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Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, by Frances Fitzgerald (Simon & Schuster). Hardcover, $30.

RONALD REAGAN MAY not have been much of a president, the noted journalist and historian Frances Fitzgerald suggests, but he was certainly a fine rhetorician, capable of impressing his vision on a willing audience. "What other President, after all," she writes, "could persuade the country of something that did not, and could not for the foreseeable future, exist?"

That something was the idea that an impenetrable shield of missile-killing satellites could be installed in the skies above the United States, providing a safety net against incursions from the forces of international Communism. The idea was, Fitzgerald writes, "unworldly," the science that would permit its realization only a distant dream. But Reagan's vaunted "Star Wars" program--which seems to have come to him from the script of a 1940 movie called Murder in the Air in which Reagan had played an American secret agent charged with protecting a newly invented super-weapon, the "Inertia Projector,"--was real enough. He mandated billions of dollars in research funds for its development, all the while preaching a "salvation doctrine" borrowed from Protestantism and pressed into the service of the American civil religion of manifest destiny and moral superiority.

Fitzgerald's scathing, carefully documented account of Ronald Reagan's political career and his costly pet project will make her no friends among those who are now claiming him to be one of the great presidents.

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