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
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.
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.
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.
A three-star treatment of a five-star President. I enjoyed the book while finding it uneven in quality. For example, Spitz covers the CA gubernatorial race and the assassination attempt superbly, but his grasp of economics is weak, and it shows. A worthwhile read, but I’ll also dig into Lou Cannon’s works to seek a better read on my favorite President.
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.