In our deeply polarized era, Ronald Reagan’s more congenial conservatism now seems part of a distant historical epoch, even though he left the presidency just three decades ago. With that in mind, perhaps the best thing to be said about Reagan: An American Journey, Bob Spitz’s new biography, is that Spitz manages to evoke Reagan’s heyday in the 1980s with compelling clarity – and to suggest how The Gipper’s legacy continues to shape 21st-century politics.
“An American Journey” invites comparison to Lou Cannon’s 1991 effort, “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” a balanced and copiously researched chronicle of its subject. Richard Reeves’s 2005 biography, “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination,” was also a fairly objective portrait of Reagan, despite Reeves’s long career as a liberal newspaper columnist.
Unlike Cannon and Reeves, Spitz isn’t a political journalist; he’s best known for bestselling biographies of The Beatles and Julia Child. Spitz’s familiarity with celebrity culture comes in handy when telling the story of Reagan, whose profile as a film actor before entering politics made him the first president to emerge from the entertainment industry.
Spitz does a good job of capturing how groundbreaking that evolution was. Though he doesn’t draw a parallel with the current occupant of the White House, the significance of Reagan’s precedent seems clear, making it easier for reality TV star Donald Trump to make the transition to the campaign trail. And while Spitz has many flattering things to say about Reagan, he also points out the president’s sometimes casual attitude about the accuracy of his anecdotes, a habit that foreshadowed the self-proclaimed “alternative facts” of Trump’s administration.
As governor of California in the 1960s, for example, Reagan popularized the notion of widespread welfare fraud: “He claimed his staff ‘discovered thousands of people who were receiving welfare checks at the same time they were gainfully employed,’ that ‘one couple ... earned more than one hundred thousand dollars a year between them.’ These were compelling stories, but they were unsubstantiated. It didn’t matter. There was a great public resentment against welfare and the people who sought to exploit it. It was an easy idea to convey, even if it ignored the real complexities of the issue.”
If dark themes sometimes shadowed Reagan’s political philosophy, his central appeal among voters was his sunny sensibility, Spitz argues. “Schooled in the ABC’s of Hollywood fantasy, Reagan aspired to upbeat expectations and happy endings,” he tells readers. “His gospel of optimism restored the country’s spirit, lifted it out of the malaise he inherited from Jimmy Carter. He ascribed to FDR’s belief that ‘there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon,’ and he set out toward that destination from the day he entered office attuned to his inner compass.”
While Reeves’s book focused on Reagan’s presidency, “An American Journey” encompasses the whole of Reagan’s life, from his humble origins in early 20th-century Indiana through his death in 2004 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Not counting the index and notes, Spitz’s narrative runs to 761 pages, a length that still involves bargains about what to include. Some omissions seem glaring. Spitz makes much of Reagan’s communications skills, using his eloquent speech after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger as a case in point. But Peggy Noonan, who wrote that speech and on other occasions crafted Reagan’s best lines, isn’t mentioned.
Even so, one marvels at the telling details that Spitz manages to get in. He addresses the question of Reagan’s intelligence, dismissed by critics as insubstantial. Reagan was an enthusiastic reader and shrewd tactician with an innate gift for rhetoric, we learn, but he harbored no intellectual pretensions. As governor of California, he arranged his schedule so he could get home in the evenings to watch “Mission Impossible” and reruns of “Bonanza.”
It was a ritual Reagan seemed to prefer to social gatherings. Like other biographers, Spitz suggests that Reagan, despite his affable reputation, had few real friends beyond his second wife, Nancy, and was an enigma to those who worked for him.
Perhaps his best acting performance was his convincing portrayal of an Average Joe.
“In all of Reagan’s pursuits,” Spitz writes, “he held to the persona of Everyman. As the most powerful leader of the free world, he played the leading man with the modesty of a stalwart supporting player, drawing inspiration from people who weren’t stars in their own right.... They reinforced all that he shared with them, mainstream values and a familiar dialect, a simple view of a complex world. In that mutual embrace, he often lost sight of those who didn’t share his white-picket-fence, morning-in-America outlook.”
Danny Heitman is a columnist with The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”