Reagan: An American Journeyby Published 02 Oct 2018
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From New York Times bestselling biographer Bob Spitz, a full and rich biography of an epic American life, capturing what made Ronald Reagan both so beloved and so transformational.
More than five years in the making, based on hundreds of interviews and access to previously unavailable documents, and infused with irresistible storytelling charm, Bob Spitz's Reagan stands fair to be the first truly post-partisan biography of our 40th President, and thus a balm for our own bitterly divided times.
It is the quintessential American triumph, brought to life with cinematic vividness: a young man is born into poverty and raised in a series of flyspeck towns in the Midwest by a pious mother and a reckless, alcoholic, largely absent father. Severely near-sighted, the boy lives in his own world, a world of the popular books of the day, and finds his first brush with popularity, even fame, as a young lifeguard. Thanks to his first great love, he imagines a way out, and makes the extraordinary leap to go to college, a modest school by national standards, but an audacious presumption in the context of his family's station. From there, the path is only very dimly lit, but it leads him, thanks to his great charm and greater luck, to a solid career as a radio sportscaster, and then, astonishingly, fatefully, to Hollywood. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Bob Spitz's Reagan is an absorbing, richly detailed, even revelatory chronicle of the full arc of Ronald Reagan's epic life - giving full weight to the Hollywood years, his transition to politics and rocky but ultimately successful run as California governor, and ultimately, of course, his iconic presidency, filled with storm and stress but climaxing with his peace talks with the Soviet Union that would serve as his greatest legacy. It is filled with fresh assessments and shrewd judgments, and doesn't flinch from a full reckoning with the man's strengths and limitations. This is no hagiography: Reagan was never a brilliant student, of anything, and his disinterest in hard-nosed political scheming, while admirable, meant that this side of things was left to the other people in his orbit, not least his wife Nancy; sometimes this delegation could lead to chaos, and worse. But what emerges as a powerful signal through all the noise is an honest inherent sweetness, a gentleness of nature and willingness to see the good in people and in this country, that proved to be a tonic for America in his time, and still is in ours. It was famously said that FDR had a first-rate disposition and a second-rate intellect. Perhaps it is no accident that only FDR had as high a public approval rating leaving office as Reagan did, or that in the years since Reagan has been closing in on FDR on rankings of Presidential greatness. Written with love and irony, which in a great biography is arguably the same thing, Bob Spitz's masterpiece will give no comfort to partisans at either extreme; for the rest of us, it is cause for celebration.
Reagan: An American Journey Reviews
The accomplished and talented author of the best-selling Julia Child biography “Dearie,” turns his attention to detail and story-telling skills to the subject of Ronald “Dutch” Reagan. Conducting exhaustive interviews over a five-year period and with access to previous unavailable documents, Spitz paints a detailed picture of one of America’s most iconic presidents with a writing style that feels more like novel than non-fiction. He deftly moves us through time with detailed descriptions, taking us from "Dutch's" hardscrabble early days with a drunken and often unemployed father to his beginnings as a local radio announcer. Vivid scenes and dialogue move us through Hollywood and his first marriage, to meeting Nancy, Reagan's growing interest in politics and then the ultimate prize-- president of the most powerful nation in the world. Spitz writes movingly about Reagan's courageous announcement of his Alzheimer's diagnosis at the end of his life. At a time in politics where the world feels cleaved into extremes, this poignant and well-written book is a reminder that great statesman can often transcend bi-partisan ship and lead.
Kevin Williamson at National Review thought this book was unreadable. I think he panned it in a review somewhere. I won’t go that far. It’s certainly not the best of the Reagan biographies, but it’s thorough and I found quite fair, though the author is obviously of the left, and leaves out the economic miracle of the 1980s. He takes you chronologically through Reagan’s life, his mid-western Illinois upbringing, Eureka College, then to Des Moines on the radio, to Hollywood and the movies, president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, GE theater on TV, Governor of California, the presidency, and finally into the sunset of retirement.
