That this tacit agreement can be self-serving is self-evident. That it may be a dated and doomed pre-blogosphere convention is the subject of another essay. For the purposes of this review, suffice to say that there are enough of us out there who know Reeves’s previous work, who respect him, and who know that saying a few good things about the 40th president of the United States does not make a guy a neocon.
In President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (Simon & Schuster, $30.00), Reeves has plenty of good things to say about the great champion of conservatism, although a better way to put it is that Reeves lets the story of Reagan’s eight years in the White House unfold organically. Sometimes the old actor comes across as insightful and uncommonly effective, the best of American idealism. Sometimes he comes across as antediluvian and inflexible–the embodiment of that “tired old man” whom, as Don Henley sang, “we elected king.” In other words, this book reads like an honest portrait of an important president of whom liberals were not fond in his time, but who looks better with each passing year.
Why? For starters, Ronald Reagan never took his suit coat off in the Oval Office, let alone his pants. Nor did he indulge himself with self-serving observations about his own style of leadership, or perhaps more significantly, launch a preemptive war–unless one counts the invasion of the little island of Grenada. And Reagan definitely did not boast of using his “political capital,” although he certainly could have.
Reagan ran in a three-man race in 1980–and earned 51 percent of the vote. In a two-man race in his reelection effort, Reagan won 59 percent of the votes. Bill Clinton, by contrast, captured the presidency with 43.5 percent of the vote in a three-man race, and garnered 49 percent of the vote in his reelection bid four years later against Bob Dole and Ross Perot. George W. Bush? Don’t get me started. He took office in 2000 as a 48-percent president without winning a plurality of the vote, and in 2005, he treated his 51-48 reelection margin as some kind of landslide. Reagan never promised to be a “uniter” instead of a “divider,” and he was neither. He did, however, court Democrats assiduously on his tax-cutting budget bill, and kept his word not to campaign against Democrats who supported it.
Reeves’s narrative style does not lend itself to such contrasts–I don’t believe George W. Bush is mentioned in this book once–but those who wonder where Reeves would come down in a comparison between the 40th and 43rd presidents have not been reading the author’s syndicated column. (Recent samples: “President Bush: I am the Law!” or “Is George Bush the Worst President Ever?”)
Lest we get too nostalgic, however, Reaganomics remains a difficult dish to swallow whole. Reagan ran in 1980 on a promise to balance the cut taxes, build up the military, and balance the federal budget. Those goals were incompatible, and Reagan’s priorities became clear when he blew a hole in the federal deficit, leaving literally trillions of dollars in national debt to future generations.
Other Reagan priorities were troubling to liberals then and remain so today. Classifying catsup as a “vegetable” for purposes of complying with school lunch nutritional programs, as the Reagan administration did, was little more than a public relations gaffe, but the media seized on it because it was a symbol for something real: Reagan’s proposed (and in some cases effectuated) spending cuts in inner -city housing, poverty-intervention plans, mass transit, legal services and other programs that benefit the neediest among us–most especially AIDS patients, whom Reagan didn’t acknowledge publicly for years.
And while Reagan always bristled when adversaries suggested a racist motive to any of his policies or statements, he exhibited insensitivity about racial and ethnic imagery in several high-profile instances. The Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” invoked in Reagan’s stump speeches was a real person, but launching his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss.–where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964–at a time Barry Goldwater was championing states rights (and Reagan was championing Goldwater) was obtuse in the extreme. So was his decision, recounted meticulously in Reeves’s book, to put German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s feelings ahead of those of Holocaust survivors at a wreath-laying “reconciliation event” in Bitburg, at a West German cemetery that included Nazi soldiers who’d served in units of the murderous Waffen SS.
Two years later, on another visit to Germany on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th anniversary, Reagan was hoping to provide a worthy encore to John F. Kennedy’s famous 1963 Ich bin ein Berliner speech. The communist bloc’s response to that speech had been to build the Berlin Wall, and Reagan now wanted to call on Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle it. Conventional thinkers on the White House payroll, including chief of staff Howard Baker, deemed this impulse counterproductive and argued against it. Reeves recreates the final prep session between Reagan and speechwriter Peter Robinson.
Reagan: Now, I’m the president, aren’t I?
Robinson: Yes sir!
Reagan: So I get to decide?
Robinson: Yes sir!
Reagan: Well, then, the line stays in.
