Reagan: The LifeBy H. W. BrandsDoubleday, 2015By his own admission, former political operative (and convicted perjurer, to the limited extent those two things aren't synonyms) Michael Deaver was an intensely flawed man, but there was one subject he knew better than anybody, and that subject was Ronald Reagan. Deaver had worked as a very busy staff member when Reagan was governor of California, and he was Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House from 1981 to 1985, during which time, as one Oval Office observer put it, “just him walking into the room tended to bring a smile to the President's face.” And that effect was very much intentional, as Deaver himself admitted up front:
You wanted to help Reagan float through life … You wanted to make it easy for him. You wanted to be sure that everything was taken care of. I can't tell you why that was; everybody who ever worked for him felt that way. He never asked for it, but it was just instantly apparent that that was something that everybody was going to do … You wanted him to succeed, and you'd be willing to do whatever it took to take the load off him of all the shitty little things that normal people have to do.
In this Deaver was entirely accurate, and virtually every Reagan staff member at one point felt something similar (and beyond the inner circles as well: even Reagan's dedicated Senatorial adversary Tip O'Neill occasionally seemed so inclined). And like the malignancy of Hitler or the pettiness of Nixon, this quality of Reagan's – call it simple charisma, although there was probably nothing simple about it – survives and operates long after the man himself is gone. Ronald Reagan left office in 1989 and died in 2004, but his charisma is still very much alive.Which should act as a bright red warning sign to potential biographers, because the quickest way for a biographer to invalidate his own work is for him to succumb to the urge to clear up “all the shitty little things that normal people have to do.” That urge leads to hagiography, and President Reagan, a hero to all his valets, has had more than his share of it, from the thorough but reverential books like Craig Shirley's Rendezvous with Destiny or after-all affectionate ones like Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime to the far less coherent effusings of simple fans like Dinesh D'Souza. The urge can lead to semi-fraudulent pastiches like Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge at one end of the spectrum and surreal concoctions like Edmund Morris's magnificent Dutch at the other.Bestselling biographer H. W. Brands enters that list with his new 800-page book Reagan: The Life, a big, impressive-looking thing, the latest in a string of presidential biographies from this author, who's previously written about Ulysses Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and both Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin. Nevertheless, with President Reagan he enters new territory in one sense: he enters the realm of living history, in which although his main subject is dead, most of the other key players are still alive, with vigorous opinions and personal reputations to safeguard. This is a trickier matter than raking through the records about Jackson's slaveholding or Grant's drinking; it embarks the biographer into the murky realm of live testimony.“It is sometimes asserted by apologists that those who study history are trained to be on guard against the polemical misuse of evidence,” Herbert Butterfield wrote over half a century ago in his book about another controversial ruler, George III and the Historians. “Even when they have forgotten all the curriculum history they ever learned, it is supposed that such students will be more discriminating readers of newspapers, less gullible victims of propaganda, than other people.” Butterfield holds this supposition at arm's length like a wriggling animal, and rightly so: the road to hagiography is paved with good intentions.The story Brands tells is well-known in outline. Ronald Reagan, born in 1911 in Illinois and raised there, moved to Iowa to become a sports announcer, was later contracted as a player in the Warner Brothers Studio, never rose above supporting-actor roles, and gradually moved to a presenter's role with General Electric Theater. During that time (under the influence of his corporate colleagues and his second wife, Nancy) switched his political affiliation from the Democratic to the Republican Party and became a champion for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Brands's sources for most of this are Reagan's 1965 autobiography Where's the Rest of Me? - and his 1990 autobiography An American Life, with additions from Anne Edwards' 1987 book Early Reagan. He brings these events down to the crucial dramatic turning-point in Reagan's public career, the speech he gave in support of embattled presidential candidate Goldwater in October 1964. The speech was called “A Time of Choosing,” and in it, Reagan lays out pretty much the same Manichean world-view that would inform all of his public career – a world-view charged with the drama of good guys and bad guys and bristling with indignation at the overreaches of both the Soviet system and America's own federal government. Brands plays it for all it's worth:
In American political history, no speech ever did more than Reagan's to launch a national political career. Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union address earned the Illinoisan credibility in the East; William Jennings Bryan's “Cross of Gold” speech won him the 1896 Democratic nomination. But both Lincoln and Bryan had been in politics, been members of Congress. Reagan was a tyro. He had never held political office, never even run for office. He had been a member of his new party barely two years. And with one speech he became the most attractive Republican in America.
