In writing his account of Ronald Reagan's presidency, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," veteran political reporter Lou Cannon says he found Reagan "a very difficult subject to write about because everybody thought they knew him."
The truth is, the Washington Post correspondent told an audience at a book and author luncheon Wednesday in Irvine, that "Reagan is a paradox."
Here was a President, Cannon said, who had an ability to inspire Americans and yet "he was a leader who offstage was often not a leader.
"Offstage, he could be very indecisive. . . . So you had a public image of a person who was extraordinarily decisive, but who often wasn't."
Here too was a President, Cannon said, who was "the most anti-Communist President in American history" and yet "he was also a President who drove a stake through the heart of the Cold War, who presided over the events that led essentially to this huge change in U.S.-Soviet relations."
Cannon said one of the best moments in all the years he covered Reagan was when Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Cannon, who covered Reagan from his days as California governor through his two White House terms, was one of three authors on the bill at The Times Orange County Edition's fourth annual Book and Author luncheon.
Speaking before a sold-out crowd of 750 in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Irvine, Cannon was joined by novelist Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, author of "Home Free," and novelist Whitney Otto, author of "How to Make an American Quilt." Describing Reagan as perhaps the country's most "distant" President, Cannon recalled the time that two of Reagan's top men in the Justice Department went to see the President to tell him that his attorney general, Edwin Meese, should be fired.
"Ronald Reagan's response to this was to fall asleep," said Cannon, who also recalled the time that Reagan watched the film "The Sound of Music" rather than read his briefing book the night before an economic summit meeting.
And yet, Cannon said, "on another level, Ronald Reagan acted very well."
"He had a very limited but powerful agenda," Cannon said. "He wanted to cut taxes, which he did. He wanted to increase the military spending, which he did. And I guess you have to say if you hold him accountable, which I do, for the legacy of the deficit, how can you not say that he had something to do with these weapons systems that performed so well in Desert Storm?"
Cannon, whose book has been praised for providing an evenhanded view of the Reagan White House years, said he subtitled it "the Role of a Lifetime" because that is what mattered most to Reagan.
"Reagan was proud of his acting life," said Cannon. "He was proud of his role as an actor."
Cannon recalled that when Reagan became governor of California, Cannon asked him what kind of governor he thought he would make. Reagan replied: "I don't know. I've never played a governor."
And, Cannon said, before Reagan left the White House, he remarked, "I don't know how you can do this without being an actor."