The man who knew how to be president

The 40th presidency: tough talk, scandal, spiraling deficits, and a vision of America few could resist.

Richard Reeves recognizes the folly of his labors even as he unveils them, noting that more than 900 books about Ronald Reagan and his legacy have been published, most during the past 15 years. Now Reeves adds his name to the ever-expanding list with President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, a biography long on contemporary context and short on historical judgments.

Similar to his earlier portraits of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Reeves illustrates the perils and triumphs of the nation's highest office through a selective and encompassing series of important dates, anecdotes, and distilled contemporary accounts. It is an effective method, reminding readers again and again of the swirling chaos inherent in any political operation.

With Reagan, the nation's 40th president, Reeves's method pays off in several ways, beginning with its devastating, brick-by-brick reconstruction of an administration plagued with ethics scandals, spiraling deficits, and an unconscionable disregard for both the AIDS epidemic and the homeless population.

Perhaps most jarring to the memory is Reagan's contradictory policy on terrorism, rampant with gunslinger rhetoric but often bereft of hard-hitting deterrence. Two decades later, how many Americans remember the president's decision not to retaliate when 241 US Marines were killed in Beirut?

Reeves has not written an indictment of the Reagan administration (Ed Meese, Ollie North, and Michael Deaver, among others, did that with little need for outside help, thank you very much). He does a solid job demonstrating Reagan's legacy as a conservative icon, an accomplishment achieved through self-deprecating humor, unyielding optimism, and an image of the past and future fit for the former actor's old Hollywood studio lots.

Little of the material Reeves offers is new. But revisiting the Reagan Revolution in the context of today's post-9/11 domestic and global politics is instructive - and at times downright disturbing. Here we see Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that one) comforting Saddam Hussein, a newfound ally for an American government desperate to avoid another humiliation from the Iranian government.

Four years after declaring that his administration would never negotiate with terrorists, Reagan and his cronies are swapping arms for hostages, leading into the Iran-contra scandal. If, like this reviewer, your memory of Ollie North and Fawn Hall conjures "Saturday Night Live" parody more than the actual findings of the investigation, Reeves' account is a bracing primer.

In matter-of-fact prose, Reeves spells out the scandal's heavy toll: millions of dollars unaccounted for (North, among other things, used some of the diverted funds to buy snow tires and home-security systems for personal use), blatant disregard for Congress and the Constitution alike, national and international humiliation.

Iran-contra's aftermath is even worse. Despite staggering evidence and several convictions, all involved ultimately escaped serious penalties through pardons and other legal maneuvers.

Does anybody remember what Reaganomics stood for? Smaller government, lower taxes, and financial discipline. Almost none of it came to pass, as even the one true accomplishment - lower taxes - suffered constant erosion through subsequent loophole-closing legislation aimed at stanching the flow of federal red ink.

Reagan marshaled incredible Congressional loyalty during his first term, bending the Demo- cratic majority to his inexorable will.

Which means the president and his administration deserve the blame for the financial legacy of the 1980s. During the first five years of the Reagan presidency, the deficit increased by $762.6 billion. David Stockman, Reagan's boyish budget wizard, later told the New York Stock Exchange, "If the Securities and Exchange Commission had jurisdiction over the executive and legislative branches, many of us would be in jail."

Subtitled "The Triumph of Imagination," Reeves' biography credits Reagan with selling a vision of America that would make Norman Rockwell blush. Of course, Mr. Rockwell didn't have Nancy Reagan by his side, setting the presidential agenda after heavy consultation with Joan Quigley and other astrologers.

To be fair, Tip O'Neill and Mario Cuomo, among many others, recognized Reagan's grace, dignity, and determination to make the presidency a credible office in the wake of Watergate and Jimmy Carter's meandering White House. As Reeves puts it, "He knew how to be President."

And he often proved impossible to dislike. After narrowly escaping death at the hands of would-be assassin John Hinckley, Reagan told the First Lady, "Honey, I forgot to duck." When Democratic nominee Walter Mondale questioned his age during a 1984 presidential debate, he shot back: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

That and the end of the cold war remain Reagan's legacy, though here again Reeves offers a corrective reminder. When Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (the first and last Russian leader Reagan met) negotiated stunning nuclear arms reductions during the president's second term, conservatives branded Reagan a sellout. William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will declared the arms reductions a clear sign America had lost the cold war.

Even granting Reagan partial credit for communism's collapse, as well as the restoration of presidential power, it is difficult to relive the "Greed Is Good" decade and praise his presidency. His economic revolution never materialized; instead, it cost his successor reelection as taxes had to be raised to cope with the irresponsible spending policies. Iran-contra, in hindsight, ranks just below Watergate among 20th-century White House scandals. And the 40th president too often went on vacation, literally and mentally.

In 1986, former Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered what still seems the best assessment of Reagan: "You ask yourself, 'How did it ever occur to anybody that Reagan should be governor, much less President?' On the other hand, you have to say also that [Reagan] ... cannot be a trivial figure. It is perfectly possible history will judge Reagan as a most significant President."

Indeed, when a contemporary president promises both lower taxes and balanced budgets, it is impossible not to glimpse Reagan. In other words, there he goes again.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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