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Reckoning with Reagan: The written record

How the 40th U.S. president was portrayed in books

Fred Greenstein
Special to CNN
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CNN's Wolf Blitzer reports on the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

CNN's John King on Ronald Reagan's death.

CNN's Bruce Morton on the multifaceted life of Ronald Reagan.

• Main story:  Reagan dies, 93
• Health Library: Alzheimer's disease
Birth: February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois

Married: Jane Wyman 1940-1948, Nancy Davis in 1952

Education: Graduates from Eureka College, Illinois, in 1932

1932-1966: Sports announcer, motion picture and TV actor

1947-1952: President of Screen Actors Guild

1962: Campaigns for Richard Nixon, GOP gubernatorial candidate in California

1967-1974: Governor of California

1976: Loses Republican primary to Gerald Ford

1980: Elected 40th president, beating Jimmy Carter

March 30, 1981: Assassination attempt

January 11, 1989: Farewell address to the nation

1994: Announces he has Alzheimer's disease

May 16, 2002: Ronald and Nancy Reagan awarded Congressional
Gold Medal
What will Ronald Reagan be most remembered for?
Triumph of conservatism
Morning in America
End of the Cold War
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Edmund Morris
Lou Cannon
White House

(CNN) -- Ronald Reagan presents a biographer's challenge. His preparation for the nation's highest office included co-starring with a chimpanzee in the 1951 film "Bedtime for Bonzo," and he was notoriously detached from the policies of his own administration.

Yet he succeeded in being the first two-term president since Eisenhower, and he presided over a fundamental redirection of his nation's domestic policies and the peaceful termination of a global conflict that threatened the survival of humankind.

Fortunately for the adequacy of the historical record, Reagan has had an extraordinarily well-informed Boswell in the form of Lou Cannon. Cannon started covering Reagan in California in the 1960s for the San Jose Mercury News and went on to report on the eight years of the Reagan presidency as senior White House correspondent of the Washington Post.

Two of Cannon's books are essential reading on Ronald Reagan -- his 1982 biography "Reagan" and a 1991 chronicle of the Reagan presidency entitled "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." He has also written a book on Reagan's California governorship, "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power" (2003).

Talented but unconventional

The Ronald Reagan depicted by Cannon is a talented, but unconventional, politician. Drawing on the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's conception of multiple intelligences, Cannon concludes that while Reagan was low in the kind of cognitive intelligence that is present in many political leaders, he had important compensating abilities.

He had interpersonal skills that served him well in negotiations, whether with members of Congress or Mikhail Gorbachev. He had an outstanding gift for self-presentation, including a mastery of the presidential bully pulpit that led him to be referred to as the Great Communicator.

Beyond that, he had a small number of firmly held convictions that provided the overall direction of his administration. He was unshakable in his commitment to minimizing the role of government in public life, he believed in a strong defense, and he was firmly opposed to the Soviet Union -- until Gorbachev came into power. He then trusted his own instincts, ignored the more hawkish of his advisors, and played a crucial part in the transformation of the cold war into a new era of peaceful cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Other important insights into Reagan's political successes are provided in the 1987 book of journalist-historian Garry Wills, "Reagan's America: Innocents at Home." One of the strengths of Wills' book is its grounding in extensive research on Reagan's small-town, rural Illinois roots and its perceptive analyses of his films. As the title of his book suggests, Wills' book is as much about Reagan's social and political context as about the man himself. However, he provides important clues about the sources of Reagan's public appeal, suggesting that he succeeded in personifying his nation and its values.

Strengths and weaknesses

Then there is the highly controversial book of Edmund Morris, a biographer who in 1985 won the Pulitzer Prize for a vividly written book on the young Theodore Roosevelt.

Reagan and a number of his aides were fascinated by Morris' book. They extended an invitation to him to set up shop in the White House, interview Reagan at length, and observe him in action. Morris did this throughout the rest of Reagan's term.

To Morris' distress, he found little new to say about his protagonist. His interviews with the highly private Reagan proved to be singularly unrevealing, and Cannon and Wills had largely exhausted the public record. In 1999, after an extended battle with writer's block, he came out with a book he entitled "Dutch: A Memoir."

