Veteran biographer Bob Spitz offers a broad and occasionally deep cradle-to-grave examination of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) in “Reagan: An American Journey.”
The author’s take on the controversial former president is mostly balanced, as he mixes the policy failures and successes with the personal shortcomings and strengths; this is neither pathography nor hagiography. However, some readers may question the book’s role within the biographic enterprise. Just three years ago, acclaimed historian H.W. Brands released a mostly lauded Reagan biography that was just as massive as this one. In 1991, master journalist Lou Cannon, an acknowledged Reagan expert, published the memorably titled “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.” Between those two books, there were several other first-rate accounts of Reagan’s life published. Nonetheless, readers seeking the freshest Reagan biography, with access to the most recently available research material, should welcome Spitz’s entry. The strictly chronological approach is easy to track, and because the author is such a skilled stylist, the narrative flows smoothly. The major strength of this version is Spitz’s consistently diligent effort to provide context beyond just his main subject (most readers already know the highlights). That broader context is especially useful in understanding the young Reagan’s family, especially his rolling-stone father; in realizing that Reagan rose above his modest family circumstances and indifferent academic performance by being the right guy at the right place at the right time, particularly with regard to the start of a movie career; and in grasping how he quickly morphed from a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to a conservative, anti-communist zealot. Reagan resisted a career in electoral politics for a brief time, but he determined that career would play to his strengths as a handsome true believer in American exceptionalism. Spitz also skillfully portrays numerous supporting characters, especially Reagan wives Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis.
“Reagan” is a solid entry in the realm of presidential biography.
A deeper look at fracking
Bethany McLean pairs a biopic-worthy corporate scandal with a recent financial history of the fracking industry in “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World.”
The incendiary title would seem to promise another op-ed on the controversial resource-extraction technique. But as in her previous works, Vanity Fair contributing editor McLean, an investigative journalist best known for her coverage of the Enron scandal, focuses on the staggering corporate scandals that the industry has produced along with its billions of barrels of oil. In the first half of the book, she singles out the rise and fall of colorful, hubristic entrepreneur Aubrey McClendon, an early fracking promoter and “land man” who successfully raised and lost billions of dollars by leasing the drilling rights to properties atop the shales where extraction took place. The second half of the book uses McClendon’s story to inform an overview of the “fracking revolution,” the author’s term for the boom in domestic energy due to American oil production that could rival that of Saudi Arabia. Notably lacking is a clear, technical explanation of fracking — though maps of the shales are helpful — and McLean writes to an audience familiar with the jargon of industry and finance. All but overlooking the environmental impact of the extraction method, the author tracks the billions of dollars made, invested and lost in corporate fracking transactions, most of them an order of magnitude or so above the common experience. For the most part, she leaves readers to interpret the significance of these figures and to assemble a throughline of meaning from the accumulation of factual records, which hardly improves the book’s scant aesthetic dimensions. Occasional dramatic interest in this straightforward financial portrait comes from the sheer scale of the fiscal irresponsibility depicted and the anxiety of McClendon’s outsized wins, losses and incredible debt.
The business-minded should appreciate the focus and precision of this brisk overview, while readers in search of more informative conceptual arguments about the industry and its geopolitical implications should look elsewhere.
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