Book Review: ‘Reagan: The Life

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

4 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Reagan: The Life

  1. In the current campaign towards nomination of their party, the Republicans seem to be getting more than their share of the limelight. Donald Trump with the help of Sarah Palin is getting considerable air time from the networks like CNN.

    It is quite scary if the neo-conservatives ride into position of influence on foreign policy on the back of a conservative backlash against the neo-liberalism of the Clinton-Obama era.Diplomacy and Trade (Economics)will be replaced by the exercise of military power as first option in the pursuit of American interest.

    So far Hillary Clinton is being challenged by Bernie Sanders for the nomination. We will know next Tuesday when they meet with other hopefuls in a townhouse debate whether she can bounce back. The big question is whether America is ready for the First woman President, although Mrs. Clinton is a very experienced candidate for the job.–Din Merican

  2. Urgh, Ronald Reagan, a second class actor acted his way into the White House acting as a president! He was so into his acting he never got out of it.

  3. “It is quite scary if the neo-conservatives ride into position of influence on foreign policy on the back of a conservative backlash against the neo-liberalism of the Clinton-Obama era.Diplomacy and Trade (Economics)will be replaced by the exercise of military power as first option in the pursuit of American interest. ”

    Is it ?

    I don’t think there’s much difference between the foreign policy agendas of the Republicans and Democrats. Trumps is riding the anti political correctness wave that seems to – like some sort of religious hysteria – griped the GOP.

    While Bernie Saunders is offering something the DNC has no real intention of fulfilling but whose ardent supporters think it the “real” change. Both talk as if they can change the way how things are done in Washington knowing very well that ultimately each in his own way are Establishment candidates.

  4. @dato.din: you may have missed this news piece on Trump from the non neo-con conservatives.
    I don’t believe Trump is a neo-con. He is just a fake to get elected, playing the game of going as right as possible to gain nomination from Republic, and then go as center as possible during Presidential debate. Glad Bloomberg declared his intention.

    Bernie Sanders is the only one speaking his mind. I find him being more of a social liberal than a socialist. To put things into perspective, what is so socialist for having a national health plan? All insurance works only when cost are shared. How can an Obama plan that pulled all of those who cannot get covered by work be sustainable? Just imagine what caused some of those who cannot get healthcare through work in the long term? When they are pooled together into one healthcare plan, how can such a healthcare plan be sustainable? Only in the land of ‘honcho’ Malboro 😛

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