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Gatsby in the White House

President Reagan The Triumph of Imagination Richard Reeves Simon & Schuster: 572 pp., $30

January 08, 2006|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently "The Devil's Wind," a novel.

RONALD REAGAN is an icon who remains a mystery, even as the bold outlines of his story loom like Mt. Rushmore. A Midwesterner, nicknamed Dutch. The son of an alcoholic. Born not on the wrong side of the tracks but close enough, he once said, "so that we heard the whistle real loud." The lifeguard. The mediocre student who charmed his way into a job as a sports announcer and then launched a career as a movie star in Hollywood's Golden Age. The leader of the Screen Actors Guild who denounced first Nazism and then Communism. The Las Vegas emcee. The Democrat who became a conservative Republican. The washed-up actor whose powerful friends parlayed his fame into the governorship of California. Finally, in 1980, the celebrity candidate who beat Jimmy Carter and stepped onto the biggest stage of all.

It's a great American story, a rags-to-riches classic. An exasperated Gore Vidal once wondered how a klutz like Reagan could have been elected president, prompting a journalist who had covered him to point out that this was the only man he'd ever heard of who got everything he wanted. Some klutz then -- one with inexorable ambition, shrewdness and what? He was handsome and looked great in a suit. He had that wonderful voice, husky and honeyed, an invaluable political tool. His optimism came from the heart and was inspiring. He was famously forgetful, famously genial, famously self-assured. Yet even his most fervent supporter and best friend, his second wife, Nancy, admitted he could be hard to reach. "You can get just so far to Ronnie and then something happens," she said. Maybe a lifetime of acting, of seeing himself as he was seen by others, gave him this coolness, this emotional distance. As president, he was beloved and successful, but unknowability has become a central part of his myth. Like Gatsby, he's opaque. Like Gatsby, he inspires fascination. Was there really a core?

Six years have gone by since Edmund Morris published "Dutch," the only biography ever authorized by a sitting president. "Dutch" is a beguiling, infuriating and highly controversial book, one that uses arch novelistic devices to penetrate the Reagan enigma, openly mingling fact and fiction to lay claim to the ambiguous domain between history and literature. Morris seems to have been hindered by his own access and bemused by his inability or unwillingness to decide once and for all whether Reagan was a great president or an airhead, a political genius or a flyweight bore. "I emerge from the Oval Office," he writes, "asking myself for the hundredth time, 'How much does Dutch really know?' "

In "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination" -- the first big Reagan portrait since the death of the former president on June 5, 2004 -- Richard Reeves adopts an entirely different strategy. As in his earlier studies of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Reeves keeps the focus tight, dealing not with the life in general but with the presidency in particular, moving from Jan. 20, 1981, to Jan. 11, 1989, the period between Reagan's inauguration and his farewell speech after two terms. The tone is determinedly low-key, day-to-day, even minute-by-minute, as Reeves lets the drama emerge for itself. And there was plenty of drama. The Beirut bombings, the invasion of Grenada, the first shuttle disaster, the TWA hijacking and the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 are mere sideshows to the main events of economic recovery, the Iran-Contra scandal and those first shiverings in the foundation of the Soviet Union, Reagan's "evil empire." This is a book about realpolitik, about what the presidency is and what it means. "I do not subscribe to the many theories of Reagan's passivity," Reeves writes. "[T]he President Reagan I found in the course of my research was a gambler, a bold, determined guy

Reeves organizes his material around certain crucial moments. Quickly following the first inauguration, then, is March 30, 1981, the date of John W. Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt. In his intimate 1991 study, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," Lou Cannon almost glides past this moment, using it only to point out how a strategy was immediately put in place to maximize sympathy and therefore political opportunity. "Less than a month after the shooting, while the old performer was still recovering from the wound that nearly killed him," Cannon notes, aides "easily persuaded Reagan to address a joint session of Congress on behalf of his economic recovery program."

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