. play some sort of dirty trick to ensure his illegal re-election, and riots and other dangers ensue and I’m unable to protect all 3 of my kids, get separated from my husband, we have no food and have to eat the dog or starve, we are driven from our home by people with guns (when we own none because we are pacifists).”

Uncertainties, and Support

Other dreams reported by liberal Democrats include nagging uncertainties about their own party’s Presidential candidate.  For example, a 63-year old California woman who was a primary supporter of John Edwards dreamed that the “Kerry/Edwards” button on her purse was changed to “Edwards/Edwards.” A 52-year old Massachusetts man who detests Bush but isn’t sure Kerry is progressive enough for him dreamed that he tried to go to the Democratic convention in Boston, but couldn’t find a parking place.  Still, a few liberals have had positive dreams expressing support for John Kerry.  A particularly explicit dream of this type comes from a 77-year old man from a Midwest swing state who dreamed he let Kerry stand on his shoulders so the Democratic candidate could speak to a bigger audience at a political rally.

Conservative Dreams

What of conservative people’s dreams? Fewer conservatives than liberals have reported election-related dreams. There are several possible reasons for this: 1) the research requests are not reaching enough conservative audiences; 2) conservatives from certain Christian traditions dismiss all dreams as demonic temptations; 3) conservatives may indeed be having election-related dreams, but are reluctant to share the dreams with a stranger; 4) conservatives are simply having fewer election-related dreams to report.

The dreams of conservatives combine positive feelings of support with lingering anxieties about the President.  Here are two examples.

A 23-year old Republican woman from Pennsylvania dreamed this: I was at the White House, and for some reason there were a bunch of Rotweiller dogs being put to sleep for being too dangerous. The lady that was administering the shot was just about to inject the last dog when President Bush came downstairs to take his dog out. I asked if I could talk to him, and he said sure. I walked with him outside and told him how upset I was about the dogs being put to sleep. We were alone on the lawn, and I asked him why there was no security outside, and he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He told me I could have the last dog if I wanted it. We went back inside and the President grabbed the shot of out of the ladies’ hand and there was a brief struggle. The dog came running over to me and was wagging its tail, and I was so excited to be taking it home. I remember looking at the dog and seeing the colors of his fur (black with brown spots) and also when walking with the President, I saw the color of his jacket (green).   The dreamer, who has worked for the Bush campaign, said the dream accurately reflects her feelings about the “good things” the President has done in office, with Bush himself appearing as a “down-to-earth guy” whom she can trust in sharing her fears.

A 30-year old woman from North Carolina had the following dream:  “I am one of 3 daughters of the President (I am assuming it was Bush, the current President).  We are in route to board a plane, outside at night, walking in a straight line at a slow pace.  I am at the very front, my two sisters on either side, our arms locked (I have 2 sisters in our immediate/first family, I happen to be the middle).  We are leading a huge entourage with the President behind us, his secret service detail surrounding him.  The plane is also behind us, I can hear its engine and see the lights they are projecting past us.  We are moving towards the tarmac to board.  I feel like we need to stay in a close knit group, we also can’t look behind to make sure everyone is still there.  Suddenly, the lights fade, the engines die down and the sounds of the people are gone.  It is just the three daughters.  We learn the plane will not leave from this airport, we have to travel to Atlanta to get on it.  Atlanta is a few states away, the rest of the group had left for there. We are broken from the group, vulnerable, left to find our own way to Atlanta, on foot.”   The dreamer is a registered Republican and a strong supporter of President Bush’s reelection, and while the dream offers a clear image of her support, it also suggests her concern about the dangerous “single-mindedness” of the President—“not able to look behind and see what is going on, not able to see the support, just going on faith.”


