Reagan: The Life
Doubleday, 2015, 816 pp., $35
Ronald Reagan’s role as one of the luminaries of the 20th century was secured by his success in putting policies in place that shaped the new millennium. Born on February 6, 1911, he died at the age of 93 on June 5, 2004. Between those historical bookends, Ronald Reagan would become a radio announcer, actor, president of the Screen Actors Guild, Governor of the most populous state in the Union, fortieth President of the United States, and, finally, a champion by example for bringing national attention to Alzheimer’s disease. After switching political parties in 1962, Reagan became the most effective spokesperson for political conservatism in 20th-century America. Since his passing, most Republican seekers of the Oval Office pay homage to Reagan by claiming to be his—and only his—heir.
Who was Ronald Reagan, and how did he accomplish so much? In Reagan: The Life, H.W. Brands takes on this assignment by chronicling the varied aspects of the life of a man often described as an enigma. William E. Pemberton begins Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan by quoting John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest: “Reagan . . . had that distant dream; the powerful thing about him as President was that you never knew how much he knew, nothing or everything, he was like God that way, you had to do a lot of it yourself.”
Deciphering the enigmatic Ronald Reagan is difficult because of the prodigious written record surrounding him. Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush kept diaries, were prolific letter writers, and authored many speeches and other writings. Along with other scholars, my co-authors and I have established that Reagan, too, was a prolific author of letters, speeches, radio commentaries, and a wide variety of political tracts.1 What distinguishes him from his predecessors and successors, however, is that his personal writings are joined by the voluminous paper trail he produced in real time and at a rapid rate during his 16 years of state and Federal government service. Combining these personal and official documents, including records created during his six political campaigns, yields many millions of pages that reveal the man and his policies. Moreover, the U.S. system of declassifying documents (a characteristic of a mature democracy) and growing social pressure for increased transparency have made these documents available to the public as expeditiously as possible.
H.W. Brands is the first scholar to write a major Reagan biography that captures the arc of Reagan’s life from childhood to his post-presidential years. This impressive work could have been undertaken only by a scholar who is deeply knowledgeable about American history. Yet Brands did not grapple in a complete way with the extensive Reagan paper trail. Reagan: The Life does not appear to be based on many of the recently declassified national-security documents of the Reagan era. While it makes use of the private papers of some of Reagan’s cabinet members, the papers of other cabinet members and close advisers in Sacramento and Washington are not cited. It is difficult to know if Brands used the voluminous secondary literature on Reagan written by former aides, journalists, and scholars because he only cites what he quotes, and his book otherwise lacks a bibliography. In his section on sources, Brands refers to the importance of Reagan, In His Own Hand and Reagan, A Life in Letters, my co-edited books of Reagan’s writings; Reagan’s two biographies; his presidential diaries, edited by Douglas Brinkley; and two of Lou Cannon’s books on Reagan, among other works. Brands cites these volumes and the memoirs of Reagan’s closest advisers throughout his book.
Reagan, In His Own Hand drew enormous attention when it was published because it revealed that, after being a two-term California Governor and as he pondered his presidential bids in 1976 and 1980, Reagan wrote hundreds of commentaries for his nationally syndicated radio program, in which he addressed most major policy issues of the day.
Brands writes that “few of his radio speeches [throughout his political career] survive in audio form.” It should be noted, however, that in 2001, the same year that Reagan, In His Own Hand was published, Reagan, In His Own Voice, also was published. This audio book contains several CDs of Reagan’s original radio broadcasts with commentary and additional contributions by Annelise Anderson, Martin Anderson, and me. Commentary also was provided by Nancy Reagan, Richard V. Allen, Judge William Clark, Michael Deaver, Peter Hannaford, Edwin Meese III, Harry O’Connor, the producer of Reagan’s radio commentaries, and George P. Shultz.
Brands’s major contribution is his synthetic analysis of the trajectory of Reagan’s life. Most of his historical narrative is accurate, but because of the longevity of Reagan’s political relevancy, certain episodes are not included in this book of nearly a thousand pages. As the first author to put Reagan’s entire life into biographical form, Brands reminds readers about how much material there is to cover. He adds to the literature by vividly recounting many of the episodes in Reagan’s life that, with the passage of time, often seem remote, especially to younger readers. This is particularly true of his compelling chapters on Reagan’s early years and his post-presidential activities.
The complicated nature of some of the stories, though, reveals that Brands has selected facts and situations to fit his narrative, and the story thus told is incomplete—sometimes glaringly so.
For example, Brands writes that:
To Baker as chief of staff fell the initiative in determining whether to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which provides for a transfer of authority to the vice president in case of presidential incapacity. By the time he had sufficient facts to make a reasoned decision, the doctors had stabilized Reagan. The only question was whether his sedation during surgery would constitute sufficient incapacity to warrant invoking the amendment. He decided it did not.
