Lou Cannon is the Lou Gehrig of Reagan reporters. He must hold some sort of record for consecutive campaigns covering a politician without being sent to another beat or brought into the front office as an aide. Since 1966, when Reagan first entered politics as governor of California, Cannon has been there to make sure that “The Speech”—which he must have heard a few hundred times—sounded ever-fresh in the next morning’s newspaper.
One suspects that the friendship between the two men—Cannon includes an inscribed picture from Reagan in the photo section of his new book—goes beyond old-shoe familiarity to a kind of shared pride in this art of recreation, so essential to both politics and journalism. Which early 1930s Chicago Cub batter was at the plate when the wire went dead and radio announcer Reagan had to improvise, Cannon asked during a July 31, 1981 interview with the president, Augie Galan or Billy Jurges? In different renditions of the story over the years, Reagan had different ballplayers fouling off Dizzy Dean’s imaginary pitches, and Cannon wanted to straighten it out for history. “[Reagan] thought a moment, and then said, ‘It was Jurges.’ “
If it’s a little peculiar that Cannon would spend valuable interviewing time seeking answers to this kind of question (which only he would know to ask) it also says something about the breadth of his knowledge of Reagan’s charmed past—breadth reflected in this richly detailed and well-crafted biography. His sense of Reagan as an amiable dreamer with a flair for making the rehearsed sound spontaneous may well be the essence of the man. Who else but Cannon could know that Reagan’s famous “There you go again” line during his debate with Jimmy Carter had been carefully practiced beforehand?
Cannon’s access to Reagan and to those aides who are the beneficiaries of what he calls the “delegated presidency” is so much better than most reporters’ that the way he uses the access takes on genuine importance. When it’s used well, the results are impressive. Reagan, we learn, is now so deaf that the television in the White House family quarters must be turned on so loud that no one with normal hearing can stand to stay in the room. In the Oval Office, which, Cannon notes in an effort to be fair, has bad acoustics, aides must talk to the President of the United States at the top of their voices.
Reagan apparently reads more than is generally realized, but he has been known to nod off during important meetings.
One can’t help thinking, though, that these details— and Cannon’s occasional characterizations of Reagan as “intellectually lazy” or uninformed—have a calculated quality to them. It’s as if the author knows some people around town whisper that he is too cozy with Reagan and that he occasionally pulls punches in The Washington Post. So he makes a special effort to walk a fine line between his natural sympathy with the man and what he perceives as the demands of the objective journalist. The result is that he almost always uses his special knowledge of Reagan to illustrate familiar criticisms.
In classic Gehrig style, Cannon touches all bases. Does it look as if he is letting Reagan off too easily on policy issues? He includes a chapter taking swipes at James Watt and Reagan’s attitude toward the land. Does it seem as if Michael Deaver is the source for much of his inside information? Edwin Meese gets the biggest write-up of the top aides. Does Reagan come out looking like a thoroughly good guy? Nancy-haters see their judgment vindicated by Cannon.
All of this makes for a good, balanced biography— certainly the best so far on Reagan and his origins—but also a predictable one, and one where the relationship between a politician and a reporter who stands to benefit greatly from his election is reflected in some unsettling ways.
“You too, Lou?” Reagan asked with hurt surprise when Cannon joined other reporters before the 1976 North Carolina primary in wanting to know if Reagan would quit his challenge to President Ford. What Reagan was trying to say was that Cannon, of all people, should have known he would stay in the race, that their fates were in some way intertwined. As it turned out, Reagan did not quit. He went on to win the primary, and although he lost that year to Ford, Cannon says that without this dogged determination to stick it out, Reagan never would have been elected four years later. And indeed, at the very end of his book, the author seems almost apologetic for ever having doubted, writing that the North Carolina primary was when he liked Reagan best. He showed daring and grit. “He belonged in the White House,” Cannon writes. And his chronicler, apparently, belonged there with him.