Anyone who wants to make a prediction about the election on Tuesday has dream material to work with from both sides.  As noted, liberals are plagued with nightmarish anticipations of Bush being reelected, while at least a few conservatives foresee a Kerry victory in their dreams.  For example, a Bush-supporting 28-year old woman from North Carolina had this dream twice within a week in mid-October: “I had a dream that Bush lost.  It was actually set up like, a newspaper article I was reading.  I was reading that Bush only served one 4 year term. (which would lead me to believe he didn’t win) Then I was trying to see who was the new president, but I couldn’t find the name, I assumed it was Kerry but something told me maybe it isn’t.”    Perhaps the Biblical tradition that doubling a dream signals its prophetic truth (Gen. 41:32) enhances the credibility of this woman’s dreams, at least from a conservative Christian perspective.

Only one dream could be described as a wholly positive prophecy, from a 42-year old Pennsylvania woman who favors Kerry: “In the dream I was napping on the sofa while my daughter watched TV to see who was winning the election. Suddenly I awoke [in the dream] to lots of cheering and triumphant sounding music. I asked, “Who won? Did someone win?”  My daughter just sat and smiled at me. Again I asked her, “Who won, who won? Did Kerry win?”  Finally she answered me with, “YES!!!!”. We were overjoyed and started calling friends to make sure everyone knew.”

Future Research

Dr. Bulkeley is working on a larger-scale project examining the broader question of whether liberals and conservatives have fundamentally different kinds of dreams.  Using detailed interviews with people from both political ideologies, this project will provide the first empirical findings on such topics as who has the most dream recall, who suffers nightmares most frequently, who has more sexuality in their dreams, who dreams most often about work and money, who flies in their dreams the most, etc.  The answers to these questions (which will be presented at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, June 24-28, Berkeley, California) promise to shed a new and perhaps amusing light on the unconscious psychological roots of our country’s bitterly divided political landscape.

Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election

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A couple of years ago I was working my way through the major works of Calvin Hall, as part of my doctoral dissertation research.  As I read Hall’s book The Meaning of Dreams (1966), I came across the following passage:

“Dreams contain few ideas of a political or economic nature.  They have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs….Presidential elections, declarations of war, the diplomatic struggles of great powers, major athletic contests, all of the happenings that appear in newspapers and become the major topics of conversation among people are pretty largely ignored in dreams.” (11)

For some reason this passage bothered me.  Of course I understood Hall’s basic point, that we usually dream about personal matters like the health of our body and the relationships we have with family and friends.  And I knew that other dream experts basically agreed with Hall; most psychologists, sleep laboratory researchers, and writers of popular books on dreams also regard dreams as speaking solely to the personal life concerns of the dreamer.

But still, I was bothered.  Hall’s claim seemed too strong, too sweeping.  The more I thought about it, the more examples I found that challenged Hall.  Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1965) presents a number of his dreams that spoke directly to the political situation of his world.  Charlotte Beradt’s moving book The Third Reich of Dreams (1966) contains dozens of dreams of people living in 1933-1939 Germany–dreams that directly addressed the rising political power of Nazism.[i] Carl Schorske (1987) wrote a fascinating article on the striking political references in Freud’s “Count Thun” dream.  Cross-cultural studies are filled with dreams that have direct relevance to the dreamer’s social and political world.[ii] And I myself have had many dreams in which politicians and political events play a prominent role.

As scattered as these references to politically-relevant dreams were, I felt there were enough of them to refute Hall’s claim, at least in its simplest form: politics do appear in people’s dreams, and people do dream about the political affairs of their communities.

But now I had two new questions to ask.  First, what do such dreams mean?  Are these dreams really about politics, or are they just using political imagery to express other kinds of meaning?  And second, why are dream researchers like Hall so insistent that dreams are not relevant to political affairs, and relate only to personal, subjective realms of the dreamer’s life?

As the 1992 U.S. Presidential election approached, I realized I had a perfect opportunity to explore these questions in more detail.  This election promised to be an exciting, passionately-waged contest.  Fear about the economy, anger at incumbents, disgust with “politics as usual”, hopes for real change–no election campaign in years had stirred up such deep, powerful emotions in the American electorate.  I decided that if people did not dream about politics during this Presidential election, then Hall was right and I would just drop the subject.  But I thought that if people did dream about the election, I might be able to get a better understanding of 1) what those dreams meant and 2) why the field of dream studies has such difficulties in recognizing the political relevance of our dreams.