To be sure, the deliberations about the Twenty-Fifth Amendment following the shooting of President Reagan included Baker, whose role in the Reagan presidency is sometimes not fully appreciated. However, Richard V. Allen, Alexander Haig, Edwin Meese III, Michael Deaver, Caspar Weinberger, and many others took part in deliberations about the constitutional line of succession in case the president was seriously incapacitated, to whom National Command Authority power devolved in a presidential crisis, as well as the whereabouts of the nuclear football after Reagan arrived at the hospital. Most of these dynamics are not explored.2
But it almost has to be this way in a single-volume biography. Nevertheless, Reagan: The Life holds together because it contributes to the revisionist argument that Reagan’s ideas were indeed his own and often drove policy even when he was not in control of the incessant politicking among his aides. This is not a new argument. Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson joined me in making this case in five books of Reagan’s writings. Others such as Steven Hayward, Paul Kengor, and Craig Shirley have also extensively researched President Reagan’s rise to power and his White House years and have come to similar conclusions. The collective impact of the burgeoning scholarship on Reagan is that the revised assessment of the man and his presidency is now widely accepted. Few today would disagree with the view that Reagan wrote, defined, and owned his policies. He alone was the principal author of the Reagan revolution. Paul Kengor’s meticulous research reveals that the numerous national security decision directives of the Reagan years not only had the president’s deep intellectual imprint on them but also outlined an unprecedented Cold War strategy to take down the Soviet political system and make possible political pluralism for people living under communism.3
Brands finds his challenge in the daunting task of showing in sharp detail how much of what Reagan believed and wrote about in his early years influenced the policies of his presidency. For example, in writing about President Reagan’s decision to undertake the Strategic Defense Initiative, which became known for better or for worse as “Star Wars,” Brands states that “the idea had been percolating in Reagan’s mind for years.” In the chapter on the Ford-Reagan battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, Brands reports that President Ford invited the Governor he had defeated at the Kansas City convention to join him on stage for the celebration. Describing the scene that night, he writes: “Reagan’s supporters demanded a speech from their man; his remarks caused their hearts to flutter anew and some to consider demanding a recount.” Yet he omits Reagan’s urgent message to the delegates: “We live in a world in which the great powers have aimed and poised at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world.”
In his remarks at the 1976 Republican National Convention, Reagan then spoke about a letter he had been asked to write for a time capsule: “And suddenly it dawned on me; those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we meet our challenge.”
The Governor’s brief remarks prefigured his missile-defense policies as President.
In a commentary Reagan wrote for his nationally syndicated radio program in the spring of 1977, he remarked that the Soviets “apparently are engaged in a crash program to develop an effective anti-ballistic missile system.” Signed by President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty placed restrictions on the number of missile sites the two superpowers could construct, and a 1974 protocol enjoined further restrictions. Reagan told his radio listeners: “You’ll remember we bargained away our right to have such a weapon for the protection of our cities. That was one of the contributions of détente.”4
In a letter written in the wake of his November 13, 1979 announcement that he would seek the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan stated that the campaign was not the time for “real specifics” on policy, but he said, “I am making my position perfectly clear in regard to the need for our country to be number one in defensive capability.”5 Months earlier, Reagan learned first-hand about the vulnerability of US missiles when he visited the North American Aerospace Defense Command with Doug Morrow, a movie producer, and Martin Anderson, a long-time adviser.6
Brands makes reference to many radio commentaries and letters throughout the book, but he does not present this type of evidence on Reagan’s pre-presidential ruminations on missile defense. This information is essential, however, if one is to understand how and why President Reagan undertook a policy of missile defense in 1983. The reality is that there is simply too much to tell for a book that seeks to address the full range of Reagan’s life.
Another matter from 1983, which stands in seeming contrast to defense, was not covered by Brands but is essential to connecting the ideas and policies that constituted Reagan’s grand strategy. In addition to his other accomplishments, Reagan was a human rights President.
