In Bob Spitz’s new Reagan biography, the former president’s life story and his political story are combined in more balanced proportions than in some other Reagan political biographies that seem similar in their overall aim—notably the excellent treatments by Lou Cannon and H.W. Brands.¹ This balance allows Spitz to paint a more nuanced picture of the influences on Reagan’s political views, skills, and appeal. Mostly this new biography covers events familiar to readers of Cannon, of Brands, and of more special-purpose chroniclers (notably Thomas W. Evans’s account of Reagan’s years with General Electric ²). Spitz has fully digested all this earlier work, as well as the detailed notes and records of many of their authors; he contributes new interviews and new archival research as well, producing what is definitely a well researched new secondary source, not a tertiary source. Moreover, Spitz is an excellent writer and has produced a narrative enjoyable in its flow and drama. A reader primarily interested in an exhaustive account of policy specifics or in Reagan’s position in the longer arc of American political history might do better with other biographies, or with the several excellent historical works addressing the broader context of the Reagan presidency. But for the reader primarily interested in a single biography about Reagan the man and Reagan the politician, and moderately serious about following details of his statesmanship, An American Journey would be a rewarding choice—entertaining, evenhanded, and historically rich.
Those policy details and historical arc, however, are the reasons to be interested in a political biography of Reagan in the first place. An evaluation of Spitz’s book, then, should explain what things he tells more fully than others, and note the connections that motivate his account but are not explored by it.
Spitz sometimes pauses to adjudicate disputed details of Reagan’s boyhood: the claim that young Reagan performed numerous rescues as a lifeguard holds up under exhaustive research in local sources, for example.
Spitz offers real insight into the foundations of Reagan’s character and beliefs, devoting a considerably larger fraction of the book to Reagan’s pre-Hollywood and pre-governor years than does Cannon or Brands—307 of the main text’s 761 pages relate to the period before Reagan ran for governor in 1966, compared to 153 of 737 in Brands and even less, proportionately, in the two volumes of Cannon. Spitz’s explanation of Reagan’s youthful support for the New Deal is strengthened by his generous treatment of Reagan’s father Jack. Elsewhere described rather tersely as a drunk and a failed shoe-salesman, Jack emerges here as a well-rounded character who, despite his addiction and resulting inconstancy as a provider, presents an otherwise decent moral example for his sons. On Reagan’s mother Nelle, Spitz provides rich context to her religious and charitable devotion and her hobby as a community-theater actress. Spitz sometimes pauses to adjudicate disputed details of Reagan’s boyhood: the claim that young Reagan performed numerous rescues as a lifeguard holds up under exhaustive research in local sources, for example. Other such questions go unexamined, even some instances covered in Cannon’s much briefer young-Reagan section in Governor Reagan, such as the variation in accounts of Reagan’s importance in fomenting a student strike to protest retrenchment policies at Eureka College.
Reagan’s Hollywood years receive rich coverage from Spitz as well, producing numerous clues to his later nature as a politician. Continuing a pattern from his college days, the still-Democratic Reagan relished political argument with Republican friends and associates, including his brother Neil and several actor friends. Spitz covers sufficient detail about Reagan’s membership and long-time leadership in the Screen Actors Guild to show not only how it produced his strong anti-communist views (a well-known tale) but to establish firmly what an important formative experience his SAG presidency was for the future politician.
