Twenty-five years after Ronald Reagan became president, Richard Reeves has written a surprising and revealing portrait of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. As he did in his bestselling books President Kennedy: Profile of Power and President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Reeves has used newly declassified documents and hundreds of interviews to show a president at work day by day, sometimes minute by minute.
President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination is the story of an accomplished politician, a bold, even reckless leader, a gambler, a man who imagined an American past and an American future—and made them real. He is a man of ideas who changed the world for better or worse, a man who understands that words are often more important than deeds. Reeves shows a man who understands how to be President, who knows that the job is not to manage the government but to lead the nation. In many ways, a quarter of a century later, he is still leading. As his vice president, George H. W. Bush, said after Reagan was shot and hospitalized in 1981: “We will act as if he were here.”
He is a heroic figure if not always a hero. He did not destroy communism, as his champions claim, but he knew it would self-destruct and hastened the collapse. No small thing. He believed the Soviet Union was evil and he had contempt for the established American policies of containment and détente. Asked about his own Cold War strategy, he answered: “We win. They lose!”
Like one of his heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, he has become larger than life. As Roosevelt became an icon central to American liberalism, Reagan became the nucleus holding together American conservatism. He is the only president whose name became a political creed, a noun not an adjective: “Reaganism.”
Reagan’s ideas were so old they seemed new. He preached an individualism, inspiring and cruel, that isolated and shamed the halt and the lame. He dumbed-down America, brilliantly blending fact and fiction, transforming political debate into emotion-driven entertainment. He recklessly mortgaged America with uncontrolled military spending, less taxation, and more debt.
In focusing on the key moments of the Reagan presidency, Reeves recounts the amazing resiliency of Ronald Reagan, the real “comeback kid.” Here is a seventy-year-old man coming back from a near-fatal gunshot wound, from cancer, from the worst recession in American history. Then, in personal despair as his administration was shredded by the lying and secrets of hidden wars and double-dealing, he was able to forge one of history’s amazing relationships with the leader of “the Evil Empire.” That story is told for the first time using the transcripts of the Reagan-Gorbachev meetings, the climax of an epic story—as if he were here.
"Memorable set pieces. The meetings with Gorbachev read like a political thriller. But the one that stands out is the event that forged the Reagan legend: his brush with assassination in 1981...As doctors fought to save the president, blood bubbling out of his mouth, a Secret Service man prayed: 'Oh my God, we've lost him.' Meanwhile back at the White House, his staff haggled over who should run the American government —little realizing of course that the one who did was the genial old man hanging on to life in George Washington University Hospital." The Economist
"President Reagan is a compelling read, fast-paced and scrupulously fair. The account of the Iran-contra affair is particularly gripping. Anbody who is interested in the extraordinary Reagan Presidency needs to reckon with Reeves... There are plenty of other gems... If Reeves were in the thriller business, he would be accused of stretching the bounds of credibility; as things are, readers will have to keep pinching themselves, checking Reeves's footnotes and realizing that, yes, all this really happened." Adrian Wooldridge, The New York Times Book Review
"It is refreshing to read a presidential biography in which the man's public actions — not his private psyche — are the primary focus... Reeves captures Reagan's undeniable charm, presidential aura and ability to inspire Americans with his own vision of an earlier America when things seemed simpler and better. That those times, in reality, were not better for large numbers of Americans did not faze Reagan... He had an old man's strengths: He knew what he believed, and he really didn't care what his opponents thought of him." Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
"Celebrated journalist Richard Reeves takes the same vivid, fly-on-the-wall approach he's previously applied with such success to Nixon and Kennedy, and uses it just as skillfully to take us inside the administration, mind and character of Ronald Reagan... Reeves is particularly strong at portraying Reagan's almost organically intuitive approach to management. Here we have the Gipper's artful delegation of details along the road to fulfilling his short list of grand goals..." Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
"What separates this book from so many others is that Mr. Reeves very subtly has written a post-9/11 assessment of the Reagan Presidency... Putting together a narrative of a much-chronicled Presidency is not for the faint of heart. Richard Reeves, one of the finest journalists of his generation, is made of sterner stuff, and our understanding of Ronald Reagan is the better for it." Terry Golway, New York Observer
"Long one of America's finest political reproters, Richard Reeves has also become one of of the best political biographers. His books, about John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and now Ronald Reagan are indispensable reading for anyone interested in the modern U.S. presidency..." Philip Seib, Dallas Morning News
"In President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, master political journalist Richard Reeves provides a marvelous behind-the-scenes look at how that performance came together. Using a net work of contacts and sources built up over five decades, Reeves, who previously wrote much-praised chronicles of of the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, spins a fly-on-the-wall, at times day-by-day tale of the power of one man's imagination...." Mark Schogol, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Readers are in Reeves's debt for this entertaining, deeply reported and revealing portrait of a man destined to be in death what he was in life: a figure of enduring fascination." Jon Meacham, Washington Post
LOS ANGELES — In the final months of any presidency, the men and women serving in the administration are ready to leave and move on with their lives. That was true of Harold Tyler, a New York lawyer who was the deputy attorney general for civil rights as the Eisenhower administration was winding down in 1960. But he had to find his own replacement, not an easy job because few lawyers were eager to leave their practices and lives to serve a few months in Washington.
LOS ANGELES — "Democrats Worry Obama Is Helping Their Rivals" was the headline over an article last Friday in the Los Angeles Times. I think that was the one thousandth piece I have read in the last couple of months saying that the president has low approval ratings and will hurt Democratic candidates in November's Senate and House elections.
LOS ANGELES — "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these are, 'It might have been.'" So said John Greenleaf Whittier more than a hundred years ago.
