H.W. Brands is the author of “Reagan: The Life.” His next book, “Heirs of the Founders,” will be published in November.
Every biography is a life-and-times, but the genre comes in two varieties, reflecting the backgrounds of the two schools of writers who produce them. Journalist-biographers typically emphasize the life, while historian-biographers pay as much attention to the times. The former favor detail and idiosyncrasy; the latter look for structure and themes.
Bob Spitz’s biography of Ronald Reagan falls into the first camp, with a twist. Journalists have taken on Reagan before, with Lou Cannon achieving the greatest success with his two-volume treatment of Reagan’s governorship in California and his presidency. Edmund Morris had the greatest notoriety, with his brilliantly self-indulgent, semi-fictionalized “Dutch.”
But Spitz brings something to Reagan lacking in Cannon and Morris: experience in celebrity journalism. He has written biographies of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Julia Child; why not Reagan? Reagan is unusual among presidents — but, since 2017, not unique — in having been an actor before holding public office. He never quite topped the marquee during his Hollywood days in the 1930s and 1940s, but his role as host of the popular television show “GE Theater” made him one of the nation’s most recognizable figures by the 1960s.
Reagan was well into his 50s before he entered politics. This late start plays to Spitz’s strength. No biographer has dug as deeply or with such verve into the making of Reagan the star. Spitz recounts Reagan’s boyhood in Dixon, Ill., including such moments as when he discovered that the reason he couldn’t catch a baseball was not that he was a klutz but a myope. Spitz tells of the mysterious disappearance of Reagan’s sweetheart Margaret Cleaver for several months during their time at Eureka College. She informed Eureka that she was taking classes at the University of Illinois. Spitz tracked her, nearly a century later, and discovered that she was lying. The university had no record of her attending. An official there told Spitz, “She could have gone away to have a child — or an abortion.” Spitz strokes his chin noncommittally. “It remains a possibility,” he writes.
The prose is energetic and engaging, with only occasional lapses into fan-mag mode. Reagan was called “Dutch” from boyhood — Spitz gives several explanations, again without committing — and in his teens he worked as a lifeguard at a creekside park in Dixon. He wore “a skintight one-piece tank with ‘lifeguard’ stenciled across the front,” Spitz tells us. The girls noticed. “Dutch was a magnet for gushing teenage beauties who mooned over his studly appeal.”
Reagan’s Hollywood years have been thoroughly covered before; Spitz offers fewer revelations than reminders. A particularly useful reminder is that Hollywood, for all its liberal reputation, has long included what Spitz calls “fiercely conservative Republicans.” Robert Taylor was a role model for Reagan’s anti-communism; George Murphy pioneered the path from film to national politics, as a Republican senator.
The journalist in Spitz is particularly evident in his coverage of the Reagan presidency. He touches the essential bases of policy: tax cuts and tax reform, deregulation of business, immigration reform, the arms buildup of the first term and arms control of the second, the summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Iran-contra affair, and so on. His sourcing shows a strong preference for interviews over archives. This lends a personal immediacy to his accounts of crucial meetings and decisions, which surviving participants describe. But memories can be slippery, especially decades after the fact, and readers might have been reassured if Spitz had taken greater pains to cross-check the memories with the increasingly available documentary record.
Spitz makes no large claims about the meaning of the Reagan presidency. That’s not his interest or purpose. But inferences can be drawn. A first involves the role of character in a successful presidency. Character is complicated. Reagan was no model father to his children. Yet the public-facing part of his character made him a model president. “His most endearing aspect was his fundamental decency,” observed George Shultz, Reagan’s second secretary of state. “He appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears, to their confidence rather than their doubts.’ Reagan’s respect for the office he held was obvious even to those who disagreed with his policies; his reverence for the values of American democracy made the United States a beacon of hope to people struggling to escape the smothering grasp of communism.
Reagan’s administration was no less dysfunctional than many others; when members bailed or were tossed out, they wrote memoirs that settled scores. Donald Regan, Reagan’s second chief of staff, spilled the story of Nancy Reagan’s astrologer after she blamed him for Iran-contra and had him fired. In the case of David Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director, the unflattering news started leaking while Stockman still held his job. But for all the nasty things they said about one another, Reagan’s team had nothing but good to relate about the character and commitment of their boss.
A second inference is that preparation matters. Reagan never pretended to be a deep thinker or a policy maven. But he knew a lot more about policy than his critics wanted to believe. He had been thinking, writing and speaking about policy issues for almost three decades before becoming president. For eight years of that time, he had been governor of the nation’s largest state. His focus on certain topics made a hash of others. For Reagan, all roads in foreign affairs ran to the Cold War. His preoccupation with communism helped push the Soviet system toward its demise, but it fostered brutality in Central America that scarred that region for decades.
Yet Reagan knew what he wanted, and his policy was consistent from day to day, year to year. His goals were to shrink government at home and defeat communism abroad. He didn’t accomplish the first. He sought tax cuts and spending cuts, but settled for the tax cuts, transforming the Republicans from the party of fiscal discipline to the party of perpetual war on taxes.
He largely succeeded in defeating communism, although crucial work remained for his successor. Reagan, in this book and elsewhere, receives too much credit for standing at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and bellowing, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” while George H.W. Bush receives too little for ensuring that when the wall finally did fall, it didn’t bring down the rest of Europe.
In history, there is no such thing as a man for all seasons. History buffs often wish their heroes could leap from the past and set the present aright. The nation needs another Hamilton, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, they believe. In the case of Reagan, many Republicans — and these days, not a few Democrats — wish the Gipper could return for another march down the field.
But this magical thinking seriously misconstrues the nature of democratic leadership. Reagan would make a better president than Donald Trump; there’s no question about that. Almost anyone would. But in our present circumstances, Reagan could never be president. Americans get the presidents they deserve. Trump won election by giving enough voters in the right places what they wanted. They didn’t want decency; they didn’t want consistency; they didn’t want the traits that made Reagan an effective president.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. It’s not even in our celebrities. It’s in ourselves.
By Bob Spitz
Penguin Press. 863 pp. $35