Morris' book is a fictionalized account in which he depicts himself as a contemporary of Reagan's, who observed him in action from his childhood through his presidency. It's a book riddled with errors. It also is seriously incomplete, especially in its treatment of the aspect of Reagan's experience to which Morris might have been expected to have the most to add -- his White House years. Moreover, it is remarkably dismissive of Reagan, stressing his limitations and providing no perspective on his undoubted strengths.

Others of the many books on Reagan focus on his Hollywood background and inattention to specifics as well, rather than his achievements, implying that he was little more than a puppet of his aides. This interpretation is captured in the sarcastically titled book of Bob Schieffer and Gary Paul Gates -- "The Acting President."

The hands-off quality of Reagan's leadership is also brought out in a number of his former aides' memoirs, many of which appeared before his eight years in the White House were over. In "For the Record," Reagan's first-term treasury secretary Donald Regan recalls that during Regan's tenure as secretary Reagan never sought him out for a for a one-to-one discussion. Reagan's White House aide Michael Deaver describes in his book "Behind the Scenes" an episode in which Reagan addressed his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Samuel Pierce, as "Mr. Mayor" at a reception for urban executives.

And former budget director David Stockman asserts in his "The Triumph of Politics" that Reagan had little understanding of the specifics of his first-year economic program and was regularly misled by his advisors.

Communication and organization

Author Lou Cannon describes Reagan as a president with immense interpersonal skills that served well in negotiations. Here, Reagan signs a treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

Still another attempt to come to terms with Reagan is my own book "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton." This book examines each of the eleven occupants of the Oval Office since Herbert Hoover in terms of six yardsticks. The first is a realm in which Reagan was outstanding -- ability to communicate with and inspire the public. The second is one in which Reagan was deficient -- organization of the presidency.

Because of his inattention to specifics, Reagan was highly dependent upon his aides. But he had no general views of how to select aides or organize an effective staff. When he did have first-rate aides, as was the case in his first term, Reagan could achieve impressive successes. When they were deficient fiascoes could ensue, as was the case of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Two other benchmarks against which a president's strengths and weaknesses can be assessed are his political skill and the extent to which it is informed by a clear policy direction. Both of these were dimensions in which Reagan had important strengths. He was charming and ingratiating, and was also an outstanding bargainer. His actor's ability to memorize lines enabled him to master his bargaining positions and he excelled in the give-and-take of negotiation.

Moreover, he applied his political skill to larger ends. Unlike his vice president and successor, George Bush, Reagan had the "vision thing" in spades. He was not only the star performer of his presidency. He was its producer and director, setting the broad direction of his administration's policies.

My final two criteria for assessing presidents are their cognitive capacities and what has come to be called emotional intelligence. The last of these refers to a president's ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than allowing them to undermine his performance; examples of presidents who lacked emotional intelligence are Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Reagan's cognitive limitations were worrisome. He was a president who never grasped the logic of nuclear deterrence and genuinely believed it would be possible to produce an invulnerable shield against incoming missiles. Still, Cannon is correct in observing that he had impressive non-intellectual assets. Much like his early hero Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan was better served by his temperament than his intelligence. Despite having had an alcoholic father, he projected a sense of self-assurance and equanimity. He may not have been the epitome of mental health, but he showed no sign of the disruptive emotions that marred the presidencies of other White House incumbents. He was well suited for the role in which he was cast by the American people.

A 'mere' actor?

Throughout his political career, Reagan was advantaged by the tendency of others to dismiss him as a "mere" actor. Douglas Dillon, former secretary of the treasury under Kennedy and Johnson, provided a striking example in an interview for my book. In the mid-1970s, Dillon served with Reagan on a Ford administration task force charged with reevaluating the CIA's mission in the wake of its use for domestic political espionage by the Nixon administration.

In its early meetings, the task force became stalemated, with some of its members favoring a largely uncurbed CIA and others wanting to place severe curbs on the agency. Reagan, who had missed the group's initial sessions, spent a portion of the first meeting he attended listening to the debate. He then picked up a pen, began writing, and read off a compromise wording, asking the proponents of the polar positions if they could accept his formula. They agreed that they could, thus ending the impasse.

As Dillon's report shows, Reagan was far more than a political front man. He was a politically skilled chief executive whose talents were insufficiently recognized because he was cut from a different cloth than most of those who rise to the nation's highest office.

Fred I. Greenstein is a professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University and the author of "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton" (The Free Press, 2000).

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