Reason and the White House Astrologer

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Joan Quigley, an astrologer who advised Nancy Reagan, died recently. While Quigley played a big role in scheduling and made MichaelDeaver’s life difficult, she didn’t have any policy influence. Still, for some
this was taken as the absolute epitome of the ludicrousness of the Reagan
presidency. But perhaps something deeper and more interesting was going.
Richard Neustadt, the renowned scholar of the presidency,
and not inclined to be a friendly judge of the Reagan administration, was
surprisingly forgiving about Nancy Reagan seeing an astrologer, observing:
Nancy was perhaps that rarity, a
disinterested advisor. …her husband’s closest associates, however valuable or
liked or even loved, were to be sacrificed, in her view, from the moment their
continuation on the scene could compromise the President’s public relation. In
concern for his physical safety, she did something Regan (out of office)
characterized as silly: consulting an astrologer about her man’s engagements
where the White House had discretion in setting of a date-silly, to be sure,
though possibly no more so than the whims of staff, or press, or partisans, or
family quite traditional in such decisions.
We imagine President’s being in control, but in many ways
they are as subject to the whims of fate as anyone. A combination of duty and
other people’s schedules drive their day. Nancy Reagan adored her husband and
was terrified that he might be assassinated. What could she do? Did consulting
an astrologer and manipulating dates give her a sense of control, which in turn
brought a modest peace of mind – allowing her to help her husband?
Maybe. Is it terrible that Nancy Reagan turned to astrology,
which of course has no credible scientific basis? I don’t see why? Reason
rejects astrology, but reason offered Nancy Reagan no comfort about her husband’s
safety. Could security experts have briefed her and tried to convince her he
would be safe? Sure, but why should she believe them since an assassin got
through once before? Maybe she could have had a doctor subscribe some anti-anxiety medication, it would have been cheaper (Quigley was paid $3000 monthly) but would it have had a better result?

Astrology and its many cousins fill a need. We can decry
this as superstition, but is that completely fair? Certainly there are people
taken in by hucksters – but it is tough to believe such people won’t find some
other way to bankrupt themselves. For others, who spend a little money on
occasion, it does little harm and may even do some good.
In the Richard Ford novel The Sportswriter Frank Bascombe visits a fortune teller, explaining:
But where else can you get, on
demand, hopeful, inspiring projections for the real future. Where else, on a
windy day in January, can you drive out beset by blue devils and in five
minutes be semi-reliably assured by a relative stranger that you are who you
think you are, and that things aren’t going to turn out so crappy after all?
Science is a tremendous, awesome thing, grounded on hard
findings that have been rigorously tested. It has made our lives safer and more
comfortable in astounding, endless ways. But sometimes it does not provide the
comfort we need. We may, in this age of “big data” be moving towards analytical
understanding of the affairs of the heart. So be it. But understanding
something emotionally painful may not be much help working through the
emotional pain.
Science may very well tell us that rationally we are tiny
specks in a vast uncaring – but marvelous – universe. I personally am filled
with wonder by much of it, but staring into infinity can be exhausting for all
but the bravest. Sometimes, we crave small comforts and the assurance that
infinitesimal speck we may be – there is some hope and purpose to us after all.
Since we are talking of astrology, I should be give the
final words to my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies. In What’s Bred in the Bone the main character’s lover, a well-educated
woman who is researching a book on astrology offers to give the main character
a reading. She explains, “A horoscope means someone is really paying attention
to you, and that is rarer than you might think.”
Later, when giving his reading and he complains about it
being “far too vague, too mythological,” she replies:

I’ve told you already; it’s a way
of channeling intuitions and things that can’t be reached by the broad,
floodlit paths of science. You can’t nail it down, but I don’t think that’s a
good enough reason for brushing it aside. You can’t talk to the Mothers [that
character’s term for archetypes] by getting them on the phone, you know. They
have an unlisted number.

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