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
This is a very thorough and readable biography. It focuses as much-more-on Reagan's formative pre-Presidential years as on the White House. Because of Spitz's previous works on Julia Child and the Beatles I expected more of a celebrity bio flavor. But the research is serious and sources are exhaustive and all is presented in an engaging and grab-your-interest manner. There is much about the Hollywood years and Reagan's initial foray into politics, both trade and political. We are brought through an extensive 477 pages before Reagan is sworn in on January 20th., 1981. The research into the White House years does not suffer. We forget-especially in our present time-that Reagan's was a tumultuous Presidency, with early cabinet and staffing problems: Haig, Stockman, Watt and others. In the middle of this even before the infamous Don Regan Chief of Staff Days is Nancy Reagan. Listed as cooperative if not involved in the research of this volume, the picture of this involved first lady is not always flattering, though she is shown NOT to be the right wing ideologue often portrayed elsewhere. The list of those she did not trust is long-Don Regan of course and including James Baker and Ed Meese. Her obsession with astrology even before the assassination attempt caused problems in scheduling, especially the visit to the German war cemetery Bitburg. There is also her love of ostentation, and in discussing her somewhat infamous White House redecoration the author claims she pulled the famous resolute desk out of neglect and into the Oval Office. The full length portrait of Jimmy Carter in The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery clearly shows him beside the famous rectangular desk given by Queen Victoria. A small point but it bugged me (as a Carter supporter). There, my bias going into this, but I enjoyed this portrayal of a sincere if at times flawed leader who nonetheless allowed personal growth in his attitudes toward Nuclear War and cooperation with the Soviets. It is also a nostalgic reminder of a government and a Republican Party which once worked, and leaders who placed national and global goals ahead of self interest.
Love him or hate him, Reagan left an indelible mark on America and his legacy continues to reverberate nearly 40 years after he won the US Presidency. Spitz digs deep for this biography, and does an exceptional job of describing Reagan the boy, Reagan the actor, Reagan the husband, Reagan the politician, and Reagan the declining octogenarian. Above all, Reagan was a great communicator, and Spitz describes how that skill served him throughout his life.
The book is neither a hit piece nor a fawning work of fanboy fiction. Instead, Spitz seeks to show Reagan as he really was -- a man gifted with a magnetic personality but not with particularly keen intellect or organizational skills. Reagan was a big-picture person who loved people and relished the spotlight, but he sometimes stumbled because he couldn't (or wouldn't) grasp the details. This weakness is what was often behind his largest failures -- his failed marriage to Jane Wyman (he couldn't understand that he talked too much), his scandal-plagued Cabinet (he was loyal to a fault, and overlooked misconduct), his failure to treat AIDS as a serious disease (he didn't even try to understand the disease until after his presidency ended), and his most memorable albatross: the Iran-Contra Affair.
Overall this is a well-researched and superbly-written biography of a fascinating man. Regardless of your political viewpoint, this book will help you better understand a leader who had a deep and lasting impact on the American political landscape and culture.
5 out of 5 stars.
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.
This book is almost five-star at the front half, but three-star at the back half.
I was leaning 3.5 stars, but, of course, we still can't do half-star reviews, so I bumped down to 3.
Why not split the difference at 4, per my first paragraph?
Because that split starts in 1980, in Reagan's successful presidential campaign, and we wouldn't have tome-sized bios about a B-movie Hollywood actor, or close. We would only have a semi-tome had Reagan been elected governor of California, but no more. So, the back half of the book gets "weighted" more.
I had never read one of Spitz's books before, nor even heard of him. Based on the first half of the book, I was expecting a "neutral" bio; neither a cheap teardown nor anything close to hagiography. Unfortunately, the second half is painted in semi-hagiographic pastels.
OK, here's what I gleaned from the book.
In the first half? I learned several things. (I'm not saying that any of this is Spitz exclusives on stuff that is new information to me, just that I learned it here.)
Reagan possibly got his sweetheart from HS / early college pregnant while they were both at Eureka. Spitz notes she did NOT go to Univ. of Illinois; she simply dropped out of Eureka for a year, then returned, but lived in new housing. A pregnancy is likely; Spitz wonders if there was also an abortion.
His general personality is pretty well described.
How much of a skirt-chaser he was between marriages — I didn't know that. The future St. Ronald of Reagan not only "dated" a lot during this time, much of that dating was one-night stands. The only difference between him and Errol Flynn is that Ronnie, while drinking plenty during this period, wasn't at alcoholic levels.
Him introducing Nancy to astrology, not other way around, when they were dating. That's a biggie. Yes, later, like during the presidency, she "booked" him based on Joan Quigley. But, he introduced her to astrology, including a monthly "reading" party he attended.
He had officially engaged another woman when he found out Nancy was preggers.
The second half? Didn't learn anything about Reagan. This is just notes about where Spitz goes off the rails.
Despite good evidence to the contrary, he dismisses October surprise in half a page.
He doesn’t even consider claim by Gary Sick of theft of Carter debate briefing book.
Totally botches SCOTUS on school prayer when discussing the O'Conner nomination. It has NEVER ruled VOLUNTARY prayer unconstitutional. I knew at this point, the book was going down a full star for sure, and the back half more than that.
He claims ChristaMcAuliffe would have been first civilian in space. Wrong. That was (among astronauts) Jack Schmitt on Apollo 17. And, LONG before THAT it was Valentina Tereshkova among cosmonauts. (She had a "courtesy" Red Air Force commission after tabbed to be a cosmonaut, but is widely considered the first civilian, as well as first woman, in space.) This is simply poor research re Schmitt, and American-centric rose-colored glasses re Tereshkova.
Spitz shoves EPA scandals, HUD scandal and other problems of Reagan’s first two years to one paragraph about his last months in office. He puts start of S&L collapse there, too. On EPA, he doesn’t describe how Reagan’s push for dereg plus “New Federalism” was part of problem. On S&Ls, doesn’t describe how Reagan-pushed legislation was a key part of cause.
I assumed at least some of the first-half info I provided was available elsewhere, and that his "exclusive?" peak at Nancy's letters will get better insight from someone else.