An American Life.
Simon & Schuster.
748 pages. $24.95. Not long after his second term began, Ronald Reagan took the remarkable step of naming a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, Edmund Morris, as his official biographer. The historian was granted unprecedented behind-the-scenes dTC access at the White House so he could observe and record Mr. Reagan as he went about his official duties. Publishing rights to the forthcoming biography, not surprisingly, sold for $3 million, a record.
Unfortunately, that book is not finished, and in the meantime, we're stuck with this one. Described by its publishers as "a work of major historical importance," Mr. Reagan's autobiography is anything but. This is a dreary book that is often a chore to read and that has, at best, only minimal historical value.
Mr. Reagan's life is indeed remarkable, but his fairy-tale version reveals virtually nothing that has not been disclosed before. What's most interesting is what he chooses to leave out, not what's been included.
"I've never been a great one for introspection or dwelling on the past," he announces halfway through. This has already become obvious to even the most casual Reagan watcher. His first
marriage, to actress Jane Wyman, rates two sentences. In fact, he recalls his favorite horse of the 1940s, named Baby, more times than he mentions Ms. Wyman and one of his oldest and must trusted aides, Lyn Nofziger, combined. More than 70 pages are devoted to his motion picture career; only three to his 1976 presidential campaign, which nearly stole the Republican nomination from an incumbent president, Gerald R. Ford.
Perhaps the closest he comes to self-revelation is a remark that having had to move frequently as a child (his alcoholic father had trouble holding a job) "left a mark on me" and made him reluctant to "get close to people" the rest of his life. He also says that "applause was music" for those childhood insecurities, a telling comment for one who sought the presidency at a more advanced age than anyone else. (Sadly, he never addresses the question of how age may have affected his on-the-job performance.)
There are at best hints, in passing, to many who were major contributors to his success (does Bob Hope ever credit his joke writers?). Nor is meaningful light shed on the role George Bush played as vice president (although there is an instructive anecdote about a note Mr. Bush scribbled while overhearing Mr. Reagan agree with West German leader Helmut Kohl's demand that he visit the World War II cemetery at Bitburg. "Mr. President," wrote Mr. Bush, "I was very proud of your stand. If I can help absorb some heat, send me into battle -- It's not easy, but you are right!! George").
James A. Baker 3rd, now secretary of state, was a shrewd and manipulative chief of staff in the first Reagan term but there is no mention of his performance, or even an explanation of how Mr. Baker, the Bush campaign manager, gained Mr. Reagan's confidence.
Mr. Reagan seems determinedly oblivious to some of the raging controversies of his time. He recalls that he campaigned against Richard Nixon in his 1950 Senate race with Helen Gahagan Douglas, "a bitter battle that focused on allegations Helen Douglas was a Communist sympathizer." He makes no comment on the merits of Mr. Nixon's charges, which historians have concluded were a groundless smear, except to write, "In those days I worked on the campaigns of just about any Democrat who was willing to accept my help."
Frequently (one is tempted to say too frequently), he comes to the defense of his wife, Nancy, whose own autobiography last year cemented her reputation as one of history's most influential first ladies -- for better or ill. Unfortunately, Mr. Reagan omits any mention of her more notorious projects, such as her interest in astrology. He does enlightens us, on at least four separate points, with word that Nancy is a "nest-builder," a phrase he often used while in office.
There are passing references to his children, including swipes at daughter Patti, the source of considerable maternal angst, as Nancy's autobiography revealed. He mentions daughter Maureen's job as a co-chair of the Republican National Committee but diplomatically overlooks her disastrous candidacy for the U.S. Senate from California (which he declined to endorse).
Much of the book is drawn from stories that Mr. Reagan has told innumerable times over the years, especially those dealing with his childhood, his Hollywood years and his terms as California governor. The second half is heavy padded with seldom-illuminating excerpts from speeches, correspondence
with foreign leaders and his personal diary.
For example, in his diary on the day the arms-for-hostages story broke, he notes "a wild story" in the press "built on unfounded story originating in Beirut that we bought hostage Jacobsen's freedom with weapons to Iran." Since that "wild story" was essentially correct, one is left to wonder just how candid the rest of his diary can be. As for the Iran-contra scandal, Mr. Reagan concludes that, well, even now, he is "still ignorant of some of the things that went on."
At this late date, Mr. Reagan apparently sees no reason to alter his rendition of his life and times, even when it flies in the face of recently revealed facts. This is true, whether the subject is important (there was no arms-for-hostages swap with Iran, he maintains, even after conceding enough well-known facts about the affair to make such a claim preposterous) or trivial (he never dyed his hair, he maintains, despite those photographs that plainly showed gray hair sprouting from his scalp after it was shaved for minor brain surgery in 1989).
As presented in this book, Ronald Reagan was a son of the Middle West who, like most Americans, resented Big Business -- until it made him rich. After the government tried to take his money away through taxes, and with his movie career fading, he turned increasingly to politics, where he enjoyed phenomenal success by playing on the public's resentment of Big Government.
That's oversimplifying, of course. But that's the picture of reality that Ronald Reagan sketches in his book, and as he often did in his political career. There is more, much more, both praiseworthy and not, to the Reagan saga. But it's not to be found in "An American Life." History will have to wait to get the rest of the story.
Mr. West covers national politics for The Sun.