THE search for the real Ronald Reagan goes on. A superb new biography by nonpareil Reagan watcher Lou Cannon - ``President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime'' - puts the former president under a microscope. The book will be an indispensable reference for all future biographers. But Cannon wasn't able to find the elusive Ronald Reagan. Maybe nobody will. What a complicated, enigmatic man Mr. Reagan is. One side of him is the actor president, not really understanding much of what he was doing - and not much interested in it either.
Here was the quipster, the leader who would often sum up a discussion of a serious subject by cabinet members with an anecdote - often an irrelevancy or an oversimplification. That's the Reagan who seems to have been so remote from important decisions that he never knew about the Iran-contra diversion.
Cannon has his own doubts about Reagan's ignorance of that diversion. He thinks that the president may have been told and didn't know what he was hearing, or later forgot what he once knew. But Cannon can't provide any new evidence that would prove that Reagan really knew - no smoking gun.
Some reviewers have called this book a ``devastating'' critique of Reagan. One called it ``Reagan-bashing.'' I disagree. Of Reagan as president, Cannon writes: ``It was a role in which he had played himself and which he performed consistently with style and grace.'' And how about these words:
``Walter Lippmann once said of Charles de Gaulle that his greatness was not because de Gaulle was in France but because France was in de Gaulle. Similarly, the greatness of Reagan was that he carried a shining vision of America inside of him .... Reagan may not have been a great president, but he was a great American who held a compelling vision of his country.'' Reagan-bashing? Far from it.
Cannon depicts a president who came into office with ``evil-empire'' words about the Soviet Union but who, in a few years, was revising his views and working with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the cold war. This speaks of a president who grew while in office.
Reagan really did not preside over a revolution. But much like Franklin Roosevelt, who wasn't much interested in details either, he shifted the direction of the nation. Roosevelt was a hero of Reagan's. Cannon writes that Reagan ``succeeded in reviving national confidence at a time when there was a great need for inspiration.'' That also sounds like FDR.
The warmth and modesty Reagan expressed on TV made Americans feel, instinctively, that he was almost a member of the family. But that was an act. Behind the smile, the quip, and the personable exterior was a very private man, perhaps shy - certainly someone who since a lonely boyhood has kept others from getting close to his inner thoughts and feelings.
In many interviews with Reagan over the years, starting when when he was trying to make up his mind whether to run for governor of California, I certainly never got to really know him. He always said essentially the same thing, about wanting less government and lower taxes. And he was always gracious. But as Cannon puts it, Reagan dealt with people as though it was part of a play. When he and they left that particular stage, Reagan promptly forgot those he had been talking to or working with.
That's the chief complaint of those who were part of both Reagan administrations both in Sacramento and Washington. Most feel they were quickly forgotten.
Cannon writes of the negative side of Reagan as a president: ``Too often, Reagan was a performer and presidential leadership an empty shell.'' This was a Reagan whose main imprint on domestic affairs was a tax cut that did not raise the revenues he predicted and that contributed to the massive budget deficit he left behind. This was the Reagan who remained remote from really governing - too often simply following the script and cue cards written by his aides.
Cannon has written an important book. He has shown us the inspirational president and the detached president. But he hasn't captured the real Reagan. Maybe no one can. Maybe inside Reagan the actor is Reagan the actor!