Thursday, June 18, 2015


Reagan: The LifeReagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Reagan was called ‘the great communicator’ with reason, He was the most persuasive political speaker since Roosevelt, combining conviction, focus, and humor in the manner none of his contemporaries could approach. Reagan’s critics often dismissed the role of conviction in his persuasiveness; they attributed his speaking skill to his training as an actor. But this was exactly wrong. Reagan wasn’t acting when he spoke; his rhetorical power rested on his wholehearted belief in all the wonderful things he said about the United States and the American people, about their brave past and their brilliant future. He believed what Americans have always wanted to believe about their country, and he made them believe it too.”

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How can you not like Ronald Reagan? People disagree with him. People hate his politics. People (me) even believe he broke the law, but at the end of the day he really believed in America, and he revived some faith in the office of President...well…for a while. The Republican party has been searching for the next Reagan ever since he left office in 1988.

They have not succeeded.

”Pessimism pervades the thinking of conservatives, who tend to believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They might be right, but they aren’t fun to be around. Barry Goldwater appealed to people’s heads, but he left their hearts cold. Reagan was as conservative philosophically as Goldwater, but his sunny mien made Americans feel good about themselves and their country and made him irresistible at the polls.”

Unfortunately, in recent presidential elections the race has become a popularity contest. When the press is asking potential voters which candidate they would rather have a beer with, I can’t help but think that the press is actually encouraging people to assess candidates by the most shallow considerations. I had someone who worked for me who said he voted for George W. Bush because “he was a dummy like me.” Another person said that she was not going to vote for John Kerry because “his face is TOO long.” Candidates with extensive voting records, like Kerry, are finding it hard to win the presidency due to (obviously having too long a face) their voting records deconstructed by their adversaries who can always find pork in any bill and make a case for irresponsibility. Candidates with shorter times in office, and thus fewer opportunities to go on the record, fare better, like Barack Obama.

So if the trend is for less qualified candidates who have a nice smile or who have a special talent for composing quips or are a great speaker or just look damn good on camera, then the candidates most qualified generally don’t have much of a chance. If we accept that this is the future of the presidency, then we need to make damn sure that those candidates surround themselves with the very best counselors/advisors available. Second term presidents suffer more for many reasons, but one reason is the very best of the staff that they had for their first term generally move on because of burnout and/or a need to go back to the private sector to restart their careers.

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Reagan had a good working relationship with all the world leaders. As you can see they formed their own superteam. Pope John Paul, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.

Jack Matlock was appalled at how little Reagan knew about the Soviet Union despite the fact that he railed against “the evil empire” every chance he got. ”Dealing as he did with Reagan every day, he was struck by the president’s spotty command of historical facts. Reagan had had very few contacts with Soviet officials and still tended to base many of his judgments more on generalities, even slogans, than on a nuanced understanding of Soviet reality.”

Reagan, fortunately, proved a quick study and was truly interested in the information, not enough to have ever picked up a book, but with these professionals tutoring him he was able to learn his lines.

His summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev regarding the reduction of the nuclear arsenals of both countries was frustrating to read. Gorbachev might be the most progressive leader ever seen to rise to power in Russia or the Soviet Union. He was convinced that changes needed to happen, and his first order of business was to end the cold war before it broke his country. His predecessors Chemenko, Andropov, and Brezhnev, who all died shortly after getting into office, would have never considered making the broad stroke changes that Gorbachev was proposing.

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Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev wanted Reagan to keep his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), so famously called Star Wars, in the lab for ten years, but Reagan refused, even though the experts felt they were longer than ten years away from trying to deploy any part of it in space anyway. The two leaders walked away without a deal. It was a real missed opportunity.

Gorbachev ended the Cold War, not Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s famous speech about tearing down the wall in Berlin actually created a problem for Gorbachev who had already planned to bring the wall down, but that speech made it seem as if he was tearing the wall down because the United States demanded it. Reagan’s timing may not have been good for Gorbachev, but it was an excellent opportunity to add to the myth of Ronald Reagan.

Reading this book brought me a much better understanding of Nancy Reagan, maybe even giving me a slightly more positive view of her. Every day of her life was devoted to her husband. She would do anything to make sure he was successful. This at times made her very vindictive. It also spun her in occult directions, like consulting an astrologer about Reagan’s travel schedule. She didn’t run Reagan, but she ran everything in his life that he didn’t care about. She had a very good reason, as it turns out, to be paranoid about his safety even before John Hinkley Jr. tried to assassinate her husband.

”Nancy knew of the fatal pattern that had long afflicted presidents elected in years divisible by twenty. Since 1840 every chief executive so elected had died in office: William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy.”

Anybody else getting goose pimples.

I was hoping when I decided to read this book that H. W. Brands would be discussing the Iran-Contra Affair in detail. Maybe he didn’t go as deep into details as I was hoping for, but he did provide me with confirmation that Reagan did know. I can remember watching Colonel Oliver North in front of congress. I even rooted for him, admiring this one man who had been selected as the fall guy, standing up to the significant power of congress. He wasn’t the master mind. He was a soldier following orders. Reagan wrote in his diary:

”On one of the arms shipments the Iranians paid Israel a higher purchase price than we were getting. The Israelis put the difference in a secret bank account. Then our Col. North gave the money to the Contras.”

I do not recall

became the constant refrain to any of the questions asked of those in the administration called to testify. Even Reagan was deposed after he left office, and it is painful to watch. He is addled and fumbling for words, really a shell of the man who was once “the great communicator.” The Iran-Contra affair plunged his poll numbers to an all time low for him. His number never really recovered until many years later when people remembered how good he made them feel about being Americans more than they remembered the times he had stumbled.

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The Villain Who Deceived or Hero Who Obeyed?

I loved the way H. W. Brands talked about the fickleness of politics. The points in an administration when one thing going right or one thing going wrong can make a huge difference. Jimmy Carter was a perfect example of a president who couldn’t catch a break. ”Paul Volcker was Jimmy Carter’s gift to Reagan; it was Volcker who squeezed the inflationary expectations out of the economy and put it on the path to solid growth. And he did so at just the right time for Reagan. If Volcker had taken charge of the fed two years earlier, the economy might have improved sufficiently that Carter and not Reagan would have been elected in 1980. If Volcker had arrived two years later, the recession that routed the Republicans in the 1982 elections could have swept Reagan from office in 1984.”

Reagan gave people a cozy, dependable feel. He was the model for the perfect grandfather that everyone knows they can go to for comfort and encouragement. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was a master at putting everyone at ease. No one who worked with him wanted to disappoint him. Though our oldest president in age, he brought an energy and a sense of infinite possibility to every speech he gave. Thinking of the speech he gave after the Challenger incident reminds me that he was also capable of expressing tenderness in a way that made all of us feel he was grieving with us. The fact that he was an actor did not contribute to his success as president as much as I believe the time he spent as a sports radio announcer. He had to think on his feet and developed a real sense of how best to keep people entertained while sitting behind that microphone.

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Reagan behind the microphone

If he is the model for future presidents, then the role of president will have to change. In some ways maybe it already has. Reagan was not cerebral, but he had the same ability as his hero Franklin Roosevelt to communicate through more than just words, through inflections and pauses to convey a sense of well being in the face of calamity. Going forward I can see the people that a president surrounds himself will be ever more important. Scary to think of all those non-elected officials determining the course of our lives, but if we aren’t going to elect the most qualified to the highest office, then we will have to hope that the best and the brightest will continue to volunteer for public service.

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