- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

PRESIDENT REAGAN: THE TRIUMPH OF IMAGINATION

By Richard Reeves, Simon & Schuster, $30, 544 pages, illus.

By now several score of books have been published about Ronald Reagan. Some are broad in scope; some narrow. Some are very good; some not so good; most are somewhere in between.

It’s hard to imagine that there is much more to be analyzed about the 40th president, although, in “Ronald Reagan: Triumph of Imagination,” Richard Reeves tries mightily to do so. Considering his background as a journalist and lifetime liberal, he has some insights that may set his fellow liberals to rethinking their “empty-suit” opinions about Reagan.

In recounting his first interview of Mr. Reagan in 1967 and subsequent contacts, Mr. Reeves writes, “He did not change my liberal mind and I did not dent his conservatism, and we did agree on many things, particularly on American exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism, of course, was central to Mr. Reagan’s thinking and the inspiration for much of his optimism.

Mr. Reagan, who seemed laid back to many, had a core of firm determination and Mr. Reeves understands this: “No one ever called Reagan an intellectual, but he did see the world in terms of ideas. He was an ideologue with a few ideas that he held with stubborn certainty.” Mr. Reeves notes further, “the President Reagan, I found in the course of my research, was a gambler, a bold, determined guy.”

In reciting the events of the two Reagan terms, he gives us numerous examples. The author also makes it clear that Mr. Reagan was no tool of his staff. Anyone who ever worked for Ronald Reagan knows this, but the opposite remains an article of faith with die-hard leftists, especially those in academia.

Mr. Reeves structures his book chronologically. He makes extensive use of passages from President Reagan’s own diary (now available to researchers). Its straightforward accounts and observations of the day’s events provide counterpoint to the din of politicians’ and reporters’ reactions to those events.

His account of the attempted assassination of the president on March 30, 1981, vividly captures the drama, tension and Reagan gallantry that marked that event. In narrating other events, he uses the same interplay of participants’ conversations, the president’s comments and media reports to give his book a steady pace.

The author frequently equates media opinions with public opinion. In several places he proclaims Reagan speeches to have been failures. For example, an April 1983 speech about Central America is described by the author as “not a success.” The evidence for this is an NBC television news commentary. Journalists who cover politics tend to socialize with one another and even quote one another as sources, so it is not surprising they may assign greater importance to their colleagues than is deserved.

There is a pattern in the book of describing a Reagan initiative, then making sure we understand that the president puts his trousers on one leg at a time, just to make sure we know he is not Superman.

While the author did a great deal of research to assemble his narrative, there are a number of factual errors that could have been corrected without difficulty. For example, the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles is misnamed “Century Park Plaza.”

Calvin Coolidge did not intercede in the 1919 Boston police strike “months after” it ended, but the week of the strike. The house at Rancho del Cielo is made of adobe, not stucco and the Reagans sold it in April 1998, not August 1995.

Ronald Reagan did not first get the idea for a nuclear shield — the Strategic Defense Initiative — from an article in Human Events, but from a visit to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 1967.

Like many journalists who know little of economics, the author seems oblivious to the overarching impact of the Reagan 1981 across-the-board tax cuts. When they became fully effective, in late 1982, they ushered in a what became up to that time the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history.

Because the administration had stuck to the old rules of making projections by static analysis, it had predicted a net loss for the treasury from the tax cuts. Instead, billions of new dollars poured into the treasury as a result of new investment. Not least, some 19 million new jobs were created.

Though it is uneven, Mr. Reeves’ book makes a contribution to the Reagan literature and it would be hard to disagree with his comment that “For American conservatives, [Reagan] became what Franklin Roosevelt was to liberals. Larger than life. Indispensable.”

Peter Hannaford is the author of five books about Ronald Reagan, including “Recollections of Reagan.”


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