Published in late 2018, Bob Spitz’s “Reagan: An American Journey” is the most recently published biography of Ronald Reagan. Spitz is a journalist and author whose previous best-selling books include “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child” and
“The Beatles: The Biography.” Spitz was previously a manager for Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.
At first glance, Spitz seems an unlikely presidential biographer. He is neither a journalist who spent decades closely covering his subject nor is he a historian with a predilection for writing. And yet Spitz has authored the most substantial – and possibly the most commendable – comprehensive, single-volume biography of Reagan I’ve read.
This 761-page tome is built upon a foundation of hundreds of interviews with Reagan’s family, friends and associates, access to his personal papers (granted by Nancy prior to her death in 2016) and insights provided by earlier biographers. Anyone curious about the scope of effort involved in undertaking a biography should consult Spitz’s “Acknowledgements.”
Spitz’s skills as a biographer are quickly clear. He is an extremely competent writer adept at holding a reader’s attention. Rarely satisfied just divulging facts, he often places the reader in a scene with vivid descriptions of the setting, the players and the drama. Though not quite as gifted as Caro or McCullough in this respect, Spitz clearly revels in creating a rich literary tapestry.
Reagan’s pre-presidency (nearly seven decades of his life) absorbs about 60 percent of the book and is the most valuable portion of the biography. Spitz provides one of the most detailed and interesting explorations of Reagan’s ancestry I’ve read anywhere, and Reagan’s childhood is no less revealing.
Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis receive marvelous multi-page introductions while several other supporting characters receive comparatively concise, but still enlightening, introductory attention. And Spitz describes Reagan’s involvement with the Screen Actors Guild in as colorful and comprehensible a way as I’ve seen.
Reagan’s public and personal lives each receive appropriate focus throughout the book. And even readers familiar with Reagan are likely to learn something new about his early years (though new details about young Dutch’s sex life seem gratuitous). Finally, Spitz approaches his subject with a remarkable sense of balance; there is no impression of political preference or prejudice…just the sense of a detached observer in pursuit of a compelling story.
The author’s instinct for analyzing and conveying Reagan’s youth and acting career is often excellent; the reader gains an excellent understanding for what happened (and often why) as well as the residual impact on Reagan’s later personality and character. But Spitz’s dexterity as a political analyst is less extraordinary, and his coverage of Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential careers lacks the same degree of insight or wisdom.
Spitz does not provide the thorough examination of Reagan’s evolving political philosophy informed readers may expect. And while his review of Reagan’s governorship is competent, a notable billion-dollar tax hike is dispatched with a single sentence and Reagan’s 1970 opponent (“Big Daddy”) is never mentioned. Coverage of Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign is too pithy and his remarkable (and impromptu) convention speech almost goes entirely unobserved.
Coverage of Reagan’s two-term presidency is satisfactory but unexceptional. Spitz is at his best when describing discrete events – such as the attempt on Reagan’s life – rather than legislative priorities or policy details. Finally, notable figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev receive disappointingly curt introductions…and the book contains an occasional careless error (such as substituting “million” for “billion”).
Overall, however, Bob Spitz’s “Reagan: An American Journey” proves to be a well-written and delightfully engaging biography of the 40th president. It is somewhat uneven in emphasis and anyone seeking special insight into Reagan’s political career may wish to supplement this book. But for readers in search of a captivating and comprehensive cradle-to-grave biography of Ronald Reagan, there may be no better place to turn.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars