President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, by Richard Reeves

Ronnie and his amazing fiscal follies
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That such egregious exploitation should be favoured by Nixon (elected president that year) is no surprise, since it is but one milestone in his ignominious career. Those who are familiar with Reagan's image of all-American glad-hand, soft-heart and human-touch may wonder at his lack of feeling for the downtrodden. If so, they should read this book.

Reeves identifies Reagan's charitable impulse early on in his biography: "The rich got richer and Reagan told them they deserved it. The poor got poorer and he told them it was their own fault." Anyone who said different was a liberal. And what might Reagan do to liberals? "I'd kick their balls off."

It shouldn't be assumed that the author set out on a Reagan demolition job. He tells the story without spite or rancour, though he is clearly no Reaganite. He and the president knew one another quite well. There was considerable mutual respect. Nevertheless, I finished the book regarding Reagan with a mixture of amusement, distaste and mild despair. Reagan's rise in the political firmament coincided with the activities of the Committee on the Present Danger, a faintly Orwellian-sounding conservative group of prominent officials, defence intellectuals and others who shared a pessimistic appraisal of basic trends in American foreign and defence policies. The quintessence of their outlook was in Reagan's assertion: "Let's not delude ourselves. The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren't engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn't be any hot spots in the world."

Reagan is widely credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, whereas it was about to implode anyway, and Reagan just happened to be in office when it did. What the Committee on the Present Danger actually achieved was the spreading of paranoia among ordinary Americans and helping to get elected a president who would be good at soothing the national soul with feel-good aphorisms and avuncular reassurances. I see from a recent New Yorker that the CPD has been revived to address the threat of Islamist militantism, and is calling for regime change in Iran (whose people Reagan once described as "shitheels").

Reeves quotes approvingly a political scientist's perception of the former actor: "Reagan has a propensity to be more interested in theatrical truth than in empirical truth"; he was a man of imagination rather than vision, a man who "believed in the past he imagined".

During and after his presidency, Reagan has been glorified as a great saviour. Nine hundred books have been written about him, many of them subsidised by right-wing groups. Washington National Airport now bears his name. Reeves, perhaps unintentionally, makes him seem like the court jester in his own court. On his inauguration day, Reagan stood before a full length mirror, straightened his tie, clicked his heels and declared to himself: "I am the president of the United States of America."

As for his legacy, "Reagonomics" has since been dismissed as "fiscal follies", many of his officials faced criminal charges for, among other things, organising terrorism in Latin America. During his administration, the CIA sent more than $2bn in weaponry to Afghanistan, most of it eventually used by the Taliban. "Legacy, what legacy?" asked New Republic magazine, as Reagan's time in office came to an end.

The book is extremely rich in anecdote on the frailties of Reagan officials, the ideological struggle that was tipping America further to the right, neuroses of both East and West, and corporate, governmental and individual responses to humanity in crisis. This gives us much insight into the president's character and mental and physical abilities. Oddly, however, for one so comfortable in himself and charming to most others, "Reagan had few if any deep friendships." Another curiosity is that while some of his most powerful critics, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, detected that Reagan had "turned the presidency into a vigorous and forceful instrument of national policy", a surprising number of Reagan's own appointees later turned on him with what seems like malevolence, portraying a president befuddled and out of his depth.

And Reagan's view of his White House years as his administration drew to a close? "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure and happier than it was eight years ago." No longer the case, alas, 17 years and three presidents later. And still it's very much winter.