President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination
by Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster. 592 pp. $28.00
Ambivalence is neither unusual nor objectionable in a biographical study—life, after all, is seldom straightforward. But Richard Reeves’s treatment of the presidency of Ronald Reagan is ambivalent to the point of incoherence. From beginning to end, Reeves, formerly a chief political correspondent for the New York Times, wanders inconclusively both in the way he presents the story of Reagan’s two terms in office and in his judgment of those eight years.
The muddle starts with the subtitle. “The Triumph of Imagination,” as Reeves discusses it in his introduction, has a double meaning. Negatively, it is Reagan’s vision of “a gentle God-fearing and whitewashed American past that never was, that he persuaded himself and many others was real and wonderful.” More positive is Reagan’s image of “an American future of lower taxes, less government, . . . military superiority, and a world where Americans would walk proudly and safely on the meanest streets and trails of the world.”
At first glance, this seems balanced and clear. But then one pauses to reflect: what precisely does the reference to walking proudly on mean streets signify? And what, other than gratuitous denigration, is added by the words that immediately follow: “[Reagan] believed everyone admired or envied Americans—if they did not, they were evil”? As is true in so much of this book, the description is muddy, the implication obscure but deprecating.
President Reagan is similar in many respects to earlier books by Reeves on the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Its 23 chapters, each of them headed by a specific date, attempt a chronological account of a President’s term in office without—aside from the brief introduction and the even briefer afterword—offering much in the way of analysis. The intent, one gathers, is to say to the reader, “This is what happened, make of it what you will.”
The problem with this approach is not that Reeves and his research assistants have failed to do their homework. They have read pretty much all there is to read, in primary and secondary sources alike, about the Reagan presidency, and Reeves’s extensive interviews with those who knew Reagan add immediacy to the narrative. Nor, despite Reeves’s professed liberal inclinations, his indulgence in petty put-downs (it seems that no presidential gaffe goes unrecorded), and his too frequent reliance on tendentious sources, is the book oblivious to Reagan’s strengths.
The President who emerges in these pages has redeeming qualities. If Reagan was guilty, in Reeves’s estimate, of “dumbing down the nation’s dialogue,” he also “knew how to be President.” Reagan carried the weight of the office lightly; when Jimmy Carter presumed to instruct him on its burdens, Reagan concluded that there must be “something wrong with Carter.” Reeves also makes the shrewd point that Reagan was “staff-dependent but not staff-driven.” He delegated widely—sometimes recklessly—but on the issues that counted to him he went his own way.
Reeves further acknowledges, though seldom straightforwardly, Reagan’s impressive personal and political qualities: his mastery of Congress, command of public opinion, skills as an international negotiator, and, most of all, sheer likability. Here, his behavior after the attempt on his life by John Hinckley in 1981 was crucial. People do not rehearse for near-death experiences, and Reagan’s noble response to the shooting made Americans realize that they had in their leader not simply a Hollywood actor but a man of wit, character, and courage.
Reeves himself avoids such general evaluations. Perhaps the major lesson one gleans from his detailed recounting is unintended and indirect: in appraising a President, it is a great mistake to put the short view ahead of the long. Reeves makes heavy use of contemporary media accounts and editorial reactions, enabling one to see in retrospect how journalism’s first draft of history is by its very nature so often rough and partial, riddled with exaggeration and distorted by bias. Most major media outlets in the 1980’s were, at the least, suspicious of Reagan. Their regular sightings of imminent disaster for an administration that was, by most present reckonings, highly successful should provide a cautionary lesson to today’s observers.
When one lifts one’s attention, as Reeves seldom does, from what happened day by day to what has endured, it is not difficult to outline the major themes and results of the Reagan presidency. In domestic policy, his was a program of limited government, federalism, reliance on individual responsibility and voluntary associations, reduced government spending, and, most fundamentally, lower tax rates. Reagan did not win everywhere, but in launching a counterrevolution against New Deal assumptions of the necessity and beneficence of ever-expanding government, he did change the terms of debate of American politics. By the end of his presidency, there were more self-proclaimed conservatives in America than there were liberals, and as many Republicans as Democrats. It was a remarkable political transformation.
In was in defense and foreign policy that Reagan most stubbornly followed his own instincts. On one issue after another—Grenada, Central America, the nuclear-freeze movement, arms negotiations—he opposed much of the conventional wisdom of the foreign-policy establishment. This was obvious above all in his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), where he took on not just the Democrats but much of his own administration. In what his critics derided as “star wars,” he challenged the moral and strategic logic of Mutual Assured Destruction that had undergirded nuclear policy throughout most of the cold war. He also put the fear of God into the USSR and helped to bring it down. He knew that Mikhail Gorbachev knew that the Soviet Union could not afford strategically to let American experiments with SDI go unchallenged but that it also could not afford financially to mount such a challenge. As Reeves understands, SDI, feasible or not, was “the ultimate bargaining chip,” even if Reagan considered it far more than that, an instrument for ending the nuclear competition altogether.
Reagan did not, of course, get everything right, either foreign or domestic. There were plenty of blunders along the way, the Iran-contra affair most notably. There it appears that Reagan allowed his emotional distress over the plight of American hostages to lead him into egregious policy errors. Yet even in this case the contemporary media response appears, in hindsight, more than a little exaggerated. As the minority report of the congressional committee investigating the issue concluded: “There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up.”
In the end, Ronald Reagan was, above all, an American exceptionalist. He believed in the American Dream, even—and here things could get scary—in America’s divine mission. His image of the U.S. as a biblical “city on a hill” was no throwaway line. But he never presumed that he had providential knowledge or privilege. He enlisted his unabashed patriotism in the cause of restoring an American confidence that had been badly shaken by the upheavals of the 60’s and the malaise of the 70’s. Reagan’s program of conservative restorationism achieved its political purpose: liberals were driven to distraction by his reelection theme of “morning in America,” but he rode it to a huge victory, and despite the vicissitudes of his second term, he left office on a wave of public approval.
But whatever one thinks of the wisdom of Reagan’s policies or the success of his efforts, it is sadly ironic that in this volume the story of what he tried to do is so inadequately told. In this respect, Reeves’s final paragraph is as unsatisfying as his introduction. Typically without transition from what precedes it (Reeves is a choppy writer with a predilection for run-on sentences), it tells of the week-long national mourning that followed Reagan’s death on June 5, 2004, and ends:
“God, this is impressive,” said Steven Weisman, a New York Times White House correspondent during the Reagan years. “But the man they’re talking about is not the President I covered every day.”
And that’s it. The reader is left wondering, after some 500 pages, what the reality of Reagan’s presidency was and what comment about it would have been appropriate. As throughout, Reeves’s tone here is vaguely hostile toward Reagan, but no indictment is ever specified. Torn as the book is between Reeves’s obvious disapproval of Reagan’s policies and his grudging appreciation of what he accomplished, and never stopping to offer a considered judgment, President Reagan ends in the same muddle that it has been all along.