REAGAN: The Life, by H.W. Brands. Doubleday, 805 pp., $35.
Ronald Reagan upended his critics and unsettled his idolaters. He also has thwarted a third group: his biographers.
The outline of the 40th president's remarkable story is generally well known. Compiling the details, the dates, the references, and providing a lucid beginning-to-end tale is the easy part. Many authors have done that. Getting to know what made Reagan what he was is a lot harder.
H.W. Brands, a respected historian and University of Texas educator, has written persuasively about presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He's the latest author for whom the inner Reagan has proved elusive.
Brands does chronicle plenty and offers a lumbering, supportive chronology. You learn about the "rootless" childhood and the "indifferent" student. He describes the radio announcer who "spun a good yarn," facts notwithstanding.
He shows you an optimistic young man who revered FDR, and whose family benefitted from the New Deal -- though, later, the candidate would build "a political career bashing what Roosevelt had created."
Here, too, is the aspiring actor who "loved the camera"; a performer comfortable in his roles, on TV with "The General Electric Theater" and "Death Valley Days," and as leader of the Screen Actors Guild. "He discovered he liked the politics of the film industry," Brands writes.
Reagan's position would lead him to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Reagan enjoyed the "openly political stage. . . . And he was good at it. . . . He could feel the room and sense its mood." But, after discussing the committee's work and the blacklist, Brands concludes, "Creative work suffered when fear ruled. But the risk was worth taking, for the good of the country."
By now, you may start thinking that Brands is a bit too sympathetic. That forgiving, friendly point of view shades his writing about Reagan's decision-making and actions before, during and after the White House. And it undermines Brands' valuable spadework, from documents to interviews. The result suggests more Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on JFK than Robert A. Caro on LBJ.
Reagan's story needs insight and perspective, analysis and context. His record as California governor and as the pivotal president in the second half of the 20th century can withstand the scrutiny and the fallout.
Brands is better when focusing on Reagan's skills as the most effective voice for conservatism beginning in the 1960s, specifically his televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. "People could disagree with Reagan, but rarely did they find him disagreeable," Brands notes.
Reagan would easily win the GOP gubernatorial primary and the 1966 general election. He'd be re-elected in 1970. Reagan could speak as an ideologue, but he ran the state as a pragmatic politician. He opposed abortion, for example, but also relaxed abortion laws. "Reagan's pragmatism was a reflection of his ambition," Brands writes.
That would carry over to the presidency. Reagan stressed tax cuts but also agreed to raise taxes; he assailed communism, yet dealt with Soviet leaders; he'd nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court but be content with Anthony Kennedy. "He took what he could get," Brands explains, "never holding practical results hostage to ideological purity."
Reagan understood the role of the president, mastered the media, kept his image intact, resonated with voters and was rewarded by them. The 1980 and 1984 contests were brilliant examples of political strategy, advertising and the devastating one-liner. Candidates still ask voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
Brands' then-this-happened account of Reagan's two presidential terms is highlighted by his discussion of the give-and-take between the president and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader. His narrative comes alive describing their relationship. Brands rightly says Gorbachev was "Moscow's gift" to the president. "Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union was predestined. . . . Yet the timing of the demise depended on someone willing to acknowledge the undeniable."
Similarly, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was a "gift" from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Volcker curbed inflation, leading to economic growth at "just the right time for Reagan." Reagan's overall economic policy and its ongoing impact merit more examination, as do the intricacies of the disastrous Iran-Contra affair.
Brands concludes with the expected: He equates Reagan with FDR, as right-left bookends. He adds that "in certain respects, Reagan's accomplishment was greater." Brands will need a sharper, more searching volume to show that, and to give Reagan his due.