In the weeks leading up to the 1992 U.S. Presidential election I conducted a small study on how people’s dreams were responding to the campaign.  I asked twelve people to keep detailed dream diaries from October 25 to November 8, the two weeks straddling the election.  These people did not know what my study was about.  I also asked a second group of about 40 people to tell me if they had any dreams relating to the Presidential campaign.  The members of these two groups were quite varied in terms of age, education, occupation, geographical residence, and political outlook[iii].

My basic finding was that many people dreamed about the Presidential election.  Not everyone in my study had dreams that referred to the candidates or the election campaign, but many people did have such dreams.  Among my “blind” subjects, six of the twelve people (50%) had at least one dream relating to the election.  Of the 113 total dreams reported by the twelve subjects, ten dreams related to the election, or about 9% of the total dreams.  I want to emphasize that my study was not based on an absolutely random sample.  If my findings have any value, it is not for what they prove, but rather for what they suggest about the relationship between dreams and politics.

The Debates

A number of dreams reacted to the four Presidential and Vice Presidential debates that were held prior to the election.  The reactions were not favorable.  Hank, a government employee in his late 30’s, dreamed this right after the first Presidential debate:

“I am watching something like a presidential debate on TV…Bush is attacking Clinton because of a mistake that Clinton made in managing his financial accounts.  Clinton apparently let one of his accounts get overdrawn, and has lost the account as a result.  Bush is saying that this is bad…A woman reporter comments that Clinton’s position in the campaign was so strong that he is still a little bit ahead of the president, even after his mistake.  She says to Bush that, if it weren’t for this mistake, Clinton would have been able to “wipe your wild side for being so soft”.  Bush is enraged at this comment.  He loses control of his emotions.  He leaves his podium, goes over to the reporter and physically attacks her.  I can’t believe this is happening.  I tell my father that “George Bush just lost it.”  Some people are trying to subdue the president and get him back to his podium.  The woman reporter is very shaken, and leaves the stage.  Then there is a view of the room from straight overhead.  As some people are leaving, some other people throw food at them.  The whole situation degenerates into a fight, with people throwing things at each other and running around the room.”

Hank proudly noted that this dream came before the rambunctious Vice Presidential debate, which many pundits referred to as a “food fight”.  Maggie, an artist from Chicago in her early thirties, also dreamed of the political campaign as a kind of food fight:

“I am running down a spiral staircase.  The staircase is in the middle of a duplex office where there is a food fight/political fight going on.  I don’t want any part of it.”

This same distaste for the childish behavior of the candidates prompted Carla, a retired copywriter from Texas, to dream this the night after the Vice-Presidential debate:

“I was watching a 2-year old, blond baby boy.  I latched the screen doors, but he hit the screen door and the hook slipped free and he ran out.  I ran after him, calling, “Danny Quail, come back here.  How did you get loose?”  When I brought the child back I looked at the latch and saw the problem.  The part that held the hook wasn’t made right.  It was too thick.”

Carla says she knew in the dream that she was misspelling Vice President Quayle’s last name, and thinks it may be a reference to his infamous misspelling of “potato(e)”.

Ross Perot

The candidate who appeared most often in people’s dreams was Ross Perot.  Perot’s strong personality, controversial ideas, and roller-coaster candidacy made him the object of huge voter interest.  Thus, it is not surprising that people would dream about him.  What is surprising is that the people in my study tended to dream about him in very anxious, very skeptical terms.  Julie, a community activist in her 40’s from California, reported that

“On Oct. 22 I dreamt of Ross Perot all night!  I was with him sometimes.  I was nearby him at other times.  And I watched his face on TV also during my dream.  I woke up with a strong feeling of irritation.”

