William F. Buckley

We are told that 960 books have been written about Ronald Reagan, which registers that he continues to be an object of consuming historical curiosity, 95 years after he was born. That emanation confounds liberal critics, who assessed him many years ago as a bumpkin with oratorical gifts pandering to American self-esteem.

But Reagan alive prevailed over that stereotype, and Reagan dead is airborne as never before. One recent book, "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination," is by Richard Reeves, a skillful historian who got on to an enormously interesting device in his books on Nixon and Kennedy. He would take you to opening day of their presidential terms and recount what his subject did on that day, which of course was an opening to political, social and personal adventures, ending, in Nixon's case, arms akimbo, mounting the helicopter to avoid impeachment; for JFK, it ended in Dallas.

Reagan ended his eight years snug in the White House, though biographer Reeves judges him to have been less, in 1989, than the Reagan who took office in 1981, which is OK by Reeves as, on the whole, he prefers a diminished Reagan to a Reagan in his prime, who might have succeeded with his right-wing agenda.

Reeves concedes that in foreign policy Reagan "succeeded." He did so by "scrapping containment and detente and making the world believe it when he rejected the old Cold War strategies in favor of his own, which he articulated to his first national security adviser, Richard Allen." Reagan said to Allen, "I know you think I don't have a strategy for dealing with communism, but I do: We win. They lose."

Lance Morrow, in a stunning collection of essays ("Second Drafts of History"), remembers Reagan in the 1984 campaign for re-election, battling Walter Mondale. Their first debate, in Louisville, was perilous because Reagan was off his form and Mondale did well. But "the voters came to absorb Ronald Reagan in an entirely different and subjective manner. They internalized him. In later months, Reagan found his way onto a different plane of the American mind, a mythic plane. He became not just a politician, not just a president, but very nearly an American apotheosis. The Gipper as Sun King."

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

Be the first to read William Buckley's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.