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‘Reagan: The Life’ Review: Not Always What He Seemed To Be

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‘Reagan: The Life’ Review: Not Always What He Seemed To Be

History, Books, Ronald Reagan, President, Biography, H.W. Brands, Review

By Peter M. Gianotti, Newsday (TNS)

“Reagan: The Life” by H.W. Brands; Doubleday (805 pages, $35)
Ronald Reagan upended his critics and unsettled his idolaters. He also has thwarted a third group: his biographers.

The outline of the 40th president’s remarkable story is generally well known. Compiling the details, the dates, the references, and providing a lucid beginning-to-end tale is the easy part. Many authors have done that. Getting to know what made Reagan what he was is a lot harder.

H.W. Brands, a respected historian and University of Texas educator, has written persuasively about presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He’s the latest author for whom the inner Reagan has proved elusive.

Brands does chronicle plenty and offers a lumbering, supportive chronology. You learn about the “rootless” childhood and the “indifferent” student. He describes the radio announcer who “spun a good yarn,” facts notwithstanding.

He shows you an optimistic young man who revered FDR, and whose family benefitted from the New Deal — though, later, the candidate would build “a political career bashing what Roosevelt had created.”

Here, too, is the aspiring actor who “loved the camera”; a performer comfortable in his roles, on TV with The General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days, and as leader of the Screen Actors Guild. “He discovered he liked the politics of the film industry,” Brands writes.

Reagan’s position would lead him to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Reagan enjoyed the “openly political stage….And he was good at it….He could feel the room and sense its mood.” But, after discussing the committee’s work and the blacklist, Brands concludes, “Creative work suffered when fear ruled. But the risk was worth taking, for the good of the country.

By now, you may start thinking that Brands is a bit too sympathetic. That forgiving, friendly point of view shades his writing about Reagan’s decision-making and actions before, during, and after the White House. And it undermines Brands’ valuable spadework, from documents to interviews. The result suggests more Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on JFK than Robert A. Caro on LBJ.

Reagan’s story needs insight and perspective, analysis and context. His record as California governor and as the pivotal president in the second half of the 20th century can withstand the scrutiny and the fallout.

Brands is better when focusing on Reagan’s skills as the most effective voice for conservatism beginning in the 1960s, specifically his televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. “People could disagree with Reagan, but rarely did they find him disagreeable,” Brands notes.

Reagan would easily win the GOP gubernatorial primary and the 1966 general election. He’d be re-elected in 1970. Reagan could speak as an ideologue, but he ran the state as a pragmatic politician. He opposed abortion, for example, but also relaxed abortion laws. “Reagan’s pragmatism was a reflection of his ambition,” Brands writes.

That would carry over to the presidency. Reagan stressed tax cuts but also agreed to raise taxes; he assailed communism, yet dealt with Soviet leaders; he’d nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court but be content with Anthony Kennedy. “He took what he could get,” Brands explains, “never holding practical results hostage to ideological purity.”

Reagan understood the role of the president, mastered the media, kept his image intact, resonated with voters, and was rewarded by them. The 1980 and 1984 contests were brilliant examples of political strategy, advertising, and the devastating one-liner. Candidates still ask voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Brands’ then-this-happened account of Reagan’s two presidential terms is highlighted by his discussion of the give-and-take between the president and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader. His narrative comes alive describing their relationship. Brands rightly says Gorbachev was “Moscow’s gift” to the president. “Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union was predestined….Yet the timing of the demise depended on someone willing to acknowledge the undeniable.”

Similarly, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was a “gift” from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Volcker curbed inflation, leading to economic growth at “just the right time for Reagan.” Reagan’s overall economic policy and its ongoing impact merit more examination, as do the intricacies of the disastrous Iran-Contra affair.

Brands concludes with the expected: He equates Reagan with FDR, as right-left bookends. He adds that “in certain respects, Reagan’s accomplishment was greater.” Brands will need a sharper, more searching volume to show that, and to give Reagan his due.

Photo: The Official CTBTO Photo Archive via Flickr



  1. Theodora30 May 14, 2015

    Reagan sold us bogus supply side economics, magical free markets and self-financing tax cuts. He increased our national debt by nearly 200% with his voodoo yet he is still praised by Republicans and the MSM for his economic policies. This kind of “history” is an example of why we keep buying his snake oil despite its disastrous results.

    1. Independent1 May 14, 2015

      You sure got that right with ‘why we keep buying his snake oil despite its disastrous results”. Results that in my mind make Reagan the worst president America has ever had the misfortune to have sit in the oval office.