Portraying Reagan’s enthusiasms as a youthful reader and a community and college stage actor, and his intense enjoyment of discussing politics and of earning the approbation of audiences, Spitz constructs a plausible account of Reagan’s eventual attraction to politics. Moreover, Reagan succeeded in pursuing these motivations professionally because he was so effective as a communicator, and Spitz portrays the development of this skill over a lifetime. Detailed accounts of Reagan as a young radio announcer in Iowa adroitly handling the era’s teletype-based recreation of “live” baseball broadcasts demonstrate his talents as a speaker who understands how audiences perceive him, and who can think on his feet. It has been widely remarked—and Spitz spells it out—that actor Reagan was not regarded as a great artist, and that he never had the Hollywood appeal to break into A-movie leading-man roles. Nevertheless, he was highly talented and skilled in the use of the actor’s tools: great control of voice and timing, and a remarkable feel for the response of his audience, whether immediate or remote. The positive public reaction to Reagan’s communication is a phenomenon that Spitz repeatedly analyzes, from the talks delivered on Reagan’s tours of General Electric plants, to his remarks following the Challenger disaster, to his handwritten note to the public revealing his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Reagan’s talent lay not merely in delivering a script. His speaking skill was at its height when he could react to an audience in the moment, while speaking on a subject about which he had a well-developed point of view and, simply, knew a lot of stuff: not policy-wonk expertise, to be sure, but a stock of serviceable vignettes that illustrated his point of view and held strong narrative appeal for like-minded audiences, as illustrated in Spitz’s retelling of Reagan’s practically impromptu 1954 speech on education to a teachers’ convention (280-81).
Reagan’s unhappiness with the high marginal income-tax rates faced by well-paid Hollywood actors is another oft-told tale. Spitz enhances it with a specific account about Reagan’s expectation that a tax-forgiveness policy like the one granted veterans following the First World War would be repeated following the Second; that expectation was disappointed in the late 1940s, by which time Reagan had accumulated a daunting tax debt.
Equally important in explaining Reagan’s political career, of course, is the nature of his later political views, particularly his transition from enthusiastic New Deal supporter to movement conservative. Anticommunism from his SAG days moved him in the right direction, but his eventual switch was much more thoroughgoing. Reagan’s unhappiness with the high marginal income-tax rates faced by well-paid Hollywood actors is another oft-told tale. Spitz enhances it with a specific account about Reagan’s expectation that a tax-forgiveness policy like the one granted veterans following the First World War would be repeated following the Second; that expectation was disappointed in the late 1940s, by which time Reagan had accumulated a daunting tax debt. Perhaps unconnected with this, Reagan in 1952 supported Eisenhower for president, despite disliking VP candidate Nixon for Nixon’s scurrilous “pink lady” campaign to unseat California Senator Helen Gahagan Douglas, for whom Reagan had campaigned in 1950 (288-89). So the ideological switch was definitely beginning at about this time, but the anticommunist and budding anti-tax “Democrat for Eisenhower” was not yet a conservative Republican.
In the early 1950s, as Spitz relates in some detail, Reagan was seeking new opportunities to take up the slack of his waning movie career, leading to his famous spokesman role for General Electric beginning in 1954. He hosted GE’s weekly anthology television program and toured their manufacturing plants around the country to talk with executives, workers, and townspeople about the company’s values. Inculcating those values, which revolved around the support of free-market policies, was a major focus of the corporation’s labor strategy under their labor relations genius Lemuel Boulware in the 1950s. As has been recounted by various authors and as described in excellent detail by Spitz, it was the GE experience that seems to have made Reagan ultimately into a Goldwater conservative. “This was Ronald Reagan’s enlightenment, what he called his ‘postgraduate education in political science’ and his ‘apprenticeship for public life’” (300-301, quoting Reagan from Evans’s The Education of Ronald Reagan), his conversion to the Hayekian free-market conservatism favored by GE and other elements of the nascent conservative think tank network. Reagan’s clearly held ideology as a movement conservative, then, was the result of four factors: his desultory disaffection with the Democratic policies, his enjoyment and style of public speaking, the very agreeable requirements of the GE job, and GE’s elaborate program of political education, which supplied their employees, including Reagan, with a library of popularly accessible treatments of free-market conservative political economy.
Reagan’s official re-registration as a Republican came in 1962, and soon thereafter he was giving active support to the Goldwater campaign, culminating in his famous 1964 pre-election speech “A Time for Choosing,” and leading directly to his 1966 campaign for governor of California.