Eight years as governor of California and a failed presidential campaign in 1976 are handled with telegraphic dispatch in order to get the candidate to the White House, and along the way, the tenor of the candidate's two terms as president is adumbrated as clearly as possible. “Details of governing would rarely interest Reagan,” Brands writes. “He was an idea man, a purveyor of big principles. Details he left to others.” The biographer seems genuinely unaware of the fact that this is special pleading, and that special pleading is no part of his job. By page 250 of his book, Ronald Reagan is not only installed as president but exonerated from actual complicity in his own presidency by virtue of the fact that he's an “idea man.”What follows far too often resembles some sort of downhill slalom to sainthood, and little wonder, considering how many psalters are consulted. On virtually every page of virtually every chapter, the polished and lawyer-vetted memoirs of everybody involved – Reagan's two books, Nancy Reagan's My Turn, Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz's Turmoil and Triumph, Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese's With Reagan, Reagan Treasury Secretary (and also Chief of Staff) Don Regan's For the Record, Reagan National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane's Special Trust, Chief of Staff James Baker's Work Hard, Study … and Keep Out of Politics!, Reagan Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver's Behind the Scenes, and so on, are not only used as references for crucial events but used as the only references for those events. It's a pattern that repeats itself so often that even the kindliest reader will feel the urge to send Brands a quick email reminding him that some of these authors were handed federal indictments and that all of them had ample reason to lie in their memoirs. The very idea that a professional historian could rest so much of his book on “sources” that are not only nakedly self-serving but also universally known to be nakedly self-serving is equal parts astonishing and embarrassing. It's as if a trained professional researching the presidency of George W. Bush were to read his book Decision Points, close it with a satisfied sigh, and say, “So that's what really happened.”As a result of this kind of grounding, the various scandals of the Reagan administration – from the “October Surprise” suspicion that he and his subordinates backstage negotiated with Iranian officials to time the release of American hostages in order to coincide with Reagan's inauguration, to military aid to dictators in Haiti and the Philippines, to influence-peddling and political witch-hunts in the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Housing and Urban Development paying off of campaign donors with lucrative real estate deals, to the Iran-Contra Affair in which a dozen Reagan officials were implicated – these and more largely fail to touch Brands' Reagan. How could it be otherwise, when Reagan's own diaries are being used like they were investigative reporting?Of the actual investigative reporting that dogged the Reagan administration for eight years, readers will find precious little in these pages. True, reportage from the Washington Post and the New York Times fills out the notes of the presidential chapters, but it's offered with almost no reference to the fact that the Reagan White House was more distant and imperial with the Fourth Estate than any previous administration in history. The President smiling and waving to shouting reporters from across a lawn on his way to a waiting helicopter became such a familiar metaphor during his time in office that images of it unironically grace half a dozen books about the time, but nevertheless, scathing pieces were written even in the mainstream press of the day, and scathing books were written based on those pieces, and Brands isn't interested in any of it. “Mr. Reagan seemed to be having such a good time; a smiling man, laughing at prerecorded Hollywood jokes, feeding on jelly beans, and all the while cheerfully withdrawing food stamps from the poor and chatting amiably to the press about his arsenal of hideous weapons,” Lewis Lapham could write as early as 1981. “Who can bear the sight of a man so comfortable in the role of a grim and vengeful god?”No hint of a grim and vengeful god in these pages. Instead, we get detached and almost theoretical Chief Executive, a simple and kindly old man who's being taken entirely at his own word – and worse, his cadre of perjurers, felons, fixers, and incompetent lieutenants being taken entirely at their words. And through it all, we have Brands the biographer acting more like Brands the stenographer, carefully collating the lies and half-truths and panning through them all for sparkling quotes. At almost no point in the narrative do we feel like we're getting the whole story, the real story, about anything.Take one small example.In August of 1986, a Soviet UN worker named Gennadi Zakharov was arrested in New York on espionage charges, and a week later, a US journalist named Nicholas Daniloff was arrested by the KGB in Moscow, likewise accused of espionage. Zakharov had been arrested after he was caught in a sting operation, trying to buy US military information from a planted agent; Daniloff was arrested for carrying documents from a suspected anti-KGB operative (Soviet premier Gorbachev described him as “caught red-handed”). At first, Reagan refused to allow the two cases to be equated, writing in his diary “we've offered no deal and are playing hardball all the way.” Brands writes:
