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When a famous journalist/biographer publishes a thick book about a famous former president, it is an event. Richard Reeves has already written about the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton. So why not Ronald Reagan? Well, as Reeves himself notes, more than 900 books have been written about Reagan since he left the White House 17 years ago. Can Reeves add anything worthwhile? The answer is, sort of. In President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, Reeves follows a plan he used in previous books. “I have tried to reconstruct a president’s world from his own perspective. I am interested in what he knew and when he knew it, what he actually saw and did — sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. I want to show what it was like . . . to be president.” That goal takes us back to the “sort of.” The book is an important historical document because the author sifts through mountains of material to distill Reagan’s eight White House years. Reeves separates the wheat from the chaff, then presents the wheat (along with occasional chaff) in a clear style. As a literate historical document, Reeves’ book deserves a high grade. But except for an enlightening seven-page introduction, in which Reeves evaluates Reagan as a president and as a human being, the book, at 592 pages, is heavy going — with a few dramatic exceptions, such as his near death from a would-be assassin’s gun and his mind-blowing dependence on wife Nancy. Presented in a relentlessly chronological format, the chapters are so filled with speeches and travels and insider political battles that after a few pages, brain exhaustion may set in. For most readers — those who admired Reagan as president and those who despised him as president (Did anybody fall between those extremes?) — Reeves’ account is probably best consumed one chapter per day. The best approach here is to offer a sampling of Reeves’ conclusions. • Was Reagan simple-minded? Not really. “No one ever called Reagan an intellectual, but he did see the world in terms of ideas. He was an ideologue with a few ideas that he held with stubborn certainty.” Reeves reports a meeting between Reagan and some governors. One governor questioned Reagan about his plan to lighten taxes on the wealthy, concerned that needy individuals would suffer. “Reagan’s face was red, his fists clenched,” Reeves writes. Reagan responded: “I’m not going to sit still for the notion that we’re hurting anyone. We’ve tried your way for decades and millions have been hurt by runaway inflation and unemployment. We didn’t invent deficit spending. We didn’t advocate tax and spend until the economy was a mess. The American people want a change, and to say our tax benefits only help the wealthy, well that’s a deliberate distortion and I’m not going to put up with hearing it.” With that, Reagan ended the meeting. • Was former movie actor Reagan more chief entertainer than chief executive? In some ways, yes, Reeves says. “His rhetorical gift was to render [his] ideas into values and emotions. He was capable of simplifying ideas to the point of dumbing-down the nation’s dialogue by brilliantly confusing fact and fiction.” • Was Reagan delusional? Not so much delusional as living in his own past, Reeves writes. Reagan wanted to remake America to conform with “the remembrances of his own boyhood and a Reader’s Digest version of the 1950s.” The new president “saw or imagined an American future of lower taxes, less government, military superiority and a world where Americans would walk proudly and safely on the meanest streets and trails of the world. He believed everyone admired or envied Americans — if they did not, they were evil.” • Did Reagan’s brainy White House staff manipulate him? No way, Reeves says. As White House Chief of Staff James Baker III commented, “He treats us all the same, as hired help.” A later chief of staff, Donald Regan, told Reeves that everybody working in the White House “thought he was smarter than the president.” Reeves responded, “Including you?” Regan’s reply: “Especially me.” But it was Reagan, not Baker or Regan, who managed to persuade power brokers to more than double the federal tax dollars devoted to the military, to decrease taxation of the wealthy, and to substantially neutralize the Soviet Union’s influence in the Cold War. When Reagan died, on June 5, 2004, his legend lived on. Thanks to Reeves’ painstaking documentation of Reagan’s White House years, perhaps the legend will square more with messy reality from now on.
Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent who now writes books from his home in Columbia, Mo.

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