This is a tough book. Tough on the President of the United States; tough on American society today; tough on political movers and shakers; and even tough on the reader.
Already there has been some advance news springing from heretofore unreported accounts in the book relating to the Reagan inner circle's plan for the possible transfer of power after the assassination attempt on the President and a revelation about a stolen copy of the Carter briefing notebook before a crucial debate with his GOP challenger.
Barrett's ''Gambling'' seems to be three books in one: first, a detailed straightforward chronicle of Ronald Reagan's first two years of foreign and domestic initiatives - sometimes revealing, but often difficult reading.
Second, it's a series of close-in profiles (scattered throughout the manuscript) of the White House team, including senior assistants James Baker, Michael Deaver, and Edwin Meese.
Third, it's a group of more readable chapters ranging in subject from civil rights to attitudes toward the media to vignettes (some of them previously published) about the Reagan family.
''Gambling'' is too long and somewhat haphazardly organized. Much of it is written for the professional, the sophisticated White House and foreign policy watcher. It lacks the historical perspective of a Theodore White work and the drama of Hamilton Jordon's account of the Carter years, ''Crisis,'' or Lou Canon's ''Reagan.'' Nonetheless it is a formidable book, a valuable addition to the still-emerging saga of a first-of-his-kind President whose imprint on history is almost certain to be significant.
Barrett is Time magazine's top man covering the White House. His major arguments:
* The first modern president to emerge from a protest movement, Reagan embodies radical conservatism, which is finally getting a test in power.
* Despite setbacks to his economic policies and Soviet and Middle East initiatives, Reagan has still been an effective president.
* However, the man in the Oval Office has overplayed his hand, ''inflicting unnecessary pain'' on the nation and damaging his political position.
* Contrary to some analyses, Reagan is an ''activist'' president in the style of the two Roosevelts, not at all hesitant to use the power of the office or his own personality to accomplish his goals.
Of note are Barrett's often roughshod assessments of the presidential team:
Meese - Reagan's kind of man, who, like his boss, seems to ''insulate himself from unpleasantness by pretending it doesn't exist.''
Deaver - ''. . . has the mental equipment but not the temperament to delve into the business of governance.''
Baker - (a former aide to President Ford and then George Bush, when he was challenging Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1980). ''He could play the hired gun. Unlike some of the others, such as Carter's man Hamilton Jordan, Baker was not burdened with heavy political convictions.''
Richard Allen - (embattled and eventually dismissed national security adviser) ''. . . was supposed to be a right-wing counterweight'' to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
Dick Darman - deputy assistant to the president. Intellectual, professional, a workaholic. Seen as a potential secretary of state.
And Ronald Reagan - ever the optimist, often a loner, sometimes puzzled and hurt that his motives are misunderstood.
''Reagan during his first two years did not take the country into any disastrous adventure,'' Barrett explains. ''Nor did he burn bridges that might eventually lead to reduced danger abroad.
''During the Vietnam era, American officials who sought a middle way between doves and hawks were called dawks. Reagan created a new hybrid status for himself. He remained a hawk in both inclination and practice, but in every complex test, he proved to be a cautious hunting bird. He could be called a 'cawk.' ''
In his strongest indictment of the President, the author charges that the Reagan administration has failed the poor and minorities. He accuses Reagan, not of racism nor even insensitivity, but of faulty perception.
The federal government, Barrett holds, ''has a duty to enhance the opportunities of all classes and regions to obtain decent shares of society's bounty. At the very minimum, Washington should do nothing directly or indirectly to widen disparities caused by circumstances.''
Reaganomics, he concludes, falls short of this standard.