The reputations of politicians go through distinct phases. First comes the real time of campaigning, public pronouncement and journalism, a mixture of confetti, gravitas and sleet-storm. Retirement brings the memoirs of subject, colleagues, relatives and eye-witnesses. Only after death does biography sculpt its first substantial image, which can last a long time. Later historians will argue and chisel, but they will work on that initial posthumous statue.
“Reagan: An American Journey” by Bob Spitz aims to create such an image. The cover says it all: a shining black-and-white shot of a handsome man, his face simultaneously genial and serious, his body energetic even in repose. He is leaning on a wooden fence, but he is in the Pantheon.
Mr. Spitz’s previous subjects include Julia Child and the Beatles—odd warm-ups for a presidential historian. But Mr. Spitz takes Reagan’s immersion in popular culture seriously, as an element of his democratic appeal.
Reagan’s journey proceeds in five movements: Midwestern youth; Hollywood; an introduction to politics (as union head, corporate spokesman and governor of California); the presidency; the recessional.
Reagan, born in 1911, grew up in a series of Illinois towns (with one stay in Chicago), which he remembered as a composite sunny backdrop, highlighted by scenes of youthful glory as a lifeguard and an athlete and actor at Eureka College. But there were storms too, which he occasionally admitted. His father, Jack Reagan, was a drunk who finally failed as a shoe salesman (hence the family’s many moves). His mother, Nelle, was a devout member of the Christian Church whose warmth was vital to him early on, but as he grew up she turned it away from him and toward good works.
Words saved him. As a little boy he curled up at his mother’s side as she read aloud. He taught himself to read by the time he was 5. Drama became a second form of verbalizing. In his teens he saw a touring company production of R.C. Sherriff’s “Journey’s End.” “In some strange way,” Mr. Spitz quotes him, “I was also on stage.” His first serious adult jobs, as a sportscaster for Iowa radio stations, involved more words: Like most sportscasters then, he had to improvise narratives from wire-service reports of the play-by-play.
More important, words became a medium for expressing and shaping his own thoughts. Mr. Spitz is very good on how Reagan spoke and wrote, and what it meant to him: The manuscript of a speech to the Screen Actors Guild is “crammed with comprehensive ideas that are simply conceived, almost colloquial in their delivery. He clearly wrote it straight out of his head. There are very few revisions. He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it.” Actors, Mr. Spitz writes elsewhere, all “have lines to say and the innate gift of delivery, whether they are playing a G-man, a sports hero, or even a president. But they didn’t all have [Reagan’s] gift of speaking his mind.” He had the gift because he had already arranged what was in his mind.
A sportscaster’s trip to baseball spring training in southern California served as a springboard to a Hollywood screen test. Reagan’s years in movies gave him a measure of stardom, and two wives (Jane Wyman for eight years, Nancy Davis for the duration). He also encountered Communists. Mr. Spitz interviewed Olivia de Havilland about their M.O.: If a Communist-backed motion at a Hollywood actors’ meeting was faltering, “Dalton Trumbo, a brilliant man, got up and spoke absolute nonsense to delay the vote, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Once most of the people in attendance had drifted away, “the radicals untabled the motion and passed it, one-two-three.”
After Reagan’s movie career faded, he moved to television, as the host of “General Electric Theater,” a 1950s anthology show. His off-camera work as a company spokesman provided him with new encounters: ordinary Americans, legions of them, in General Electric’s factories and in local civic groups who wanted to hear the celebrity pitchman as he came through town. “We saturated him in Middle America,” said a GE press officer. These gigs acquainted Reagan with the postwar equivalents of his youthful neighbors. This was the second element of his democratic appeal—he knew what his audiences were thinking, because he had heard it from their lips, and sensed it from their reactions to what he said.
Reagan was a Democrat when FDR was leading the country through the Depression and World War II. He moved rightward as he came to see the government over-taxing hard-working Americans and cosseting the unworthy. Republicans looking to recover from the debacle of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign encouraged him to run for governor of California two years later. He served two terms, condemning campus unrest (the issue wasn’t a blip in the polling data, an aide told him; “It will be when I get through,” Reagan answered). He pushed unsuccessfully for a complex tax-cut referendum, Proposition 1. Here a quip hurt him. Voters weren’t understanding it, Reagan was told. “I don’t, either,” he admitted.
Reagan’s two terms in the White House are still visible in older Americans’ rear-view mirrors. Mr. Spitz ably marshals the bit players (who was Manucher Ghorbanifar again?) and the large movements: Reagan’s deeply held conviction that the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was less a deterrent to nuclear war than a tripwire for Armageddon led him to embrace both the Strategic Defense Initiative and arms-reduction talks with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s management style was hands-off. Mr. Spitz praises its successes: the first-term troika of Jim Baker, chief of staff, Ed Meese, counselor to the president, and Mike Deaver, Nancy whisperer, “while competitive and frequently at cross-purposes, kept the Oval Office humming and the president on track.” It also nourished the grandiose derring-do of Oliver North, who juggled a secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran and a Nicaraguan insurgency from his National Security Council office.
Reagan did not preside over the end of the Cold War. That was left to his vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush. But in retirement he got to whack at a remnant of the Berlin Wall, which he had urged Mr. Gorbachev to tear down. His last great gesture came in 1994 when he was told he had Alzheimer’s disease. On the spot he composed a letter to the American people, announcing that he was heading “into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” He died 10 years later, at age 93.
Mr. Spitz’s prose is business casual: no tie, collar unbuttoned, blazer, loafers. It keeps his many pages turning, and it knits his many venues—small towns, sound stages, summit meetings—smoothly together.
Mr. Spitz’s Reagan is a saint of the civil religion. Mr. Spitz defines his creed thus: “Honor your country, cherish your family, give thanks to a higher being, stand up for what you believe in, and refuse to be bullied by tyrants.” Is this an adequate summary? Saints are venerable, and they offer to help us (secular ones by their example). But we tend to flatten them. What “Reagan: An American Journey” sometimes misses is a sense of urgency, beyond the immediate concerns of its hero and his circle. We get some back-and-forth on economic policy and spot checks of relevant statistics. But ’70s stagflation was serious, and although Reagan signally failed to balance the budget as promised, he slashed inflation and unemployment. The slump and the rebound meant more than Mr. Spitz shows. Similarly with the Cold War. We now see the Soviet Union as fated to fail. But in the decade before Reagan took office, it and its allies beat America in Vietnam, colonized swaths of Africa with Cuban troops, and terrorized Western Europe with intermediate-range nuclear missiles. It was an evil system on the march. In stopping its advance and encouraging its implosion, Reagan and Bush 41 won a world war without a Somme or a Stalingrad: a world-historical achievement.
So winning is Mr. Spitz’s account that I have already slid into the later historians’ impulse to modify. For all but the hard left, Reagan occupies a slot on the expanded Mount Rushmore, alongside his youthful hero FDR. “Reagan: An American Journey” is a handsome, handy introduction to the 20th century’s last hero.