President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

Discussing President Reagan’s work habits, Lou Cannon suggests that he ”may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest.” But Cannon also observes, in evaluating Reagan’s term in office, that while he ”may not have been a great president…he was a great American who held a compelling vision of his country.” The 900-plus meticulously researched pages of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime didn’t persuade me that Reagan was a great anything. But nothing in print is as well-informed as this book — or as devastating — on the style and consequences of Ronald Reagan’s goofing off.

Lou Cannon knows the Gipper well. He began covering him a quarter-century ago as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote biographies of him in 1969 and 1982, and served as senior White House correspondent for The Washington Post during both of Reagan’s terms. It’s evident, furthermore, that Cannon is fond of Reagan. He relishes the man’s humor, kindness, and essential decency, and pities him the burdens of age and the close brush with death by assassination. This book would have been stronger if Cannon had attempted to make sense of his complex feelings about his subject — his mixed disapproval and admiration — instead of simply unloading them on the reader at the end in a muddled discourse on greatness.

No matter. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime is an extremely useful — sometimes even powerful — chronicle. And the source of its power is Cannon’s full documentation of presidential truancy. Aide after aide testifies in these pages that the President ”did not react to 95 percent of the material that was brought to him,” that ”he made no demands, and gave almost no instructions,” and that his excuses for not at least glancing at the various background papers supplied him in preparation for meetings and decisions were invariably lame. ”Well, Jim,” he told chief of staff James Baker, explaining why he hadn’t opened the briefing book for the Colonial Williamsburg economic summit, ”The Sound of Music was on last night.” (Reagan watched two films on each of his 183 weekends at Camp David.)

Ignorance is one inevitable result of goofing off, and Cannon scrupulously sifts the evidence of Reagan’s ignorance. He says that this President chose a commerce secretary largely because the fellow’s ”hobby was roping cattle at rodeos”; that he announced to members of Congress that bombers and submarines ”did not carry nuclear missiles”; and that he agreed that ”creationism should be taught as an alternative theory to Darwinism in the public schools.”

Why would somebody elected to the highest office in a democracy conclude that mastering the issues — digging into the substance of disputes — is unimportant? Cannon thinks Reagan was confident that the presidency was a show job, that the primary if not sole task of the President is to focus exclusively ”on public performance while leaving the homework to others.”

In Reagan’s case the consequences of skipping homework were, of course, appalling. Staff cynicism was rampant. ”The sad, shared secret of the Reagan White House,” Cannon writes, ”was that no one in the presidential entourage had confidence in the judgment or capacities of the president….Pragmatists and conservatives alike treated Reagan as if he were a child monarch in need of constant protection.”

But there were worse consequences. Cannon traces connections between presidential vacuity and the loss of hundreds of Marines in Lebanon. He probes the mindless commitment to slogans (”Get government off your backs”) that rendered Reagan vulnerable to budget director David Stockman’s manipulations, led him repeatedly and casually to reject proposals that might have warded off the deficit disaster, and set administrative agencies on a course toward the savings and loan debacle.

On Nancy’s astrologer, Reagan’s naps, and several other familiar matters, Lou Cannon contributes little that’s fresh. And because he’s a reporter, not a cultural critic, he offers no help with the problem at the root of his story, namely: How can a democracy transformed into a culture of entertainment preserve the distinction between governing and playacting? But in showing us what happens in an absentee presidency, and how and why, he has produced an immensely instructive portrait of counterfeit leadership. A-

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
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