As has been recounted by various authors and as described in excellent detail by Spitz, it was the GE experience that seems to have made Reagan ultimately into a Goldwater conservative.
Thus Spitz substantiates in several ways that Reagan was indeed the Great Communicator, and that it was one of the most important factors in his becoming arguably one of the great presidents. The nature of his communication had its negative side, however, which Spitz also elaborates. A recurring theme in the book is Reagan’s lifelong reliance on lightweight sources, especially Reader’s Digest and Human Events, to inform his thinking and provide his talking points. Spitz quotes biographer Lou Cannon that “On matters on which he had no background … Reagan tended to believe anything he read without considering the source” (322), and notes that “Sixty years later, his private files—those that had accompanied him through every phase of his career—would contain reams of clippings from Reader’s Digest, all dog-eared and underlined … reflecting ideas he’d co-opted, positions he’d agreed with, homilies he’d used in various speeches” (201). Thus Reagan’s positions on issues such as environmentalism, the Contras, and the Strategic Defense Initiative, three examples to which Spitz gives detailed attention, were sometimes so simpleminded that they
“horrified” the president’s top men. … More than one White House official asked [chief of staff] Don Regan, “How the fuck can you get that magazine [Human Events] away from him?” [quoting Regan from an interview with Cannon]. … [Political advisor] Stu Spencer ordered Mike Deaver to hide it, but to little good. The magazine was Ronald Reagan’s bedrock reading, … often isolating him from a broader, more informed perspective on key issues [citing a Spencer interview with Spitz] (592).
These sources not only informed Reagan’s viewpoints; they often provided the material for one of his most effective rhetorical devices, the powerful but often apocryphal and inaccurate anecdote. Reagan, to be sure, did not invent this rhetorical device; but as Spitz relates, he used it so effectively, constantly, and famously that the reader may wonder whether its imitation contributed significantly to the rejection of science and facts now endemic in Republican ideology.
In telling such stories, Reagan was also prone to invoking inaccurate or exaggerated statistics. In declaring his candidacy for governor in 1966, as one example of out-of-control big government, “he mistakenly announced that 15.1 percent of Californians were on welfare—it was actually 5.1.” (322) Spitz could have cited other such examples: in his extensive discussion of the 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, he does not remark on Reagan’s statement that “Today in our country the tax collector’s share is thirty-seven cents of every dollar earned.” ³ In fact the real figure—federal, state, and local revenue as a proportion of GDP for 1960—was 25.1 percent. Perhaps Reagan took the figure for government expenditures rather than revenues, 27.4 percent, ⁴ and then, as he would in the 1966 speech, added a fictitious ten percentage points. These are discrepancies large enough to catch one’s attention immediately, if one has a passing familiarity with such statistics; Reagan’s target audience did not, and neither really did Reagan. They confirmed what speaker and hearer were already inclined to believe, and that was the point of Reagan’s anecdotes more generally.
Two of Reagan’s favorite and famous vignettes, mentioned by Spitz, were the one about a woman who massively defrauded welfare programs—dubbed by commentators ever since as “the welfare queen”—and another in which a “strapping young fellow” is observed in the checkout line using food stamps to buy steak. In neither case does Spitz discuss the racial connotations that tales of undeserving welfare recipients had for some voters. Although the evidence from his early life is overwhelming that Reagan was not personally any sort of white supremacist, he was capable of wielding the racial dog-whistle. In any case, Reagan quite matched Goldwater in his virtually blanket opposition to using the power of government to overcome racial discrimination. As Spitz remarks, “For all his past open-mindedness, …[he] viewed laws promoting fair housing, welfare, and civil rights as benefiting blacks disproportionately” (365) and opposed such threats to liberty.
Spitz achieves his goal of offering an encompassing explanation of the roots, development, sources, and limits of Reagan’s ideological motivations, his choice of a political career, and his effectiveness as a politician. The book thus succeeds as political biography. Spitz also does an effective but selective job in capturing Reagan’s presidential years as well, even if some bigger-picture aspects of Reagan’s political career go unexplored.
