The Man Who Wasn’t There

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

by Lou Cannon
Simon and Schuster, 948 pp., $24.95

In an episode already made famous by Lou Cannon’s brilliant new work, James Baker left a briefing book, laboriously calibrated to Reagan’s attention span, in the suite where Reagan was staying on the night before the 1983 economic meeting with world leaders in Williamsburg. Baker was worried about Reagan’s performance the next day, and was even more nervous when he saw the book had not been moved during the night. Reagan blithely explained that he did not have time to look at it since “The Sound of Music was on [television] last night.”

Cannon, the savvy journalist who has been covering Reagan’s political career for a quarter of a century and knows his man on an almost hour-by-hour basis, fits that episode into a larger pattern:

Reagan spent more time at the movies during his presidency than at anything else. He went to Camp David on 183 weekends, usually watching two films on each of these trips. He saw movies in the White House family theater, on television in the family quarters and in the villas and lavish guest quarters accorded presidents when they travel [as to Williamsburg].

After all the recent attention given to Reagan’s wife, a natural reaction to the Williamsburg story is to ask, “Where was Nancy?” We have been told, and not only by Kitty Kelley, that she worried obsessively about his standing in the long vistas of history. Wasn’t she worried about his performance, the next day, before world leaders? The answer is, yes, she did worry, and that is why Reagan was allowed to watch The Sound of Music.

Cannon knows some ugly things about Nancy Reagan, and reports on the ones that can be verified; but he also knows how important she was to her husband’s success. Above all she knew how to rest and pace and present a man who always needed relaxation, exercise, and distraction in order to perform well in his few hours “on.” Cannon, by sheer persistence over the years, by the odds that not even Nancy’s control was entirely fail-safe, saw, a few times, the dead man that could result from a daily routine not largely taken up with watching movies. The rest of us got a brief glimpse of that person at the Louisville debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, but it was not as sobering as Cannon’s interview with him after an earlier economic summit, the one in Ottawa. Reagan had been scheduled (like the other leaders) to give a post-summit briefing to the press followed by a private interview with Hedrick Smith of The New York Times and Cannon of The Washington Post, but “Reagan was in no condition for the briefing” and the interviews were combined to cut the time Reagan had to be exposed. Even so:

He was exhausted nearly to the point of incoherence throughout much of the interview and could not remember the substance of any subject that had been discussed apart …

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