Julie’s dream seems to reflect her reaction to Perot’s late reentry into the race, and to the heavy media blitz that accompanied it.  For those last couple weeks of the campaign, Perot literally was everywhere.

Most of the Perot dreams referred to his prickly personality.  Maggie had a long dream of hurrying around New York because she was late for a breakfast appointment.  Towards the end she dreams

“I am in a big hurry but try to stop and buy olive oil and hot peppers.  I stop in a very old country store/warehouse type place.  They are very friendly and very, very slow.  Ross Perot is the shop keeper and I know if I try to rush him he’ll get angry and won’t serve me and all the time I have already waited for him will be wasted.  I think I still leave without my goods because I cannot wait any longer.”

Tim, a 30-year old writer in Los Angeles, also dreamed of being intimidated and somewhat frightened by Perot:

“Perot is in the living room of my parents’ old house…talking to about thirty people.  He’s answering some question with a parable about a horse-like Australian rodent.  He’s describing the animal in detail.  I grow impatient and interrupt him, “Fine, the thing is horse-like, Australian, and a rodent, so what?  What does it do?”  The crowd doesn’t share my impatience and I’m embarrassed.”

The following Perot dream was told to me by Jean, a young woman who works at the Marshall Fields department store in Chicago:

“For some reason I was going to work at a state mental hospital which was being closed down.  People were carrying files out, wheeling patients away.  It was a big, dingy building.  I and some others were waiting for the new boss to come.  Much to our surprise, Ross Perot arrived.  He stated that he would be running the hospital and we would work for him.  He was dressed casually in a tacky purple and white outfit.  He looked ridiculous.  The rest of the staff gathered, and instead of taking the elevator we all walked up the stairs to prove our dedication and endurance.  The climb was longer than expected and we were all complaining and some people were sick.  Ross didn’t know how much farther we had to go, anymore than we did.  One man had a fall and broke his neck…  Although there were nurses there, none would help him but me.  Ross didn’t know what to do.”

Jean said she feels the dream is a commentary on the “lunacy” of the country, and the “double lunacy” of thinking a “crazy man could be the leader of a mental hospital”.

George Bush

President Bush tried to present himself in the 1992 campaign as a champion of “family values” and of experienced leadership.  The dreams I gathered suggest that he succeeded in this.  Jean, who describes herself as a “die-hard Republican”, had the following dream:

“Bush and Quayle are in town, to give a speech, and I’m asked to set things up and cook dinner for them.  It’s fine, I’m proud to do it all.  I cook dinner for 12,000 people, set up the speaker’s hall, and work everything out with the secret service agents.  The dinner goes off, it’s finished, and they say goodbye to me.  I feel very good about it all.”

In this dream Jean plays the traditional role of a hostess: taking care of her guests, cooking their dinner, helping them to be safe and comfortable.  Although the work seems rather demanding (where do you find place settings for 12,000 people?), Jean gets great satisfaction out of it.  Her dream suggests that traditional “family values” provide her with a sense of security and fulfillment.

Of the three candidates, President Bush appeared least often in the dreams of people in my study.  This supports the conclusion of most political analysts that Bush lost the election because he was “out of touch” with the real-life concerns of voters.

Iraqi Nightmares

Iraqi Nightmares by Kelly Bulkeley

“I slept very well my first two nights in New York and had no dreams, but I think it was because of the jetlag.  The rest of my nights have been full of dreams and nightmares.  In one dream I am stuck in Falluja and I can’t get out.  I am on the ledge of a high wall that separates the American soldiers from the insurgents.  They both see me and are ready to shoot.  In another dream I am kidnapped by the Iraqi Army and thrown into a dungeon with a foreign reporter.  In yet another, I go to Baghdad and find the streets empty.  There are only roofless houses and ruined walls.”

