Reagan: The Life

Five stars

In another thrilling political biography, I turn my head to a man who is said to have shaped 20th century America for both his politics and ideological stances through the waning years of the Cold War. Ronald Wilson Reagan was a man of many experiences, from a poor childhood through to the honeymoon years after leaving office, as effectively illustrated by H.W. Brands. Reagan wore his ideological tilt on his sleeve, next to his heart, which moved from one end of the spectrum to the other. Brands depiction of Reagan in three distinct periods, from daunting Democrat to rigid Republican through to charismatic conservative, exemplifies the progression the man made throughout his life. With no firmly rooted politics in his familial background, it is a wonder that Reagan became synonymous with the neo-conservative movement of the late 20th century and could be called one of America’s great political figures. Brands does a masterful job in detailing the life and times of Reagan, leaving little to wonder for the reader keen on learning about this political giant.

That Reagan first identified himself as a Democrat should be no surprise to the reader. Raised in a lower income family in Illinois, Reagan was forced to help bring bread to the table and handle the plight of an alcoholic father on whom few could rely. Brands does not belabour this point, but moves Reagan through his formative years by discussing the hardships that Reagan met, but which did not impede his personal successes. While he had high ambitions, Reagan settled into a smaller religious college and tried to carve out a niche on the football field, as horrid as he came to be. It was during these years that Reagan became a strong believer in Roosevelt’s New Deal and praised its ability to help Americans. Pushing for a hands-on approach, Reagan stumped for Roosevelt’s plan and saw benefit in ensuring the state could assist those who could not stay afloat on their own. After college and ready to contribute to the world, Reagan was soon pulled into the world of radio, taking jobs reporting sporting events and relying on his dramatic abilities to spin tales to those who tuned in. He was a man of the people and remained so, even after making his mark in Hollywood, where he became a household name. Though he seemed successful, as Brands shows through detailed narration, he was no Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne, though was able to use his abilities to pad his pockets effectively. With the move towards better representation and the creation of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Reagan rose and soon became its president, making that his busiest role while living in Hollywood. Even when Congress opened its examination of Hollywood as a bastion for Communists, Reagan stood his ground during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and did not let the SAG entity be dragged through the mud. However, with this intense analysis of Hollywood as a home for Communist sentiment, Reagan began to look for work outside of the big screen, becoming a key spokesman for General Electric. He spoke about the merits of the company to its employees at all the plants, perfecting a message that kept management happy and the employees in touch with the bosses. It is here that Brands shows the turning of Reagan’s views, if slightly, away from the hands-on Democrat approach towards a more socially conscious and conservative set of values, perfect for the softer wing of the Republican Party, which he joined in 1962, and became a political icon in 1964. With many years as a well-known and daunting Democrat, this turn opened eyes and minds to the persuasive nature of Reagan’s message.

