Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in bookish,

Book Review: Reagan - The Life

H. W. Brands is nothing if not thorough, and in Reagan: The Life, he brings the same honest professionalism, meticulous research and significant detail in chronicling the life of the 40th President that he did previously in his wonderful biographies of Andrew Jackson, both Roosevelts and Ulysses Grant. Brands ably makes the case that Reagan was not what he is often held out to be: an iconic conservative, but rather a pragmatic one. As Reagan once said to his Chief of Staff James Baker, "I'd rather get 80% of what I want, than go over the cliff with my flags flying." Brands makes the case for showing how Reagan's focus on his main goals are what had made his legacy so timeless.

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Although the book is a cradle to grave account of Reagan's life, most of its focus is on Reagan's two terms in the White House. There was a lot going on during that time, and Brands recalls and recounts almost all of it with accuracy and a keen analysis. This includes everything from his fiscal policy (dubbed Reaganomics by many), the assassination attempt in March of 1981, the air traffic controllers strike, the invasion of Grenada, Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery, the Challenger tragedy, the shelling of Libya and his Supreme Court appointments. Some aspects of Reagan's administration are given greater focus and scrutiny, most notably nuclear arms reduction negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Iran-Contra affair. Brands' accounting of these chapters in the Reagan Presidency are fascinating. The story of the evolution of the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev is especially well told. The dynamic between these two leaders of the great powers is extremely interesting.

Brands is neither obsequious nor insolent in his analysis of Reagan's personality and presidency. He gives Reagan credit when it is due, and also notes Reagan's failings, weaknesses and management flaws. He addresses Reagan's determination, ambition, timing, luck, and his successes and failures. For example, Brands addresses Reagan's successes in reducing taxes, in restoring public confidence, and in bringing about the diminishing of the influence of communism, as well as his failures in bringing about rapid growth in debt and deficits, his unwillingness to fire those who were deserving of it, and his lack of oversight over rogue subordinates.

Brands ably describes Reagan's declining years in his post presidency, including Reagan's candid declaration of his diagnosis of Alzheimer's and the pitiful decline which the disease brought about in the "Great Communicator". As with all of his historical biographies, Brands is most eloquent in his summary of Reagan's life and legacy and his assessment of Reagan's career, making a strong case as to where prevailing views have it right and where they have it wrong.

Brands' strengths are in his detail (as one might expect from a 737 page tome) and in his objectivity. The book is neither Reagan worship nor Reagan bashing. Brands makes an interesting and compelling case for his opinions on Reagan's life, many of which differ from the standard image many people have of the Gipper. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his conclusions, it is Brands' intelligent and articulate account and assessment of this fascinating life that makes this an excellent work.
Tags: author: b, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: biography, subject: history

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