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Reagan: The Life

By H.W. Brands


MORE than a decade after his death, Ronald Reagan still divides people. American conservatives revere him as practically a demigod. He shrank the state, rescued the economy and won the cold war; all Republican candidates must pay homage. The left dismisses him as malign and moronic - a B-movie actor who floated into the White House on an updraft of phoney charm, a man who snoozed during meetings, blew up the deficit and propped up unsavoury third-world despots from Argentina to Zaire.

The truth is more interesting than the caricature, and H.W. Brands's new biography tells the story as well as you could ask for in a single volume. A lucid and witty writer, Mr Brands lays out the facts in short chapters that bounce along like one of the 'bare-fisted walloping action' films that Reagan once starred in. He has a talent for letting his sources speak for themselves. They include not only politicians and Reagan himself, but also his children, who were as neglected as those of any famous parent. Invited to speak at his adopted son Michael's boarding school, Reagan failed to recognise his boy under a mortar board. 'My name is Ronald Reagan. What's yours?' he said. 'Remember me?' came the sad reply: 'I'm your son Mike.'

The book covers Reagan's acting career - a love affair with the camera that lasted a lifetime. Even his violent films often carried a simple moral message, such as that crime did not pay. 'This was a critical matter during the 1930s, when abundant evidence indicated that crime did pay,' observes Mr Brands.

Reagan grew up a Democrat, in the Irish tradition, before drifting to the right. Paying income tax at a marginal rate of around 90% in the 1950s was painful, but more important was what he learned about capitalism while working for General Electric (GE). As his film career faded, he was paid to host a television series sponsored by America's biggest industrial firm and to give speeches at GE factories. As he toured the country by train, he read books about economics and history. Everywhere he went, people told him stories of government meddling and how it hurt their businesses. He incorporated these stories into his act, and eventually came to realise that he was a Republican.

Reagan was 69 years old when he became president - slightly older than Hillary Clinton will be in January 2017. He was, if anything, a more experienced politician, having run for president three times and served two terms as governor of California. He was lucky in his choice of opponents: Pat Brown, the sitting governor he beat in 1966, once described a tsunami as 'the worst disaster since I was elected'. Jimmy Carter, the sitting president he beat in 1980, presided over stagflation at home and humiliation abroad. But there was much more to Reagan's rise than luck.

He combined a firm belief in small government with an uncanny ability to make people like him: 'Barry Goldwater's doctrine with John F. Kennedy's technique', as he was once described. He governed more pragmatically than he spoke, Mr Brands observes. In California he compromised with Democratic lawmakers to pass a moderate budget, welfare reform and a bill legalising abortion.

As president, he raised taxes when he had to, despite vowing to cut them. He tussled with Democrats in Congress but eventually reached deals to patch up Social Security (public pensions), reform the immigration system and simplify the tax code. Modern-day Tea Partiers who hold Reagan up as an exemplar of conservative purity would be horrified at some of the things he actually did. After leaving the Oval Office, he even backed a gun-control bill named in honour of his press secretary, James Brady, who was crippled by an assassin's bullet meant for Reagan himself.

Reagan's foreign policy was straightforward. He called the Soviet Union an 'evil empire', which it was. His strategy for the cold war was: 'We win; they lose.' He knew that the Soviet state was rotting from within, and understood the power of ideas to hasten its demise. Looking at the Berlin Wall, he challenged the Soviet leader: 'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' Two years later, joyful crowds did just that.

Mr Brands argues that 'the strength of Reagan's approach to foreign policy as a whole was his weakness in policy toward the Middle East.' He kept his eye on the big picture, but misjudged smaller problems. The killing in places like Lebanon was about local grievances, both ancient and modern, and could not be fitted neatly into a cold-war template. 'It was no coincidence that the one president to make a lasting mark on the Middle East was Reagan's polar opposite', Jimmy Carter, Mr Brands writes. Without his attention to detail, the Camp David peace deal between Egypt and Israel would never have been signed.

'Reagan: The Life' contains little that will surprise professional historians, but lay readers will find it illuminating. Mr Brands recounts Reagan's triumphs and the scandals even-handedly, and concludes that the Gipper's achievements were comparable to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who led America most of the way towards winning the second world war.

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