'Reagan' by H.W. Brands notes Reagan's failings, yet insists on his greatness

A new biography posits Reagan as one of the two most important figures in 20th-century American politics.

Reagan: The Life By H. W. Brands Knopf Doubleday 816 pp.

H.W. Brands titled his biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt "Traitor to His Class.” He could have used it again for his latest biography, Reagan: The Life.

Ronald Reagan, after all, grew up poor in rural Illinois, the son of an alcoholic father and, as Brands describes her, a mother “trapped … in a dismal marriage to a man who lacked competence and ambition.” He also grew up a Democrat. The future president admired FDR and the New Deal. Then, in one of many improbabilities, Reagan escaped the Midwest, became a B-movie actor, led a union, and then morphed into the nation’s most influential conservative politician.

Brands and many other historians believe FDR and Reagan to be the two most important figures in 20th-century American politics. Few, though, have written lengthy biographies on both presidents, as Brands has done with the publication of “Reagan.”

The greatness of Reagan remains debatable, though not to Brands. He writes, “In certain respects, Reagan’s accomplishment was greater than Roosevelt’s.… Reagan, by contrast, had to struggle with a Democratic House during his entire presidency and with a Democratic Senate during his last two years. Nothing in international affairs gave him anything like the carte blanche in foreign policy enjoyed by Roosevelt.”

That much is true, but whether the agenda Reagan carried out in defiance of those odds should be categorized as political greatness remains very much a matter of perspective and political persuasion. Reagan “fared quite well” in comparison with Franklin Roosevelt, Brands states. Yet Brands’s conclusion follows hundreds of pages demonstrating the failure, again and again, of Reagan’s economic policies (skyrocketing deficits fueled by Reaganomics forced George H.W. Bush to raise taxes and, in turn, killed his re-election bid) as well as the shame of the arms-for-hostages Iran-contra scandal carried out on his watch. Elsewhere, Brands, following in the footsteps of earlier biographers and other contemporary accounts, charges the Reagan administration with indifference to the AIDS epidemic, the homeless, and others in need throughout the two-term president’s tenure in the 1980s.

Still, if Brands’s conclusions merit debate, the quality of this biography does not. It is fair and balanced – no link to Roger Ailes and Fox News intended – and, most of all, thorough.

The major moments of the Reagan years are well rendered, from the horror of John Hinckley Jr. nearly killing Reagan in an assassination attempt in 1981 to First Lady Nancy Reagan emerging so distraught she turned to an astrologer for presidential guidance until Reagan left the White House in 1989. CIA Director William Casey; National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane; McFarlane’s deputy and eventual successor, John Poindexter; and Lt. Col. Oliver North, architects of the plan to sell arms to Iran to free hostages and fund the contras in Nicaragua, look as out of control through the lens of history as they did when their actions first surfaced in 1986.

Here, too, is the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 241 US Marines, for which Brands blames Reagan, charging that he ignored some within his administration and deployed American service members for an undefined mission in the middle of the Lebanese civil war. And, most intriguing, Brands devotes significant time to the topsy-turvy negotiations between Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that led to unprecedented nuclear-arms reductions between the Cold War rivals.

Only the most ardent admirers and foes of Reagan are likely to remember some of the details shared by Brands, such as Reagan’s description of the Vietnam War as a “noble cause” and his endorsement of teaching creationism in schools. In 1968, as part of a speech at the National Newspaper Association’s annual meeting, Reagan, then the governor of California and considering a presidential run, said, “Civilization simply cannot afford demagogues in this era of rising expectations. It cannot afford prophets who shout that the road to the promised land lies over the shards of burned and looted cities. It cannot afford politicians who demand that Social Security be tripled without coming up with any plans as to how this impossibility could be accomplished; that a national duty in Vietnam be discarded to provide huge make-work programs in the city slums with the money diverted from Vietnam; that no youth need honor the draft; that Negroes need not obey the law.… It is a grand design for the Apocalypse.”

Brands notes that Reagan ranks among the least-disciplined budget stewards in the White House; that he (like every president) dared not touch Social Security benefits for fear of alienating older voters, despite the financial stress caused by the program; that his own military service consisted of making propaganda films during World War II; and that none of the principals proven to have broken the law in Iran-contra ever paid any meaningful price thanks to appeals and other maneuvering. And yet he concludes that Reagan ranks among the greatest of US presidents. Many readers (this one included) might reach differing assessments looking at the same analysis and history.

Brands states that, contrary to the portrait drawn by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and others, Tip O’Neill and Reagan weren’t cocktail chums who kept the country running thanks to mutual admiration and affable horse-trading. They were heated rivals and grudgingly gave in to the other only when they had no other choice.

Reagan, as Brands notes in this biography, found O’Neill, the Speaker of the House and Boston Democrat, confounding. The reason: O’Neill was among the few people the president failed to charm. That charm, of course, explains why so many Americans – the vast majority – liked Reagan even when they disliked his policies. (Many people liked the policies, too, which, combined with Reagan’s common-man touch, fostered a resounding rejection of liberal-progressive policy that remains politically powerful to this day.)

Consider the 1980 campaign that put Reagan in the White House for the first time.

Jimmy Carter, the incumbent Democrat, survived a challenge within his own party from US Sen. Ted Kennedy and won the nomination. Reagan, who beat his future vice president, George H.W. Bush, and others to become the GOP nominee, campaigned relentlessly on smaller government and lower taxes.

By the time Reagan and Carter faced off in a presidential debate, Carter, the sitting president, “prepared … by immersing himself in the issues, Reagan by considering one-liners and bons mots he might drop on his opponent,” Brands writes.

Reagan launched a charm offensive when Carter lashed him for opposing national health care (some fights never end). Smiling back at Carter, Reagan answered, “There you go again,” prompting laughter and rendering moot the candidates’ policy positions.

Critics of Reagan hammered him for being a former radio host and actor, dismissing him as a soothing, comforting balm to voters, but still just a reassuring figure with little to no substance.

Brands, as others have done, makes clear the blessing and curse of Reagan’s propensity to leave details to others. This course led to titanic blunders (Iran-contra tops the list) as well as major achievements (accelerating the end of the Cold War and forging an effective, personal relationship with Gorbachev).

Not for nothing was Reagan called “The Great Communicator.” When the Challenger space shuttle exploded upon takeoff, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day (“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war”) and at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), Reagan rallied Americans and, at times, the world with wit, rhetoric, and empathy.

As many times as it has been said, the effectiveness and influence Reagan exerted because of his likability and his skillful speechmaking can’t be overstated.

As Brands writes, “The key to Reagan’s success … was his ability to restore Americans’ faith in their country.… He was the most persuasive political speaker since Roosevelt, combining conviction, focus, and humor in a manner none of his contemporaries could approach.” Reagan, who nearly died after being shot by Hinckley outside a Washington hotel, was said to have greeted his wife at the hospital before undergoing emergency surgery by telling her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

Frustrated Reagan foes served up a steady stream of he’s-only-an-actor critiques during his presidency. They missed the point. Having the discipline (pardon the dreadful consultant’s cliché) to stay on message and to deliver said message with plainspoken appeal often makes all the difference in politics. Reagan’s detriment – not getting lost in minutiae and micromanaging – also made him effective, Brands writes.

A month after the shooting, Congress greeted the president with a sustained ovation as he arrived for a speech on his plan to revive the sputtering economy.

First, he waited and waited for the applause and commotion to recede. At length, Reagan injected self-deprecating humor. “You wouldn’t want to talk me into an encore, would you?” he asked.

The president’s near-death and his graceful, brave recovery combined with the speech to push his approval rating to 68 percent. O’Neill, the House speaker, knew he couldn’t counter Reagan. Congress approved Reagan’s budget cuts, including 20 percent to education, 15 percent to food stamps, and 40 percent to public housing.

