Ronald Reagan isn’t just the favorite president of most conservatives, he is their only favorite. Ask conservatives to name their most admired president besides Reagan and watch them stumble. Lincoln, they’ll want to say, but none of them really believes it when they call their Republican Party “The Party of Lincoln.” Lincoln was a Republican, but he wasn’t a conservative; the conservatives were the ones fighting for “states’ rights.” After the 1980 election, they became the party of Reagan.
Why do huge, thick biographies of Reagan continue to drop? Has two years of Trump made Reagan look better than ever? (Not much of an achievement, really; George W. is starting to look good, too.) In truth, interest in Reagan was surging before Trump and will likely continue after he’s gone. As Sean Wilentz put it, Reagan “has been the single most important political figure of the age.”
That said, do we really need another 800-page plus biography? What does Bob Spitz’s Reagan: An American Journey give us that we haven’t seen? Those seeking perspective on Great Communicators, politics, and policy should look elsewhere. His take on politics and policy are thinner than a Republican politician’s second (or third) wife. An American Journey is so hagiographic it makes previous Reagan bios seem like Robert Caro.
Parson Weems would blush at much of this book. We learn the name of his mother Nelle’s neighbor in Tampico, Illinois—Daisy Seymour—as well as the name of the librarian in Dixon—Mrs. Elizabeth Camp—who would get little Ron “any book he wanted” unless “she didn’t think it was an appropriate title.”
There’s more information about Reagan’s father, Jack, and his career as a shoe salesman than in any previous bio. If you ever wanted to know about selling shoes in Illinois in the ’20s and ’30s, this is for you. “Yes, Jack ‘loved shoes’ as his son later noted.” When Jack failed at another occupation, “one thing crystallized: he was a shoe man.” I counted at least 35 mentions of shoes in general, and Spitz seems to name every shoe store Jack worked in. (My personal favorite, The Shoe Authority.) When Jack “shoehorned”—Spitz’s word—little Dutch (the nickname came from a popular kids’ haircut) into a job at the Fashion Boot Shop, he was bored. Dutch had bigger dreams.
Nelle was called by her son “the dean of dramatic recitals for the countryside” (“Not without a touch of irony,” Spitz adds). In amateur theatricals in Dixon, “She acted any chance she got in any part, big or small.” Her son would do the same years later in Hollywood. A favorite monologue was “Levinsky at the Wedding,” in which “Nelle’s delivery of the Irish policeman declaring ‘I’m cleaning out the Jew wedding’ never failed to get a laugh.” I’ll bet.
Dutch sailed through his school years “with unbridled enthusiasm,” doing “all his chores on time and without complaint.” In high school he was a drum major. Once, he was so focused that he failed to notice the marshal was leading the band on a detour; Dutch “was high-stepping along on his own.”
He worked as a lifeguard, where legend has him making 77 rescues. The number, Spitz adds, “could certainly be held up to scrutiny.” He taught swimming, and, sometimes entertained the kids by “walking like a chimp.” Dutch “was popular and admired but had no close friends.” This would remain true his whole life.
In school, “He had an unusual talent: total recall for dates and facts,” an ability that, alas, had faded by the Iran-Contra hearings. At Eureka College, he was no longer an awkward adolescent: “He stood, solid and muscular, inching past six feet tall with ‘absurdly handsome’ well-set features that retained their boyishness while suggesting virility.” His junior year grades were dismal, but, “A trove of writing exists from this period, revealing an enlightened, imaginative thinker.” The only evidence Spitz offers to support this claim comes from an essay entitled “Sweet Young Things,” about “the fair and sometimes not so fair sex.”
Dutch made the football team but, despite the virility, “He wasn’t big enough, strong enough, fast enough, or selfish enough” to become a star. After a career in sportscasting, he arrived in Hollywood where, mercifully, “Dutch” was officially retired. “Everyone in Hollywood would know him as Ronnie.”
His future wife, Jane Wyman, fell for the “tall, strapping Adonis, the dream of true, perfect manhood …” He found work in B-movies (in some playing a Secret Service agent named Brass Bancroft) and discovered that film acting “employed a different kind of acting technique [from stage acting] that relied on image more than ability.” Ron’s acting, anyway.