The rigidity of his Republican ways took a great deal of time, but Brands plants the seed in Reagan’s life around 1964 and lets it germinate. While on his General Electric speaking circuit, Reagan spoke out in favour of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater on the Arizona senator’s fated 1964 presidential campaign. This sparked notice of Reagan by the political right, even if he cozied to its softer wing. Reagan gained political momentum and chose to run for Governor of California in 1966, unseating Pat Brown on a platform of reform and fiscal tightening. Reagan headed into office and sought to balance that which was crooked in California, with Vietnam heating up and the ‘flower child’ movement in full-swing. Brands highlights Reagan’s push to quash protests and subvert university students, representing the parental era and speaking out for a generation. His firm beliefs in Roosevelt’s New Deal were curtailed for tighter sentiments on spending and the need to close the pursestrings to those seeking handouts. When Nixon won the presidency, a fellow Californian, Reagan sought to push his control of the most populist state to his favour, seeking a firm stance on both coasts. Alas, Nixon spoke like a conservative, but acted weakly, leaving Reagan to harden his own views. It was after Reagan served two gubernatorial terms that he sought to inject himself into the national stage again, not from Sacramento, but as a candidate for president. He felt Nixon bumbled his way through Republican control of the White House and insisted that Ford proved inept to handle the pressures of the job. Brands illustrates a wonderful battle during the 1976 primary season, which saw a sitting president seriously challenged for the Party’s nomination. Had Reagan played his cards right, he might have toppled Ford. Even in his loss, Reagan illustrated that he was no longer the SAG President who held soft views on the arts and promoted the Welfare State. America was seeing a transformation of this man, preparing for another run at the top job. While never timid, Reagan’s rigidity within the Republican Party might serve him well as he looked towards 1980, with a micromanager running the show at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reagan’s neo-conservative leanings did not arise upon his receiving the keys to the White House, as Brands exemplifies throughout the book. While the man who entered the presidency differed greatly from his 1964 self, Reagan used his time as Governor of California and the years he sought to win the Republican nomination to harden his shell. His views seemed unerring, though, as he waded through the liberal and somewhat opaque fiscal quagmire left for him, with deficits exponentially higher than anything he’d seen in Sacramento. Reagan attacked this, as he had on the campaign trail, by pushing through cuts in taxes and promised slashes to program funding in the early years of his first mandate, though Brands correctly points out that these reductions were not implemented simply because he sought them, some requiring committee and sub-committee votes. However, he sought to take the burden off the hands of Americans and let them spend their money in a more free-spirited manner. These struggles with a Democratic Congress did not prove daunting for Reagan, who held firm and pushed as far as possible, negotiating only to ensure his key tenets were met. Reagan’s other strong-willed agenda item, which could be placed in a conservative column was the eradication of worldwide communism and a means of containing the Soviet influence on the world. Brands illustrates numerous attempts by Reagan to contain the Soviet approach, both through direct communication with Moscow and funding or directing support for groups to counter socialist movements in the Americas and Africa. This unwavering stance permeates the narrative from 1981 onwards, as Reagan worked through numerous Soviet leaders and a score of countries with socialist movements brewing or running sovereign governments. That Reagan would not back down cannot be downplayed or even ignored, for it did place America in hot water and Reagan on the verge of being impeached in the latter part of his second mandate. Reagan would not, however, bow to communism as his predecessors had, or adopt a strong sense of detente. It was a ‘wage the ideological war or bust’ mentality that summed up his two terms in office. Reagan did just that, culminating with numerous meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, where he softened the General Secretary up enough to bring about meaningful and lasting change to the Cold War and ideological stand-off between the two spheres. Looking liberals in the eye and refusing to budge, Reagan sought to bring America out of the doldrums of spending and tighten the purse strings as a charismatic conservative, asking Americans if they wanted prosperity or pork. Most chose to forego a trip to the trough.

Brands’ fluid narrative and short chapters make the biography flow more effectively than some other political or presidential pieces I have read beforehand. By chopping events up into smaller pieces, rather than massive themes, the story is less daunting and allows the reader to digest things in a manner that better suits them. These were formative years in America and there is no need to slam it all into massive chapters, which keeps the reader drowning without the chance for a substantive break. Brands also utilises an effective use of multiple sources to illustrate a point or an event, offering opinions that may differ from Reagan’s own, rather than spoon-feeding the reader the views by the Gipper alone. This fleshes out events and permits an internal debate within the reader’s mind, permitting an evolution of ideas and opinions, while still leaving the final choice in the hands of the reader. Effective use of sources, views, and opinions only further substantiates the strength of the piece.

Brands also highlights some of the key events in Reagan’s life, while providing important backstories to help flesh-out the full picture. From the testimony at the HUAC to the assassination attempt and the Iran-Contra Affair, Reagan’s role therein is undeniable, though the build-up is also essential in determining the true thread of the story. Brands does that and keeps the reader feeling informed during the progression. Actors come to life and their roles are interwoven into Reagan’s life seamlessly as Brands progresses through even the densest of times.

Kudos Mr. Brands for this stellar piece of work. I have new-found respect for the man, his politics, and the life he shaped without ever selling out to those around him.