Good thing, too. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was one of the most memorable utterances of the Reagan presidency, and hardly ineffectual.
Reeves’s book relates another example of Reagan’s superior political instincts involving his fateful negotiations with Gorbachev–but from the other ideological direction. This came in 1985, in Geneva, at the end of their first summit. Top White House foreign-policy aides Jack F. Matlock Jr. and Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane stayed up until 4:30 a.m. on the last day trying to wait out their more conservative colleagues from the communications shop, Peggy Noonan and Patrick Buchanan. Matlock and McFarlane couldn’t quite outlast them, so Noonan and Buchanan slipped three Gorby-bashing sentences into the final draft of Reagan’s closing remarks. Reagan returned the rough copy to Buchanan with the three offending sentences crossed out.
Here’s another story of Reagan’s interaction with his aides, from the second term: Prior to his fifth State of the Union address, the White House staff was divided over what the president should say about AIDS. This was January of 1986, and though his budgets had begun to reflect the debt of the health crisis facing the nation, Reagan had discussed the crisis only once in a September 1985 news conference. The medical profession, leaders in the gay community, and health officials in Reagan’s own administration wanted the president to speak out.
A battle raged inside the White House, not just over what the president should say about AIDS, but over the speech itself. Mostly this was a turf battle pitting the speechwriting shop, which wanted to do its thing, against White House chief of staff Don Regan and those loyal to him, who wanted to assert their prerogative (and not have the president mention the disease at all). The spat was interrupted by tragedy: The morning it was scheduled, the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all aboard. Reagan spoke that day, but only about the six astronauts and a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe.
The following week, Reagan gave his State of the Union, and it did not have the word AIDS in it. To consolidate his authority, Regan then fired longtime chief speechwriter, Bently Elliot, a talented and self-effacing Reaganaut who has never been given his proper due. But Reagan, who had not been apprised of Elliot’s sacking, circumvented “the mice” (the nickname for Regan’s minions) by emphasizing the fight against AIDS the next day during a presentation on his budget.
“One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS,” Reagan said in a surprise visit to Health and Human Services headquarters. “I’m asking the Surgeon General to prepare a major report to the American people on AIDS.”
Thus did Reagan manage, albeit belatedly, to outflank his own staff. Sometimes, however, the staff outfoxed him, and not always to bad results.
The same week as the AIDS remarks, voting began in the Philippines “snap” elections that would force the Reagan administration’s hand on the festering problem of Ferdinand Marcos. A consensus had developed at the State Department, the Pentagon, in Congress, and even among top National Security Council staff in Reagan’s own White House, that continuing to prop up Marcos was unprincipled–and unwise. Contrary to the myths that Marcos perpetuated about himself, the Filipino strongman was in reality a shirker (he hadn’t fought the Japanese during World War II as he claimed), a master thief (he and his wife stole $1 billion, much of it U.S. aid), and a despot (he routinely rigged elections) who provided the rallying cry for a communist insurgency raging in the outlying islands of the archipelago.
Reagan was slow to accept this view, even in the face of abundant evidence. But advisers such as Richard Armitage at the Pentagon, George Shultz and Michael Armacost at State, and Republican senators Richard Lugar and Paul Laxalt kept a steady drumbeat of gentle pressure on the president. The aging autocrat moved up the timetable for elections to placate Washington, but Marcos outsmarted himself: The 1986 elections were so rife with corruption that even Reagan, after days of balking, was nudged by his staff into tacitly acknowledging Corazon Aquino’s rightful claim to power.
It was Laxalt who gave Marcos the bad news: Reagan was pulling the plug, and the United States would airlift Marcos and his family to safety, but that was all.
If you were writing a Reagan book and had dwelt on these case studies of Reagan’s leadership, as Dick Reeves did, you might have been tempted to make the following observation: When Reagan got bad advice from his staff, he ignored it; and when he got good advice, he followed it. Perhaps there’s another pattern at work, but Reeves engages in little of this kind of analysis. So little, that at times some readers might wonder why they are reading this book. Reeves did not cover Reagan. Nor does he have any peculiar pet theories to peddle (Reagan was gay! Reagan was manic-depressive! Reagan believed blacks were inferior to whites!) the way revisionists go on about Lincoln.