Ronnie played the Gipper in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), and in King’s Row (1942) he got his most memorable (actually his only memorable) line, “Where’s the rest of me?”
Though he was just 31 at the time, he never reached those heights again. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army but saw the rest of the war from Hollywood, making patriotic documentaries like The Fight for the Sky with lines like “When we start heading over Berlin and Tokyo it’s really going to be a picnic!”
He lost the lead in Casablanca to Bogart—it’s staggering to think how different the world would have been. His marriage began to crumble. Wyman won an Oscar, and it irked him that “She would come through the door, thinking about her part, and not even notice I was in the room.” His chatter irritated her. When out with friends she yelled at him, “Hey, ‘diarrhea of the mouth,’ shut up!”
As his marriage disintegrated, so did his movie career. “Rightly or wrongly,” writes Spitz, “he’d been typecast as a lightweight.” A producer dismissed him as “a mannequin… with a built-in smile.” A screenwriter nailed him as “a man who parrots things—shallow and affable.” The producer Hal Wallis thought Reagan “was not an actor of depth or intensity,” and Wallis produced Elvis Presley movies.
As Ron approached 38, “He faced a kind of existential crisis,” a term, I suspect, that Ron never used, though having to share top billing with a chimp, as he did in Bedtime for Bonzo, would have provoked an existential crisis in Kierkegaard.
His nightclub bills had gotten out of hand—$750 a month by his own estimate—and his retinue of women was spinning out of control. Then he met a Chicago socialite and wanna-be actress, Nancy Davis, who gave the impression of “a woman on the make.”
Davis had an affair with producer Benny Thau (who Spitz credits with inventing the casting couch), but then she met Ron. Unlike Wyman, she “loved to listen to him talk.” Ron got two women pregnant, a starlet named Jacqueline Park, and Nancy. What became of Park’s pregnancy isn’t recorded.
The second half of An American Journey looks at Reagan as the governor and president as through a lens coated with Vaseline. A chapter titled “The Conservation Governor” is misleading about Reagan’s overall record on the environment, though Spitz does mention that “no one dismissed the Watergate scandal with as much conviction,” calling it “a partisan witch hunt.” He notes that “One of Reagan’s vulnerabilities was his habit of aligning himself with the last person to give him advice.” He also quotes Lou Cannon: “On matters on which he had no background, Reagan tended to believe anything he read without considering the source.” All this does sound familiar.
Spitz lets us see the similarities to Donald Trump, but, wisely, he doesn’t emphasize them. As Max Boot writes in his new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism, “Reagan may have come across as a dumb thespian, but he spent decades honing his views on public policy and writing his own speeches.”
Analysis of Reagan’s thinking on politics and economics in An American Journey doesn’t go much deeper than “He abhorred governmental red tape almost as much as he loathed taxes.” Again, Spitz defers to Lou Cannon: “His trust was in the magic of the marketplace.”
Due credit is given Reagan’s achievement, arguably the most significant of any president since World War II, in working with Gorbachev on a nuclear arms agreement to end the Cold War. Spitz wryly notes, “Only one holdout claimed he was still suspicious of Gorbachev and hoped Americans were not overly eager to deal with him… It was only after Gorbachev told Trump that he loved Trump Tower and invited him to build a hotel in Moscow that the New York real-estate magnate changed his tune.”
To validate Spitz’s conclusions about Reagan’s other major accomplishments—“He 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 28 percent, encouraged free trade, oversaw the creation of 16 million new jobs…”—go to the work of other journalists and historians. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime by California journalist Lou Cannon, is easily the best work on Reagan’s life and political development. Published in 1991, it’s still available in a 2000 paperback edition.
The book that puts Reagan’s presidential years in best perspective, though, is The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 by Sean Wilentz. (Harper Perennial paperback, 2009, easily available.) Wilentz pinpoints the evidence of Reagan’s enduring influence. For instance, the politicization of the judicial system: “The federal courts, once pilloried by conservatives, have become something of a bulwark of conservatism and will remain so for decades to come, impervious to the ups and downs of electoral politics.”
