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."
It is this mythogenic quality of Reagan that continues to attract attention to his memory and to his reign. "Partly by an accident of timing, partly by a simple genius of his being, Reagan managed to return to Americans something extremely precious to them: a sense of their own virtue. Reagan -- completely American, uncomplicated, forward-looking, honest, self-deprecating -- became American innocence in a 73-year-old body."
It was never unanimous, though of course Reagan won in 49 states, losing to Mondale only Mondale's home state of Minnesota. This loss recalled a quip by historian-journalist Raymond Moley, who began his official life as a confidant of the young president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He stayed on the scene for many years after his defection from the New Deal, always proffering his views on political developments, sometimes with acid humor. When the pedestrian Estes Kefauver upset the witty and glamorous Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 presidential primary in Minnesota, Moley cracked, "Did you ever try to tell a joke in Minneapolis?" That witticism perfectly applied to Reagan vs. Mondale in 1984.
The evolving understanding of Reagan was hugely affected by the publication of his letters. There was not a trace of sham in those thousands of letters, written to motley people who had engaged his interest or his concern, or who had aroused his curiosity. The letters revealed a man whose concern was always for others, and whose intelligence was literate and active. His eyes might have closed while the Pope was speaking to him, but such moments had no historical hangover. No gaucheries on any scale were traceable to lapses of attention or even of memory.
One regrets that Reeves, in his assessment of Reagan, is too resolute in his commitment as a backbencher on the other side to indulge the buoyancy of the Reagan years, honestly and industriously though he surveys them. Morrow, addressing many themes and many people in his book, never goes overboard, but he senses what it is that moved so many people to act so decisively on the one occasion -- 1984 -- when Reagan was standing there waiting for a national plebiscite after four years in the White House.