What Reagan didn't know was that the CIA wasn't telling him the full story. Reagan had asked [CIA Director] William Casey if Daniloff was a spy; Casey had assured him Daniloff was not. This was true, but it omitted pertinent information. George Schultz didn't trust Casey or the CIA, and he demanded to learn whatever the agency knew about Daniloff. He was informed that Daniloff had received an envelope from a “Father Potemkin” for transmission to the American embassy. Daniloff delivered the envelope, which contained a message that appeared to be from a source that had previously conveyed valuable information about the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The CIA tried to contact the source through Potemkin, in the process mentioning Daniloff. This likely came to the attention of the KGB…
In the course of researching his book, Brands interviewed Abraham Sofaer, who'd been a legal advisor to the State Department during the incident and was called in to brief the president. In his recollections to Brands, some of Sofaer's versions sound just a bit embellished:
“Mr. President [he recalls telling Reagan], you keep talking about the truth. The truth has nothing to do with the judicial system. Sure, you always try to get to the truth, and occasionally you get it, but if you think you always get the truth as a result of a judicial process, you're wrong. That's not what you get. You get a finding … You don't get the truth. This is not God. This is just people doing our best to make findings.”
I'm not sure I believe that such a peroration was ever uttered extemporaneously in the Oval Office back in 1986, and in any case, no reader coming to Brands' account of the incident will get anything beyond this neutered party line version. Who was “Father Potemkin” and what was Daniloff's connection with him? Was Daniloff guilty? Was the CIA guilty even if he wasn't? William Casey is dead, and George Schultz, on whose memoir Brands' account is based, naturally portrays himself as the hero, demanding answers from the spies over at Langley. Daniloff isn't interviewed, nor is Zakharov if he's still alive; in this account, as in so much of Brands' book, we learn nothing more than the principal actors were willing to disclose publicly thirty years ago. It holds true for the little incidents – the whole Daniloff/Zakharov exchange was a quickly-forgotten prelude to the Reagan/Gorbachev summit meeting in Reykjavik the following October – and for the big ones, for the reputed accomplishments of the Reagan Administration, such as combatting communism or restoring the confidence of millionaires in America's economy, and for the many scandals, including Iran-Contra. Critics carped about the artistic license Morris took in his 1999 authorized biography, but in Brands' Reagan: The Life that dutiful official biography at last appears, just in time for the summer book-buying season.The Ronald Reagan in these chapters is every bit as elusive as he was for Edmund Morris, but instead of admitting that fact and confronting it with the biographer's art, Brands chooses to abet the mystery, wrapping his subject in one enigmatic summary after another. “Reagan was an ideologist, not a geopolitician,” we're told; “Reagan was a conservative, but he was also a pragmatist,” we're told, “He took what he could get, never holding practical results hostage to ideological purity.” Worst by far, when Brands makes offhand mention of Reagan's “ability to say one thing and do something else,” he immediately steps in to do more exonerating: “In an individual this is hypocrisy; in a president it is realism.” Details he left to others.Reagan: The Life concludes on the solemn and victorious notes former Vice President George H. W. Bush sounded at Reagan's memorial service in June of 2004:
“When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name. There were no doubters in the prisons and gulags where dissidents spread the news, tapping to each other what the American president had dared to say. There were no doubters in the shipyards and churches and secret labor meetings where brave men and women began to hear the creaking and rumbling of a collapsing empire. And there were no doubters among those who swung hammers at the hated wall that the first and hardest blow had been struck by President Ronald Reagan.”
Cue the brass band and waving-flag film footage. Until the next big biography comes along, Reagan continues to float above it all.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.