Ayub Nuri, an Iraqi who recently immigrated to the U.S., “My War Away From War,” New York Times, 2-16-07, p. A19

“Sometime during my four years of traveling to Iraq, I developed a recurring dream in which a Middle Eastern country invades the United States and occupies, among other places, my old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The dream flashed briefly through my mind on Thursday as I walked the dirty, broken streets of Sadr City, a teeming Baghdad slum that forms the power base of Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric.

Here is what happens in the dream: Because I know a little Arabic, I somehow find myself a translator for the invaders, even as some of my Chicago buddies are in the alleys plotting against my employers. And each night when I walk home along my beloved Dearborn Street under the rusty elevated tracks and past the White Hen grocery store, I wonder what the guys poring over maps in their armored vehicles plan to accomplish against a few million South Siders fighting in their own alleys. That’s usually when I wake up.

That dream, a nightmare, really, flashed through my mind as I stood at the end of a filthy, pothole-riddled alley talking with a small-time deputy commander in the Mahdi Army, the militia that is the armed wing of Mr. Sadr’s political movement. Standing there with his arms folded over his potbelly as his fighters scurried about behind him, the man who called himself Riadh, 34 years old, was effectively deputy commander of an alley.

“We can’t face the armored tanks of the Americans face to face, because all we have is light guns,” he said. “So we just wait for a chance to attack something.”

He could be dead now, because the next day at least one American helicopter swooped over Sadr City and engaged in a gun battle that killed four, according to American military officials, although Iraqi police put the toll much higher. Or the potbellied deputy could still be out there, plotting his next move. Either way, before dismissing the ragtag Mahdi fighters, it would be well to remember that — partly because the alleys of the neighborhoods they control are too narrow for the Iraqi Army’s armored vehicles — Mahdi units like Riadh’s have been fighting Iraq’s federal forces to a standstill in Basra, the country’s southern port city, for nearly a week now.

Alleys: they are dangerous only when used by those who grew up in them. That is the basic reason Mr. Sadr and his fighters simply will not go away in this war….

As I sit here writing this piece, listening to the intermittent whooshes and booms of rockets and mortars fired into the Green Zone, almost certainly by Mr. Sadr’s fighters, I can no more predict where the conflict is headed than I can say what will be in my dreams tonight during the few hours of sleep that this war and my editors allow me. But when it comes to Mr. Sadr’s loyalists in the alleys of Basra and Baghdad, one thing is irrefutable.

In those alleys, waking up will not end the dream.”

James Glanz, American reporter in Baghdad, “Bad Dreams: Alley Fighters,” New York Times, 3-30-08, “Week in Review” p. 1.

A conversation about the American Dream with Jim McDermott

Thanks again to an introduction provided by Tom Campbell, a former U.S. representative himself (and my uncle-in-law), I also interviewed Jim McDermott, a nine-term representative from the seventh congressional district of Washington.  McDermott is a leading Democrat and a professional psychotherapist, so I hoped he could provide some thoughts about the idealism of the “American Dream” from a liberal perspective.  We spoke by phone on November 5, 2007, the same day I talked with Martin Anderson.

As with Anderson, McDermott’s initial response to my questions was both surprising and intriguing.  I expected he would discuss the American Dream in terms of a liberal optimism about progress and the hope of a better society in the future.  Instead, he took a decidedly negative approach and associated it with a deceptive promise made to immigrants coming to this country—a promise more often broken than kept.  McDermott spoke of the painful struggles of his immigrant ancestors when they first came to America, people who were filled with unrealistic hopes and then exploited by powerful others.  The dream “was not always what it was cracked up to be.  Many Americans found it a false dream.”  He asked, “What about people who don’t make it?”

McDermott’s compassion for those who have been left behind clearly underlies his political ideals, especially the cause of expanding health care to include all Americans, and it defines his opposition to Republican policies that neglect the human wreckage caused by the selfish “dreaming” of the economically powerful.

McDermott was understandably reluctant to discuss his personal dreams, or anyone else’s actual dreams.  He recalled losing the 1980 governor’s race due in part to getting “clobbered as a liberal Seattle psychologist,” and ever since he’s been reluctant to offer easy ammunition for his political opponents.

