Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power , by Lou Cannon. Public Affairs, 579 pages, $30.
Anyone who ever covered Ronald Reagan-O.K., maybe not every reporter, but lots of them, and more hard-bitten ones than you’d think-has a story about when they realized that, however screwy his opinions could be (like the assertion that trees cause pollution), Ronnie was a helluva guy. It’s like being able to recall the precise circumstances of learning that J.F.K. had been shot: The experience is so shockingly unexpected, the details are permanently engraved.
For me, a former resident of California who hadn’t been a fan, it happened aboard a campaign bus in the middle of the night somewhere between Orlando and Ocala, Fla. It was a few weeks before the onset of the 1976 primary season: Richard Nixon was safely exiled to San Clemente, and Mr. Reagan-fresh from two eventful terms as governor of California-was in the midst of a doomed attempt to wrest the nomination from the hapless Gerald R. Ford. On the Reagan Express, all were dozing save the driver, yours truly (sleeplessly inventing expense-account items) and-I was startled to see upon glancing up at the oversized rear-view mirror-Ron and Nancy. They were in the very last seat, one of those padded numbers that stretch the width of the coach. Their lips were locked, their bodies entwined and-just as decency intervened to avert my gaze-the candidate’s hand was headed breastward.
A Republican like that you gotta love.
Lou Cannon was on that bus, too, reporting for The Washington Post , and the episode is one of the few involving Ronald Reagan that he’s missed in the last 36 years. A demon reporter, Mr. Cannon-a fiercer, more rumpled Mr. Whipple in appearance-is the author of four previous volumes on Ronald Reagan, including President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991), which is the book that authorized Reagan biographer Edmund Morris might have written had not end-stage egotism produced the execrable Dutch . In Governor Reagan , Mr. Cannon demonstrates yet again why he’s so consistently lauded-and why his subject is so consistently underestimated.
In this, of course, Mr. Reagan is not alone. Another actor lately turned California governor hasn’t been getting boffo notices, either, except for not being the aptly named Gray Davis. In time, Arnold Schwarzenegger (whom I admit to knowing and liking) may turn his doubters around-those, anyway, who don’t pay dues to the National Organization for Women. While it’s unlikely that Arnold devotes many evenings to exegesis of Proust, he, like Mr. Reagan, is no dope (marrying Maria proves that). Also like Mr. Reagan, he’s self-made, appealingly squishy on social issues, telegenic, charming, good-humored and-hardly least-terrific at sticking to a script crafted by savvier others. (There are some differences, too: Ronnie’s father was a department-store clerk, Arnold’s a Nazi cop.)
But back to the selling-short of Mr. Reagan, which began the instant it became known he was running for governor in 1966. “No, no,” studio boss Jack Warner reputedly said on hearing the news, “Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronald Reagan for best friend.” Genial Edmund G. (Pat) Brown-who’d all but licked the stamps on invitations to his third inaugural-didn’t take him seriously, either. “I’m running against an actor,” he told an elementary-school class, “and you know who shot Lincoln, don’tcha?”
Californians didn’t care. They sent the star of Bedtime for Bonzo to Sacramento by a margin of 993,730 votes-never mind that Mr. Reagan had been upstaged by the chimp.
This wasn’t just the usual Golden State perversity. Unlike California’s latest governor-elect, Mr. Reagan came well-apprenticed in the political arts via six one-year terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, navigating between the Scylla of the Red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee and the Charybdis of the Lew Wassermans and Louis B. Mayers. He was also kitted out with the self-assurance of the Gipper he played; quickness with a quip (“That may be only soap to you,” he said to a heckler, making fun of his Death Valley Days sponsor, Boraxo, “but it’s bread and butter to me”); and-along with a stage presence honed by endless speechifying at G.E. plants-an actor’s sense of timing such as would have made James Lipton puddle. That last talent told him that Pat Brown’s clock was up.
Once in the statehouse, Mr. Reagan displayed another knack, this one for making lunatic pronouncements. Mr. Cannon records a diverse plentitude, on topics ranging from viewing redwoods (“I saw them; there is nothing beautiful about them, just that they are a little higher than the others”) to taming Berkeley (“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement”). Most portrayals of Mr. Reagan leave it at that; Mr. Cannon doesn’t. Instead, he peels back the rhetoric to examine the reality. What he uncovers will discomfort believers in stereotypes.
On the environment, for instance, Mr. Reagan did a good impersonation of being president of the Sierra Club, preserving forests, protecting wild rivers from damming, and mounting horseback to personally halt in its tracks a proposed highway that would have sliced the John Muir Trail in two. He also enlisted on the side of the eagles when sheep ranchers wanted to cleanse the sky of them. “I hate to see them shot,” Mr. Reagan explained to his conservation chief. “Besides, I don’t like lamb chops.”
On abortion-a topic then so sensitive that the Los Angeles Times would refer to it only as an “illegal medical procedure”-he stood conservative convention on its head as well, signing into law a “therapeutic” termination-of-pregnancy measure that, pre– Roe v. Wade , was the most liberal in the nation.
As would Bill Clinton nearly 30 years later, he reformed welfare-and in the process, upped benefits for 80 percent of recipients, a trick even Mr. Clinton couldn’t pull off. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, his judicial appointments were notably free of crazies. Nor did Mr. Reagan share a certain former Texas governor’s bouncy enthusiasm for the death penalty; during his eight years in office, pellets dropped in San Quentin’s gas chamber exactly once-to execute a cop-killer whose clemency appeal Pat Brown had already denied.
There were further apostasies: introducing conjugal visitations to the prison system; enacting an income tax that soaked the rich more than any Democrat dared; playing a pivotal role defeating a ballot initiative that would have discriminated against homosexual teachers. By the time Mr. Cannon drops the final eye-popper (the 1952 decision by the Los Angeles Democratic Central Committee not to endorse Mr. Reagan for an open Congressional seat on the grounds of being “too liberal”), you’re beginning to wonder if maybe he wasn’t a card-carrying member of the ACLU to boot.
Anne Coulter can relax: As President, Ronald Reagan thought James Watt, Ollie North and “Star Wars” were swell.
“A foolish consistency,” the saying goes, “is the hobgoblin of little minds”-and Emerson, no surprise, was thinking specifically of “little statesmen.” Whatever Ronald Reagan’s faults (Mr. Cannon chronicles many, despite his obvious affection), no one ever accused him of thinking small. He entered government determined to make it work, as he believed-deeply-it ought to work. Close-minded, though, he was not. He listened, he compromised, he cut deals. And if, along the way, someone whose help he needed told him to go fuck himself (as, one day, the tipsy state controller did), he laughed-which disarmed his enemies. If that was acting, the Academy should have taken notice.
There are a number of lessons to be drawn from this fine book-about statecraft, about appearances, about being a good guy and behaving well. Arnold ought to read it.
Robert Sam Anson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair , reviews books regularly for The Observer .