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PRESIDENT REAGAN The Triumph of Imagination
By Richard Reeves
571 pages. $30. Simon & Schuster. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
In an effort to describe President Ronald Reagan, reporters and biographers have resorted to all sorts of metaphors and images. Garry Wills called him "the perfect Scout," a "Doctor Feelgood," "the demagogue as rabble-soother." Lou Cannon wrote that both conservatives and pragmatists in the Reagan White House treated him "as if he were a child monarch in need of constant protection" "they paid homage to him, but gave him no respect." Others have described him as a visionary cowboy, a masterly illusionist, "an authentic phony," an "idiot savant," an "amiable dunce," an "ancient king" and the ultimate actor who confused "real life" with "reel life."
Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, was so flummoxed by this man he described as both "a great president" and "an apparent airhead" that he abandoned his efforts to write a serious life of his subject, and instead produced "Dutch" (1999), an embarrassing hodgepodge of fact and fiction narrated by an imaginary alter ego.
Because Reagan has remained so elusive over the years, more symbol than human being, more mythic figure than flesh-and-blood politician, the reader turns in eager anticipation to Richard Reeves's new book, "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination," the first major portrait of his presidency to be published since his death in 2004.
Reeves's earlier books on President John F. Kennedy and President Richard M. Nixon provided engrossing and illuminating studies of these two endlessly dissected politicians, simply by giving the reader minutely detailed accounts of what each president knew and when he knew it. In this volume, Reeves applies the same technique to Reagan, but once again the Gipper eludes capture perhaps because the details of so much policy making in his White House were delegated, perhaps because so many of his appearances were tightly scripted.
Indeed, this book turns out to be a sorry disappointment: a plodding recitation of events that happened during Reagan's two terms, patched together from official government documents, earlier biographies, memoirs by former administration members, the president's own contemporaneous diaries and copious newspaper accounts. Most of Reeves's observations about Reagan are either poorly supported contrarian assertions or shop-worn cliches (i.e., that Reagan's words were frequently more bellicose than his actions, that he imagined "a gentle God-fearing and whitewashed American past that never was").
Much of this book feels as though it were written on automatic pilot, resulting in a narrative that flattens out the iconic moments in Reagan's presidency like the "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" moment in Berlin and the 40th anniversary of D-Day moment at Pointe du Hoc. The evaluative intelligence that was showcased in Reeves's Nixon book and the first half of his Kennedy book is largely absent here. There are few insights into Reagan's decision- making process that haven't been made before; no fresh assessments of his larger, zeitgeist-y achievements in giving the country a new sense of confidence and hope; and equally little analysis of his often troubled tenure in office. In fact, this volume is at its most useful in reminding us of the disparity between Reagan's mythic reputation as one of the greatest presidents of all time and the rampant speculation, during his second term, about his intellectual disengagement, his memory lapses and his short attention span.
In the early pages of this book, Reeves writes that he does "not subscribe to the many theories of Reagan's passivity" and that the Reagan he found in the course of his research was "a gambler, a bold, determined guy." He adds that "possibly more than any politician of his time he said what he actually thought, often to a fault." This theory is poorly supported. Reeves's unsatisfying book leaves us with those unhelpful adjectives so frequently used to describe the 40th president ringing in our ears: genial, opaque, unknowable.
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