I was sorry to hear that.

Even though I agree almost entirely with McDermott’s political priorities, I felt something was fundamentally missing from his perspective—something that, ironically, I found in abundance in Martin Anderson’s portrait of Ronald Reagan.  It’s a sense of connection with the creative power of dreaming, which I believe is the psychological truth at the core of the national ideal of the American Dream.  McDermott’s skepticism about that dream reflects the liberal virtues of rational clarity and empathy for the suffering of others, but it seems to depreciate the equally liberal virtue of courage to imagine and envision new possibilities and new hopes for the future.

Jim McDermott is the Democratic Representative from Washington

A Conversation with Martin Anderson, biographer of Ronald Reagan

A Conversation with Martin Anderson, biographer of Ronald Reagan by Kelly Bulkeley

A conversation about the American Dream with Martin Anderson, biographer of Ronald Reagan

Thanks to the kind intercession of Tom Campbell, then Dean of the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley, I had the opportunity to interview Martin Anderson by telephone on November 5, 2007.  Anderson was an administration official during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and has written and edited several books about Reagan, including Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (2001).  Reagan’s presidency is often associated with a particularly sunny, Westernized vision of the American Dream, and I hoped Anderson could provide a well-informed description of his politically conservative ideals.

Our conversation got off to a difficult start.  I must not have been very clear in my initial description of what I wanted to discuss (it’s a hard project to describe in a few words), and Anderson reacted as if I were taking a critical approach to Reagan’s reputation as a napper.  It’s true, I was curious about that and planned to ask about it eventually, but Anderson immediately declared that Reagan “never napped,” and he dismissed any suggestion that Reagan was ever less than fully fit and alert both mentally and physically while President.  Anderson said he challenged anyone to find a photograph that showed Reagan napping (I made a quick check of Google images and found nothing).  I expressed surprise at this, since the legend that Reagan enjoyed a daily siesta is widespread and even a point of pride among conservatives, who regard his regular afternoon naps as endearing expressions of equanimity and good sense.  The most Anderson would allow is that there may have been “brief closings of his eyes” during meetings, but nothing that would count as a full nap.

Of much greater interest to Anderson, and to me as well, was the nature of Reagan’s political idealism.  According to Anderson, Reagan’s boldest political initiatives were inspired by “dreams” and “visions” that gave him a profound sense of meaning, purpose, and direction throughout his political career.  It’s not clear to what extent these inspirations were related to actual dreams during sleep, but in Anderson’s view they reflected an admirable openness to sudden intuitions and calls to action.  The greatest of these dreams was that of a nuclear-free world.  Reagan was a pacifist in his 20’s, and Anderson said he never lost his idealistic vision of a world beyond the horrors of war.  At the 1976 Republican National Convention, where he narrowly lost the nomination to Gerald Ford, Reagan gave a final speech in which he surprised everyone by calling for an elimination of nuclear weapons, a very un-Republican proposal. “It was always Ronnie’s dream that the world would be free of nuclear weapons.”  Anderson also pointed to the “Star Wars” anti-missile defense system as an instance where Reagan made a sudden decision, unanticipated by even his closest aides, to pursue a highly idealistic effort to end the threat of nuclear war.

As someone who cast his first two presidential votes against Reagan, I found it hard to reconcile Anderson’s glowing portrait with the Reagan I perceived from 1980 to 1988.  At the time, his visionary idealism made less of an impression on me than his administration’s unwillingness to deal with growing problems with the environment, civil rights, poverty, etc.  Yet Anderson persuaded me to recognize in Reagan an authentic visionary quality, a reliance on deep personal intuitions of purpose and truth.  I may disagree fundamentally with the purposes to which Reagan directed his intuitions, but I can still respect him as a dreamer whose political success derived in large part from his ability to communicate his dreams to others.  His mojo just didn’t work on me.