Reagan: A Life

By H. W. Brands

On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Ronald Reagan received a videotaped message from his former vice-president George Bush, telling him that “they’ll get you on Mt. Rushmore yet.”

That was meant as a joke, but since then there has been a serious movement to have Reagan’s face added to the famous cliff side. And it has to be said that his craggy features, captured in stony black and white on the cover of this new biography, do have a sculpted, monumental look.

The legacy of Ronald Reagan continues to be a lively topic of debate, but in this new political biography H. W. Brands tries for a more objective look. Reagan: A Life sticks almost entirely to primary sources, leaving arguments over their meaning and interpretation to others. This is Reagan in his own words.

There is at least one very big problem with this. Brands’s declaration that “the most important source of information on Ronald Reagan is Reagan himself” has to be carefully qualified: “most important” does not always mean “best.” In his memoirs, letters, speeches, and even in his diaries, Reagan cultivated an image. He knew he was writing for posterity and consciously crafting advertisements for himself. He could also be forgetful, make mistakes, and fudge the truth.

Given Brands’s approach, it’s not surprising that his version of Reagan is a very familiar, genial figure.

But that persona was Reagan’s gift. He was a broadcaster, an actor, and a corporate pitchman before entering politics. For Brands, what drove Reagan into politics was the need for attention, an audience, a stage to perform on.

He was, however, also a fierce ideologue, and one of his greatest political achievements was to put a happy, optimistic face on American conservatism. Barry Goldwater scared people, but Ronald Reagan made them feel comfortable with policies equally as extreme (indeed, Goldwater had occasion to challenge Reagan for going too far). Hence his title as the Great Communicator.

But Reagan was already an old man when first elected for president, and as ideologues age they tend to experience a hardening of their ideology. With regard to the entire messy Iran-contra affair in particular Reagan was so sure that what he was doing was right, he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. As George Shultz, his secretary of state, observed, what he believed “was true to him, although it was not reality.”

Today, love him or hate him, Reagan is usually seen as one of the two most consequential American presidents of the twentieth century, a judgment Brands agrees with. But with the perspective of nearly thirty years since his leaving office, does this still hold true?

It seems less so in the area of foreign affairs. Reagan is often trumpeted as the man who won the Cold War, and it’s true that resistance to what he dubbed the evil Soviet empire was one of the keynotes of his administration. But many high-ranking diplomats have since opined that he may have actually prolonged the Cold War rather than hastened its end, and his rhetoric served mainly to create a myth of American triumphalism in the conflict with negative effects still being felt today.

Brands tries hard to play up the importance of Reagan’s summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as a way of justifying the book’s blow-by-blow accounts of their painstaking progress. “Never in world history had the heads of two major powers of an era argued matters more portentous for so many people in so many countries across the planet. Almost literally, Reagan and Gorbachev held the fate of humanity in their hands.” But the fact is these meetings came to nothing even in the short run, and were based on false premises and marked by deceit on both sides.

On the domestic front, Reagan levelled endless rhetoric against big government, but government grew under his watch, as did the nation’s debt. Perhaps his primary achievement was to acquiesce in the interests of the financial elite and big business, thus beginning the long ramp upwards into ever higher levels of economic inequality, the results of which are all around us.

Barack Obama thought Reagan one of the few presidents to have “changed the trajectory” of American politics. Both domestically and abroad, however, he affected the course of events very little.

What he did achieve, however, or at least what he signaled, was a shift in America’s mental make-up. If there was a Reagan revolution it was in how people thought about politics. This marked a dramatic change, for good or ill.

Review first published July 25, 2015. For more on Reagan see my reviews of The Invisible Bridge and The Man Who Sold the World.

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