Here’s Why Reagan Biographers Cry Foul Over This New Presidential History Book

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Several biographers of Ronald Reagan are crying foul over a book excerpt published by Salon that suggests the president was a grossly uninformed, uninterested empty suit who left the country essentially leaderless during his time in office.

The article, titled “Behind the Ronald Reagan myth,” is excerpted from William Leuchtenburg’s new book “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.” Leuchtenburg, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on Franklin Roosevelt, uses an array of quotes and anecdotes to paint a damning portrait of the 40th president, whom he describes as the most ill-informed man to ever hold the office.

Leuchtenburg isn’t the first person to fault Reagan for being aloof and ignorant (several biographers did so), but his account is particularly critical, and appears to rely substantially on liberally quoting Reagan’s enemies, taking statements out of context, and sometimes just being inaccurate.

“In all fields of public affairs—from diplomacy to the economy—the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded,” Leuchtenburg says. He leads off with a couple instances of Reagan giving confused answers in press conferences, and then drops a deluge of hostile quotes from contemporaries. Clark Clifford called him an “amiable dunce,” Jim Wright said he could “cut ribbons and make speeches” but little else, and Lee Hamilton recalled a lengthy discussion of ballistic missiles where Reagan’s only contribution was to mention watching the movie Wargames. Notably, though, all three remarks are from Democrats. Leuchtenburg also quotes Peggy Noonan, a Reagan speechwriter who described Reagan’s mind as “empty terrain,” though she was also a speechwriter who had only limited interactions with Reagan during 2 years in the White House.

Lee Edwards, a Reagan biographer who has been writing about him since the 1960s, was extremely critical of the excerpt, and said its tone is part of an ongoing “revisionist flush” of writing on Reagan.

“[He’s] cherry-picking a particular news conference or a particular incident where Reagan may not have been on the top of his game, or maybe he was thinking about something important instead of what the Cabinet was talking about,” Edwards told The Daily Caller News Foundation. He also said the excerpt ignores major moments of Reagan’s presidency where he took a leading role on policy matters.

“At Reykjavik, in ’86, when Reagan was supposed to be ravaged by dementia and Alzheimer’s, he and [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev sat down, and it’s estimated they spent 11 hours discussing nuclear forces,” he said. About five of those hours, Edwards said, consisted solely of Reagan, Gorbachev, and their interpreters. Such actions are hardly the sign of an empty suit president, he said.

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has written multiple works on Reagan’s life, mostly recently “Last Act” (covering his post-presidential years), and he agreed with Edwards, saying the president often took the lead on policy issues.

“A lot of people said he shouldn’t fire the air traffic controllers. A lot of people said he shouldn’t walk away from Reykjavik,” said Shirley. “There are a lot of instances where he went against his guidance, went against his aides, and followed his own judgment.” Shirley also pointed out that Reagan personally chaired, by his count, 355 meetings of the National Security Council, a level of personal involvement he said was not matched by other presidents.

Shirley also downplayed Leuchtenburg’s substantial focus on Nancy Reagan’s well-known reliance on an astrologer. While astrological considerations notoriously played a role in Reagan’s schedule, Shirley portrayed this as a harmless superstitious reaction to Reagan’s near-death by assassination, and he rejected Leuchtenburg’s claim that astrology caused him to have an unusual midnight inauguration when he became governor of California in 1967. Rather, he said it was an effort to thwart a series of last-minute appointments planned by outgoing governor Pat Brown.

There are other reasons to be skeptical of Leuchtenburg’s description of Reagan. For example, in order to paint Reagan as ideologically flexible, he points out that Reagan signed an expansive abortion law as governor of California, despite being a “vocal advocate of ‘the right to life.'”

But in 1967, Reagan was not a “vocal advocate” against abortion. By his own admission, he had thought very little about the issue when the California bill came before him just six months into his first term. Reagan dwelt extensively on the matter, and ultimately signed it, but he later regretted it deeply. Biographer Lou Cannon described it as “the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.”

At other times, Leuchtenburg directly quotes Reagan administration officials, but his comments seem deeply out of context. Secretary of State George Schultz is quoted saying “Trying to forge policy [was] like walking through a swamp,” which Leuchtenburg cites as evidence of Reagan being “an exasperatingly disengaged administrator.”

But Schultz wasn’t talking about Reagan in the quote. He was talking about Central America, and how difficult it was to check Soviet influence there when Congress, the media, and the American public were all deeply fearful of another Vietnam. Reagan isn’t mentioned at all, positively or negatively, yet Leuchtenburg uses it as a key indictment of Reagan.

Despite his extremely sharp attacks, even Leuchtenburg acknowledged Reagan was incredibly successful throughout his career.

“His chief Democratic opponent in the [California] legislature, who started out viewing Reagan with contempt, wound up concluding that he had been a pretty good governor, ‘better than Pat Brown, miles and planets and universes better than Jerry Brown’ … [and] he was to leave office regarded as a consequential president, and a number of scholars were even to write of an ‘Age of Reagan,'” Leuchtenburg says in summation at the end.

An effort to contact Leuchtenburg through his publisher was unsuccessful. The Daily Caller News Foundation also reached out to Noonan regarding her quotes in the story, and did not immediately receive a reply.

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