REAGAN by H.W. Brands
Kirkus Star


The Life
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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.

Pub Date: May 12th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-385-53639-4
Page count: 816pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2015


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Kirkus Interview
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As noted historian H.W. Brands reveals in his new book The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, at the height of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman committed a gaffe that sent shock waves around the world. When asked by a reporter about the possible use of atomic weapons in response to China's entry into the war, Truman replied testily, "The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has." This suggested that General Douglas MacArthur, the willful, fearless, and highly decorated commander of the American and U.N. forces, had his finger on the nuclear trigger. A correction quickly followed, but the damage was done; two visions for America's path forward were clearly in opposition, and one man would have to make way. Truman was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. General MacArthur, by contrast, was incredibly popular, as untouchable as any officer has ever been in America. The contest of wills between these two titanic characters unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of a faraway war and terrors conjured at home by Joseph McCarthy. “An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. View video >


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