No politician in recent memory has been as inscrutable as President Ronald Reagan. He was an actor by training, had years of experience as a corporate pitchman, would often say one thing and quietly do the opposite, and with few exceptions rarely developed new close friendships.
With a tome clocking in at nearly 800 pages, historian H.W. Brands has attempted to crack that carefully rehearsed facade and understand the man who, regardless of one’s leanings, dramatically shifted the course of the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century.
Brands is an immensely talented writer—with few exceptions, his new book, Reagan: The Life, zips along nicely despite its length. In parts, Brands is even funny, which makes sense, given his subject. But the book suffers from its lack of new and profound information about Reagan, as well as from the largely kid-glove treatment Brands gives Reagan throughout. The meat of the book—U.S.-Soviet negotiations, Iran-Contra, Nancy, and staff squabbles—has already been covered.
The Reagan that emerges is one we already know: optimistic and hopeful to a degree that is just shy of cliché, as well as tough when it came to a pitched battle, such as the air traffic controller strike.
But Brands uncovers little of use to readers about Reagan’s childhood and relies heavily on the president’s own recollections. His two terms as governor of California are given short shrift, and very little of the book is dedicated to Reagan’s presidency in terms of domestic politics beyond a timeline of greatest hits—although Brands does thankfully punch holes in the popular Beltway narrative of Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting along.
Much of the biography is focused on Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviets, and it is here that Brands falls into the biographer’s trap of the Great Man theory, often ignoring or speeding past other factors that also accounted for the demise of the Soviet Union, such as plummeting oil prices.
One also feels a bit let down by Brands’s attempt to chart Reagan’s evolution from New Deal Democrat to leader of the right wing of the Republican Party. In the book, it comes across as a sort of selfishness—his family was helped by the New Deal whereas later Reagan and his high-earning actors in the Guild were hurt by other labor unions and accusations of Communist-sympathies.
While Brands makes frequent comparisons between Reagan and FDR, the more interesting one for the modern reader might be to the current president, Barack Obama.
Obama himself has made the connection. “I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different,” explained then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
There have been plenty of similarities between the presidencies—first-term recessions, battles with Israel over what an ally does and does not act like, reelection campaign debate troubles, and a hostile Congress. If Obama sees himself in line with that sort of Reaganesque presidency, Brands’s book offers up a few lessons.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a theatrical nature to the presidency that [Obama] resists,” longtime Obama advisor David Axelrod said last year in the press. “Sometimes he can be negligent in the symbolism.”
Certainly no president since FDR has better understood the theatrical nature of the presidency and the importance of symbolism. Time after time, the Reagan in Brands’s book would turn to a speech to shift the conversation, and was often successful. “Reagan was called the ‘great communicator’ with reason,” writes Brands. “He was the most persuasive political speaker since Roosevelt, combining conviction, focus, and humor in a manner none of his contemporaries could approach.”
One irony of this administration is that LBJ has become an example thrown at President Obama throughout his presidency. The theory that Obama needs to be more like LBJ has apparently taken root so pervasively—and galled the president sufficiently—that historian Robert Caro has claimed that Obama was cold to him as a result. It’s hard to go a week without D.C.’s hand-wringers claiming Obama could learn from LBJ’s masterful wheeling, dealing, and bullying when it came to Congress. But perhaps it should be Reagan he looks to for guidance. The opposition Reagan faced in Congress bears far more resemblance to that of Obama’s presidency than to LBJ’s.
By all accounts, Obama is not the biggest fan of schmoozing. Neither, as Brands describes it, was Reagan, who spent as many nights as he could watching TV with Nancy. In California, for instance, politicians complained because Reagan didn’t quite get that they wanted to drink and smoke in his office, not hang out with Nancy.
However, the book is full of examples of Reagan working the phones. When he was trying to pass a second-term tax reform, for instance, “Reagan resorted to retail politicking. He went up to Capitol Hill.” Interestingly, while Obama is criticized for appealing to reason in his speeches, what was successful for Reagan was that his “style of persuasion was gentle, almost passive. With legislators in particular, he appealed to reason.” According to his former chief of staff Don Regan, Reagan “never bullied, never threatened, never cajoled.”
The Reagan in the book is one of backbone that the left-wing of the Democratic Party today could only dream of. Reagan’s refusal to back down from the Bitburg ceremony where an SS officer was buried (Reagan wrote in his diary “I’m not going to cancel anything no matter how much the bastards scream.”), the aforementioned air traffic controller strike, or his decision to stand by Robert Bork—all these examples stand in sharp contrast to the actions of a current president who seems less willing to stomach a political dogfight. Remember Shirley Sherrod?
Then there is perhaps the most interesting part of Reagan’s skills, and the one that often makes trouble for Republicans today who lay claim to his legacy: He was stunningly adept at saying one thing, often with strident and bellicose language, and then doing another. He would rail against taxes and bigger government, then turn around and increase them and expand government. He could lambaste the Soviet Union as the evil empire, but negotiate in good faith with its leaders to reduce arms.
However enjoyable Brands’s book is, and it is a pleasurable read, its often mile-high vantage point leaves a lot to be desired. The more difficult story of the inner Ronald Reagan and his career still remains to be told.