Gatsby in the White House

Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently "The Devil's Wind," a novel.

RONALD REAGAN is an icon who remains a mystery, even as the bold outlines of his story loom like Mt. Rushmore. A Midwesterner, nicknamed Dutch. The son of an alcoholic. Born not on the wrong side of the tracks but close enough, he once said, "so that we heard the whistle real loud." The lifeguard. The mediocre student who charmed his way into a job as a sports announcer and then launched a career as a movie star in Hollywood's Golden Age. The leader of the Screen Actors Guild who denounced first Nazism and then Communism. The Las Vegas emcee. The Democrat who became a conservative Republican. The washed-up actor whose powerful friends parlayed his fame into the governorship of California. Finally, in 1980, the celebrity candidate who beat Jimmy Carter and stepped onto the biggest stage of all.

It's a great American story, a rags-to-riches classic. An exasperated Gore Vidal once wondered how a klutz like Reagan could have been elected president, prompting a journalist who had covered him to point out that this was the only man he'd ever heard of who got everything he wanted. Some klutz then -- one with inexorable ambition, shrewdness and what? He was handsome and looked great in a suit. He had that wonderful voice, husky and honeyed, an invaluable political tool. His optimism came from the heart and was inspiring. He was famously forgetful, famously genial, famously self-assured. Yet even his most fervent supporter and best friend, his second wife, Nancy, admitted he could be hard to reach. "You can get just so far to Ronnie and then something happens," she said. Maybe a lifetime of acting, of seeing himself as he was seen by others, gave him this coolness, this emotional distance. As president, he was beloved and successful, but unknowability has become a central part of his myth. Like Gatsby, he's opaque. Like Gatsby, he inspires fascination. Was there really a core?

Six years have gone by since Edmund Morris published "Dutch," the only biography ever authorized by a sitting president. "Dutch" is a beguiling, infuriating and highly controversial book, one that uses arch novelistic devices to penetrate the Reagan enigma, openly mingling fact and fiction to lay claim to the ambiguous domain between history and literature. Morris seems to have been hindered by his own access and bemused by his inability or unwillingness to decide once and for all whether Reagan was a great president or an airhead, a political genius or a flyweight bore. "I emerge from the Oval Office," he writes, "asking myself for the hundredth time, 'How much does Dutch really know?' "

In "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination" -- the first big Reagan portrait since the death of the former president on June 5, 2004 -- Richard Reeves adopts an entirely different strategy. As in his earlier studies of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Reeves keeps the focus tight, dealing not with the life in general but with the presidency in particular, moving from Jan. 20, 1981, to Jan. 11, 1989, the period between Reagan's inauguration and his farewell speech after two terms. The tone is determinedly low-key, day-to-day, even minute-by-minute, as Reeves lets the drama emerge for itself. And there was plenty of drama. The Beirut bombings, the invasion of Grenada, the first shuttle disaster, the TWA hijacking and the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 are mere sideshows to the main events of economic recovery, the Iran-Contra scandal and those first shiverings in the foundation of the Soviet Union, Reagan's "evil empire." This is a book about realpolitik, about what the presidency is and what it means. "I do not subscribe to the many theories of Reagan's passivity," Reeves writes. "[T]he President Reagan I found in the course of my research was a gambler, a bold, determined guy

Reeves organizes his material around certain crucial moments. Quickly following the first inauguration, then, is March 30, 1981, the date of John W. Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt. In his intimate 1991 study, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," Lou Cannon almost glides past this moment, using it only to point out how a strategy was immediately put in place to maximize sympathy and therefore political opportunity. "Less than a month after the shooting, while the old performer was still recovering from the wound that nearly killed him," Cannon notes, aides "easily persuaded Reagan to address a joint session of Congress on behalf of his economic recovery program."

Writing almost 10 years later, Morris takes us inside the incident with vivid impressionism, as if from Reagan's own perspective: "The usual little knot of press and onlookers stood to his left, restrained by the usual cops. What was not usual was a fluttering, cracking noise in the crowd as he raised his arm to wave. Suddenly everyone around him was moving and swaying and falling. A force like a battering ram shoved him forward and he found himself hurtling through the open door of the presidential limousine. He hit his head on the doorjamb and fell onto the car's transmission hump, so violently that his upper back was almost paralyzed with pain. 'Haul ass,' a voice in his ear shouted. 'Let's get out of here.' "

Faced with the fullness of the Morris account, Reeves brings to life the drama back at the White House (where, with Reagan apparently dying and Vice President George Bush in the air, Secretary of State Al Haig bluntly, and unconstitutionally, declared he was in control) while cramming his own account of the shooting's aftermath with urgent exterior detail. "The President was naked on a gurney, his mouth and teeth red from bubbling blood," Reeves writes. " 'I can't breathe,' he gasped. The doctors made a quick incision and inserted a breathing tube into his throat.... Catheters were inserted trying to drain the blood in the lung. It was coming out dark, steadily pouring out as doctors tried to reinflate the lung. 'I don't hear anything,' a nurse said, feeling for his pulse.

