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The art of the positive

Ronald Reagan rewrote the definition of politics with a relentlessly upbeat approach

President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination
By Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster, 571 pp., $30

If one has the patience to complete the journey, there is a rewarding tale threaded through the pages of the latest presidential portrait by Richard Reeves -- one that should be instructive to the current occupants of the White House.

Ronald Reagan came to Washington as the most thoroughly conservative president since Calvin Coolidge nearly six decades earlier. Indeed, Reagan embraced Coolidge as his official role model, hanging his portrait in the Cabinet Room and rereading his autobiography. Reeves says that Reagan, who loved to delegate, likely enjoyed one particular paragraph from Coolidge: ''In the discharge of the duties of the office there is one rule of action more important than all others. It consists in never doing anything that someone else can do for you."

Reagan not only left the details to others but, as Reeves points out, often startled his critics with his policy prescriptions. Asked before his presidency how he would deal with communism and the Soviets, he responded, ''We win. They lose." He also said that lowering taxes would spark so much growth that government revenue would rise -- a theory first drawn up by an economist on a napkin. Whether his ideas were good, bad, or odd, he always made them sound simple. Seem familiar?

Yet (Karl Rove, please note) Reagan blended his conservative beliefs with shrewd common sense. The day after his election, he asked Jim Baker to be his chief of staff, ensuring that he would have an experienced pragmatist at his side. After enacting huge tax cuts, the president saw that deficits were climbing dangerously and signed into law a series of ''revenue enhancers," a.k.a. tax increases. He didn't try to redistrict Southern Democrats out of existence: He reached out to them and converted them into an important part of his coalition, even promising not to campaign against some of them. When his presidency nearly collapsed over the Iran-contra scandal, Reagan sought out establishment figures like Howard Baker and Frank Carlucci to put it aright. His base didn't like any of those moves, but they worked. Reagan had not sacrificed principle; instead, he tempered his beliefs with pragmatism, and that paid off.

Reeves's central contribution to the Reagan story is to show that he also succeeded because he was a dreamer, a man whose humanistic visions of America and the world transcended ideology. [Full disclosure, I've worked with Reeves's literary editor.] Growing up along a river, Reagan thought of himself reliving the adventures of Tom Sawyer, and acting in Hollywood, he came to believe that the good guy usually gets the girl. In his coming-of-age years, he saw the country get knocked down twice -- first during the Great Depression, then at Pearl Harbor and in the early military defeats in the Pacific -- but more important, he saw the country get back on its feet. So he brought to the presidency a contagious hope in the future, which Reeves captures well. ''In contrast to [predecessor Jimmy] Carter, Reagan was the voice of optimism and national destiny, saying, as he always had, Americans were God's chosen, the world's last best hope." For all the troubles of the 1980s and Reagan's periodic blunders, he made the country smile again.

That same optimism played out on the international stage. Who knows why he concluded that the United States and the Soviet Union should quickly abolish offensive nuclear weapons lest they blow up the world during some misguided confrontation? That proposal was heresy at the time. Who even knows the full story of why he decided that America should erect a defensive missile shield and share it with the Soviets? Reeves suggests Reagan got that concept from a movie, not from scientist Edward Teller, as others have written.

Whatever the case, Reagan dreamed of a world without nuclear arms, and in his second term, fate matched him up with a leader of equal imagination on the Soviet side, Mikhail Gorbachev. After an initial get-together in Geneva, the two met in late 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland. In the most riveting section of his book, Reeves describes them haggling over missile cuts when their conversation veered. ''It was not about paper anymore, they were both flying in worlds of their own imaginations. [The president said] 'It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.' 'We can do that,' said Gorbachev. 'We can eliminate them.' Suddenly, [Secretary of State] George Shultz interrupted them, 'Let's do it!' "

Attempts to reach that utopian goal foundered over Gorbachev's insistence that Reagan also eliminate a potential missile shield, with Reagan refusing. While both men left believing they had failed, Gorbachev later looked back and thought Reykjavik was the turning point in the Cold War, the moment it started to end. The countries had finally seen a vision of what might be and thought that, together, they might get there.

In the months that followed, the two kept bargaining and the Soviets began to believe that the proposed missile defense system might not pose as serious a threat as they first thought. In December 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty to ban intermediate-range nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain, making the worldfar safer.

Reagan's willingness to sign that treaty brought the wrath of conservatives. Even though the treaty called for the destruction of more than twice as many Soviet missiles as American ones, they believed that it left the United States defenseless against a Soviet attack across Europe. Columnist George Will, a friend of Reagan's, wrote that the president had accelerated America's ''intellectual disarmament" and concluded, ''December 8 will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost."

But it was Reagan and Gorbachev who were vindicated by history. While both men had risen as ideologues within their own systems, experience taught them that the world was more complex and less Manichaean than they once thought. Reeves argues that Reagan moved ''beyond seeing a world of good and evil." Inspired by a vision of what might be, Reagan and Gorbachev together set a path toward ending the Cold War and lifting the fear of mutual assured destruction. Within a year after Reagan's leaving office, Gorbachev had torn down the Berlin Wall, and freedom spread.

Just as Reagan had his many flaws, so does this book. It is long on detail, especially in describing small, messy wars in Central America, and short on reflection. Reeves's chief researcher includes a brief essay detailing his troubles trying to see documents at the Reagan Presidential Library and suggests that the institution is playing favorites. Reeves, a liberal, was not one of them.

Perhaps that also explains why his interviews for the book were limited. (For example, he talked with only one of Reagan's six national security advisers.) Wading through the book, one longs for the fresh insights and rich color of Reeves's masterpiece, his portrait of President Kennedy.

Still, in a field of more than 900 books about Reagan, many of them shlock, this is one of the most serious and valuable. It captures strengths, weaknesses, and, as Reeves would note, oddities. Approaching the 25th anniversary of the president's inauguration, Reeves shows why ''Reaganism" has entered our vocabulary. ''No other president became a noun in that way. Amazing things, good and bad, happened in the 1980s because President Reagan wanted them to happen. He knew how to be president."

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