Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

An Epic American Life

Ronald Reagan meets with the New York Giants football team after their Super Bowl XXI victory, February 13, 1987. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library )
Reagan: An American Journey, by Bob Spitz (Penguin Press, 880 pp., $35)

Is there a place for a new 880-page biography of Ronald Reagan, the subject of more biographical studies than any other American president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln?

After all, there are Steven F. Hayward’s comprehensive two-volume political biography, The Age of Reagan; Craig Shirley’s scrupulously detailed chronicles of the 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns; Ed Meese’s insider account of his years with Governor and then President Reagan; Edmund Morris’s fictionalized but often insightful “authorized” biography; journalist Lou Cannon’s rightly praised trilogy; and other works sufficient to fill a Barnes and Noble display window.

So, should we bother to read Reagan: An American Life, by Bob Spitz, an entertainment journalist and celebrity author who has written biographies of Julia Child, the Beatles, and the Partridge Family and who in an earlier life professionally represented singers Bruce Springsteen and Elton John?

Yes, we should, because he brings to bear a nonpolitical but professional eye in describing the remarkable all-American life of Ronald Reagan. Spitz begins by contrasting the influences of Reagan’s Irish Catholic father, Jack, weighed down with the Irish “curse” of alcoholism, and his fundamentalist Protestant mother, Nelle, who instilled a love of the theater in her younger son. We learn about young Reagan’s early popularity in school, his debating skills, his love of reading, his perennial optimism, his determination to be a “star” in radio and in far-off Hollywood.

Spitz conducted hundreds of interviews with Reagan’s family members and friends and with his political advisers and aides, including Richard V. Allen, John Sears, Peter Hannaford, Tom Reed, and Fred Ryan. He was given rare access to the personal papers of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, reviewed the twenty-some interviews that Edmund Morris conducted of the president, and read almost every book ever written about Reagan — even trashy ones such as Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan.

The best and most revealing part of the biography is the first 500 pages, leading up to the presidency. The author uncovers Hollywood tidbits such as Jack Warner’s denying “Ronnie” a plum role in the Oscar-winning movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and documents that the once-liberal Reagan devoured conservative publications from cover to cover.

However, Spitz has a thin understanding of the conservative movement’s influence on Reagan. There are only two brief references to William F. Buckley Jr., with whom the Reagans had a close personal relationship for many years. There is no mention of the lasting impact of conservative works such as F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. When Hayek visited Reagan in the Oval Office in 1983, the president made a point of saying that he had been a “student” of Hayek for decades.

Spitz rightly highlights the importance of the 1976 New Hampshire presidential primary, which Reagan narrowly lost to President Jerry Ford. But he devotes less than a page to the ensuing North Carolina primary, which Reagan won, thanks to the organizational efforts of Senator Jesse Helms and his political aides Tom Ellis and Carter Wrenn. Observers are agreed that if Reagan had lost the Tarheel State after losing five primaries in a row, he would have withdrawn his candidacy and that would have been the end of Ronald Reagan as a major player in American politics. Instead, he went on to win Texas and a string of GOP primaries, only to narrowly lose the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention.

The author is at his storytelling best when recounting the attempted assassination by John Hinckley Jr. — Reagan was closer to death than was generally known — but succumbs to conventional wisdom with his prolonged examination of the Iran-Contra “scandal.” Iran-Contra was more of a scandal to the mass media and partisan Democrats than to the American public.

It was not Watergate redux. Unlike Nixon, Reagan did not try to cover up the affair but directed his attorney general to conduct an immediate and thorough inquiry. He invited John Tower, a Republican, Edmund Muskie, a Demo­crat, and Nixon’s former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft to under­take an investigation. The Tower Commission concluded that “there was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the internal rule of law, no grand conspiracy.”

Spitz says little about a major legal accomplishment of the Reagan administration, the appointment of 386 federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices led by the inestimable Antonin Scalia. Like Edmund Morris, the author displays scant interest in supply-side economics, which, through Reagan’s historic 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, sparked an unprecedented period of prosperity into the 1990s.

Understandably, given the open access to the Reagan papers granted by the former first lady, Spitz emphasizes the role of Nancy Reagan, regarding not only personnel matters but public policy as well, especially in the second term. However, the president did not automatically follow Nancy’s advice, as when she pushed him to withdraw from the 1976 Republican presidential campaign before the miracle comeback in North Carolina. She also opposed a second term, concerned about the possibility of further attempts on her husband’s life. She lobbied the president to soften his rhetoric about the Soviets — he kept talking about the “evil empire.” And she favored negotiation with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua — he chose to support the Contras.

Spitz makes a significant contribution to the Reagan literature with his examination of the post-presidential period, including the details around Reagan’s being thrown from a horse in the summer of 1989 while riding in Mexico. Doctors determined Reagan had suffered “minor abrasions” — bruises to his ego. However, six weeks later, during his annual Mayo Clinic checkup, a CAT scan revealed a subdural hematoma. Two blood clots required immediate attention and were drained. The 78-year-old Reagan recovered rapidly from the operation, resumed his daily schedule, and began preparing for trips to Japan and Europe. But friends and aides noted a change in his usual upbeat temperament — he was often moody and nonresponsive to those around him.

After a battery of tests at the Mayo Clinic in the fall of 1994, a doctor informed Nancy that Reagan had Alzheimer’s. On November 5, 1994, while Nancy discussed the future with the doctor and Fred Ryan, a close aide, Reagan sat down at a small table and wrote an extraordinary farewell to the American people. He ended with these words: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.”

Doctors predicted that a man of Ronald Reagan’s sturdy constitution might live another five to eight years, but a decade passed before, on June 5, 2004, Reagan “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Summing up the Reagan presidency, Spitz gets it mostly right, writing that 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 50 percent, encouraged free trade, oversaw the creation of 16 million new jobs, produced a nuclear-arms agreement with the Soviet Union, and “effectively ended the Cold War.” Straining for balance, Spitz also writes that Reagan had no “empathy” for those in financial straits and for AIDS victims, engaged in “reckless” spending on the military, and would not concede “the implausibility of the Strategic Initiative.” He became “beloved,” says Spitz, “even as many forgot the details of what he actually did.”

But the hundred million Eastern Euro­peans living behind the Iron Curtain did not forget the details, nor did the 16 million Americans who went back to work, nor did the Americans of all classes, colors, and creeds who had lived through the murders of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam and Watergate, and Carter-induced malaise and recovered their confidence in themselves and in America. And it all began with the seemingly impossible dreams of a small boy in a little town on the Illinois prairie who grew up to lead an epic American life.

Lee Edwards Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

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