President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination
Simon & Schuster
During his inaugural address Jan. 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan bashed the big, bad federal government he had just been elected to oversee. In an editorial, The Sun said of the address, "What an insult to language and logic! It showed a willingness to distort a perfectly valid idea mainly for effect."
Baltimore Sun disapproval notwithstanding, Reagan continued his rhetoric, won a second term in the White House, and changed the world - for better or for worse - through an especially stubborn will.
That will resonates from the grave. When a famous journalist/biographer publishes a thick book about a famous former president, it is an event. Richard Reeves has written books about the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. So why not Reagan?
Well, as Reeves notes, more than 900 books have been written about Reagan since he left the White House 17 years ago. Can Reeves add anything worthwhile?
The answer is, sort of.
Reeves follows the plan he has used in previous books. "I have tried to reconstruct a president's world from his own perspective. I am interested in what he knew and when he knew it, what he actually saw and did - sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. I want to show what it was like ... to be president."
Reeves' approach leads to an especially detailed account of an eight-year White House term that relies on mountains of documents in the public realm and on the contemporaneous accounts of journalists. As a result, the book is more a skillful compilation of what's known than a volume that breaks lots of new ground.
Reeves separates the wheat from the chaff, then presents the wheat (along with occasional chaff) in a clear style. As a literate historical document, his book deserves a high grade. But, except for an enlightening seven-page introduction where Reeves offers his overall evaluation of Reagan as president and as human being, the book is heavy going - with a few dramatic exceptions, such as his near death from a would-be assassin's gun and his mind-blowing dependence on wife Nancy.
Presented by Reeves in a chronological format, the chapters are so filled with speeches, travels and insider political battles that after a few pages brain exhaustion is likely to set in. For most general readers - those who admired Reagan as president and those who despised him as president (Did anybody fall between those extremes?) - Reeves' account is probably best consumed one chapter per day, maximum. That is equally true for the domestic policy sections and the foreign policy sections, populated as they are with hundreds of characters still famous, long forgotten or always obscure.
Reeves' conclusions based on his contemporary experiences in Reagan's presence and his awesome post-presidency research include these answers to oft-posed questions:
Was Reagan simpleminded? Not really, Reeves says. "No one ever called Reagan an intellectual, but he did see the world in terms of ideas. He was an ideologue with a few ideas that he held with stubborn certainty."
Was former movie actor Reagan more chief entertainer than chief executive? In some ways, yes, Reeves says. "His rhetorical gift was to render [his] ideas into values and emotions. He was capable of simplifying ideas to the point of dumbing-down the nation's dialogue by brilliantly confusing fact and fiction. He made politics, and governing, too, into a branch of his old business, entertainment."
Was Reagan delusional? Not so much delusional as living in his own past, Reeves says. Reagan wanted to remake America so that it conformed with "the remembrances of his own boyhood and a Reader's Digest version of the 1950s. He remembered happy times."
Did Reagan's brainy White House staff members manipulate him? No way, Reeves says. As White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III commented, "He treats us all the same, as hired help." A later chief of staff, Donald Regan, told Reeves that everybody working in the White House "thought he was smarter than the president." Reeves responded, "Including you?" Regan's reply: "Especially me." But it was Reagan, not Baker or Regan, who managed to persuade power brokers to more than double the federal tax dollars devoted to the military, to decrease taxation of the wealthy, and to substantially neutralize the Soviet Union's influence in a worldwide Cold War.
When Reagan died June 5, 2004, legends about his White House years lived on. Thanks to Reeves' painstaking documentation of Reagan's White House years, perhaps the various opinions of those years will square more with messy reality from now on.
Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines who has followed politics since 1983 from Columbia, Mo., where he is a book author, reviewer and journalism professor.