Reagan: An American Journey
by Bob Spitz
Penguin Press, 2018
Bob Spitz joins the latest publishing season of doorstop biographies with his new book, Reagan: An American Journey, an 800-page life of Ronald Reagan, and although the choice of subject is worrying, because biographies of Reagan regularly melt into puddles of treacle the closer they get to the heat of the autumn book-buying surge, the biographer couldn't be more cheering: Spitz has written first-rate biographies of Julia Child and Bob Dylan and an absolutely stellar biography of the Beatles.
Even so, political biographies are a different battlefield entirely from the world of entertainment, although Reagan was the 20th century's most prominent example of the blending of the two. The Reagan story, boy born in small-town American Midwest, reliable B-list Hollywood star, governor of California, fortieth President of the United States, makes for dramatic reading in any context but lends itself to mythologizing. And since Reagan himself did more of that mythologizing than anybody else, and since most of that mythology has hardened in the last 30 years into a kind of Authorized Version, any Reagan biographer, much less one like Spitz allowing his work to be called the first “fully post-partisan” life of the man yet written, must work a kind of balancing act with the facts on one side and the Faith on the other.
As readers of his past biographies will know to expect, Spitz is fantastically adroit at painting personalities, and the Reagan story gives him a sprawling cast of characters more varied and vivid than almost any other period in American history. When he's working with that cast of characters, Spitz is clearly enjoying himself. Writing, for instance, about Barbara Bush campaigning for Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, he relishes the side-by-side comparison between frumpy, folksy Bush and glacial, stiletto-thin Nancy Reagan. “There were no designer dresses in [Barbara Bush's] trousseau, she didn't travel with her hairdresser or diet religiously or factor in the astrological details,” he writes. “Barbara Bush smiled engagingly, warmly, in a crowd of housewives … but insiders knew she was a warrior who could go nose-to-nose with Nancy Reagan.” And immediately we're told: “Nancy Reagan sensed this and picked up her pace. She was determined not to be outmatched by a jolly, silver-haired cookie-baking mercenary.” Any mention of a “jolly, silver-haired cookie-baking mercenary” in an 800-page work of nonfiction is a good sign that the author didn't allow the mind-boggling work of creating such a book to entirely extinguish the fun of the task. That's always encouraging.
The end notes of the book make the extent of that mind-boggling work clear. As in his previous biographies, Spitz has not only pored over a veritable mountain of written sources but he's also done extensive interviews with as many Reagan-era survivors as would speak to him. The combination gives the scholarly underpinning of his book a feel of very welcome solidity, even if some readers will be a bit queasy with the amount of trust placed in the exhaustively-vetted and self-exculpatory published memoirs of the large troupe of federally-indicted grandees of the Reagan administration. Fortunately, Spitz leans less on this particular sub-species of primary document than any previous Reagan biographer, preferring instead to consult the newspapers of the day, or the rare contemporary reminiscence that towers over the rest (in this light the frequent references to George Shultz's Turmoil and Triumph are pleasing rather than the reverse).
And although Reagan: An American Journey covers the whole long story of its subject's life and times, the natural focal point will be the 200 pages devoted to Reagan's presidency. “Post-partisan” is all well and good, but the full reality of it is as impossible in 2018 as it was in 1988; every biography of Ronald Reagan will inevitably also be a verdict on President Reagan. Spitz can't escape this; if anything, it's a miracle he manages to avoid it as often or for as long as he does. Reagan: An American Journey is remarkable for the three-dimensional humanity it reveals in its subject, but even so, we wouldn't be reading our 25th biography of the star of Kings Row. And when it comes to the balance-sheet of President Reagan, Spitz is almost terse. As president, he reports, Reagan “rebuilt the American military, beat back inflation, appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court, cut the top personal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, encouraged free trade, oversaw the creation of 16 million new jobs, and eventually produced a nuclear arms agreement with the Soviet Union and effectively ended the Cold War.”
With the exception of appointing the first female Supreme Court justice, every single one of these achievements is deeply, deeply debatable, particularly that bit about beating back inflation. And the obverse is similarly glancing: “His lack of empathy for those in desperate financial straits and for AIDS victims, the supply-side Reaganomics, the punitive ‘war on drugs,’ the reckless spending on the military, stratospheric budget deficits, the implausibility of the Strategic Defense Initiative, Bitburg, even Iran-Contra” … this is the book's most comprehensive summary of the down side of the Reagan presidency, offered, ominously, in the context of the depressingly plausible claim that the down side has already been forgotten: “His presidency had taken on an almost mythical revisionism. It represented something more than the sum of his accomplishments – or failures. It restored the power of the presidency in a way that rose above politics and deeds to a time when the country looked to the office for a sense of national identity.”
All of that is probably more true than not, which is no good service to history and nothing any biographer should accept. The tendency of chroniclers, partisan or otherwise, to knead mythology into their assessment of President Reagan's time in office is the ultimate manifestation of the “Teflon” quality that seemed to apply so often in the man's own era, and although Spitz's book does this less than any previous effort, a certain amount of impatience is justifiable that it's still happening at all. To Ronald Reagan the man we may with good charity ascribe any number of noble ideals, but nothing, absolutely nothing that President Reagan did “rose above politics” – and some of those politics were as nasty or callous as anything America had seen in decades. There are sharp political jabs thrown in the second half of this book, but Spitz mostly cleans the blood off the knuckles before he recounts the fights.
“He lacked most of the management skills that a president needs,” longtime Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once said of President Ronald Reagan. “But let me give him his due: he would have made a hell of a king.” Reagan biographies too often come across as authorized royal biographies, and aspects of that reflex cling even to an account as thoroughly satisfying as Reagan: An American Journey. But this is an irresistibly talented and intelligent author, here telling a supercharged story. Shoppers for doorstop biographies could do much worse.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.