      Reagan was without question the most devious, underhanded person who ever sat in the White House. He was so devious, that even though he hated unions, he hoodwinked the board members that headed up the Screen Actors Guild when he was an actor into electing him president of the Guild – until they canned him when they found out he hated unions.

      And he pulled that union hate stuff on the leaders of the Air Traffic Controllers Union – he conned them into thinking that he would negotiate with them until it became clear he was lying to them which pushed them into a strike which allowed him to fire every single Air Traffic Controller who belonged to the union – with Reagan thinking nothing of the danger that doing so put the flying public into. ATC supervisors had to work long overtime hours for months trying to train replacements – Reagan is extremely fortunate that in that time there weren’t any major air crashes. And as if firing all the controllers wasn’t bad enough – Reagan appointed two union haters to the NLRB which wasn’t helpful to the long-term future of unions in America.

  2. Lynda Groom May 14, 2015

    ‘Not always what he seemed to be.’ He was what ever the situation required and the audience he was speaking to. That might be the reason he started his presidential campaign where he did. Maybe why he honored Nazi’s at their cemetery???? Lets not forget that he got his economic reasoning from a cocktail napkin, and the country’s been paying for that one for the decades since.

    1. waggaze May 15, 2015

      And let’s not forget the failed Star Wars initiative along with the Iran/Contra Affair that he should have been imprisoned for. Flooding this country with drugs to fund his personal war in the ME. His memory failed him as his memory should disappear from America. How can Americans honor a snitch during the McCarthy era? McCarthy was proved to be a nut job but he did destroy many lives and careers with the assistance of Ronbo.

      1. Lynda Groom May 15, 2015

        And the list goes on and on does it not? Those of us who lived through his 8 years as governor of California were witness to his act long before he got to the White House. What he did to the mental health institutions and to those who required assistance was terrible and a hint at what was to come when he hit the national stage.

  3. Independent1 May 14, 2015

    “Reagan’s accomplishment was greater than FDR”; was the author on drugs at the time he wrote that?? I defy anyone to identify any significant accomplishments Reagan ever made other than what has turned out to be destroying the very fabric of the American way of life. If by accomplishment the author means destructive wise, I might buy that. Reagan did absolute nothing positive for America!!

    And when supposed presidential authors espouse on Reagan’s supposed financial success, are any of them even realizing that Reagan was president at a time when America’s economy should have skyrocketed on its own – at the dawn of the personal computer age??? If Reagan did anything, his delay in doing anything go fix a recession that was growing when he took office until the unemployment rate hit 10.8% and the prime rate and mortgage rates were over 16%, tempered what should have been an explosion for at least 2-3 years until the beginning of his 2nd term. The American economy did well overall during Reagans presidency, Despite his ineptitude, not because of anything he did to spur it on!!!

  4. The lucky one May 15, 2015

    The really sad thing is that Reagan would be rejected by today’s GOP for being too “pragmatic” and as bad as he was he was also not mean spirited enough for the likes of Ryan, Boehner, Walker etc. etc. Oh yah, and Joe McCarthy’s look alike bastard grandson Ted Cruz.

  5. waggaze May 15, 2015

    Reagan was not a good actor in the movies but a good actor in politics. The key word being actor since he never did accomplish anything for this country. He tried to take credit for the fall of the USSR while they fell apart from spending too much making guns and not enough butter. We are heading down that same road too. Reagan was a phony and a criminal for his Iran/Contra Affair he should have been impeached and imprisoned over.

  6. charleo1 May 15, 2015

    Reagan, the phony baloney, pitchman. That ended Roosevelt’s Middle Class, bankrupted the Federal Govt. and opened the door for the loony bin half wits.
    My hero-My A$$!

  7. midway54 May 15, 2015

    This doofus is the author of the problems confronting the Country today. He began the war against the middle class and its unions and the war against the venerable social safety net legislation that benefits so many. Today;s Plutocratic Party in the majority of both chambers of Congress are hard at work to carry on the plutocracy’s Operation Phornicate in its effort to sell us all with the deception that our citizens should fend for themselves by getting government and its safety net programs out of the way and become true patriots who don’t need no stinkin’ big gummint socialism.

  8. hjs3 May 17, 2015

    St. Ronnie was a plain and simple fraud, maleable to the powers that be at the time while carrying the water for what would soon to be the far right..Toward the end, I don’t think he had a clue either. He was a bumbler following a stumbler and now de-classifeid documents by the Brits bear that out too… If you would like a clear and concisve read of Reagan’s second term do pick-up a copy of “Landslide.” It’s celar, direct to the point and spares little objectivity in the goverance ability of a then seated U.S. President….. Quite scary in fact…


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