Newsweek Editor's Book Review: Establishment Now Admits Reagan's Greatness

January 9th, 2006 8:08 AM

In Sunday's "Book World" section of The Washington Post, Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham reviewed the new book by Richard Reeves titled "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination." He noted:

President Reagan marks a surrender of sorts. The establishment has, for the moment at least, given in and decided that Reagan was a great historical figure after all. That Reeves arrived at such a conclusion is particularly notable. Twenty years ago, in 1985, he published The Reagan Detour , arguing that "the Reagan years would be a detour, necessary if sometimes nasty, in the long progression of American liberal democracy."

...[H]e was never, as a bitter House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill once said, "lazy and short-sighted." Reagan may not have been the most brilliant man in the room, but he was generally the most powerful, and that he made his rise through the world look so effortless is a tribute to his grace. As for his alleged short-sightededness -- well, you do not hear many Americans speaking of how we are living in the long shadow of Tip O'Neill.

Meacham began by telling a story about former Treasury Secretary and Chief of Staff Don Regan realizing he was an idiot to underestimate Reagan as not very smart. But that's very much the way the liberal media treated Reagan from his arrival on the national scene until he began his descent into Alzheimer's in 1994. Meacham does try to insert a paragraph of all of Reagan's "foibles," so he doesn't sound too conservative. But he also tries to suggest Reagan was less doctrinaire than George W. Bush, and that the Bushies should read the Reeves book:

This book could also be usefully read at the highest levels of the Bush administration. Reagan was much more complicated than the Gipper of popular conservative mythology. He was not an uncompromising, inflexible cold warrior who ignored the natterings of critics and the press. He was, instead, a deft negotiator -- the old Screen Actors Guild president doing his thing. Moreover, through Nancy, he knew what Washington was saying about him -- and corrected course when he had to.

That's a cute paragraph, but what Meacham is really admitting in this review is that Reagan was much more complicated than the Gipper of liberal media mythology. Conservatives living in the Reagan years knew he was not immune to being swayed by liberal media urgings (although he was much more immune than many Republican presidents before and after). Many worried he was going too soft on the Soviets in the second term. But he stayed true to his vision even as his tactics changed, and the story of the Cold War had a pretty happy ending -- happier than if Newsweek had its way in running the country.