To certain policy initiatives, both successes and failures, Spitz gives extremely complete coverage, even if his chronology-driven narrative approach sometimes leads him to tell them in fragments. His account of the background and denouement of the Iran-Contra scandal is complete and nuanced. The Lebanon intervention—its full sequence of sending peacekeeping troops, the frustrating negotiations with Syrian President Assad, and the Marine barracks bombing—is fully related. The course of the arms race, especially the formulation of the SDI and the several rounds of negotiations with Gorbachev, are richly described, although the earlier intermediate-range missile competition in Europe receives slightly misleading treatment—it appears here to begin with Reagan’s reaction to Russian placement of SS-20 missiles, but Spitz’s account omits the history of that move in negotiations between the Carter administration and European allies.
Spitz achieves his goal of offering an encompassing explanation of the roots, development, sources, and limits of Reagan’s ideological motivations, his choice of a political career, and his effectiveness as a politician. The book thus succeeds as political biography.
In addition to his coverage of policy developments on these issues of intense focus, one of the strong points of Spitz’s analysis of the Reagan presidency is his recurring focus on problems of organization and management in the White House. From the earliest days of his campaign for the governorship through his second term in the White House, Reagan maintained a hands-off and confrontation-avoiding management style. Over the years his staff included a number of strong personalities, and rivalries often developed. When they did, Reagan hated to pick winners and losers. This managerial dysfunction, not surprisingly, often complicated policymaking, since Reagan’s exclusive orientation toward the big picture and his weakness on policy detail made it necessary for his subordinates to work together to assemble appropriate administration programs.
Things did not always fit together well. One of the most serious misfits plagued Reagan’s signature initiative of “Reaganomics”: his program of tax cuts and deregulation, relying on so-called supply-side economics to restore economic growth. Unfortunately, this is also one policy area on which Spitz does not maintain a clear focus. The administration delegated considerable fiscal decision making in 1981 to its young budget director, David Stockman, who entered with excessive initial confidence in the efficacy of the general approach. Forced to accommodate conflicting demands concerning domestic spending cuts, Stockman lost many battles, and also by his own admission had—like the administration as a whole—only the most tenuous ability to reconcile all the numbers and render deficit predictions that survived any time at all before the next unfavorable revision became necessary. On top of all this the administration was contending with the determined and ultimately successful effort by the Federal Reserve under Chairman Paul Volcker to tighten monetary policy and squeeze out the inflation that had threatened for several years to spin out of control. The Reagan team does not seem to have appreciated the threat that this represented to Reaganomics, and were evidently surprised (despite the Fed’s effort being already underway when they took office) to find themselves dealing with an unusually sharp recession just as they were negotiating fiscal policy. Spitz makes no mention whatever of the Fed’s role in any of this.
Indeed, despite its centrality to his platform and his legacy, the recurring politics of tax-cutting across the Reagan presidency receives at best fragmentary coverage—the size and nature of proposed cuts is never well clarified, although these were subjects of extended negotiation. The back-and-forth of deficit politics after 1981 receives little or no coverage: the subsequent rollback of some of the 1981 tax cuts is mentioned but with scant detail (534-35). The truly impressive bipartisan achievement of tax simplification in 1986 gets no mention whatsoever. There is no mention by Spitz of the effort, late in the administration, to create a more or less binding, long-term schedule of deficit reduction through “sequestration,” which culminated in adoption of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings plan that set the stage for the next ten years of budget politics.
From the earliest days of his campaign for the governorship through his second term in the White House, Reagan maintained a hands-off and confrontation-avoiding management style. Over the years his staff included a number of strong personalities, and rivalries often developed.