The plight of two Pentecostal families in Moscow was the subject of a radio commentary Reagan taped on October 2, 1979. A year earlier, the Siberian Seven, as they became known, darted past guards at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in pursuit of exit visas so that they could practice their religion in a free society. In March 1983, President Reagan gave his “evil empire” speech, in which he derided Soviet communism as an historical anachronism, and his speech on missile defense. In the background, President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz quietly negotiated the release of the Pentecostals. This was accomplished through a deal in which the President promised Soviet leaders that he would not crow about it. By the summer of 1983, the Pentecostals were allowed to leave the Soviet Union for the West. Reflecting on the matter in his memoir, Reagan wrote, “In the overall scheme of U.S.-Soviet relations, allowing a handful of Christian believers to leave the Soviet Union was a small event. But in the context of the times I thought it was a hope-giving development, the first time the Soviets responded to us with a deed instead of words.”7
The President also worked tirelessly for the release of Soviet Jews, and he was successful. He had advocated for some of them, including Ida Nudel, in a radio commentary on November 30, 1976. As President, Reagan he continued to campaign on her behalf. In the fall of 1987, Nudel was granted an exit visa. She has credited President Reagan and Secretary Shultz for helping her realize her long journey toward freedom.8
On two far ends of the policy spectrum, defense and human rights, Reagan had a unifying way of assessing what was at stake. For him, the challenge was to defend and preserve freedom, which he saw as the moral basis of his foreign policy. One cannot understand why the release of the Pentecostals, as Secretary of State George P. Shultz has written, “was the first successful negotiation with the Soviets in the Reagan Administration” without realizing how the President’s pre-White House thinking and writing influenced presidential policy.9
Nor can one have real insight into how Reagan governed without understanding how he campaigned. Brands writes about Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns but does not cite some of the most important literature on these subjects. There is virtually no mention of some of the key political actors in California and beyond who helped make Reagan’s political career possible. Books on Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns by Matthew Dallek, Peter Hannaford, Thomas C. Reed, Craig Shirley, F. Clifton White, and the volume I co-wrote with Serhiy Kudelia, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and Condoleezza Rice are important secondary sources. They portray the political advocacy of a long list of unsung heroes, like Reed, who helped create the machinery for Reagan’s political rise, especially in California during the 1960s.10
In describing the speech Reagan gave on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign on October 27, 1964, Brands clearly understands how the future President began to distinguish himself from other conservatives and craft a message that broadened his coalition while staying true to the political principles he embraced. But here again he breezes over some of the transformational moments in Reagan’s gubernatorial campaigns (1966 and 1970) and presidential campaigns (1968, 1976, 1980, and 1984).
One such moment occurred shortly before Governor Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President. In a January 15, 1977 speech in Washington, Reagan boldly proposed rethinking the Republican brand. He declared that “the New Republican Party I envision is still going to be the party of Lincoln and that means we are going to have to come to grips with what I consider to be a major failing of the party: its failure to attract the majority of black voters.” The former California Governor called upon his Republican colleagues to join him in assuring black Americans of their commitment to “treating all Americans as individuals and not as stereotypes.” He added that we need to “create a situation in which no black vote can be taken for granted.”11
In that pivotal speech, Reagan also talked about bringing the social conservatives in the Democratic Party into a coalition with the economic conservatives in the Republican Party. This was not exactly a new idea; others, like William Rusher, had made this case. But Reagan was the politician who saw a pathway forward. His 1980 campaign was all about building this coalition by emphasizing shared values on the economy and defense. Investigating these aspects of Reagan’s political maneuvering in the years he was planning to run could yield a key to his enigmatic character.
These are just a few of the Reagan stories that Brands could have told with deeper historical analysis. The challenge in writing about Reagan is that fundamental elements of his character can be missed if essential facts and events are omitted. Brands has done serious work that tells important truths about Ronald Reagan to new generations as well as to those who were adults during the Reagan presidency. In writing about the negotiations between and Reagan and his Soviet counterparts, Brands reminds us of the persistence of nuclear and other geopolitical dilemmas. But there is much more to be done; no one can do justice to a genuine enigma in a single book, even a very long one.
1See in particular, Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, eds., Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (Free Press, 2001); Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, eds., Reagan: A Life in Letters (Free Press, 2003); and Ronald Reagan (edited by Douglas Brinkley), The Reagan Diaries (HarperCollins, 2007).
2The dramatic first-hand account of the White House deliberations in the wake of the shooting of President Reagan is found in Richard V. Allen, “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” the Atlantic, February 4, 2011.
3Paul Kengor, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007).
4Skinner, Anderson, and Anderson, eds., Reagan, In His Own Hand, p. 119.
5Skinner, Anderson, and Anderson, eds., Reagan: A Life in Letters, p. 231.
6 Martin Anderson, Revolution (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), pp. 80–4.
7Ronald Reagan, An American Life (Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 572–3.
8George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), p. 990.
9Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, p. 171.
10See Thomas C. Reed, The Reagan Enigma: 1964-1980 (Figueroa Press, 2014).
11Parts of Ronald Reagan’s January 15, 1977 speech in Washington, DC, are quoted in Kiron K. Skinner, Serhiy Kudelia, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and Condoleezza Rice, Strategy of Campaigning: Lessons from Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin (The University of Michigan Press, 2007), pp. 133–4. For the entire speech, see Ronald Reagan Subject Collection, Box 3, Folder RR Speeches—1977, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, California.