As a history aficionado, there is something special about reading about a period of time in history during which you first learned of the events by opening the newspaper – that is, about a time in history that you lived through. This is not possible, for instance, when reading about Lincoln and the various tragedies he dealt with during the Civil War. For those of my increasingly-advancing age, however, it is possible when reading a biography of President Ronald Reagan. The most recent such effort is from H.W. Brands, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.
The book is 737 pages, so bring a snack. Brands does a wonderful job of translating the enigmatic Reagan into a flesh and blood human being with strengths and flaws. This is no easy task. People tend to view Reagan either as a deity or, well, as the opposite of a deity. Brands makes ample use of Reagan’s own diaries, which are an invaluable resource to historians. Unfortunately, because of the onset of Alzheimer’s, they also proved a resource for Reagan himself in recalling things that were slowly disappearing from his accessible memory.
Perhaps the central theme or thesis of Brands is a bit Freudian: because of his alcoholic father, Reagan spent his entire life conveying an eternal optimism [to counter the reality of what he came home to as a boy when his father had been drinking] that made him irresistible to tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, Brands argues, that eternal optimism led to a resistance on his part to dealing with unpleasant realities [think Iran-Contra] that nearly ended his presidency. Indeed, it was only because enough people refused to believe that Reagan was lying about knowing that money from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua that Reagan wasn’t impeached.
The first 238 pages of Brands’ tome deal with Reagan’s life prior to his 1980 run for the White House. It’s a good primer on how ‘Reagan became Reagan’. One area of particular note is the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the effect FDR had on Reagan. Those not familiar with the 40th president are often shocked to learn the reverence with which Reagan held FDR. It’s important to remember, though, that for the first half of his long life, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. And, like all Americans living through it, the Great Depression left indelible impressions on Reagan. And how FDR tackled the Depression meant a great deal to Reagan – even if he came to believe that government was the problem, not the answer.
This seemingly contradictory hero-worship of FDR is just one of the many conundrums faced by students of Reagan. While he praised FDR for his leadership and his compassion, when Lyndon Johnson sought to extend the New Deal 30 years later – just as Reagan was preparing to run for Governor of California – Reagan castigated LBJ and the Great Society. The famous line Reagan used when someone asked him why he left the Democratic party was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party left me.”
As for Reagan the president, Brands makes a strong argument for something I’ve believed for some time: Ronald Reagan was not an empty-headed performer repeating well-scripted lines. Certainly by the end of his presidency there were moments when that is exactly what he had become. But that was because of illness. Although Nancy Reagan cites a fall in 1989 as the beginning of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s, I’ve always believed that – in the last two years of his Presidency – Reagan was in the early stages of the disease. That, when he told various investigators, “I just don’t remember” something pertaining to Iran-Contra, that he really didn’t. He was still aware enough, though, to know that he could have checked his diaries to find some of those answers – and Reagan never mentioned the diaries until after he’d left office. For his first six years in office, however, Reagan was a heavily engaged chief executive. Certainly not the micro-manager his predecessor had been [indeed, Brands argues that had Reagan been more like President Jimmy Carter, Iran-Contra would have never happened]; but someone who was leading his Administration’s policies, not merely mouthing the words.
Because I don’t want to write a 700-page book review, here are a few snippets from some of the seminal events of the Reagan presidency and how Brands treats them:
1) Assassination Attempt -Here, Brands drops the ball. He does not delve into enough detail regarding the seriousness of Reagan’s injuries – namely, how close to death Reagan truly came. The fact is, a delay of even five minutes in getting Reagan to the emergency room would have meant the presidency of George H.W. Bush would’ve begun nearly eight years earlier than it did. Brands does do a fine job of detailing Nancy Reagan’s trauma and the long-term effects Reagan’s brush with death had on her and how she worried about her husband. It also introduced astrologer Joan Quigley into the nation’s life. From the assassination attempt to the end of his life, Nancy Reagan relied heavily on Quigley – to a level that not even President Reagan knew – in influencing Reagan’s calendar of events. This stemmed from Quigley’s claim to Nancy Reagan that – had she been consulted – she could have told Reagan not to travel on March 30, 1981.
