The Great Communicator
A revisionist profile of Reagan shows a formidable leader who molded reality to suit his purposes.

Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, January 8, 2006

PRESIDENT REAGAN

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.

As in two earlier works -- the excellent President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993), and President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001), a very strong account that strangely stopped the day senior White House advisers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned -- Reeves puts a premium on evidence of what the president knew and did moment by moment. Rich in anecdote yet sparingly written, President Reagan puts us in the room with a president who lived what Reeves calls a "life imagined." Like Winston Churchill, Reagan had a remarkable capacity to recast reality to suit his emotional and political purposes.

The child of a pious, theatrical mother and an alcoholic Midwestern shoe salesman, Reagan did not have the happiest of childhoods. In the winter of 1922, when "Dutch" was 11, he found his father, Jack, passed out on the front porch. "He was drunk, dead to the world," Reagan recalled. The boy's first instinct, he admitted, was to "pretend he wasn't there." Something else, though, stirred in him on that cold night. This was the time to take command, "the first moment of accepting responsibility." So he saved the old man, bringing him in out of the cold.

Reagan liked playing the rescuer. His years as a lifeguard on the Rock River were the stuff of legend -- a legend Reagan carefully cultivated even then. When he pulled a swimmer from danger, Reagan would put a notch on a log, in much the same way he would later keep track of his box office in Hollywood or count votes in Sacramento and Washington. From his youth forward, he was never offstage for long. Moving from lifeguard to sportscaster to movie star to union president to GE spokesman to TV host to governor to president, he undertook roles in which he was the central player -- and he was never, as a bitter House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill once said, "lazy and short-sighted." Reagan may not have been the most brilliant man in the room, but he was generally the most powerful, and that he made his rise through the world look so effortless is a tribute to his grace. As for his alleged short-sightededness -- well, you do not hear many Americans speaking of how we are living in the long shadow of Tip O'Neill.

The Reagan that Reeves gives us is a man who did more real work in the White House than many people believed at the time. Reagan hit the phones to sell his tax cuts and programs to Congress, representative by representative, recording his impressions of each call. He was, Reeves reports, the first president since Eisenhower to sit through a nuclear wargame. He understood the importance of words -- not just images, as his critics reflexively say, but words. He said what he thought, Reeves writes, perhaps more than any other politician of the era. (He had a simple strategy for dealing with the Soviets, he said: "We win, they lose!")

Though Reeves argues Reagan was a man not of vision but of imagination, the two are inseparable, at least in Reagan's case. Reagan imagined the world he would like to make, and by convincing so many others of the virtues of that world, he led us there -- not only in fantasy but in reality, by tough, one-on-one negotiation with a Democratic House of Representatives and the Kremlin. To dream it takes imagination; to make it happen, as Reagan did, requires vision.

He thought big but could also be an effective retail politician. When Jerry Falwell attacked the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) remarked, "Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass." Reagan probably agreed but took what Reeves calls a "less direct" approach. In a call to Falwell, Reagan said: "Jerry, I am going to put forth a lady on the Supreme Court. You don't know anything about her. Nobody does, but I want you to trust my judgment on this one." Falwell immediately caved. "I'll do that, sir," he replied.

The foibles are all here, too. Reagan found refuge in Hollywood stories when he was uncomfortable or wanted to deflect something or someone. On Inauguration Day in 1981, on the awkward ride with President Carter up Pennsylvania Avenue, Reagan told old Tinseltown tales. Afterward Carter asked his communications director, Gerald Rafshoon: "He kept talking about Jack Warner. Who's Jack Warner?" Accustomed to rotating movie casts and crews, Reagan broadly referred to those around him as "the fellas," never forging intimate personal bonds with those who served him. (Nancy was all he needed.) Once, when his longtime aide and image-meister Michael Deaver heard Reagan say "Thank you," Deaver figured it was "about the third time in twenty years he had heard Reagan use those words in private." When an aide wrote in a memo for the president about "members of the FDR" -- the Spanish acronym for the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the political arm of El Salvador's insurgents -- Richard V. Allen, then the national security adviser, sent it back with an irked note: "How many times must I mention that items like 'FDR' are not household terms for the President? Use an asterisk and explain, dammit!"

The drama is vivid throughout. There is White House aide Richard Darman in the Situation Room on the day Reagan was shot, collecting documents about invoking the 25th Amendment and locking them in his safe. There is Secretary of State Alexander Haig, in an early discussion of Cuban influence in Central America, telling Reagan, "Give me the word and I'll turn that island into a [expletive] parking lot." (A shocked Deaver tried to make sure the president was never left alone with his chief diplomat.) There is Reagan himself, worn down by the first lady's relentless talk about this problem or that aide, barking, "That's enough, Nancy!" There is pollster Richard Wirthlin telling the president in early 1983 that his approval rating has hit its lowest point ever, prompting Reagan to reply with a smile: "I know what I can do about that. I'll go out and get shot again." There is the lovely detail that, as Reagan finished calling the Soviet Union "the focus of evil in the modern world" in a March 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, the band struck up "Onward, Christian Soldiers." There is a churlish president, after blowing the first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, grumbling, "If I'd had as much make-up as he did I would have looked younger, too." And there is Reagan in Reykjavik murmuring at a televised image of Mikhail Gorbachev's arrival in Iceland for their 1986 summit, "When you stop trying to take over the world, then maybe we can do some business."

Reagan had his dark hours too. He mangled facts; caricatured welfare recipients; opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered for trying to overthrow Jim Crow; presided over the grim recession of 1982-83; seemed uncaring about the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis; and, in the Iran-contra scandal, came close to -- and may have committed -- impeachable offenses. It is Reeves's achievement that Reagan's complexities and contradictions seem plausible; we can see him in full measure, the good and the bad.

This book could also be usefully read at the highest levels of the Bush administration. Reagan was much more complicated than the Gipper of popular conservative mythology. He was not an uncompromising, inflexible cold warrior who ignored the natterings of critics and the press. He was, instead, a deft negotiator -- the old Screen Actors Guild president doing his thing. Moreover, through Nancy, he knew what Washington was saying about him -- and corrected course when he had to.

In April 1986, at a Library of Congress symposium on the presidency, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger -- a man, Reeves points out, who had been "routinely attacked by Ronald Reagan over the years" for insufficient idealism in foreign policy -- said: "You ask yourself 'How did it ever occur to anybody that Reagan should be governor, much less President?' On the other hand, you have to say also that a man who dominated California for eight years, and now dominates the American political process for five and a half years, as he has, cannot be a trivial figure. It is perfectly possible history will judge Reagan as a most significant President."

It will indeed. Readers are in Reeves's debt for this entertaining, deeply reported and revealing portrait of a man destined to be in death what he was in life: a figure of enduring fascination.

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of the forthcoming "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company