The former Republican governor made it clear that he was intent on campaigning for the party’s presidential nomination as an outsider who would take on the vested interests in the very heart of national government. “In my opinion, the root of these problems lies right here—in Washington, D.C,” he announced at the National Press Club in the fall of 1975. “Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a ‘buddy’ system that functions for its own benefit—increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes.” He ended by reminding the audience that he was “not a member of the Washington establishment” but, instead, “a citizen representing my fellow citizens against the institution of government.”

Ronald Reagan

by Jacob Weisberg
Times Books, 208 pp.

Sound familiar? This was Ronald Reagan challenging President Gerald Ford for the nomination. Reagan inflicted real wounds on Ford during the primary but was unable to dislodge him at the Republican convention in Kansas City. But the anti-establishment credo that Reagan enunciated during the campaign provides a reminder that the 2016 election is being waged in his shadow, at least when it comes to the Republican contenders. To an amazing extent, Reagan managed to reshape the party in his own image with his antitax credo, condemnations of an activist government, and hawkish foreign policy.

But as Jacob Weisberg shows in Ronald Reagan, his elegant, insightful biography, Reagan’s actual record diverges significantly from the way he presented himself—and from the posthumous conservative mythology about him. Reagan morphed from a New Deal liberal in the late 1940s into a conservative during the 1950s. But once in office, as California governor and then president, he displayed shrewd political instincts and a readiness to compromise. In Sacramento, for example, he signed a “therapeutic abortion” bill that effectively legalized the procedure in California. He doubled state spending on higher education. And he added 145,000 acres to the state park system and approved the strictest emissions regulations in the country. He told an aide, “Anytime I can get 70 percent of what I’m asking for out of a legislative body, I’ll take it.”

As president, he also was prepared to compromise. After he passed his big tax cut in 1981, Reagan backtracked as the federal deficit soared. According to Weisberg, Reagan agreed to “a five-cent gas tax, followed by a hike in Social Security taxes recommended by the bipartisan Greenspan Commission. In 1984 he agreed to another $18 billion in increased taxes on phone services, liquor, and tobacco. There were further tax increases in bills Reagan signed in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988.” But Reagan never conceded that he had changed course: when he signed the biggest tax hike in history in 1982, for instance, he defined it out of existence. “To even refer to this as a tax increase, I think was wrong,” he said at the time. “It was an adjustment to the tax cut last year.”

Weisberg’s most valuable contribution is not simply to point to the gap between Reagan’s rhetoric and performance, but to explain that his ability to reconcile opposites was at the heart of what made the Gipper tick. Reagan was a master of willed blurriness. Even his beloved wife Nancy acknowledged, “There’s a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier.” Weisberg suggests that Reagan successfully held reality at arm’s length by developing “his emotional distance as a survival weapon.” It allowed him to claim credit for when things went well, and to remain aloof, as in the Iran-Contra affair, when they did not.

Weisberg traces Reagan’s desire to occlude harsh realities to his childhood in Dixon, Illinois, where his alcoholic father, Jack, had difficulty holding down a job as a salesman and ended up landing a patronage job at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Reagan, urged on by his mother, Nelle, who had a theatrical bent, became president of the high school drama club. After graduating from Eureka College, Reagan was hired by the radio station WOC in Davenport as a staff announcer, where he recreated over 600 Chicago Cubs games over four seasons, complete with ad lib descriptions of the weather, the crowd, and the expressions on the player’s faces. By 1937, Reagan’s good looks and soothing voice prompted Warner Bros. to sign him on as an actor. His big break came in 1940 in the film Knute Rockne—All American. Reagan played George Gipp and rallied the troops by announcing, “Win one for the Gipper.” Another line, Weisberg says, rings truer: “I don’t like people to get too close to me,” Gipp tells Rockne’s wife. World War II, however, disrupted Reagan’s career. With some string pulling, he managed to avoid the draft until March 1942. He served under Jack Warner, who had become a lieutenant colonel, in the newly created First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces.

After World War II, Reagan was cut loose by Warner Bros., but he reinvented himself as a highly paid spokesman for the television show General Electric Theater. The Reagan family lived in a modern ranch house that served as a showcase for GE: it featured a retractable roof, heated swimming pool with underwater lights, intercoms in every room, an electric barbecue, a refrigerated wine cellar, three TVs, three refrigerators, plus a 3,000-pound switch box to handle the electric voltage. Reagan also went on the road to champion the virtues of capitalism to GE’s employees, delivering as many as fourteen speeches a day. It was invaluable training for his future career as a politician. As he proselytized for GE, Reagan also shed his New Deal liberalism. He became apoplectic about the threat big government represented to the free enterprise system and about onerous capital gains taxes. According to Weisberg, “Years before the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act, Reagan was framing continued expansion of federal authority not just as wasteful, but as the primary threat to individual liberty.” By 1980, writes Weisberg, when Reagan became president, 73 percent of Americans said they didn’t trust the federal government to do the right thing. Though Reagan himself did not manage to curb the growth of government during his own presidency, his rhetorical inheritance has had a lasting effect not just on the GOP but also on the country.

In his examination of Reagan’s foreign policy accomplishments, Weisberg adopts something of a revisionist view. The image of Reagan as an unrepentant cold warrior, rooted in his decades-long denunciations of the Red menace, forms another pillar of conservative hagiography about him. But once again, Reagan’s actions in office belie what has become the received wisdom on the right. Weisberg depicts Reagan as following a two-pronged strategy toward the Soviet Union. On the one hand, he approved National Security Decision Directive 75 in January 1983, which laid out a policy to “contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism by competing effectively with the Soviet Union in all international arenas.” But at the same time, Reagan, unlike many of his hardline advisers, truly believed that he could defeat Soviet communism. In an unpublished statement from 1962, Reagan wrote, “Communism is neither an economic or a political system—it is a form of insanity—a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.” In Weisberg’s view, “Reagan’s anticipation of communism’s collapse contradicted the worldview of the neoconservatives he appointed to key positions guiding Cold War strategy.” What undergirded Reagan’s optimism was his conviction that the free enterprise system was bound to triumph in confrontation with Soviet collectivism. By stepping up the arm’s race, he could drive the Soviets into the ground. At the same time, however, Reagan, who had an abhorrence of nuclear weapons dating back to the late 1940s when he campaigned for abolishing the atom bomb, wanted to engage the Kremlin in arms-control talks.

It wasn’t until he appointed George Shultz as secretary of state, however, that Reagan’s more emollient side emerged. Reagan wrote in his diary in April 1983, “Some of the N.S.C. staff are too hard line & don’t think any approach should be made to the Soviets. I think I’m hardline & and will never appease but I do want to try & let them see there is a better world if they’ll show by deed they want to get along with the free world.”

Weisberg may give too much credit to Reagan for the end of the Cold War and not enough to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who allowed the Soviet empire to collapse peacefully. But Reagan’s ability to reconcile opposites surely stood him in good stead when it came to signing sweeping arms-control treaties with Gorbachev and paving the way for the end of the dangerous superpower confrontation. If his Republican heirs want to win one for the Gipper, they might look more closely not at what he said but at what he did.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.