The Great Communicator

President Reagan after a speech on foreign affairs in Philadelphia on Oct. 16, 1981
President Reagan after a speech on foreign affairs in Philadelphia on Oct. 16, 1981 (Billy Ingraham/ap)
Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, January 8, 2006


The Triumph of Imagination

By Richard Reeves

Simon & Schuster. 571 pp. $30

He finally got it. In the end, after the tantrums, after hanging up on Nancy, after hearing about his own firing from a CNN report, Donald Regan at last came to see the truth about Ronald Reagan, the man he served as secretary of the treasury and chief of staff.

"What was the biggest problem in the White House when you were there?" the biographer Richard Reeves asked Regan.

"Everyone there thought he was smarter than the President," Regan replied.

"Including you?"

"Especially me."

That brief exchange tells us much about Reeves's illuminating new President Reagan and about a significant shift in elite opinion about our 40th president. Long dismissed and derided by the upper reaches of the press and by denizens of the blue-state bubble, the man who swept two national elections, helped bring down the Soviet Union and fundamentally changed the terms of the American debate over government is no longer being viewed as "an unwitting tool of a manipulative staff," in Reeves's phrase. In a way, Reeves took up "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau's challenge and went "In Search of Reagan's Brain." He found a formidable one.

President Reagan marks a surrender of sorts. The establishment has, for the moment at least, given in and decided that Reagan was a great historical figure after all. That Reeves arrived at such a conclusion is particularly notable. Twenty years ago, in 1985, he published The Reagan Detour , arguing that "the Reagan years would be a detour, necessary if sometimes nasty, in the long progression of American liberal democracy."

As it turned out, Reagan's America was neither coldly conservative nor intractably hawkish, and we are still living in the nation he seduced and shaped. Before him, it was difficult to imagine a Democratic president saying, "The era of big government is over," but in 1995, Bill Clinton did, and no Democrat since has tried very hard to make a case for traditional 20th-century American liberalism.

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