It was Reagan who brought the evangelicals into the Republican Party. “You may not endorse me, but I endorse you,” he once told an assembly of the Religious Roundtable in Dallas. Now a politician can get the support of the Christian right even if he fucked porn stars, swindled thousands with a fake university, and cheated on his taxes his whole life.
Wilentz writes that Reagan “exploded federal deficits… the federal debt tripled between 1980 and 1989.” He is often commended for giving a boost to the economy, but “the continuing boom was dangerously built on government borrowing… the real wages of full-time male production workers stagnated.”
With the deliberate destruction of evidence during the Iran-Contra investigations, “Poindexter, North, and Secord pushed Reagan’s White House beyond even Richard Nixon’s obstruction of justice,” Wilentz says. And, of course, there was the flagrant, widespread corruption: “By the time Reagan left office, 138 officials from his administration had been convicted of, indicted for, or subjected to ethical investigations for official misconduct, criminal violations, or both.”
If any of these points appear to be forced analogies with the last two years of the Trump administration, remember that Wilentz wrote this book more than ten years ago.
“In the end, the conservative movement was a victim of success; with the Soviet Union dissolved, inflation reduced to virtually negligible levels, and the top tax rate cut to nearly half what it was in 1980, all of Reagan’s major stated goals when he took office had been achieved.” It was up to the new conservatism to invent new goals with border walls, anti-Muslim hysteria, and hostility towards a free press.
Wilentz’s history justifiably received wide attention, but one very good book on Reagan has fallen through the cracks. William Kleinknecht’s The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America (2009, still available in paperback) is a book “born of annoyance: a great bewilderment over the myth that continues to surround the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It gives voice to a vast swath of psychically disenfranchised Americans, millions of them, lumped most thickly in the urban areas on either coast, who never understood Reagan’s appeal.”
Reagan, Kleinknecht insists, was “the obvious enemy of the common people he claimed to represent, this empty suit who believed in flying saucers and allowed an astrologer to guide his presidential scheduling.” The great conundrum is that “None of the unmistakable harbingers of American decline is being laid where it belongs—at the door of Ronald Reagan.” [emphasis Kleinknecht’s]
Reagan “enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of the country… His legacy—mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization—helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and sense of community.”
Kleinknecht’s words, written a year before the 2008 economic crash, ring clearer in hindsight: “Reaganism replaced enlightenment thinking with a corrupted Romanticism that portrays free-mark purism as an article of religious faith… The answer to any of the economic challenges of the twenty-first century is to do nothing. Cut taxes, eviscerate all regulation of private enterprise, and trust the market to guide our fates.” As if the free market was a divine law and not a product of men and subject to men’s laws and flaws (such as greed).
Most importantly, Kleinknecht argues, the Reagan revolution did not do what it set out to do, namely, to reduce the size of government. “Big government,” he writes, “was not stripped away in the Reagan years; it was just redirected to the needs of private enterprise.”
Or, as Garry Wills puts it in Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, “The Environmental Protection Agency became the Environmental Polluters Protection Agency.” A hybrid of cultural history and political theory first published in 1987, Wills’ book, perhaps because it was written by a true conservative, remains the essential account of Reagan’s achievements and failures.
The book’s subtitle is a play on Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s 1869 humorous yet barbed travelogue of Americans in Europe and the Holy Land. Twain’s recurring theme, as would later be true of Henry James’ novels, was the naiveté of Americans confronting the sophistication and decadence of the Old World.
In Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Wills reveals “an American instinct to claim a simplicity his [Reagan’s] circumstances belie… With Twain, the pretense was artful, highly conscious, used for cultural satire. With Reagan, the perfection of the pretense lies in the fact that he does not know he is pretending.”
Wills reached a conclusion to which conservatives should heed: “The aftermath of Reagan’s presidency has proved over and over that Reaganism without Reagan is unattainable.” The big question for the Republican Party and America in the coming years is whether this is also true of Trumpism.