One of my favorite lines from the movie "Back to the Future" is when Doc Brown asks Marty McFly who the president is in the future. When Marty answers "Ronald Reagan!," Doc laughs and asks incredulously, "The actor?!?" And it's funny because we seldom associate actors with being deep thinkers – at least not the kind of thinkers we'd want to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.
But Ronald Reagan was an actor in the beginning. Actually, before that he was a radio sportscaster who then landed some roles in Hollywood, even becoming a rising star until World War II came along. He tried to enlist but his eyesight was so poor that he wasn't allowed in a combat role, but his solid good looks were a natural fit for the government training and 'propaganda' films. And when the plum movie roles dried up after the war, he found work in some less serious films such as "Bedtime for Bonzo" where he co-starred with a chimpanzee. It's no wonder Doc Brown was dismissive.
In Reagan: The Life, H. W. Brands treats us to a fairly detailed (700+ pages) biography of the 40th President of the United States. He covers his early years with an alcoholic father, his college foray into acting, and his desire for an ever-larger stage from which to perform. When his Hollywood career stalled, he became the unlikely spokesman for corporate America on television's General Electric Theater where he honed his public speaking skills. His political career began as union leader for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), following which he was elected California's governor.
But his presidency is the focus and bulk of this book, beginning around page 200 and consuming the next 500. Brands covers it meticulously – almost to the level of minutiae – and frequently compares his impact with FDR's, Reagan's early hero. I was a teenager during the early Reagan years, and saw him as restoring pride and confidence in America at a time when both were at historic lows. Yet, I knew not everyone saw him as positively as I did: the editor of my high school newspaper went out of his way to criticize Reagan (I wonder how many high school newspapers were so overtly political?). Later, I was out of the country (and out of touch with politics) during the final years when Iran-Contra and much of the negotiations with Gorbachev happened, so that was insightful to me. And while Brands avoids 'falling in love with his subject,' as some biographers do, it's still a fairly friendly bio. He frames Iran-Contra as Reagan's effort to bring hostages home and Nancy's reliance on astrologers as a possibly over-protective impulse after the assassination attempt, but in other places he is less than flattering and perhaps more objective. That's probably how it should be, but if I had a complaint it's that the book sometimes feels passionless.
There will certainly be some on the far right who feel it's not praising enough, and some on the far left who feel it's not critical enough, but I found it to be an informative and entertaining read. I've read a couple of books by his speechwriters – one was good but too patronizing
and another too presumptuous. I've read great books about Reagan's handling of the air traffic controller's strike and his near-assassination, and even one about a great speech he gave. But Brand's bio does a good job of approaching scholarly while remaining readable. I wish it had covered his pre-presidential life in more depth, but I guess that's worthy of a separate book or two. For those primarily interested in his presidency, however, this one should please most readers. (I received a free book from the publisher.)