Reagan’s Rendezvous with Destiny

H.W. Brands’s biography Reagan: The Life offers a reminder that Reagan’s political philosophy may have been steely conservatism, but his political practice was pragmatism.

July-August 2015

H. W. Brands, Reagan: The Life (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 816 pp., $35.00.

 

ON A steamy night in June 2004, I stood in line for almost seven hours on the National Mall, along with several thousand strangers. We were all waiting for our turn to enter the Capitol, where the body of Ronald Reagan lay in state. Since smartphones hadn’t yet been invented, I had nothing else to do during that time but to ask others what had prompted them to pay homage to the Gipper. Many were young—I met an entire fraternity that had driven up from North Carolina—and some weren’t even born when our fortieth president took office. But everyone there felt that Reagan had been a great president, that this was a historic occasion and that honoring his memory was, in some way, their duty as Americans. Reagan gave our country back its pride, several told me. He made us strong again. He revived the economy. He won the Cold War. Finally, we entered the hushed Capitol Rotunda, where Reagan’s flag-draped casket lay upon Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque, guarded by a member of each of the four armed services. No more than a minute later we were outside, and a bright dawn was breaking over Washington.

The only modern president whose passing inspired similar passion—aside from the special case of the assassinated John F. Kennedy—was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And indeed, H. W. Brands, in his new Reagan biography, states, “What Roosevelt had been to the first half of the twentieth century, Reagan was to the second half.” While the world is awash in Roosevelt biographies, however, Brands’s is one of the comparatively few cradle-to-grave Reagan biographies. The antipathy of liberal academics may have something to do with the paucity of such accounts, but the more likely reason is that Reagan had a full career in entertainment and entered politics at a relatively late age; he was fifty-six when he first won public office and nearly seventy when he became president. When he died at age ninety-three, he had passed John Adams as America’s longest-lived president. It’s no small feat to cover Reagan’s eventful life in one volume.

Brands’s narrative cruises high above Reagan’s early years, picking out a few prominent features of the landscape. He covers Reagan’s midwestern boyhood in a flash, and then moves quickly through his radio career and on to his arrival in Hollywood in 1937. Brands doesn’t offer much in the way of analysis, but when he does he’s mostly convincing. Reagan never quite cracked Hollywood’s A-list, in Brands’s opinion, because he had a “narrow acting range and limited sex appeal,” a product of the reserve he acquired as the son of an alcoholic father.

Harbingers of Reagan’s future career, however, were evident in his yearning for a larger stage; his instinct for siding with the forces of order and conformity; his appetite for film-industry politics (he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952 and 1959 to 1960); and his early opposition to Communists in Hollywood labor battles. His work as corporate spokesman for General Electric in the 1950s made him a television star, honed his public-speaking abilities and pushed him further on his rightward trajectory away from early New Deal enthusiasms. But, as Brands notes, when Reagan gave the 1964 televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign that kickstarted his political career, his closing peroration channeled FDR’s line about facing “a rendezvous with destiny.”

Despite being a political novice—and a Republican only since 1962—Reagan won the California GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1966 and went on to take the governorship with a million votes to spare. Californians liked Reagan’s conservative positions against big government, high taxes, urban riots, campus unrest and antiwar protest, and they reelected him (albeit by a smaller margin) in 1970.

 

BRANDS COVERS the events of Reagan’s life up until 1980 in the first third of his biography; the pace slows down considerably for Reagan’s presidential years. Up to this point, Brands had kept the spotlight almost exclusively on Reagan, with his backers and advisers (aside from Reagan’s second wife, Nancy) reduced to shadowy passing presences. Now he widens the aperture to include the full cast of the Reagan administration and the considerable feuds and palace intrigues they waged against each other.

Brands provides a straightforward history of Reagan’s first term as president, while paying particular attention to the implementation of his ambitious economic program, Reagan’s near assassination in early 1981, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s recession-inducing efforts to scotch inflation, and the ill-fated effort to sell arms secretly to Iran in hopes of freeing hostages and funding the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua. In covering Reagan’s second term, Brands gives considerable space to the resulting Iran-Contra scandal, but his main focus is on Reagan’s negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the summitry that led to the thawing of the Cold War.

Reagan is a notoriously difficult subject for biographers since, as Nancy observed, “He often seems remote, and he doesn’t let anybody get too close. There’s a wall around him.” His inner opacity seemed to drive his official biographer Edmund Morris half mad, as he resorted to fiction in an attempt to explain what made Reagan tick. Brands notes Reagan’s inscrutability, shrugs and moves on. He doesn’t resort to a fictionalized persona, cinematic staging or other elements of postmodern trickery, as many Reagan biographies do.

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