On the important issue of Social Security, Spitz describes the administration’s running clumsily afoul of this third rail of American politics in 1981 when the Senate rejected its proposal for benefit reductions by a vote of 96-0. Spitz’s next mention of Social Security is to note vaguely “Reagan’s failed attempt to revamp Social Security” (570) as one of his political liabilities approaching the 1984 re-election campaign. But no mention is made of Reagan’s laudable formation of the bipartisan National Commission on Social Security Reform in 1982 and his successful shepherding of its recommendations to enactment in 1983, extending the actuarial soundness of the Social Security Trust Fund by a half-century.
To situate Reagan in his historical context would require more, however, than even the most exhaustive description of his policy initiatives and ideological beliefs. Spitz’s biography contains many potential points of contact with such precursor and successor events, but for the most part they receive no explicit mention. One exception is Spitz’s coverage of Reagan’s campaign support and famous speech on Goldwater’s behalf, and how it “launched Ronald Reagan as a political star” (315). This is a turning point in the story of the modern conservative movement. The reader looking for the direct organizational connection between Reagan’s (and Goldwater’s) supporters with the opposition to the New Deal, never quite suppressed, may note the cast of characters who moved from Goldwater to Reagan after 1964: wealthy free-market-enthusiasts such as southern California car dealer Holmes Tuttle, oil exploration entrepreneur and Goldwater finance chair Henry Salvatore, Union Oil executive Cy Rubel, and Rexall Drug founder Justin Dart, who were devoted supporters of the network of right-wing associations and think tanks that sustained and promoted anti-New Deal politics and ideas during their relative political exile between 1937 and 1980.⁵ They supported Reagan for governor and cajoled him to get serious in his ambivalent dalliance with running for president. In the end, with some innovation and general replacement along the way, they realized a considerable measure of success with Reagan’s presidency. Their eventual victory shows that, contrary to the approach of many legal scholars, the political and legal changes of the 1930s marked neither a permanent re-thinking of constitutional interpretation nor the practical equivalent of constitutional amendments. Broader historical connections such as this might motivate the reader of a political biography of Reagan; but here it is the reader’s own responsibility to make the connection.
The parallel development of the so-called southern realignment—including actual party switches by incumbent members of Congress in the early 1980s, followed by the election, starting at about that time, of increasingly Republican southern congressional delegations and state legislatures—stands as one of the handful of historically critical electoral transformations in American history. This realignment was largely set in motion by Reagan, but it plays no part in Spitz’s story.
Developments in American politics following Reagan’s career, including the eventual transformation of the Republican party by culture warriors, the Tea Party movement, and Trumpism, really have their roots in Reagan’s time, and are foreshadowed only faintly in Spitz’s story. Spitz interestingly notes the beginnings of religious fundamentalism’s entry into the Republican coalition. However, he also portrays a White House that maintained decent working relations with the Democratic leadership in Congress. To be sure, Representative Newt Gingrich was hard at work building the more polarizing rhetorical weapons that led eventually to the 1994 Republican takeover of the House, to the Clinton impeachment, and to the succession of increasingly extreme House Republican leadership that followed Gingrich’s ouster. Spitz does not mention Gingrich’s name at all; arguably his ascendancy took place outside the purview of any Reagan administration actions. The parallel development of the so-called southern realignment—including actual party switches by incumbent members of Congress in the early 1980s, followed by the election, starting at about that time, of increasingly Republican southern congressional delegations and state legislatures—stands as one of the handful of historically critical electoral transformations in American history. This realignment was largely set in motion by Reagan, but it plays no part in Spitz’s story.
Reagan was not just the midwestern everyman who gave voice to the average American, reasserted important American values, and restored morale to a nation President Carter thought steeped in malaise. He was also the personification of a conservative restoration whose rhetoric and symbols are still influential. He is the precursor of that movement’s further evolution to our present state of affairs. But more than precursor, was he in part its instigator? That is, did Republicanism under Reagan contain the seeds of Trumpism, or did the later developments require further political innovations that reshaped the world left by the Reagan administration? Spitz’s appealing, thorough, and even-handed biography is unfortunately of limited help in answering that.