By George Hodgman
Updated May 17, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Frances FitzGerald has located the key to the character of Ronald Reagan in what was the biggest dream — or mirage — of his presidency: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a force field meant to protect the United States from nuclear holocaust. As FitzGerald shows in Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, nuclear devastation was a subject that actually engaged Reagan. In July 1979, he visited the NORAD base in Colorado and realized the nuclear strategy of the U.S. was entirely offensive.

Under the spell of the gleaming command base, which spurred his cinematically influenced imagination, the former actor spotted the opportunity to play the ultimate savior role. He was undeterred by the fact that this enormously expensive goal would mean scrapping the U.S.’s existing nuclear structure. FitzGerald’s book, however, is more than a story of epic folly. She makes us see that theater can be an effective tool in international statecraft, especially if the performer is a genius communicator who has convinced himself of the truth of what he’s playing. Her emperor is not denuded, just deluded — a President who based his idea of what was possible not on briefings from experts but on scripts and scriptures.