Rawhide Revealed: New Books About Reagan

New books, two by his sons, shed more light on Ronald Reagan as father and leader

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Michael Evans / Zuma Press

The then governor with his closest confidant, Nancy, on the campaign trail in 1980.

Twenty years ago, Journalist Lou Cannon published an 800-page book, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, which would become the quintessential political biography of the 40th President. (Barack Obama pored over it during his Christmas vacation.) Anchored by hundreds of interviews, the book helped reshape the public's understanding of Ronald Reagan, a leader guided by a bedrock set of principles who managed to compromise with adversaries, including the Soviet Union; a fundamentally optimistic man who also harbored a fear of Armageddon. Above all, Reagan came across as someone of unshakable self-belief. "Whatever Reagan lacked in analytical skills," Cannon wrote then, "he more than made up for with common sense and the power of his personality."

In the decades since, politicians and historians have struggled to limn the secrets of the Reagan persona, without much success. For all his wit and spark, Reagan was a remote figure. He had few confidants other than his wife Nancy; even she admitted that "there's a wall around him." His relationships with his four children could be distant to the point of estrangement. After her final meeting with her boss in the Oval Office, speechwriter Peggy Noonan concluded, "I would never know him."

So who was Reagan? How did such a guarded and self-possessed man become the most beloved American politician of the past quarter-century? What explained his faith that the Cold War would end? Was he simply playing a role, or did he know something the rest of us did not?

The centennial of his birth on Feb. 6 provides an occasion to grapple with Reagan's enigma and his hold on the American imagination. Both of his sons, Michael and Ron, have written admiring new books about their late father, though they diverge in tone and emphasis. Michael Reagan, adopted at birth by Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman, has in the past criticized his father's absentee parenting. But The New Reagan Revolution is an exercise in filial hagiography wrapped in a partisan handbook for defeating Obama in 2012. Ronald Reagan was "one of the greatest men the world has ever known," his son writes; he believed in "meeting every challenge squarely and unflinchingly" and was "something rare in this world — an honest man in politics." Those seeking a glimpse into Reagan's inner life will be disappointed. "The Ronald Reagan you saw on TV," Michael reports, "was the same Ronald Reagan we saw around the house."

A more nuanced and satisfying portrait is provided by Ron Reagan in My Father at 100. Journeying to the Illinois prairie towns where his father grew up, the younger Reagan deftly assembles the fragments that helped form the character of the future President: his father Jack's drinking problem and long absences from home; the dozens of rescues he made as a teenage lifeguard on the Rock River; his "obsession" with making the college football team even as he excelled as an actor and student organizer. The formative experiences of Reagan's youth instilled in him a sense that he was "an agent of destiny ... certain his worth will be recognized."

My Father at 100 is most poignant in its description of the author's search for his father's approval, forever just out of reach. "Like all my siblings, I loved my father deeply, at times longingly. He was easy to love but hard to know." Ron Reagan sees his father as essentially lonely and driven to be regarded as a hero. By the time he reached the White House, Reagan had found "more fame than even his imaginative young mind could have dared to conjure," though his public mission hadn't yet come into view.

But then it did. Barely two months into his presidency, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. As detailed in Rawhide Down, Del Quentin Wilber's meticulous re-creation of the assassination attempt (out next month), Reagan was literally an inch from death — that's how close to his heart the flattened .22-caliber bullet stopped. After the President emerged from chest surgery, a reporter asked a doctor if Reagan's survival was medically "extraordinary." "Maybe not medically extraordinary," the doctor replied, "but just short of that, O.K.?"

What was extraordinary was Reagan himself: his almost otherworldly grace under pressure, cracking jokes and extending courtesies while struggling to stay alive. ("I don't mean to trouble you, but I am still having a hard time breathing," the President told a doctor as he was wheeled into the trauma bay.) Reagan survived, of course, and in so doing attained the heroic status he had long craved. He told aides he believed he had been spared for a purpose. In time, he concluded it was "to reduce the threat of nuclear war."

By the end of Reagan's presidency, the arms race was over; nine months after that, the Berlin Wall fell. We may never truly know what made Reagan believe the world could change for the better. What matters is that it did.

Ratnesar is the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President and the Speech That Ended the Cold War

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 14, 2011 issue of TIME.