NEW YORK — New York. RONALD REAGAN'S greatest secret is that he won the presidency on his third try. The 40th president was a professional politician, among the shrewdest and most ambitious men in his business.
Before finally winning the Republican nomination in 1980, he had ignored the rules of the game twice, trying to ambush his party's front-runner, Richard Nixon, in 1968, and then trying to unseat his party's incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in 1976.
Still he tries to present himself as an innocent, an anti-politician, Citizen Reagan, in his autobiography, ''An American Life,'' published this week. Things, it seems, just happen to him. Golly gosh, he would have been happy just staying in Illinois selling athletic equipment for Montgomery-Ward. But what could he do? The American people just came to him, making him a movie star, begging him to become their leader.
''A candidate doesn't make the decision whether you should run for president, the people make it, the people let you know whether you should run for office,'' he writes without grammar or truth.
The American political landscape from the 1960s to the 1990s is littered with the bodies of men and women, Democrats and Republicans, who deluded themselves that Ronald Wilson Reagan really believed such nonsense. Mr. Reagan, like John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter before him, understood that modern American presidents are essentially self-selected. The only real qualification for the job is wanting it.
But he's sticking to his story, no matter what. This is a guy who went further playing dumb than anyone since Laurel and Hardy. One of the things I'll always remember about Mr. Reagan's men is how afraid they all were of the boss, the old man, the vague oracle who seemed to talk only about his wife, his horses and old movies. They were supposed to know or guess what he wanted -- guessing is always a tense business.
''I hope history will look back on the '80s,'' he writes, ''not only as a period of economic recovery and a time when we put the brakes on the growth of government, but as a time for fundamental change for our economy and a resurgence of the American spirit of generosity that touched off an unprecedented outpouring of good deeds.''
It's possible that the man, winning as he is, has done irreparable damage to American economic and social systems by joyfully throwing the poor into the streets to give investors more and more of the national treasure -- and cheering as many of them invested the bounty and booty in their own greed.
But it is also possible that he will be remembered as the old politician, one of the two proud and suspicious old politicians, Mikhail Gorbachev being the other, who brought the Cold War to a peaceful end. Political opponents -- and I consider myself one -- can nitpick that part of the Reagan presidency day by day, and can say it should have happened years ago, or months before, but the fact is that old rascal pulled it off. Presidents often do the opposite of what they promised to do to get the job, because they can contain the opposition of their old core constituency -- in Mr. Reagan's case what he calls in the book ''radical conservatives'' -- by convincing them of the inevitability of change.
Parts of his ascent to power read as if they were written by one 12-year-old for others. They are simply not true, though I have no idea whether Mr. Reagan knows that or ever did. His story is that he was this sunshine happy little kid from the sticks and he didn't even know his family was poor. ''Only later,'' says Citizen Reagan, ''did the government decide that it had to tell people they were poor.''
What this citizen hated about citizenship was taxes. ''I was in the 94 percent tax bracket, which meant the government took most of what I earned,'' he says. ''I'd always thought there was something inherently unfair toward actors in the tax system.''
The old actor came to office with an agenda and he pushed it with all his considerable might, changing America at least for a time -- a time that continues, for better or worse. American attitudes, under his leadership and example, shifted from ''We're all in this together'' to ''You're on your own, buddy. Don't tell me your troubles.''
''A towheaded kid in overalls from a poor family in rural Illinois,'' is his self-description early on. He compares himself with Tom Sawyer, promoting his own innocence. Ronald Reagan totally misunderstands Mark Twain's kid from Hannibal, Mo., but he stumbles into the truth about himself. That's who Mr. Reagan is: a barefoot hustler in overalls, chewing on a stick of hay, sitting on a barrel in the shade, munching an apple, a shrewd kid watching other kids whitewash his fence because he convinced them it was fun.
If Tom Sawyer had been real, he would have become president. Ron Reagan was and he did.