A review of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, by Richard Reeves

Ronald Reagan was not overly concerned with the way historians would treat him. Midway through his presidency, he told an advisor, "First of all, the history will probably get distorted when it's written. And I won't be around to read it." History nevertheless promises to be obsessed with him—to date, nearly a thousand books have been written to explain one or another aspect of Reagan's rise from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power and influence. But somehow we still have difficulty taking the measure of this political figure, who at first appears wholly transparent, yet remains vexingly elusive.

Historians have been hard on Reagan. In several widely reported rankings of the presidents undertaken since he left office, they rate him a mediocre leader. But this new book by Richard Reeves, a practicing journalist turned presidential scholar who has written well-received studies of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, indicates that as the partisan fevers of the 1980s cool, historians are beginning to take a more temperate view of the Reagan presidency. At the same time, Reeves's engaging study shows that in giving the Gipper his due, scholars still have a ways to go.

Reeves follows Reagan chronologically from Inauguration Day, 1981, to his Farewell Address in January 1989, attempting "to reconstruct a President's world from his own perspective." His approach is especially effective in conveying the inherently hectic nature of presidential leadership, even in an administration with a tightly focused agenda and a notoriously loose presidential management style. The reader comes quickly to appreciate that at the White House, the problems just keep coming, and seldom in orderly fashion or tidy shape. A masterly writer, Reeves keeps things straight, avoids repetition, and provides just enough background information to enable the reader to grasp the significance of developments as they unfold.

Reagan emerges in these pages as a more formidable figure than the dotty stick man constructed by his political opponents and contemporary critics. Although he was no intellectual, Reagan did "see the world in terms of ideas," Reeves argues, and had a real talent for rendering his thought into compelling images and narratives. The quality of the ideas varied, however, and Reeves complains that in many cases Reagan dumbed-down the national dialogue with his penchant for oversimplification and factual misstatement. Yet the author acknowledges that Reagan saw things that others missed, such as the Soviet economy's disarray, and envisioned what many thought impossible, such as the reduction of the superpowers' nuclear arsenals.

Reeves concludes that "Reagan was not a man of vision, he was a man of imagination," but fails to explain what this invidious distinction means, though he suggests that the president's imagination ran backward more often than forward, toward a halcyon past he sought to recreate. Still, Reagan comes across as a more engaged and forceful leader than was commonly understood at the time. He was "staff-dependent but not staff-driven" and similarly wife-dependent but not wife-driven. He was his own man and in charge on the issues that mattered to him. He had the self-assurance to delegate responsibility freely—perhaps too much so—but also the self-confidence to make difficult decisions and stick to them, e.g., his firing of the striking PATCO air-controllers, or his firm support of the Federal Reserve's painful (but ultimately successful) war on inflation. As for the charge that he was merely an actor following a script prepared by his handlers, Reeves notes White House Chief of Staff James Baker's telling observation that the president "treats us all the same, as hired help."

Reagan's aging became increasingly noticeable during his second term. Despite a strong constitution and the First Lady's well-known protective efforts, he slowed discernibly. The ravages were those of age, not, so far as we know, the Alzheimer's disease that later afflicted him. In 1986, when he was 75, the speechwriter Peggy Noonan noted his "bigness and fitness, but also his frailty. I understood that he was aging. The lion in winter." The image was appropriate and occurred to others. Reagan, who had taken good care of himself since his movie days, seemed to husband his diminishing resources even more than before, and managed still to surprise those who were prepared to write him off. Reeves recounts that a Russian who observed Reagan at two summit meetings in the second term likened him to an aging lion, lazily sunning himself and gazing vaguely at an antelope on the horizon. As the antelope comes closer, the lion dozes without apparent interest. "He doesn't move when the antelope stops only ten feet away, that's too far. At eight feet, the lion suddenly comes to life! —Reagan, the negotiator, suddenly fills the room."

Despite such insights, the book is not a biography. Reeves concentrates not on the inner man but rather on Reagan's engagement with public affairs, trying to get at what Reagan's "official" biographer, Edmund Morris, missed almost entirely. And Reeves largely succeeds, through his vivid descriptions of the complexities of U.S. policy in Central America, the fiasco of America's involvement in Lebanon, the convolutions of the Iran-Contra affair, and so forth. Nevertheless, Reeves stumbles on several key points. One is economic policy, where his fascination with the era's spectacular budget deficits causes him to overlook the president's fundamental reorientation of economic policy—away from the demand-centered, macroeconomic Keynesianism, which had failed as both theory and policy amidst the stagflation of the 1970s, to a newly rediscovered supply-centered microeconomics that emphasized markets and incentives. The deficits that accompanied this theoretical and political shift were indeed significant, but they constituted only part of a larger story of success. Reaganomics (as its opponents derisively labeled it) —together with nascent globalization, the dawning of the Information Age, and a major restructuring of the corporate economy facilitated by Reagan's antitrust policy—laid the basis for an unprecedented two-decade-long economic boom. In part because Reeves's assessment rests largely on contemporary journalistic accounts, in this crucial area he misses the forest for the trees.

Reagan also deserves more credit for his Cold War achievements than he receives here. Reeves suggests that the president's need to bolster his political fortunes at home—first in response to an increasingly widespread public fear of nuclear war in the run-up to the 1984 election, and later in response to the political fallout from the Iran-Contra scandal—drove him to engage in the summitry and to negotiate the arms-control agreements that together effectively brought an end to the Cold War. To be sure, the so-called pragmatists among Reagan's advisors were attentive to the domestic political implications of Cold War tensions. Indeed, throughout his public career, Reagan balanced his policy aims and his electoral ambitions. But contrary to Reeves, Reagan had signaled a crucial shift—from an emphasis on confrontation to a willingness to negotiate—as early as January 1984, when in a speech on Soviet-American relations televised live to Europe, he spoke sentimentally of two mythical couples, the Americans Jim and Sally and their Soviet counterparts Ivan and Anya, who, if thrown together by chance, would quickly discover their shared humanity.

Reagan's pivot resulted not from electoral calculation, but from his concern over the possibility of accidental nuclear war and, more importantly, his optimistic assessment that the time had come to execute the plan he had articulated from the outset of his presidency—to negotiate with the Soviets from a reestablished position of military strength. Reagan simply did what he had consistently told everyone he intended to do. In the end, his deft, determined use of power, combined with his willingness to negotiate shrewdly and forcefully, proved decisive.

The United States and the West won the Cold War. The Soviet Union lost, and its political system expired. Reeves, however, is ambivalent about how much credit is due Reagan, and in the end gives him too little. Margaret Thatcher's oft-quoted tribute—that Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot—is admittedly too pat. Gorbachev, for one, deserves much credit for letting the Soviet imperium slip away peacefully. For that great deed he is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him in 1990. But we should never forget that Gorbachev's reforms were designed to save Soviet Communism and its empire, not hasten their demise.

The Cold War ended on American terms, according to a script written in Washington, not Moscow. Back in 1978, Ronald Reagan—then a private citizen well past retirement age, with political ambitions but less than shining electoral prospects—had lightheartedly informed his foreign policy advisor Richard Allen that he had a simple idea for U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union: "It is this: we win and they lose. What do you think of that?" To the surprise of experts and ordinary people around the world, and to Richard Reeves's lingering disbelief, Reagan made it happen.