Question: What does Ronald Reagan have in common with Julia Child and the Beatles?
Answer: They’ve all been the subject of mammoth celebrity biographies by author Bob Spitz.
Which was why I approached reviewing Mr. Spitz’s “Reagan: An American Journey” with a somewhat jaundiced eye, expecting an overweight, cut and paste job that would read like a supermarket tabloid article on steroids.
I was wrong. Although over-long and often superficial in dealing with historical context, this is a book that probably comes as close to capturing the essence of Ronald Reagan the man — as opposed to Ronald Reagan the politician, actor, union leader or statesman — as any ever will. The result is worth reading, although patience and persistence are required to get through all 863 pages of a work that combines deep insights and shallow trivia in roughly equal measure.
Bob Spitz belongs to what I call the vacuum cleaner school of biography. He sweeps up everything he can lay his hands on in the hope that, when you sift through the contents of his vacuum bag you’ll be able to piece together the truth about his subject. He also takes a calm, almost apolitical view of Ronald Reagan the man, something which both ardent Reagan fans and fanatic Reagan haters have trouble doing because of their tendency to view our 40th president as a primarily political animal on whom they project their own partisan enthusiasms and pet peeves.
In doing so friend and foe alike sell Ronald Reagan short. He was much more than a politician. Indeed, his political career, begun relatively late in life, was the by-product of a personal odyssey that began in small-town middle America, was defined by a love of sports and drama dating from his college days, and propelled him to a respectable Hollywood career as both a second-tier movie star and a courageous union leader long before he gave a thought to running for any public office.
Like several other major presidents — George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower to name only two — Reagan was an accomplished, fully mature man of character who entered the political arena already tested and tempered by life. This is in stark contrast to the more common variety of compulsive politicians who start running for office at the student council level and spend the rest of their lives pursuing votes and applause as they struggle to climb the greasy pole. Many reach the top without really knowing who they are or what they stand for.
As Ronald Reagan’s director of presidential speechwriting during much of his first term, I had direct access to this truly remarkable man. What struck me most about him — aside from the fact that he was an incredibly likable, considerate man, full of confidence but devoid of vanity — was how genuine and consistent he was a human being. While he never stopped learning from his experience in the top job, he came to it as a true grown-up, a fully formed and formidable human being comfortable in his own skin rather than an applause craving narcissist with few if any inner convictions and no moral compass. Ronald Reagan was a man of strong convictions but moderate, self-controlled temperament, which more and more Americans came to appreciate as they got to know him.
While Bob Spitz sometimes drowns his readers with tedious details and is often politically tone deaf, he has captured the essence of Ronald Reagan the man. “One unassailable entry in the credit column,” he writes, “was Ronald Reagan’s heart. It was big and expansive. He never stopped believing in ‘the American miracle’ and the good people responsible for its achievements. He clung to the image of a nation populated by citizens ‘grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge’ and governed by ordinary American ‘values and common sense’ In his final address to the nation … he looked into the camera like a benevolent father and reflected on his romantic view of America — the ‘shining city upon a hill’ — a place with ‘all kinds of people living in harmony and peace … ‘”
The meticulous, multi-volume Reagan biographical project of Craig Shirley remains the best source for understanding Ronald Reagan as a major historical figure. Lou Cannon’s first-hand accounts of the evolution of Reagan the candidate-politician are still second to none. But Bob Spitz has written clearly, convincingly and movingly about Ronald Reagan the man, a man who left the world a freer, better place than he found it, and who earned the respect of the people he served because he respected and appealed to what was best in them.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.