Book Reviews: President Reagan: The Triumph Of Imagination. Richard Reeves. Rated A.

April 8, 2006 by
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This is the third book in a trilogy about three presidents whose day-to-day presidencies are analyzed and evaluated by Richard Reeves. The first two were John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Both these books were superb in their insights into the character of the men and the challenges their administrations faced and how well they dealt with those challenges. Ronald Reagan is the third president and this book while excellent is not as well focused in capturing the tempo of Ronald Reagan and his presidency. Still this is a book well worth reading and if you haven’t read the first two on Nixon and Kennedy they are well worth reading also.

Reeves notes that many of the Reagan papers are at his library and allegedly not all are catalogued and that access to the papers is easier for some than others. He believes that he was one of those that ease of access was denied by the custodians of the Reagan papers. This may account for the fact that this book is not as flowing and focused as his first two books.

Reeves tells us from the outset that he is a Democrat and didn’t agree with Reagan’s domestic policies then or now. Those policies were to reduce taxes on the high-income taxpayers (from 70% to about 35% in the top brackets. Now no one pays more than 25% in income taxes.) This lowering of taxes on the wealthy was accomplished by cutting government programs for the poor and deficit spending. Reagan spent lavishly on the military running the largest deficits in history at the time. Despite this he did manage to bring down the inflation inherited from the Vietnam War.

Reagan is portrayed as a man who would write a personal check to a poor person while at the same time cutting billions of dollars of aid to the poor, to students and education.


The imagination in the title relates to his belief that American democracy should be seen as a shinning city on a hill. This was a figment of his imagination which through his personality and charisma he was able to put across politically while being a free market capitalist who believed that the less government regulation the better. He, along with his contemporary Margaret Thatcher, was a disciple of Milton Friedman’s economic theories. Which have some sound principles but if taken fully would lead to a type of rapacious capitalism seen at the end of the ninetieth century in the United States and which have failed in their recent application in South America.

Reagan was the great communicator who in the beginning edited and added to the concepts in almost all his speeches. However as time went by and age took its toll he had to be spoon-fed talking points and in the end he relinquished editorial control to his speechwriters and political advisors. The book mentions and English study of his speech patterns in his debates in the first election and the second election. Allegedly they reveal that by the time of the second debates signs of early senility were detectable in his use of language.

Nancy Reagan was influential and very protective of his health. This led to many disputes with his staff. Most notably Don Regan White House Chief of Staff during his second term. After the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Nancy consulted an astrologer, Joan Quigley, concerning the optimum time to travel or conduct business and ceremonies. Don Regan who had the job of among other things setting the president’s schedule had many days that were blacked out for astrological reasons as not being safe or good days for the president. This meant an astrologer in San Francisco rather than his Chief of Staff controlled the president’s itinerary. Don Regan resigned and left without a parting dinner or word from the Reagan’s.

Reagan had the good fortune to be president at the time Mikhail Gorbachev served as president of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was one of the most important men of the twentieth century in that he recognized the Soviet economy was failing and some sort accommodation had to be reached with the United States in order to reduce military expenditures. Reagan by his personality and charisma was able to open a dialogue that led to arms reduction and less open hostility between the two super powers. When Gorbachev came to office the Soviet Union had 40,000 tanks in Eastern Europe. Mr.Gorbachev was aware that the Soviet Union could not match the United States in military spending without bankrupting itself as Reagan almost did with his military expenditures in the United States. Gorbachev also realized that Russia could not support an empire or that the goal of world communism was not militarily or economically feasible.

Although Reagan was not responsible for the failure of Russian communism or the breakup of the Soviet Union, that being caused by the intrinsic weaknesses of the system and its goals, he did keep the pressure on the Soviet Union by his vast military expenditures and threats to go forward with the Strategic Defense Initiative popularly known as Star Wars. However in the end Gorbachev came to the conclusion on the advice of Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet H bomb, that SDI would never work, however he realized that the Soviet Empire, just like all other empires in history, was economically unfeasible and disbanded the Soviet Union in 1991 in favor of a market economy and democracy for Russia. This happened after Reagan had left office and George Bush SR. was president. Regan had the imagination to believe that this result could be achieved when he came into office at a time when others were intimidated by Soviet power.

Reagan’s legacy is the mantra of the Bush Jr. admistration: cut taxes on the affluent, reduce government in every day domestic life and spend lavishly on defense to project American power in the world. And yes to circumscribe and limit individual freedoms, which Bush II talks so much about in words but does otherwise in actions. Reading this book reveals that many of the players in Reagan’s administration are players in Bush II’s administration. Also there would have been no Bush II with out Reagan’s Supreme Court appointees, Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and O’Connor. While this book doesn’t overtly point this out it does subliminally get the point across that Reagan’s policies and philosophies are still with us today and that the power or effects of some president’s like FDR, HST, JFK, Nixon and Reagan last long after they are gone from office.



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