by JILL SCHOENIGER
Best-selling author Bob Spitz ’71 pens a biography on America’s 40th president
Reinvention. It’s a concept Bob Spitz ’71 admires, and something he has done his fair share of during his lifetime. That helps to explain his latest shift from writing about pop culture icons to tackling one of the political titans of the past 50 years. His latest book, “Reagan: An American Journey,” hits bookshelves this fall.
Spitz’s first reinvention came in his 20s after living the entire part of his early life within a few city blocks in Reading, Pa. He grew up on 13th Street, went to Reading High School, and then to Albright — making him a part of a special group commonly referred to as the 13th Street Gang. (In the 1960s, North 13th Street was noted in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” article for being the only place in the United States where a scholar could accomplish such a feat.)
But all of that changed when Spitz headed to New York City after graduation with dreams of becoming a musician.
Early on he met an unknown singer by the name of Bruce Springsteen and became his manager.
Early on he met an unknown singer by the name of Bruce Springsteen and became his manager. After Bruce, Spitz managed another musical powerhouse easily recognized by just his first name: Elton — as in Sir Elton John — for a few years. At age 30, he paused to reassess. “I was exhausted. I had been on the road for almost eight years. I decided I had to do something else with my life,” he reflects.
Far from the madding crowds
That something else turned out to be writing, which did not come easily to him at first. “It literally took me about 10 years before I learned how to write,” he admits. “I wrote a lot of crappy little pieces for magazines and reviews — anything I could do to learn.”
He used his music contacts to find projects and wrote a book about superstars that opened other doors. He soon found the project that has thus far defined his career. He spent eight and a half years writing “The Beatles: The Biography,” widely viewed as the definitive book on the Fab Four.
He followed up that New York Times best-selling book with another best seller, “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child.” Spitz had met and become “fast friends” with Julia in Italy in 1992. Captivated by the cooking legend, he knew he’d eventually write her story. And hers is a story that continues to captivate. “Dearie” is soon going to Broadway as a one-woman show and will be the basis of an upcoming documentary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of the movie “RBG.”
After “Dearie,” Spitz began looking for his next subject. “My wife said you could draw a line through my subjects. I wrote about people who were both beloved and changed the culture,” he explains. “So we looked for someone who fit those qualities.” They spent six months doing so. His wife suggested Ronald Reagan. Spitz’s response? “Absolutely not. I’m a lifelong Democrat — never voted for a Republican.”
And then he mulled. First of all, he realized Reagan fit the criteria — he was beloved by many people and had changed the culture in a way that would allow a biographer to really dig in and look at the cultural context.
Also, Reagan was the master of reinvention and had excelled in varied roles: He was the voice of the Midwest as a broadcaster, a Hollywood actor, the governor of California, and finally president of the United States.
So Spitz changed his mind. “This was someone who has complexities that I needed to explore,” he says, explaining that he was especially drawn to Reagan’s humble beginnings, and was intrigued as to why Reagan still resonated for so many people and politicians from both parties.
During the five and a half years Spitz spent working on the book, his view on Reagan changed and deepened. “I came to, if not admire his politics, completely understand and admire him as an individual who stood up for American ideals and the virtues we have come to expect from a leader,” he says.
“I came to, if not admire his politics, completely understand and admire him as an individual who stood up for American ideals and the virtues we have come to expect from a leader.”
The good, the bad
Looking back at Reagan’s two terms, Spitz believes his legacy is a mixed one. To Spitz, the most obvious failing was the Iran-Contra scandal, where administration officials secretly helped with the sale of arms to Iran to free U.S. hostages and also used the funds to support the Contras in Nicaragua. For this, Spitz faults Reagan. “He was given the chance many times to avoid it,” argues Spitz. “It took over and sabotaged his term because he didn’t understand what he was getting into. Had he listened to advice, he never would have gone that route.”
Spitz also considers Reaganomics to be a failure. “His tax increases did not work, and the budget ballooned,” he says. “While he tried to take credit for changing those structures, he really did not accomplish much in that area.”
On the subject of Reagan’s dealings with the Supreme Court, results were again piebald. Spitz says that the nomination of Robert Bork was “a disaster and blew up in his face.” But he also praises Reagan for his choice of Sandra Day O’Connor as the court’s first female justice who listened to both sides and voted with both factions of the Supreme Court.
Many of Reagan’s accomplishments can be traced to his willingness to compromise, says Spitz. “He was one of the first American presidents who made an extraordinary effort with Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce nuclear arms in the world. And they did that. They brought about the reduction of arms.”
Reagan also worked successfully with two of the leading Democrats in Congress — Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and Senator Ted Kennedy. “This was a guy who never demeaned people he disagreed with, and who was willing to compromise and often reached across the aisle,” Spitz says.
“He never stopped believing in what he called the American Miracle and the good people responsible for it,” Spitz explains.
But to understand why Reagan still resonates, Spitz steps back. He believes that it was Reagan’s personal style that won the day. “His most endearing aspect was his fundamental decency. He never stopped believing in what he called the American Miracle and the good people responsible for it,” Spitz explains. “This was Ronald Reagan’s America. He was welcoming and inclusive.”
Reagan’s most lasting legacy is how he used his charisma to lift the nation’s spirits at a time when they were beaten down by the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Iran hostage situation. Spitz concludes: “His greatest triumph might have been the restoration of American morale.”
With the book now complete, Spitz is busy with other projects. “Reagan: An American Journey” is being made into an eight-part documentary for television. And, he has chosen his next book, a biography of the English rock band Led Zeppelin. From A (Albright) to Z (Zeppelin), Spitz’s reinvention continues.