President Reagan by Richard Reeves
Ambivalence is neither unusual nor objectionable in a biographical study—life, after all, is seldom straightforward. But Richard Reeves’s treatment of the presidency of Ronald Reagan is ambivalent to the point of incoherence. From beginning to end, Reeves, formerly a chief political correspondent for the New York Times, wanders inconclusively both in the way he presents the story of Reagan’s two terms in office and in his judgment of those eight years.
The muddle starts with the subtitle. “The Triumph of Imagination,” as Reeves discusses it in his introduction, has a double meaning. Negatively, it is Reagan’s vision of “a gentle God-fearing and whitewashed American past that never was, that he persuaded himself and many others was real and wonderful.” More positive is Reagan’s image of “an American future of lower taxes, less government, . . . military superiority, and a world where Americans would walk proudly and safely on the meanest streets and trails of the world.” At first glance, this seems balanced and clear. But then one pauses to reflect: what precisely does the reference to walking proudly on mean streets signify? And what, other than gratuitous denigration, is added by the words that immediately follow: “[Reagan] believed everyone admired or envied Americans—if they did not, they were evil”? As is true in so much of this book, the description is muddy, the implication obscure but deprecating.
About the Author
James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.