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What I’m Reading: Reagan: The Life

by John on 05/21/2015

I am in the midst of listening to H.W. Brands’ Reagan: The Life. Here is a good review of the same book from The Economist.

Again, this is one of my rolling reviews. I am now about halfway through as Ronnie is just deciding to challenge Gerry Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976. So his presidency has yet to be analyzed and his later years suffering from Alzheimer’s hasn’t been revealed.

Here are my takes so far.

It’s a great read through American political history but also the private history of Reagan as a young man in the Midwest living with a drunken father and a caring mother.

Brands is a good storyteller. Like The Economist review says, the book’s short chapters move like an “action film.”

I am reading this book to try to understand the real Ronald Reagan that too many politicians in both parties have distorted for their own good. Brands writes more like a sober historian. He criticizes some things Reagan did or hid. For instance, Reagan seemed to be a snitch to the FBI against so-called Communists in Hollywood, acting an unnamed informant for a number of years in the 1950s. Despite shedding a light on all of Ronald Reagan, I get the feeling Brands really enjoyed spending time with the Gipper this way.

So far, I have not found what I would call any new revelations about Reagan. What you saw was what you got with him. He was as old fashioned in real life as he was on the stump. He was no typical Hollywood swordsman with the ladies; just a good guy looking for companionship. He did not have many deep relationships, from what Brands can surmise, due to his upbringing under a father with a severe drinking problem.

Yet, Reagan was an unabashedly good man. He found a job for his Dad in Hollywood answering his fan mail while paying his Dad’s salary himself to make him feel useful.

But Reagan was either massively introverted or totally unaware at times. Some say it was his poor eyesight and his fear of wearing glasses that might deliver a bad image. At a high school graduation, he introduced himself to each member of the graduating class not realizing one of them was his son Michael. Some might blame the on-coming dementia problems or some might say that is a typical Hollywood actor: take your pick. Either way, it’s hard to condemn someone for this.

Best line from the book comparing Reagan to LBJ: “LBJ wanted power; Reagan wanted an audience.”

Reagan was either pragmatic or self-serving. It depends how you interpret his days as an actor, a union leader, and a corporate spokesperson. He was once a Democrat, working as a union boss for actors. But Brands goes deeper into that showing that Reagan, although working for actors as head of the Screen Actors Guild, was clearly on the side of the studio executives especially when it came to labor matters of non-actors. Reagan’s corporate roots proved deeper as he failed to see how the studio executives – probably the biggest Fascists in American history – controlled the lives of way too many people while stifling creativity. Reagan, I surmise, was looking to keep his career going more than anything.

GOP leaders today fail to be the next Reagan for a few reasons.

  • The first is the times were very different. Reagan was not burdened with being told what to do by a billionaire donor like all candidates – Dems and GOP – face or embrace today. Reagan got things done – even with opponents help. He passed welfare reform in California by hammering out details with the Democratic leader. He held true on a balanced budget or small government, but he was not afraid to raise taxes to do it – taking the heat about failing to meet that pledge.
  • The second reason that GOP candidates fail as Reagan is because Reagan was able to act kindly and compassionately to Democratic voters while he lambasted Democratic leaders. That cannot be done today. A candidate has no choice but to attack the opposition’s leadership which are tied into opposing special interests – while not talking directly to what voters want.
  • The third is because lawmakers today have no wiggle room or enough taxpayer money to make the deals Reagan did. Reagan could be partially to blame for this. He busted the budget, forfeiting his small government theme, to take down the Soviet Union. That type of hawkish spending led to the downfall of his predecessor G.H.W. Bush who faced a massive recession and lost to Bill Clinton. It also led Reagan’s budget director David Stockman to chide Reagan for some of the economic woes we have today where GOP presidents seem to be more Keynesian than the Democrats do.

The Obama irony: Reagan and Obama were alike in a number of ways. The biggest was they both didn’t like the backroom, smoke-filled, drinking gatherings where old time lawmakers made deals and the laws. Reagan wanted to go home with Nancy and the kids.

Another irony: Reagan’s views on abortion as Governor of California are in lock-step with the majority of Americans today: allow it in the case of the mother’s health; but let’s have restrictions so we don’t become an infanticide state.

If you’re getting nostalgic for that time – the 1960s through the 1980s – here are some other suggestions: try Robert Caro’s books on LBJ; and, if you haven’t seen the TV series The Americans on FX, go watch the first three seasons that just concluded. It is one of my favorite shows on TV. It depicts two Russian spies who were raised as Americans and who live as Americans in DC in the 1980s.

More coming up on this book too. Give me thoughts too on the rolling book reviews.

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