Review

President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination

by Richard Reeves



The subtitle of this book is important. By "imagination" Richard
Reeves means the combination of idealistic vision, dogged
determination and sheer likeability that made Ronald Reagan so
popular despite his obvious intellectual limitations and his
capacity for mixing fact and fiction in public statements.

Reeves sums up the man: He "knew how to be President" and he also
understood that his most important job was to lead the nation, not
just to manage the government.

Reeves admits up front that he does not share Reagan's
right-leaning political philosophy and tries to give him the
benefit of the doubt when he can. Nonetheless, the portrait that
emerges is one of a man with a limited grasp of the intricacies of
world affairs and increasingly out of touch with important events
that were swirling around him. He was "a man who knew what he
believed" --- even when what he believed was palpably wrong. The
public aura of adulation that grew up around him was sustained,
says Reeves, by fiercely protective aides who told him what to say,
protected him from adversaries and stage-managed his public
appearances.

One major theme that emerges from these pages --- and the reader
may fear that it applies to many another recent President --- is
the huge difference between what the public is told and the reality
of their government's private actions. We read of top-level
officials dishing out facts and figures that they know to be false,
of covert actions undertaken and then denied, of quotes made up out
of whole cloth by press secretaries. Am I the only reader
naïve enough to find all this discouraging?

This book is devoted entirely to the eight years of Reagan's
Presidency. It is thoroughly researched and engagingly written. All
the big moments of Reagan's tenure are there: Iran-Contra, the
Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev, Bitburg, "Star Wars," the
assassination attempt of 1981.

Reagan is portrayed as a man driven by a few simplistic ideas ---
America as a land specially favored by God, government as the
problem rather than the solution, anyone who disagreed with him as
at best deluded and at worst evil. There is a colorful gallery of
villains --- Alexander Haig, arrogant and power-mad; Oliver North,
duplicitous and self-righteous; Donald Regan, the officious
treasury secretary and (later) chief of staff; hapless conspirators
like John Poindexter and Robert MacFarlane. And yes, the strong
influence exerted on Reagan by his iron-willed wife is given full
play.

Reagan's inability to focus on what was going on around him,
according to Reeves, reached alarming proportions toward the end of
his second term and kept his aides scurrying, first to help him
function and then to keep his condition from becoming public. There
is a rich lode of anecdotes, some of them relayed by former Reagan
staffers who wrote books after leaving their jobs: Reagan falling
asleep during a meeting with the Pope, his wife hurling a vulgar
epithet at the press, five-year-old Chelsea Clinton writing to urge
Reagan not to visit the Bitburg cemetery ("Dear Mr. President: I
have seen The Sound of Music. The Nazis don't look like nice
people...").

Try though he does, on balance Richard Reeves does not paint a
favorable picture of Ronald Reagan. His book is not a hatchet job
by any means, but it steadily undermines the aura of sainthood that
admirers have created around Reagan. Reeves's very last sentence
seems to sum up his own attitude by quoting a fellow journalist
watching the elaborate funeral ceremonies that followed Reagan's
death in 2004: "God, this is impressive --- but the man they're
talking about is not the President I covered every day."

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 19, 2011

President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination
by Richard Reeves

  • Publication Date: December 5, 2006
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1416531912
  • ISBN-13: 9781416531913