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A New Biography of Ronald Reagan Captures His Passion for Stardom

Category: Art & Culture,Books

An American Journey
By Bob Spitz
Illustrated. 863 pp. Penguin Press. $35

As Ronald Reagan prepared to graduate from Eureka College in 1932, he told a group of fraternity brothers that if he didn’t make $5,000 annually within five years, “I’ll consider these years here wasted.” It must have struck his peers as fanciful in the extreme since the Great Depression was ravaging the country’s job market. But four years later the ambitious young man was earning $4,200 as a radio sportscaster. The following year, as a contract Hollywood actor, he earned $13,000. Soon his success in the movies got him up to $143,000 a year.

From his earliest days Ronald Reagan was a dreamer, and his dreams always seemed to come true. Yet throughout his life people scoffed at him. While conceding his Adonis-like countenance, mellifluous voice, quick tongue and sunny demeanor, they didn’t see him as a man of mark. His ambitions seemed to outstrip his capacity.

This poses a mystery. How did this man thrive in so many highly competitive life pursuits, in radio, the movies, television, union leadership and the highest levels of politics? Bob Spitz seeks to answer that question in 761 pages of text in “Reagan: An American Journey.” About 250 pages cover the Reagan presidency. Spitz traces here the full arc of the man’s life and career, telling the story of how he leveraged his strengths of personality and clearheadedness to compensate for his weaknesses. Those weaknesses included an intellectual superficiality and a passion for political declamation — “magpie sermonizing,” as Spitz calls it — that often rendered him boring to others, particularly his first wife, the actress Jane Wyman. The screenwriter Irving Wallace considered him “a lovable scatterbrain … a man who parrots things — shallow and affable.” Reagan, Spitz writes, “was not a man given to abstract thought.”

Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan in a promotional photo.CreditJack Albin/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

But he also possessed a photographic memory, a lush imagination, an uncanny instinct for the right moment, highly developed communication skills and a passion for stardom. In high school and college he tasted a tiny slice of that stardom as a lifeguard at the swimming hole near his hometown, Dixon, Ill. A local newspaper reported that “Dutch” Reagan, as he was known, made 71 rescues in the often swift currents of the Rock River. “He was everyone’s hero,” a schoolmate recalled. Spitz adds, demonstrating an occasional tendency toward extravagant prose, “Dutch was a magnet for gushing teenage beauties who mooned over his studly appeal.”

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