Lou Cannon’s “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” was published in 1991 and is effectively the sequel to the later-published “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power.” Cannon is a journalist who covered Reagan’s political career closely for nearly four decades- first as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and later as White House correspondent for The Washington Post. He is the author of five books on Ronald Reagan.
As the title suggests, the vast majority of this weighty 764 page book is focused on Reagan’s two-term presidency. But periodic detours in early chapters provide the reader an informative peek into Reagan’s past by demonstrating how Reagan’s childhood, role as an actor and penchant for storytelling influenced his political career.
Critics of Ronald Reagan may find Cannon too friendly to his subject at times. But devotees of the 40th president are likely to bristle as their hero is portrayed as a frequently disengaged, disinterested or otherwise aloof figurehead taking cues from aides who felt their primary job was to save Reagan from himself. While Cannon’s later-published “Governor Reagan” shows remarkable objectivity toward its subject, in this volume the glass does often seem half-empty.
Still, Cannon’s biography of Reagan’s years in the White House is invaluable – both to fans of American political history and to readers interested in gaining insight into this skilled communicator. This book possesses almost a Robert Caro-esque “feel” given the nature of the wisdom it provides, how its insight was derived and the degree to which it penetrates selected topics.
Cannon often seems an unremarkable writer, but an extremely perceptive investigative journalist and a particularly keen observer of people. This is useful because “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” is often more focused on the people around Reagan than on Reagan himself. Perhaps nowhere is this more instructive (or interesting) than the chapter which reviews the president-elect’s selection of cabinet and other senior administration officials.
But elsewhere, as well, Cannon maintains a watchful eye on the cadre of aides surrounding the president- reviewing their advice, analyzing their motives and assessing their influence on administration policy (and each other). And with certain subjects, such as the Iran-contra scandal, Cannon seems to have turned over every available stone in his effort to uncover the facts.
For all its merit, however, there is much about this book that will annoy or bother some readers. Because this is far more a political than personal biography, Cannon provides very little insight into Reagan’s personal life (relating to his children and his religious beliefs, in particular).
And while some topics are covered with extreme intensity, others are comparatively untouched. Two topics alone (arms control and the Iran-contra affair) account for more than one-third of this book…providing great history but, for many, a sub-par biography. Meanwhile, the “Reagan recovery” and Reagan’s relationship with his vice president (and presidential successor) receive almost no attention.
Finally, Cannon provides a thought-provoking review of Reagan’s character and legacy in the book’s final chapter. Unfortunately, this assessment is provided in an intermittent and disjointed format that seems the result of a last-minute rush to address topics such as AIDS, ethics scandals and the S&L crisis that were not included earlier in the book.
Overall, Lou Cannon’s “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” is a thoroughly penetrating and often meticulous history of the Reagan presidency. Readers seeking a captivating narrative, or who are particularly enamored by Reagan’s legacy, may be frustrated by the author’s style. But even if Cannon’s portrait of Reagan feels somewhat incomplete, it is hard to imagine a better source of insight into the inner-workings of the Reagan White House.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars