My father bought into the myth of Ronald Reagan like a dying man holding onto the promise of an after life. He spent his life in the military, and would talk about not having actual rounds to fire under Jimmy Carter because of budget cuts. But Ronald Reagan? He gave us our soul back. This country was reborn after Vietnam, and Watergate, and the Iran hostage crises. Ronald Reagan cut taxes, and ended the Cold War, and reigned in an out of control government. He improved the economy, and ushered in a new era of wealth and privilege that Bill Clinton took credit for.
As with any dogma, there’s truth hidden in the scripture. H.W. Brands doesn’t have a stated goal of separating myth from legend (nor was he trying to fact-check my dad, believe it or not), but he does attempt to cover all the bases while telling a cradle-to-grave of our 40th president.
The end result is generally positive in that there’s a little something, here, for everyone. Brands respects his subject without really falling into one camp or another. He doesn’t fawn over the mystique of Ronald Reagan, but neither does he try to bring the man down and revel in his mistakes. There’s a careful balance given to him, in all his forms.
Often, while reading these biographies, I find myself waiting impatiently for the political part of the man’s life. Having to sit through endless recitations of childhood events, or passionless descriptions of the meet cute that led to lifelong marriage, or even bouts of aimless meandering through life before the inevitable run-in with destiny….it can get pretty boring. There are exceptions, of course. David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman was a page turner, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals was endlessly rewarding with it’s sprawling cast of characters and detailed musings. But I found those to be the exceptions, thus far.
Much to my surprise, this book falls into this latter group. I find this doubly surprising because so little of Reagan’s basic life history was unknown to me. A child of the 80s, I must’ve absorbed his story in the same way I absorbed everything at that age – forced injections directly into my cerebellum.* Whatever the case, I found this part of the book almost as captivating as his presidency. If for no other reason, this makes it one of the more enjoyable presidential biographies I’ve encountered.
Which isn’t to say that I have no qualms with the book. I felt like Brands glossed over Reagan’s coldness and seeming indifference. It’s not that he doesn’t talk about it – he does – but it just seems so notably strange that a public figure as beloved and seemingly familiar to all of us who lived through his administration could be so unapproachable by those who loved him most and knew him best. I mean, Reagan didn’t recognize his oldest son, Michael, when the young man graduated high school (Dutch was the commencement speaker). To be fair, Michael has spoken out about this event and declared it a mischaracterization, but that’s something I would’ve liked to see explored more fully (and it’s just one example).
Another issue I had with the book is how little Brand discussed the AIDS epidemic and Reagan’s response to it. Or lack thereof, because this is actually a somewhat contentious issue. It’s also become part of Reagan’s legacy that he, at best, was indifferent to the disease for most of his presidency, or, at worst, actively avoided alleviating the suffering. If true, this would overshadow Iran-Contra or the deficit and be Reagan’s greatest failure. However, there is another side to this issue. Reagan didn’t “actively avoid” discussing the epidemic. He first mentioned the disease in September, 1985, and declared it one of the highest priorities of his administration. He followed this up by doubling the amount of money allotted for AIDS research every year afterward (after tripling the amount from 1982-83), and promised to have Surgeon General C. Everett Koop prepare a major report on the disease (meaning he may have brought Koop into the AIDS discussion, not the other way around). By the end of his administration, the federal government was spending over a billion a year researching a cure for AIDS.
This is a highly contentious issue. Some have argued that Reagan didn’t do enough – and maybe that’s true. Probably that’s true. But I don’t know that Reagan can be fairly blamed for that. I think it was a national failing. We, as a culture, failed to adequately deal with a disease that silently killed tens of thousands. And if you have first-hand knowledge of those deaths, can you be criticized for thinking Ronald Reagan should’ve done more? No. I don’t think you can.
Ironically, perhaps, Brands didn’t spend enough time on this issue. That’s a shame, because I consider it just as important to his legacy as Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev (which is given great attention).
All in all, however, I think Ronald Reagan is thoroughly explored, here. Both his simplicity and complexity, his charm and his coldness, how he brought the nation together while entrenching the partisan division that defines us, today. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the dominant political figure in the latter half of the 20th century, and he’s given worthy treatment, here.
Though, my father would probably call this a liberal polemic.