A Presidency Scrutinized, Lapses, Political Savvy and All

When Richard Reeves set out to explain Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, he ran the risk—no, the certainty—of being accused by Reagan acolytes and book critics alike of “not getting it.” In the eyes of the faithful, the late President is such an inscrutable character that no biographer or observer, however skilled, will ever be credited with understanding his complex nature and appeal.

Edmund Morris, the authorized biographer, famously spent years trying to understand Reagan and wound up not simply adopting the techniques of fiction writing, but actually writing fiction—another guy who didn’t get it.

Although I’ve read a few of the 900 or so books about Ronald Reagan, I’m not deeply enough immersed in Reaganania to be able to say whether or not Mr. Reeves has succeeded where others have failed. But as a student of Mr. Reeves’ previous books on John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, I can say that he has successfully applied his formula to Reagan, which means that this book, like Mr. Reeves’ others, is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the man and the times.

This is not a biography; it’s a study of a Presidency, one of the most important Presidencies of the 20th century. And while Mr. Reeves acknowledges that he doesn’t share Reagan’s political ideology, his portrait of this President is devoid of ideological sparring. The author is interested in how power works, in how and why events unfolded as they did. He’s not looking to score debating points on issues most of us have forgotten.

As he did in his studies of the Kennedy and Nixon Presidencies, Mr. Reeves organizes his chapters to coincide with noteworthy dates. And so Chapter 2, for example, is entitled “March 30, 1981”—the day Reagan was shot. The technique sometimes leads to confusion, because some chapters seem to suggest a theme but wind up reprising months of backstory. The narrative thread remains intact, however, a credit to Mr. Reeves’ storytelling abilities.

The Ronald Reagan who emerges from these pages is a good deal more engaged, at least during his first term, than popular myth would have it. Mr. Reeves shows him working over Congress, especially Democrats, to get his agenda through. The President kept notes: After charming a Democratic Congressman from Ohio, Ron Mottl, Reagan wrote on a card: “Says he’s with us. Says he & I are going to be ­real friends.”

Mr. Reeves understands politics, which means he understands that this kind of touch can make the difference between a successful Presidency and a failed one. For an example of the latter, see Jimmy Carter, who, as the author points out, kept even his fellow Democrats in Congress at a distance.

There are more than a few cringe-inducing passages, particularly when Mr. Reeves is writing about the last couple of years of the Reagan Presidency. Readers inclined to believe that Reagan was little more than a front man, slightly daft and out of touch, will have their suspicions confirmed. For example, when CBS reporter Lesley Stahl arrived at the Oval Office with her husband and child for a courtesy visit in 1986, she was shocked by the President’s appearance and state of mind (or lack thereof): “He looked shriveled to her,” Mr. Reeves writes. “His skin was like paper, his hands dotted with age spots …. His eyes seemed milky and she wasn’t sure he actually knew who she was.” Press secretary Larry Speakes bellowed out her name and network affiliation, apparently to no avail. But when Ms. Stahl mentioned that her husband was a screenwriter, Reagan came alive, sat down with him and talked movies.

That’s the Ronald Reagan of his critics’ imagination. Yet for every story about Reagan’s short and sporadic attention span, there are others like this one, from the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. Mr. Reeves notes that the military officers conducting a final briefing believed the President wasn’t paying attention. But when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Vessey, was about to leave the Oval Office, Reagan took him aside and asked him how many troops would take part in the action. “Vessey gave him the number,” Mr. Reeves writes; the general was then startled to hear the commander in chief order him to double it. By way of explanation, Reagan reminded Vessey that if Jimmy Carter had used 18 helicopters rather than nine during the ill-fated hostage-rescue attempt in Iran, “you’d be briefing him now instead of me.”

That’s a glimpse of the real Ronald Reagan. He was not a ninny, nor was he a master of policy detail. But he had terrific political instincts.

There are hundreds of similar Reagan anecdotes which feel new or are worth revisiting. Even when Mr. Reeves is dealing with familiar issues, his use of diaries and conversations show his subject doing more than simply following stage directions—though he was pretty good at that, too.

What separates this book from so many others is that Mr. Reeves very subtly has written a post-9/11 assessment of the Reagan Presidency. The landing of Marines in Beirut in 1982, the capture of the terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro, the administration’s debates over pre-emptive action against terrorists—all this resonates in ways that it wouldn’t have six years ago.

The gang’s all here: Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz. Mr. Reeves notes without comment the roles they played. There’s Mr. Rumsfeld, secretly arranging an American alliance with Saddam; there’s Mr. Perle, trying to block any negotiations with the Soviet Union as it nears its collapse; and there’s Mr. Wolfowitz, co-producing a drama (literally) on Middle East affairs for the President’s edification.

Much of this book focuses on Reagan’s forays into international affairs, from Central America to the Philippines (where he backed the odious Marcos regime until the bitter end) to, of course, the Soviet Union. Mr. Reeves notes—almost in passing—that it was during these years that the deindustrialization of America took place, an economic calamity for millions. I’d have liked to read more about Reagan’s complicity in that disaster, if only to figure out why so many steelworkers wound up voting for him in 1984.

Putting together a narrative of a much-chronicled Presidency is not for the faint of heart. Richard Reeves, one of the finest journalists of his generation, is made of sterner stuff, and our understanding of Ronald Reagan is the better for it.

Terry Golway, city editor of The Observer, is co-author, with Robert Dallek, of Let Every Nation Know: The Oratory of John F. Kennedy, to be published in April by Sourcebooks.