One story he recounts, that I don’t believe I’ve read before, is Regan’s college sweetheart, Margaret Cleaver, disappearing for a semester from Eureka College, supposedly enrolled at the University of Illinois. Only there’s no record of it. The author quotes a college official who speculated “she could have gone away to have a child—or an abortion.” Hmmm….I’m sure this would have come out before now, but I’m not sure. It’s a long read, but if you enjoy presidential history, it’s worthwhile. It’s certainly not where I’d start with Reagan biographies, but if you have read others, it’s a great tour through an amazing life, with an incredibly sad ending—that he wouldn’t be able to recall all the memories from it.
A couple of things about this biography of Ronald Reagan. First, Mr Spitz is fairly thorough in covering the span of President Reagan life. Second, it is obvious that he is not a fan of one of our most popular presidents. His narration of the problems in the eight years of President Reagan’s time in office take chapters, while the good he did in his time is finished in paragraphs. “Voodoo Economics” was a failure, but, as the author admits, unemployment and inflation were reduced significantly. At the end of the book the author tries to explain the impact President Reagan had on our country and its people, but again falls short of the mark.
This was an outstanding biography of Reagan. Covered his early life, and his very modest upbringing in Illinois, and his rise through radio (as a sports announcer) and years in Hollywood extremely well. It seems to me a fair and balanced portrait -- neither a fluff piece nor a hit piece. Good coverage of the Iran-Contra arms for hostage deal.
During his time in Hollywood, he was pressed into running for the President of the Screen Actors Guild (and won). The 1940s and 50s were marked by a strong ‘red scare’. Communists in Hollywood were very real and had infiltrated the screen actors unions. He saw their ways first-hand. This experience turned him strongly anti-Communist
Fast forward to the 1980s... When he wasn't able to get Congress to approve US funds for military and arms support for the contras, he -- and a few key figures in his Administration (Lt Col Oliver North, John Poindexter, etc.) -- went rogue and took matters into their own hands.
It was all rather complicated, and really quite jaw dropping in its arrogance and audacity. Like most scandals, it played out over 2-3 years, and the number of people and angles, facts and opinions, came in dribs and drabs, so the whole narrative got pretty confusing at times. The good thing about a book like this is you see the whole thing together, and in the fuller context of Reagan (the man, the times, the President).
The Iran Contra deal unfolds as a case of believing 'the ends justify the means'. Here, Reagan and his close associates -- strong American patriots each and all -- truly believed that the threat and risk of Communism spreading to Central America was so great that, if necessary, they would have to go around Constitutional and Congressional authorities. They’d find a way to get the US hostages back, and at the same time, fund the anti-Communist forces in Central America.
I couldn't help thinking about the similarity to what is going on today, with the 'Russian Collusion' allegation, investigation and narrative that took root in the summer of 2016. The high level bureaucrats (Comey, Clapper, McCabe, Rosenstein) took it upon themselves to spy on a Presidential candidate using, as a predicate, phoney ‘opposition research’ paid for by the opposing candidate's campaign. They knew the so-called ‘Steele Dossier’ was bogus. Still, they justified their actions, and those that followed, by convincing themselves they were saving the US from itself, that they had (in the words of Comey) 'a higher calling'.
After reading several biographies of Reagan, this is definitely in the top tier.
Spitz does an excellent job in describing Reagan’s rise from small town Illinois to the governorship of California. Spitz’s past biographies on the Beatles and Julia Child give him insight into how to cover Reagan’s Hollywood career. Spitz also sheds greater light unto Reagan’s early life than any biography I’ve previously read. Spitz’s descriptions of the 76 primary and the 1980 election are short but very good.
Unfortunately, Spitz does not cover Regan’s presidency as well. He barely covers much of Reagan’s domestic policies, and spends way too much of the 350 pages on the presidency building up Iran-Contra. Also, it is very easy to tell which of Reagan’s advisers talked to Spitz based on how favorably they are portrayed in the book (similar to a Bob Woodward book).
I would rate the first half of the book 5 stars and the second half 3 stars. Better than any prior biographer, Spitz shows how Reagan came to be the man who made it to the White House. However, he doesn’t fully show how that man had a long lasting impact on America.