The cynical answer might be that, despite being in his late 60s, Reeves still likes to make money and see his name in print. Why not? He’s still got his fastball, and with Social Security facing bankruptcy with the prospect of 75 million baby boomers approaching their golden years, he’s an inspiration–and a foreshadowing to all our futures. The less flippant answer is that Reeves has a formula for chronicling presidents that has worked in the past. “I am interested,” Reeves says, “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.” Reeves is talking here about Reagan, but this was his approach to two previous acclaimed books, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993) and President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001).
It’s a method that works less well with this book. For one thing, Reagan was president nearly as long as Kennedy and Nixon combined, and Reeves has to pick his spots–he can’t simply write a day-to-day account for eight tumultuous years. Also, this narrative approach doesn’t always catch the drama of the events Reeves is describing.
Reeves correctly identifies Reagan as a man of ideas, but Reagan was also a master storyteller who consciously made up soaring anecdotes to illustrate his ideas–the main one being that American exceptionalism is alive and well and a good thing. As such, Reagan demands biographers who will take a step back and try to tell grand truths along with him. Except in the introduction and the afterword, Reeves is hesitant to do that.
To be sure, he has reasons to be reticent: Official biographer Edmund Morris (handpicked by Nancy Reagan) tried the dramatic approach, and it ran off with him. Morris produced a deeply weird fictionalized account with himself as a contemporary of Reagan’s. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, who panned Reeves’s Reagan book as a “sorry disappointment,” believes the mystery of the Gipper simply eluded Reeves’s grasp, just as he did Morris’s. That is too harsh, in my judgment, but it is fair to say that Reeves’s fly-on-the-wall style contrasts with the sweet mood music, scripted plot points, spectacular falls from grace, character arcs, grand dnouements, comic hero bravery, and low cowardice of the epic movie that was the Reagan presidency.
To be sure, there are villains in Reeves’s piece. Heroes, too, some of them unlikely. Many Americans know that after being shot by a would-be assassin, Reagan quipped to the operating surgeon, “I hope you’re a Republican.” But the line that produces a lump in the reader’s throat is the rejoinder from Dr. Joseph Giordano, a Democrat: “Mr. President, we’re all Republicans today.”
Speaking of everyday heroes–Reagan himself couldn’t make this stuff up–to the answer to the great question of who ended the Cold War, add the name Duke Zeibert. Reeves sets the scene nicely: It is mid-December, 1987, and Gorbachev, in Washington for the third of his momentous summits with Reagan, is in a limo with Vice President George Bush, who says, “It’s too bad you don’t have time to go into one of these stores or greet people.”
“Stop the car!” shouts Gorbachev. Then, before Bush or the Secret Service can do a thing about it, Gorby is mingling with Christmas shoppers on Connecticut Avenue, shaking hands like a rock star, and waving to Zeibert, who stands on the balcony of his second-floor restaurant, shouting down to the Russian to come up to his place for a bowl of borscht.
This is the kind of detail Reeves specializes in. He was not there, but he availed himself of everything from White House pool reports to now-unclassified notes of the U.S.-Soviet summits. Reeves also interviewed participants from both governments, talked to numerous White House officials, and cites an impressive number of the 900-odd Reagan books that have been published. But if this is not President Reagan for Dummies, it is not a book for presidential scholars, either. Reeves has no real first-person experiences with Reagan; nor can he explore any one subject in detail, the way, say, Jack Matlock does in Reagan and Gorbachev.
In the end, though, Reeves’s straightforward, nearly chronological narrative succeeds. The reason this is so is that the author has retreated to his original craft, reporting, and the detail in The Triumph of Imagination, large and small, makes itself compelling. In 1981 (Chapter 5), we chuckle as Reeves relates how House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., on his Cape Cod vacation, watched news clips of Reagan clearing brush at his ranch in California. O’Neill, two years younger than Reagan, tried it himself –and found that after 15 minutes he “could barely breathe or walk.” In 1983 (Chapter 7), we smile along with the 72-year-old president as he subtly suggests during a speech on physical fitness that he is still sexually active. And in 2004 (the Afterword), we sigh as Nancy Reagan confides in Reeves that her husband did not once open his eyes in the last four years of his life.
In these days of excess partisanship, we readers, we citizens, are well-reminded to keep our own eyes open when it comes to our presidents, regardless of whether we voted for them or not. Much rides on it, and the truth lies somewhere in between the success of their grand visions and the day-to-day details of their lives.
Carl Cannon covers the White House for National Journal, an authoritative, non-partisan weekly Washington magazine on politics and government.