The latest in the commendable American Presidents series is a thoughtful biography of an increasingly well-regarded president.
Many observers during Ronald Reagan’s presidency held a low opinion of his intellect. Time has not altered that perception, but most historians, including Slate Group chairman and former Slate magazine editor Weisberg (The Bush Tragedy, 2008, etc.) agree, often reluctantly, that he presided over significant changes in the United States. Although no conservative like his subject, Weisberg takes his historical duties seriously, laying out Reagan’s actions with an admirable lack of pop psychology. A successful radio announcer and actor, Reagan enjoyed politics, serving twice as Screen Actors Guild president before election as California governor in 1966. Attuned to the national rightward swing, he denounced government, regulation, and taxes but left implementation to his staff, who discovered, to their annoyance, that he hated conflict and had no objection to compromise. “He knew what he believed, meant what he said, and made clear what he intended to do,” writes the author. “He didn’t suffer from anxiety or self-doubt. The search for something beneath the surface has tended to produce few results.” The massive tax cut that began his presidency did not discourage him from extolling a balanced budget, and he accepted the almost yearly tax increases that followed. He appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court but also, despite objections, Sandra Day O’Connor. The electorate loved his speeches attacking student protesters, welfare, and communism, but activism seemed to bore him, except in his campaign against nuclear war. Ignoring opposition from his administration and outrage from conservative commentators, he embraced disarmament proposals from the new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev.
This concise biography makes a good case that Reagan was the second most important president of the 20th century after Franklin Roosevelt.