Reagan: An American Journey — Bob Spitz
What makes a man wise? Reflections on the wisdom of the Oldest and the Wisest
I am beginning to write this review on the morning of President George H.W. Bush’s death. Bush was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President and became Bush 41, Reagan’s successor. Having been born in the infancy of Bush’s presidency, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have always had warm feelings towards Bush 41 and Reagan. That is especially true this morning, and Bob Spitz’s Reagan: An American Journey, despite pulling absolutely no punches, is one reason for that.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted the following this morning after the news of Bush 41’s death:
For more on George H.W. Bush and his presidency, please read a wonderful piece from Slate on why Bush 41 was a better president than Reagan or Clinton.
My point is two-fold: 1) 1980–2000 is now far enough away in history that it is deserving of another look, and the legacies of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton must be revisited, and 2) as Moore points out, character matters for more than we currently give it credit. This latter point is especially apparent in Spitz’s Reagan: An American Journey.
Spitz’s book is an engaging portrayal of a fascinating life. I was surprised many times throughout the narrative of his pre-political life. For instance, Reagan’s father was adamantly opposed to all forms of discrimination or prejudice (being a Catholic and frequently the subject of such discrimination); his mother Nelle (pronounced “Nellie”) was a member of a Disciples of Christ church and was fully committed to the “social gospel”; and Ronald and Nancy’s courtship-through-marriage relationship was, to be generous, not very romantic. Each of these bits of biographical information had a significant effect on Reagan’s personal formation. In addition, all of these, for good or for ill, are not particularly in keeping with Reagan’s modern reputation, so I was glad to see him in all his complexity.
Complexity is, to say the least, what I saw in Reagan through Spitz’s narrative. I must say that I thought Spitz leaned into the negative aspects of Reagan’s presidency more than were warranted, but I don’t say that to discount the biography itself. Reagan’s 93 years of life must be culled and processed in some way, and any way you turn you will not be able to process and promote everything he did. This is, as far as I can tell, Spitz’s only political biography; his other subjects include Julia Child, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. His skill as a political biographer is obvious, and I would absolutely read the next one he writes. I just can’t help but wonder if his experience with entertainers caused him to lean into the dramatic, of which there was much in Reagan’s presidency (Iran-Contra and some well-spun Gorbachev meetings stand out). It is just as possible, however, that my positive presuppositions about Reagan have colored my opinion of Reagan and that Spitz was as fair to Reagan as the facts deserve.
It is clear, both through Spitz’s account and the outside evidence at hand, that Reagan had the charisma and the character that contribute significantly to the greatness of any president. One might even, depending on your definition, call it wisdom. More on that later. But those first two traits are almost unassailable. Tip O’Neill, Democratic Speaker of the House and Reagan’s chief rival during his administration, comments that Reagan is “the best public speaker I’ve ever seen … He lacked most of the management skills that a president needs … But let me give him his due: he would have made a hell of a king” (p. 646). His character is outstanding by itself, but it is especially apparent when comparing him to three figures that make brief to moderate appearances in Spitz’s book: Hafez al-Assad (a few paragraphs), Richard Nixon (frequent drop-ins), and Donald Trump (one minuscule but searing paragraph from a meeting with Gorbachev in 1987). All three of these obviously have their foibles, but Reagan’s humanitarian principles are unsurprisingly striking when sitting across from Assad, who states “There is no sanctity of a human life of an Israeli” (p. 551). Spitz also dismisses any personal racial animosity on the part of Reagan, and I am inclined to believe him from the available information.
The larger question, and a theme that I believe pervades Reagan: An American Journey, intended or not, is that of Reagan’s wisdom. Spitz recalls three principles:
Order … dignity … leadership — these were protocols he was determined to establish. They’d set the tone for the rest of his agenda. The White House staff began referring to him as the “O and W” — Oldest and Wisest”
So, did he live up to the nickname of the Oldest and Wisest? The legacy is mixed.
It does not seem that Reagan’s baseline intelligence matched that of, say, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or JFK. But that has little to do with wisdom. The dictionary definition is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”. Intelligence does not equal any of those attributes. I like to think of wisdom as the ability and proclivity to use all available sources of information (experience, personal knowledge, the knowledge of others, etc.) and the good judgment to employ them rightly. Let’s look at how Reagan fares in this definition.
