Friday, May 20, 2016

Reagan: The Life - H.W. Brands

Summary: From master storyteller and New York Times bestselling Historian H. W. Brands comes the definitive biography of a visionary and transformative president

In his magisterial new biography, H. W. Brands brilliantly establishes Ronald Reagan as one of the two great presidents of the twentieth century, a true peer to Franklin Roosevelt. Reaganconveys with sweep and vigor how the confident force of Reagan’s personality and the unwavering nature of his beliefs enabled him to engineer a conservative revolution in American politics and play a crucial role in ending communism in the Soviet Union. Reagan shut down the age of liberalism, Brands shows, and ushered in the age of Reagan, whose defining principles are still powerfully felt today.
     Reagan follows young Ronald Reagan as his ambition for ever larger stages compelled him to leave behind small-town Illinois to become first a radio announcer and then that quintessential public figure of modern America, a movie star. When his acting career stalled, his reinvention as the voice of The General Electric Theater on television made him an unlikely spokesman for corporate America. Then began Reagan’s improbable political ascension, starting in the 1960s, when he was first elected governor of California, and culminating in his election in 1980 as president of the United States.
     Employing archival sources not available to previous biographers and drawing on dozens of interviews with surviving members of Reagan’s administration, Brands has crafted a richly detailed and fascinating narrative of the presidential years. He offers new insights into Reagan’s remote management style and fractious West Wing staff, his deft handling of public sentiment to transform the tax code, and his deeply misunderstood relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on which nothing less than the fate of the world turned.
     Reagan is a storytelling triumph, an irresistible portrait of an underestimated politician whose pragmatic leadership and steadfast vision transformed the nation.
(Summary and pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: I have to admit that I was just a wee little lass when Reagan was president, and so I didn’t know much about him or his presidency. I knew a few token things, obvious things—like the fact that he was a Hollywood star before being president, and also that he had some serious popularity going for a lot of his presidency. There are maybe a few other things but that’s perhaps all that’s worth mentioning. Up until I read this book, Reagan was an enigma. I knew he had a great impact, but I wasn’t sure how specifically.
                After reading this book, I can say that, while I’m not necessarily an expert on all things in Reagan’s life, I’m certainly very well versed in his presidency. The book is certainly well-documented, with copious notes, letters, and memos, a lot of which are part of the actual book. Brands didn’t just summarize conversations or situations, he included the actual conversations, memos, or thoughts from memoirs and interviews from the players involved. I liked that a lot, actually. Biographies will sometimes be tainted by the author’s view of their subject, but I think that Brands did a great job of leaving his opinion out of it. He let the letters, comments, and conversations of the day dictate what the reader thought. He didn’t just report on the situations in the presidency, he documented them such that it was a very realistic re-living of the times and what was going on. In fact, until the final few pages of the book I wasn’t even sure what he thought. It seemed obvious that were you to research and write a book of this magnitude, you would probably like the person, but this wasn’t immediately evident until the end.
                After finishing this book, I‘m very aware of three things, which happen to be the most prominent themes in the book. 1) Reagan was an incredible speaker. It was, perhaps, one of his greatest strengths. He always tried his best to be honest in his speaking (and even amidst the Iran-Contra fiasco he maintained that he always told everything he knew) and he was funny and personable and warm so that he was well-liked and trusted. 2) Reagan was a very private person and was not necessarily as warm and loving and accessible in real life as he was in his public speeches. His children from two marriages have said as much, and people who worked very closely with him for years were never really let into his innermost thoughts and feelings. 3) Nancy Reagan played a huge role in the presidency and in Reagan’s life (this last point is obvious, since she was his wife). She swayed policy and people and the president himself in subtle ways.
                This book was a very detailed description of Reagan’s early professional life as an actor and Actors’ Guild player, and especially his presidency—the politics, the people involved, the fiascos, the wins, and basically all the goings-on in minute detail. The conversations and letters and speeches he gives are well-documented. The biography is not, however, a detailed description of his private life. There is some of that, of course, but there are not deep discussion (or much of any discussion, really) of his children or his relationships with his wives or their goings-on. If I were to re-name this book, I would call it Reagan: The Presidency. I have read other biographies of presidents and in my experience, this is one of the most thorough discussions of a president’s professional life. It is not a deep discussion of his life in general. There are other biographies written about Reagan as well as a few autobiographies written by him, and I’m assuming that those go more deeply into his personal life. Also, a biography of Nancy Reagan would be fascinating as a companion to this book as she did have so much influence.
                Overall, I would say that if you are looking for a detailed description of Reagan’s professional life and especially his presidency, this is an excellent book. It is well-documented and cited and I enjoyed the insights from his personal diary as well as the opinions of the other players involved.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

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