A significant moment in the history of American popular culture is upon us. Between now and Christmas, the best-seller list is going to witness an epic struggle between "Millie's Book," the memoirs of the White House dog, as "dictated to" Barbara Bush, and "An American Life," the autobiography of Ronald Reagan.
Both these books are regarded as nonfiction, which is as it should be. One has as good a claim to being based on fact as the other. There is a dog in the White House kennel who answers to the name of Millie, and there was, for eight years, a president who was called Ronald Reagan. Or more accurately, there was a Ronald Reagan in the White House who was called the president.
What will fascinate the historians of this period is that Reagan, like Millie and her mistress, the First Lady, understands that his standing as a figure in popular culture depends mainly on the myth he created of himself. His book is a self-sculptured statue of Ronald Reagan as Tom Sawyer, Tom Mix and Tom Terrific. It deals with Reagan as Folk Hero far more than it focuses on his acts and deeds as chief executive, commander in chief, first legislator or even great communicator.
The autobiography just published by Simon and Schuster is of minimal help in understanding the private Reagan. It is endlessly frustrating as a source of information or insights into eight years of a quite important presidency. For that, we will have to await the work of Lou Cannon, Edmund Morris and other serious students of the Reagan presidency.
Reagan's book mainly demonstrates, in valedictory form, how well he mastered the creation of the public figure called Ronald Reagan. From the bookish, nearsighted, insecure son of an alcoholic father, who refashioned himself as a regular-fellow jock and movie star, to the New Deal liberal who talked himself into being the icon of the conservative revolution, Reagan has devoted most of his eight decades to remaking not the nation or the world but himself.
It is a fact that he also had enormous impact on California, the United States and the world. But that's not his story, and he is too successful a storyteller to change the script just for the sake of helping history understand how he did play his very large role in the final third of this century. He is content to let others sort that out for themselves. What he wants to do himself is the self-portrait of his favorite creation, Ronald Reagan.
In that respect, Reagan has treated the collaborator on his memoir, Robert Lindsey, and the team of editors exactly as he treated every interviewer or journalist who tried to probe behind the figure he had created for himself. Interviews invariably produced either anecdotes or regurgitated chunks of Reagan speech rhetoric. And that's all Lindsey and the Simon and Schuster team were able to coax from him as well.
It's tempting to say that's all there is to be found -- that once you get past the charm, the smoothness, the well-modulated ambition and the small store of political ideas, you have found everything that Reagan has to tell you. But that is not the case at all.
Reagan represents so many powerful and continuing forces and elements in American society and politics that he is eminently worthy of study -- even if he refuses entirely, as he does again in this book, to contribute to the process. Among other things, he embodies the late 20th century revolt against 50 years of domestic policy aimed at reducing economic and racial inequality. He also represents the culmination of almost 50 years of foreign policy dominated by fear of Communist totalitarianism ("the evil empire") and the dramatic reversal of that policy when Mikhail Gorbachev donned the emperor's new clothes.
Beyond that, Reagan also embodies the relocation of national political power to the Sunbelt and the replacement of political machines by public-relations and marketing specialists. In one sense, he represents the triumph of the political amateur over the political professional. In another sense, not acknowledged even remotely in this memoir, he and his administration embody the new form of financial/political corruption characteristic of this age.
None of this, sadly, is in Reagan's book on Reagan. As a memoir of the man, it has the built-in limitations of its print format. The real record of Reagan's life is not in this book. It exists in the miles of tape of his films, his campaigns and his presidency.
There, in the medium of which he was the true master, he is preserved as he should be -- the wonderful half-whispered voice, the wink, the perfect posture, the glance exchanged with Nancy, the moisture in the corner of his eye as he repeats one of his favorite sentimental or patriotic stories.
Those tapes -- not this challenger to "Millie's Book" -- are his true memorial. And the history of his presidency will have to be written by others.