On the one hand, Reagan had a reputation for being misled by certain sources. Here is Spitz on his obsession with the publication Human Events:
When he read something in Human Events, he believed it,” Don Regan confirmed, event though the factual basis for the magazine’s positions was often threadbare at best. Human Events had helped to convince him that Social Security was an outright failure. It preached that the Sandinista government should be overthrown and that the Contras were great patriots, and it advocated for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which it believed would work and would guarantee America’s future.
All of these positions had adverse effects for Reagan during his presidency. Another such publication was Reader’s Digest, whose stories were also sometimes flimsy. Reader’s Digest was the source of the “welfare queen” story that Reagan used to point out the flaws in the welfare system, but there is no corroborating evidence that such a person ever existed. Another apocryphal story sounds like it made it into his first inaugural address, and when confronted with the error beforehand by his speechwriter, Reagan refused to take it out. Reagan reportedly said “It’s too good a story. Just take care of it.” He seems to have repeatedly dismissed good information and made an inferior choice. During the Republican primaries of 1976, he wouldn’t read the briefing books that his campaign made for him. Spitz quotes Jeff Bell, a contributor to the briefing books, who says “Reagan wouldn’t do the homework.” However, he did have a handle on many things without the input of briefing books and multiple sources. Bell continues: “He had a framework that enabled him to answer questions, even when he didn’t know all the details.” In light of this, Spitz chalks his success up to “the strength of his storytelling talent and charisma”, which is probably true. But I tend to believe that he also had some wisdom that allowed him to operate on less information with sometimes better results.
There is much evidence that Reagan had much wisdom and that it even increased throughout his presidency. Although he didn’t do his homework in those 1976 primaries (which he lost, by the way), he threw himself into research later, in more high stakes situations. Spitz relays:
Between the spring of 1985 and the following November, Donald Fortier, a deputy national security adviser, prepared twelve tutorials for Reason in answer to his request (for information on the Soviet negotiating style). Each contained no more than a dozen pages — big picture topics that covered modern Soviet history, the KGB and the military, the country’s economy, its resources, and Gorbachev’s roots and strengths. Reagan devoured them with great enthusiasm. He annotated the margins, dog-eared the pages, and made copies for George Bush, Ed Meese, Don Regan, and Jim Baker.
That sounds like someone using all the available information to try to make good decisions. Wisdom indeed. He also softened in some of his outlandish stances. In talking about a possible invasion of Cuba, one of his advisors suggested to “turn that island into a (expletive) parking lot”. Spitz writes that “Reagan had said as much about Vietnam during a speech in October 1965”, but this time Reagan demurred, “…his attitude toward armed conflict had softened with age and with the recognition that any parking lot under his watch would be his parking lot”. Wisdom through experience.
There is yet a final avenue through which to see Reagan’s (or anyone’s) wisdom: the extent to which one relies on trusted advisors (“an abundance of counselors” in the parlance of the book of Proverbs) instead of personal knowledge or experience. One last excerpt from Spitz:
“He made no pretense at being an expert in all things,” says Robert “Bud” McFarlane, a National Security deputy, “but he had a solid intellect, a solid grasp of American values, a sense of right and wrong, a tolerance for risk.” Reagan expected to make the big decisions while relying on input that spared him too many details … If things got too complex and beyond his grasp, he’d invariably postpone discussion by saying “I want to roundtable this with the fellas” or “Maybe we should sleep on this.”
For someone who took pride in not being a career politician and thus not being quite as well-versed in the details of policy, this is an extremely wise choice. Wisdom is usually not “trusting intuition” or blindly “going with your gut”. That, more often than not, leads to tragedy. Reagan may have even done that a few times. But there is ample evidence that he enabled others to use their expertise as well, and the world is the better for it.
In my estimation, Reagan’s title of “Oldest and Wisest” was well-deserved in its context. In the annals of Presidential history, he stands on at worst above-average ground. In his administration, then, it stands to reason that no one else carried the combination of experience, knowledge, and ability to listen to advisors as did Reagan. Except that it just so happens that he had a less-heralded but equally wise man as his right-hand man: the dearly departed George H.W. Bush.
I borrowed a copy of Reagan: An American Journey from my local library. Borrow it, request it, or consider donating to your library today.