"Oh my God, we've lost him."

Both Reeves and Morris had a wealth of material that was unavailable to Cannon. But there's something else going on here too: the way history accretes over time, even the span of such a relatively brief period as a decade. We remember, of course, that Reagan was shot and that his would-be assassin was a lone nut obsessed with Jodie Foster. But what really sticks in the mind is Reagan's response to the assault. He'd been hit by a .22 Devastator bullet designed to explode on impact. The slug cannoned off his limousine's armor and sliced into his chest with surgical precision. He was close to death, yet as soon as he reclaimed minimal consciousness he started jotting down one-liners on pieces of paper that Nancy Reagan still keeps. To his aides: "Who's minding the store?" To Nancy: "Honey, I forgot to duck." And to one of the solemn green-suited surgeons in whose hands his life lay: "I hope you're a Republican."

It was epic. The last -- and best -- of these lines was already being spun and improved by the time his aides spoke to the press. "Are you all Republicans?" is one version, and the best polish of all: "Please tell me you're Republicans."

This was the moment when Reagan ceased to be an actor who'd played his cards right and assumed a grander and more heroic place in the national imagination. It was as if his career had begun all over again.

In the wake of that, Reeves tells how Reagan at once reaffirmed his belief in God and his idealism, and made the promise by which he is remembered: "The West won't contain communism, it will transcend communism.... It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages are even now being written." This was a remarkable and prescient thing to say in 1981, when the Cold War was very chilly indeed and the Soviet Union was in the hands of hard-liners like Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, whose funeral Reagan would later refuse to attend. At the same time, Nancy Reagan, always fretful, now became positively fearful and made her husband wear a lead-lined raincoat, while calling upon astrologer Joan Quigley to determine the presidential schedule so that public appearances took place only when the stars were properly aligned. This drove White House staffers crazy, and thus the tone of a presidency was established: at once hopeful, forceful and committed, yet in many ways downright weird.

Reeves takes us through these years, past the signpost events, with clumps of often stodgy detail and not much insight into Reagan's mental process. But then, Reagan was a self-isolator, not a self-explainer. He did his day's work, dutifully ticking off each item on the list, left the Oval Office at 6 and clambered into his pajamas. Wake him up, by all means, if a Libyan MiG downed an F-14, but no need to bother if our guys bagged a couple of theirs.

The book comes to fullest life when detailing the relationship Reagan developed during his second term with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, author of perestroika, or "fresh thinking." Suspicion turned to respect and, improbably, to friendship, with Reagan's intuition that Cold War tension must end coinciding with Gorbachev's determination to take a bold new approach on arms control.

Reeves' accounts of their successive meetings -- in Geneva; Reykjavik, Iceland; Washington; Moscow -- are thrilling. The telling of the Reykjavik confrontation, seemingly a disaster as it happened, yet later regarded as a breakthrough, is especially propulsive, as if Reeves feels that here is where the president's best legacy lies. Reagan was always a much better film actor than anybody gave him credit for (his villain in "The Killers" is a memorable example of twinkly menace), and here he used the film actor's great skill of listening and being present in the room. He was determined to get to the bottom of what Gorbachev had to say and what he wanted. At the time, Reagan took considerable flak from his party's right wing. Now, those same people talk as though he buried the Soviet bloc single-handedly with his famous exclamation in Berlin: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" They overstate the case. The rotting Soviet apple was ready to fall, but Reagan understood that he could shake the tree, and that was huge.

Throughout these pages, Reeves resists evaluation, giving us invaluable new information about Reagan the president without much further insight into the man. That one little detail, the key that might unlock the inner core -- if indeed there was one -- is yet to be found, and the mystery remains intact. "Reagan, too old to change his mind about much, knew one very big thing about leadership and leaders: Words are usually more important than deeds," Reeves observes. Elsewhere, he has commented that the president "dumbed down America, brilliantly blending fact and fiction, transforming political debate into emotion driven entertainment." Like Gore Vidal (and others) before him, Reeves notes that Reagan believed that a story repeated five times became truth -- a magical and childlike and potentially very dangerous idea with which we still live today.

Again, Gatsby comes to mind. The idealist. The improbable optimist. The seemingly negligible personality transfigured through passionate belief. The man who knew everyone, yet remained unknown to all. But of course Reagan managed to control some of the realities of his dream, and that, as Reeves points out, was his triumph. *

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