LOS ANGELES — I could be mad at Vice President Joe Biden, who has been here for two days and tied up traffic for miles at a time. But it's hard. He's just too nice a guy, even if he talks too much — and worse, these days, tells the truth.
It is something of a cliche to quote George Santayana one more time, saying, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But for folks of my age, ignorant repetition has been a constant in our lives. And, of course, it is happening again right now.
WASHINGTON — I woke up last Thursday morning to learn that my FedEx man does not work for FedEx. Voices on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" informed me that although FedEx controls just about every minute of its drivers' days, the corporation regards them as "independent contractors." Thus, no benefits — they even have to pay for their own uniforms — and the workers can be kicked out anytime FedEx feels like it.
LOS ANGELES — Welcome to Presidency 101. What would you do if you were "the most powerful person in the world" and:
WASHINGTON — Hooray! Hooray! The wicked Congress has gone home. So to speak, since most of the members actually live right here in the capital city and environs.
LOS ANGELES — We have lived for decades, even centuries, with the economic faith that a rising tide lifts all boats. But what if it doesn't? What happens then, economically and politically?
LOS ANGELES — Last Monday, a chartered flight took 38 mothers and children, who had been held in a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. That's a tough town of drug dealers, violence and children soldiers, sometimes called "The Murder Capital of the World."
LOS ANGELES — This is a column about "Big Data" and a new way to predict the results of presidential elections for the next 20 years.
CHICAGO — I have never been much of a fan of the journalistic self-examination practiced by folks identified as "ombudsman" or "public editor." I changed my mind last Sunday, and I'll get to that in a minute.
LOS ANGELES — The most fascinating of the many theories about the fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary earlier this month has to do with the redistricting after the 2010 Census. He was supposed to be helped by having very politically conservative New Kent County added to the 7th Congressional District in place of more liberal precincts in the Richmond area. But the voters of New Kent, a 75 percent Republican stronghold, voted against Cantor by almost 2-to-1.
LOS ANGELES — Taking a couple of shots at President Obama over the latest round of war in Iraq, House Speaker John Boehner said last week: "This has been building for weeks."
LOS ANGELES — If today's Republican Party had been around during the Civil War, it would have tried to stop its own president, a fellow named Lincoln, from appointing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant commander of the Union Army because he drank on duty — quite a lot, apparently. And if the president was a Democrat, say Thomas Jefferson, the Republicans would be calling for hearings to find out the "real" reason he was sending Lewis and Clark into the wilderness to learn what was out there between the Mississippi and the Pacific.
LOS ANGELES — "This is the beginning of taking America back," said Shawna Cox, who had come from Kanab, Utah, one of hundreds of "patriots" supporting Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay a million dollars in grazing fees to the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 85 percent of the dusty land of that state. That makes him a hero to folks like Cox, who have traveled hundreds and thousands of miles, toting their guns, to drive off U.S. Park Rangers trying to drive his cattle off federal land.
LOS ANGELES — Last Thursday was an interesting news day around here — and one that highlighted the importance of local reporting as newspapers fade away across the country.
NEW YORK — When the Constitution of the first modern democracy, the United States of America, was written, only about 10 percent of the population of the 13 states was granted the right to vote: white men who owned property.
LOS ANGELES — Sad to say, the most telling commentary on world affairs these days seems to come from comedians. The latest is Jimmy Fallon, the new "Tonight Show" host, who responded to Secretary of State John Kerry's reaction to the news that Russian soldiers were moving into Crimea:
DALLAS — Greg Abbott, a former judge and three-term attorney general of the great state of Texas, is expected to be the state's next governor. His official biography puts him on the side of God, the American way and children of all ages:
DALLAS — A few months ago, I agreed to talk at a program at the Sixth Floor Museum here, the building once called the Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald waited, on the sixth floor, with a rifle for the motorcade that carried President John F. Kennedy to Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.
LOS ANGELES — Immigration is something like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but not many people really want to do anything about it.
LOS ANGELES — I took my J448 students — that's "Government and Public Affairs Reporting" at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California — to a local Democratic club last Sunday. I wanted them to see and meet the new mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, and one of the most effective elected officials of his generation, Congressman Henry Waxman.
LOS ANGELES — I was surprised to see two long stories in last Thursday's New York Times about the same subject: cheating.
LOS ANGELES — I grew up in Jersey — Jersey City. I don't remember being west of the Delaware River until I was in college. I thought the United States was an Italian country governed by the Irish.
LOS ANGELES — It is refreshing for me to find myself in agreement with "mainstream" Republicans, beginning with House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan. I think.
LOS ANGELES — There was a cigarette commercial in the early 1960s that went, "I'm smoking more and enjoying it less." The president at the time, John F. Kennedy, going through a rough patch, was asked how he felt about one negative story after another in the nation's press. "Well," he said, "I'm reading more and enjoying it less."
LOS ANGELES — The news of the day Friday included a dispatch from Saudi Arabia reporting that 11 people were killed by drone-fired missiles in a remote corner of Yemen. The story added that five days before, three men were killed in a drone attack in another part of the country.
The International Herald Tribune is gone after more than 125 years as the American paper in France and then all over the world. Two months ago, it was renamed The International New York Times. That's a bit sad for someone like me who began at the New York Herald Tribune before it folded in 1966. Luckily, I was picked up by The Times, so my loyalties are split.
NEW YORK — Twenty-five years ago, I asked Charles Bartlett, a syndicated columnist, about his old and close friend John F. Kennedy. I have seen his answer published and broadcast dozens of times these past weeks as the nation marks the anniversary of the assassination of our 35th president.