Monumental life of the president whom some worship and some despise—with Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, 2012, etc.) providing plenty of justification for both reactions.
At least some of Ronald Reagan’s (1911-2004) perceived greatness, suggests the author, came about as a gift of historical accident. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker “squeezed the inflationary expectations out of the economy and put it on the path to solid growth” in the middle of Jimmy Carter’s recession-plagued presidency, just in time for Reagan to harvest the praise when things did turn around. Some came about because the man, though actually distant, expressed a warmth that made people think he cared about them, a good talent for a politico to have. Some came about because, though Reagan had an ideology, he was also a pragmatist who understood that the reason to enter government is to govern—something so many of his followers have forgotten. Brands, a lucid, engaging writer, traces interesting connections between Reagan the politician and Reagan the actor: he was typecast early on as a good guy who played the law-and-order type against more compelling villains, and he learned from Errol Flynn’s blacklisting for left-wing views that conservatism was a safer bet. Brands gives Reagan full honors for realism and hard work, as well as a grasp of the need to do sometimes-unpopular things like raising taxes: “American conservatives…disliked taxes but disliked deficits even more.” Given the timidity of later politicians to own up to unpleasant facts, there’s fresh air in all that, even when it had bad or mixed results—the “most sweeping revision of the tax code since World War II,” say, or Iran-Contra, which, by Brands’ account, was a phase in Reagan’s long war against his “ultimate target,” Fidel Castro.
An exemplary work of history that should bring Reagan a touch more respect in some regards but that removes the halo at the same time.