ROOSEVELT TO REAGAN: A Reporter's Encounters with Nine Presidents by Hedley Donovan
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ROOSEVELT TO REAGAN: A Reporter's Encounters with Nine Presidents

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Maybe only the retired editor of Time Inc. would set himself up to ""appraise"" the nine presidents he's known, in virtual report-card fashion. But Donovan has a mitigating vision of the president as a public servant, along with unequalled exposure to presidential apple-polishing--capped by a post-retirement year as an advisor to Jimmy Carter. On personal and historical grounds: FDR was ""a great president"" despite his flaws (devious but not dishonest, idealistic if pragmatic); Truman (""Good to Very Good"") thrived on the presidency, even growing to look presidential (""I recall a disagreeable Time Inc. lunch at which I was the only defender of Truman's action"" in firing MacArthur); Eisenhower, though as good a president or a little better, didn't rise to his full potential (D. rejects the ""hidden hand"" thesis re McCarthy and civil rights); Kennedy, ""the most difficult case,"" rates low on personal behavior and, Donovan now thinks, had limited growth potential. These are unremarkable judgments, saved by a snappy delivery and some un-Time-like calls. Donovan is more expansive on the personalities of Johnson and Nixon, and Time/Life involvements with each: ""That was the thought [Johnson] wanted to leave with us--it's hard work being Hardhead""; ""Most of us who saw the Nixon-Kissinger policy process close up concluded that the large designs and concepts came chiefly from Nixon."" He is especially graceful on the Ford interregnum: Uncomplex? ""Perhaps it would be a three-way tie between Ford, Kennedy, and Reagan--each being mainly what they seem to be but not entirely."" (Some nice inside/outside perspectives here too.) Then independent""conservative"" Donovan goes to work for Carter, noting that almost nobody resists a presidential appeal. He precisely lambastes the creation of a ""superfluous crisis"" over a Soviet brigade in Cuba; he goes public with his criticism, to Carter, of ""two Secretaries of State"" (pointedly commenting, too, on Vance's and Brzezinski's differing memoirs); he offers some sidelights on the ""intermingled"" perils of Iran and Afghanistan (but generally stresses, as do others, the mystifications of Iranian politics); and, perhaps most notably, he calls press coverage alert and perceptive. There are some carefully chosen words about Carter's inconsistencies (e.g., ""how someone so bright could fail to understand the full importance, like it or not, of Congress""); some passing, mixed thoughts on Reagan (""I voted for Fritz. I couldn't stomach Reagan's shameless exploitation of religion and patriotism""); some concluding observations on the rise and fall of presidential reputations and the ideal office-holder. The final pontificating partially aside (Donovan is right to cite Reagan as evidence that the office isn't unmanageable), the book is a volatile mix--highly readable but seldom memorable--of the very elements that made Donovan effective as the nation's premier editorialist.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1985
Publisher: Harper & Row