Defense spending, at the same time, kept growing. US analysts knew the Soviet Union faced a deteriorating economy, one hampered by deep structural flaws rather than mere cyclical hiccups. Reagan was convinced communism could be defeated, but also believed the fall of the Iron Curtain required outside pressure, such as a costly arms race.

Deficits soared because of the twin strategies of cutting taxes and ramping up Pentagon budgets. The poster child: Reagan’s “Star Wars” space-defense system, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI almost single-handedly derailed the nuclear-arms negotiations with Gorbachev. The program, which never became of military use, also ate up $30 billion of taxpayer money before being scrapped by Bill Clinton in 1993.

Whether Reagan seized an opportunity and quashed communism (the belief of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, among others) or spent unwisely and unnecessarily to incrementally nudge a foregone conclusion (at the expense of infrastructure and widening inequality) still divides conservatives and liberals more than a decade after Reagan’s death.

The president fought critics and world pressures alike with unshakable optimism and sunny humor. During a debate in 1984, Reagan responded to a question about his capacity as a 73-year-old to serve another term as commander-in-chief by saying, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, roared in appreciation of the president’s perfectly placed zinger. Reagan laughed his way to one of the most lopsided election wins in US history.

And the down side of Reagan’s popular, uplifting speeches? “His message was an easy sell. He asked next to nothing of the people,” Brands writes.

The author goes on to note that Reagan always blamed government for whatever ailed the nation, not the people. This argument defied logic, Brands says, because the United States, as the world’s foremost democracy, is government of, by and for the people – a central idea Reagan embraced repeatedly in his foreign policy. Credit for the “of, by and for the people” goes to another Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. (Elsewhere in this biography, Brands rightly asserts, “Reagan told stories and jokes better than any president since Lincoln.”)

Palace intrigue and political rivalry come in for appropriate inspection here, too. Treasury secretary-turned-chief of staff Donald Regan spars with the First Lady over his use of Marine One, various media leaks, and Nancy Reagan’s anxieties regarding insights provided to her by the astrologer Joan Quigley. Without going overboard, Brands illustrates the tempestuous family dynamics of the Reagans and the baffling chilliness and aloofness of a president who succeeded in large part because of his warm, amiable persona.

Longtime aide Lyn Nofziger says of James Baker, part of the first-term Reagan troika with Ed Meese and Michael Deaver, “Jim is a very competent individual. I would never say that he’s dumb or anything else. But I just think he’s basically dishonest.”

There is no debate about the influence of Reagan on American politics and the popularity of his conservative philosophy. Tax cuts, as the Presidents Bush would demonstrate in divergent ways, remain the heart of Republican economic arguments to this day. Ronald Reagan has become an overwhelming shadow in presidential politics, invoked often in every election since he left office.

President Obama praised Reagan as transformative during his 2008 campaign and another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, embraced financial deregulation and welfare cuts that would have cheered Reagan.

What Reagan would have made of Clinton’s decisions is unknown because, by 1994, he had exited from public life by releasing a poignant farewell.

At age 83, Reagan confirmed he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In July 1989, Reagan, six months removed from the presidency, absorbed a hard fall after being thrown during a horseback ride in Mexico. He at first appeared to be OK, but, two months later, required surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. He recovered, but Nancy Reagan later said he was never the same.

His public appearances grew shakier and shakier. In 1992, during an Iran-contra deposition, the former president couldn’t recall basic details of his time in office. Years later, transcripts at last made public included Reagan telling his questioner, Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, “It’s like I wasn’t president at all.”

The devastating letter to America followed in 1994.

“When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future,” Reagan wrote. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Reagan, in the space of a few short paragraphs, affirmed his appeal – the appeal of a man whose legacy will be discussed and debated as long as American history is studied.

As 2016 approaches, don’t be surprised to see plenty of candidates, and voters, arguing again over the merits of winning (another) one for the Gipper.

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