Veteran biographer Spitz (Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, 2014, etc.) offers a broad and occasionally deep cradle-to-grave examination of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).
The author’s take on the controversial former president is mostly balanced, as he mixes the policy failures and successes with the personal shortcomings and strengths; this is neither pathography nor hagiography. However, some readers may question the book’s role within the biographic enterprise. Just three years ago, acclaimed historian H.W. Brands released a mostly lauded Reagan biography that was just as massive as this one. In 1991, master journalist Lou Cannon, an acknowledged Reagan expert, published the memorably titled President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Between those two books, there were several other first-rate accounts of Reagan’s life published. Nonetheless, readers seeking the freshest Reagan biography, with access to the most recently available research material, should welcome Spitz’s entry. The strictly chronological approach is easy to track, and because the author is such a skilled stylist, the narrative flows smoothly. The major strength of this version is Spitz’s consistently diligent effort to provide context beyond just his main subject (most readers already know the highlights). That broader context is especially useful in understanding the young Reagan’s family, especially his rolling-stone father; in realizing that Reagan rose above his modest family circumstances and indifferent academic performance by being the right guy at the right place at the right time, particularly with regard to the start of a movie career; and in grasping how he quickly morphed from a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to a conservative, anti-communist zealot. Reagan resisted a career in electoral politics for a brief time, but he determined that career would play to his strengths as a handsome true believer in American exceptionalism. Spitz also skillfully portrays numerous supporting characters, especially Reagan wives Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis.
A solid entry in the realm of presidential biography.