January 24, 2015
NY Times Sunday Book Review
‘Reagan: The Life, by H. W. Brands
For a man who lived most of his life on camera, Ronald Reagan eludes focus. There was, and remains, a gauziness to the picture; Reagan retained, throughout his political career, the remoteness of a screen idol, though he never achieved that status as a movie actor. He was ubiquitous for decades and, as president, left a lasting imprint on America’s political culture. Yet he was all the same an unknowable man — even to those nearest him. In White House meetings, he was mostly silent, often leaving his aides to guess at (and feud over) his views. In his personal relationships, he was unfailingly warm but rarely intimate. “He doesn’t let anybody get too close,” one observer said. “There’s a wall around him.” That the observer was his wife, Nancy, should give pause to any politician or pundit who claims to know what Reagan would do if he were here today. (It should, but it won’t.)
It should also serve as a warning to any biographer. A two-volume treatment by Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan as a reporter for more than three decades, arguably got close to the real Reagan. But that was a rare achievement. The example of Edmund Morris provides a cautionary tale: In the mid-1980s, having won the Pulitzer Prize, he signed on to write an authorized biography of Reagan and was given extraordinary access to the man and his papers. Yet Morris found his subject so confounding that — in a spectacularly misguided attempt to understand and explain Reagan — he rendered himself a fictional character, worked his way into Reagan’s life story and called the resulting book, “Dutch,” “an advance in biographical honesty.” Once described as “America’s Boswell,” Morris ended up as Reagan’s Ahab — driven mad by his mission to “strike through the mask,” as Melville’s accursed captain put it.
Few authors since have dared reckon with Reagan’s life in full. And where biographers fear to tread, monographers run wild and free, publishing shorter takes on narrower topics. The Reagan canon contains books on his spirituality, his character and his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons; books on his successful run for governor of California in 1966, his failed campaign for the Republican nomination in 1976 and his election as President in 1980; and books on his love letters to Nancy and his relationships with Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Taken together, these books constitute a blind-men-and-the-elephant approach to reconstructing Reagan. Even if one were to read them all, Reagan’s own question — a line from one of his films, “King’s Row” — would remain: “Where’s the rest of me?”
The answer might seem likely to be found somewhere in “Reagan: The Life,” the first substantial biography of the 40th President in the decade and a half since “Dutch.” Undaunted by Morris’s misadventure, the historian H. W. Brands does not break a sweat in his brisk, if extended, stroll through Reagan’s long life. Brands is at ease in the company of a colossus; in “Reagan,” as in his popular biographies of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and other great men, he breezes through and around complexities without pause or digression.
His portrait of Reagan is fair-minded if fond; “Reagan” is free of the partisan ax-grinding and mostly free of the mythmaking that characterizes much of the Reagan bookshelf. Brands makes clear that Reagan was, in many ways, a paradox: an “ideologist” who was open to compromise, even on taxes and federal spending; a reflexive optimist with a wide streak of “negativity”; a staunch anti-Communist whose policies toward the “evil empire” were, as Brands notes, mostly cautious, “pragmatic” and “nonjudgmental.”
Like his subject, Brands appears happiest when he’s telling a story, and Reagan, of course, provides many excellent ones — from his good humor in the emergency room after being shot by John Hinckley in 1981 to his two-day-long negotiation with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, the prelude to a historic arms reduction agreement the following year. Few of these stories, though, are unfamiliar. “Reagan” is a greatest hits collection that is light on new material. Considered against other biographies in its weight class — those mega-books to which the word “definitive” adheres as if by laws of physics — Brands’s account is peculiarly unambitious, overfull of pat and timeworn observations.
On Reagan’s enduring appeal, he writes that “Reagan loved the camera, and the camera loved him. The affair would last a lifetime.” On the political power of Reagan’s jokes and anecdotes, he notes that “democratic elections are, at their most basic level, popularity contests, and Reagan knew how to be popular.” It is counterintuitive to call an 800-page book superficial, but length does not equal depth.
Brands, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin, shows a surprising indifference to the literature on his subject. Aside from marquee memoirs by Michael Deaver, Donald Regan, George Shultz and other members of the Reagan staff and cabinet, Brands draws on very few books at all, and apparently even fewer primary documents — typically the biographer’s manna. This despite the government’s rolling declassification of millions of pages of memos, notes and correspondence from the Reagan years. The chapter on Reagan’s February 1981 address to Congress, in which he set out his economic agenda, cites only a single source: the text of the speech. An account of Reagan’s six-day visit to China in 1984 relies almost exclusively on Reagan’s own diary.
“The most important source of information on Ronald Reagan,” Brands observes in a note on sources, “is Reagan himself.” It’s true that Reagan, the former actor, did an impressive amount of his own scripting as a politician, writing not only speeches and letters but also policy essays and radio addresses. Reagan’s diaries can be refreshingly frank. Brands quotes a June 14, 1982, entry in which Reagan admits to sharing his advisers’ irritation with Al Haig, his contentious secretary of state: “It’s amazing how sound he can be on complex international matters,” Reagan writes, “but how utterly paranoid with regard to the people he must work with.”
Often, though, Brands simply steps back and allows Reagan — who frequently conflated fact and fiction, and had trouble distinguishing movie plots from reality — to function as his own narrator. At times, Brands casts doubt on Reagan’s version of events, but usually he lets Reagan speak for himself, unchecked and unchallenged.
“Reagan” is, in the end, a missed opportunity — a disappointingly thin and strangely inert portrait of a president who, given his hold on the conservative imagination, still needs to be better understood. His admirers have worked so assiduously for so long to promote a particular notion of Reagan — the tax-cutting, government-loathing Reagan, the line-in-the-sand Reagan who was unafraid to rattle a saber or call an empire “evil” — that over time it has become harder, not easier, to apprehend the essential Reagan, contradictions and all. The appropriation of Reagan’s image by those who reject and deny his political pragmatism requires in response a sharper, clearer, fuller portrait than Brands provides. The rest of Reagan might never be knowable, but the search is important, and ought to go on
Jeff Shesol is the author, most recently, of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”
A version of this review appears in print on June 7, 2015, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Unknowable Man. Today’s Paper