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21-Mar-Apr-2006
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The Triumph of Imagination

A-PresidentReaganRonald Reagan remains one of the more memorable, inscrutable, and divisive figures of the 20th century. His life story reads like a movie script, but his effectiveness as a politician still stirs up contentious debate. Taking up his subject at the 1981 inauguration, Richard Reeves follows "Dutch" through the assassination attempt, tax cuts and record deficits, Beirut, Grenada, Gorbachev, and the Iran-Contra affair to find that the presidential role suited the idealistic Reagan. The Miami Herald aptly calls President Reagan "less a biography than a study of a management style"; it won’t resolve any debates, but it gives readers one more angle from which to consider the Reagan conundrum.
Simon & Schuster. 572 pages. $30. ISBN: 0743230221

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If one has the patience to complete the journey, there is a rewarding tale threaded through the pages of the latest presidential portrait by Richard Reeves. … Reeves’s central contribution to the Reagan story is to show that he also succeeded because he was a dreamer, a man whose humanistic visions of America and the world transcended ideology." David Gergen

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reeves is fair and balanced. … Now we can take an unblinkered look at a rhetorically gifted self-mythologizer who gave an Oscar-worthy performance as head of state." Ariel Gonzalez

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"Reeves illustrates the perils and triumphs of the nation’s highest office through a selective and encompassing series of important dates, anecdotes, and distilled contemporary accounts. It is an effective method, reminding readers again and again of the swirling chaos inherent in any political operation." Erik Spanberg

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"[Reeves] lays out the Reagan record in thorough, well-organized fashion, giving his readers plenty of information to use in making their own appraisals of this fascinating president." Philip Seib

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The book comes to fullest life when detailing the relationship Reagan developed during his second term with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, author of perestroika, or ‘fresh thinking.’ … Throughout these pages, Reeves resists evaluation, giving us invaluable new information about Reagan the president without much further insight into the man." Richard Rayner

Denver Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As a literate historical document, Reeves’s book deserves a high grade. But, except for an enlightening seven-page introduction in which Reeves offers his overall evaluation of Reagan as president and as human being, the book is heavy going—with a few dramatic exceptions, such as Reagan’s near death from a would-be assassin’s gun and his mind-blowing dependence on wife Nancy." Steve Weinberg

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Reeves] sees the president as grasping a simple but powerful vision of the way the world should be. He maintained that vision against the experts and sometimes proved them wrong. But he also maintained that vision when the world didn’t conform to it, and this led him into distortions, lies, and eventually to a frightening distance from reality." Michael Roth

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Indeed, this book turns out to be a sorry disappointment: a plodding recitation of events that happened during Reagan’s two terms. … [Reeves’s] unsatisfying book fails to illuminate Reagan’s many contradictions … and it leaves us with those unhelpful adjectives so frequently used to describe the 40th president ringing in our ears: genial, opaque, unknowable." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

In the first major biography published after Reagan’s death, Richard Reeves sticks to the same modus operandi used in his earlier biographies of Kennedy (President Kennedy: Profile of Power) and Nixon (President Nixon: Alone in the White House). Eschewing traditional biography, Reeves endeavors to understand his subjects through a close examination of how their administrations functioned on a day-to-day basis. It’s a microscopic approach that provokes irritation (and yawns) from some corners. But with over 900 books about Reagan on the shelves, that most critics find something of value in President Reagan attests to Reeves’s accomplishment. Of course, any book about a divisive figure yields its share of reviews based on ideology instead of critical theory. President Reagan is no exception, but where objectivity prevails, reviews are generally positive.

Further Reading

Dutch | Edmund Morris (1999): In this unconventional biography-cum-historical-novel, the first to be authorized by a then-sitting president, Morris stirs up controversy over the enigmatic Reagan.