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THE 2 OF THEM : PRESIDENT REAGAN; The Role of a Lifetime By Lou Cannon (Simon & Schuster: $34.95; 948 pp.)

April 21, 1991|Sidney Blumenthal | Blumenthal, a senior editor of The New Republic, is the author of "Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War . "

In his Bel-Air mansion and at Chasen's, the retired star's retainers and old friends still treat him like Hollywood royalty. Occasionally, he accepts invitations to display his dimming glamour at movie previews and charity balls. But the studio does not call. And yet the camera, with which he has had a long affair, suddenly focuses on him again. Ronald Reagan will take his close-up now.

Many of the producers, directors and screenwriters who staged Reagan's Washington already have unreeled their memoirs. Shamelessly, they exposed the mechanics of how they made him the most beloved President of modern times. Nearly all of these pitiless accounts were driven by a remarkable disloyalty. Reagan's greatest ability was to inspire the public's faith in the happy ending, but those who worked most intimately with him were mainly inspired to faithlessness.

Lou Cannon, a reporter for the Washington Post, was almost like an ex-officio member of the Reagan entourage. With the exceptions of Nancy Reagan and Edwin Meese, Cannon was the only one who followed Reagan from his early days in California politics to his last day in the White House. No other journalist had his access.

"President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," Cannon's third book on Reagan, is the ultimate Reagan history by the closest of his objective observers. What separates the tone of this book from the other versions of the Reagan presidency (including those of most his former aides and the pathography of Nancy Reagan by Kitty Kelley), is Cannon's profound sympathy for his subject, which at times crosses over into an unusual empathy. He even suggests that many of Reagan's shortcomings may be attributed to being the child of an alcoholic father, noting that he himself grew up under the same burden.

The author is rigorously fair-minded, straining for balance at every turn, always trying to explain Reagan's side of things. His bafflement at the "enigma" of Reagan's intelligence leads him to construct a theory drawn from the work of Harvard professor Howard Gardner on "multiple intelligences." Reagan might be weak on logic and analysis, according to Cannon, but strong on "interpersonal intelligence," although he emotionally distances himself from everyone around him, even his wife.

Cannon's diligent effort to understand the inner Reagan is utterly devoid of the slightest smirk. It is partly because Cannon's motives and methods are unimpeachable that his book is the most devastating of all.

Cannon's book covers the Reagan presidency from its start to its finish. He has unraveled all the major events and most of the minor ones with extraordinary clarity. It is the single most indispensable book on the inner workings of the White House and the precise contributions of Ronald Reagan to his own presidency. (The one piece glaringly missing would be about Reagan's relationship with his vice president, who appears from the glimpses we see of him to have been much more involved in the decision-making than he has admitted.)

From his first campaign for governor of California, Reagan has been denigrated for having been an actor, as though his background were frivolous and dismissable. Cannon explains that Reagan's Hollywood experience was absolutely central to his ways of thinking and modes of operation. He saw his presidency mostly in Hollywood terms, which had been so deeply ingrained that they were his second nature. Cannon does not use the Hollywood reference as metaphor or analogy, but literally. But how Reagan acted in his greatest role may be an unfair judgment on Hollywood.

Reagan hardly ever expressed himself at meetings with his senior staff or Cabinet. At any moment of boredom, which could be induced by any serious discussion of policy, he would simply nod off. The President's top advisers commonly found him "inattentive, unfocused and incurious and to depart from meetings not knowing what, if anything, had been decided."

Occasionally, he would interrupt the flow of serious talk with anti-government yarns dating to his days as a flack for GE. "But on other issues, especially when the discussion was over his head, Reagan's participation was usually limited to jokes and cinematic illustrations. This is not surprising, as Reagan spent more time at the movies during his presidency than at anything else."

On the 183 weekends he spent at Camp David, he usually saw two movies, and also viewed them constantly at other times. During the 1983 world economic summit, the only one held in the United States during his tenure, he never opened his briefing book beforehand, despite his staff's anxiety about his performance. Afterward, Chief of Staff James Baker asked Reagan why he hadn't looked at it. "Well, Jim," replied Reagan, " 'The Sound of Music' was on last night."

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