2) Air Traffic Controllers – One of the reasons why the air traffic controllers were fired is they didn’t believe Reagan when – on August 3, 1981 – he told the press clearly that he would fire any controller who did not return to his/her job by August 5th. Most of the members of PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] thought Reagan was posturing. This was a fatal error. One of Reagan’s heroes – in addition to FDR – was Calvin Coolidge. As governor of Massachusetts in 1919, Coolidge had won national acclaim for firing striking police in Boston. Indeed, it was that action that was the largest contributor to Coolidge being named to the Republican ticket with Warren Harding one year later. Like Coolidge, Reagan did not believe the controllers had a right to strike. For Reagan – as for Coolidge 60 years earlier – there was a clear distinction between the public and private sectors when it came to strikes. Those in the latter group had a right to strike. Those in the public sector did not.
3) Gorbachev – Perhaps the two most influential men in the second half of the 20th century were Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Brands does an excellent job in providing a blow-by-blow account of the to two biggest summits between the two men – Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavik in 1986. While the latter was initially viewed as a colossal failure, it actually paved the way to the eventual arms treaty signed by the two men in 1987. Ultimately, the one issue the two men could not get past was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI], skewered by critics as ‘Star Wars’. Although Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with virtually every concession requested by Reagan at Geneva, Reagan would not abandon the testing of SDI, while Gorbachev insisted that any testing remain ‘in the laboratory’ for at least ten years. Of course, we now know that SDI was never developed [President Bill Clinton killed it in 1993] but at the time Reagan held onto the concept of being able to shoot down incoming missiles. Although many derided Reagan at the time for the fantastic concept, Reagan argued that he wasn’t interested in SDI to prevent a Soviet attack: he was worried about a ‘lone mad-man’ with a nuclear device. Although seemingly paranoid in 1986, in the aftermath of 9/11, one can see Reagan as being more prescient than paranoid.
4) Iran-Contra – Nothing defined Reagan’s second term – not even the treaty with the Soviet Union – as much Iran-Contra did. Brands concludes that Reagan knew well that we were trading arms for hostages; but was completely blindsided by the subsequent diversion of proceeds from those sales to the Contras in Nicaragua. At the heart of the matter, according to Brands, was Reagan’s humanity. According to numerous sources – including his own diary – a daily question Reagan asked his staff was “Any word on the hostages?” Every day. It consumed him. He had berated and belittled Carter for being unable to deliver the hostages held in Iran and here he was completely helpless to free [at one time] six Americans held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. In Reagan’s mind, he constructed a framework whereby he was not really trading arms for hostages. Rather, he was making a gesture to Iran [arms, despite the fact that doing so was a violation of U.S. law] with two goals in mind: a) to begin to thaw the ice between the two countries with the long-term goal of working with Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors on reestablishing relations; and, more importantly, b) so that Iran would use its influence with Hezbollah to get them to release the U.S. hostages. Brands argues that Reagan is to blame in that his free delegation of authority bred an Oliver North and John Poindexter. Reagan also made it clear to both men that he wanted the Contras helped, to keep them together “in body and spirit” despite the Boland Amendment which prohibited aiding them. With a lack of oversight and unmistakable instructions from Reagan that he wanted “everything possible” done to help the Contras, it is little surprise that North and Poindexter made the decision to divert the Iran funds without telling Reagan.
Brands’ work is strong. Although obviously very lengthy, it is an easy read and provides non-history aficionados with enough of an historical background to make those who were not alive appreciate and understand the times in which Reagan lived and led. In many ways Reagan will always remain an enigma. The book only casually covers two of his deepest mysteries: his complicated relationship with his children from two marriages; and the fact that even those whom he considered his closest friends claim to have never really gotten close to him.
Brands’ work does bring Reagan closer to us. And what we find reminds us of why we liked him in the first place.