REAGAN: THE LIFE
By H.W. Brands
Published in 2015 by Doubleday.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Ronald Reagan flung out these defiant words as he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in June of 1987. They rang not only in the ears of Mikhail Gorbachev and the crowd assembled to witness the historic meeting of the two world leaders, but around the world. I heard them in the living room of a bungalow in southwest Georgia. And I remember them
I’m not the only one. In the last week I’ve heard the incident recalled by two 2016 presidential hopefuls as one among many references to our fortieth president. I expect to hear many more times before Election Day. This makes excellent timing for H. W. Brands’ new biography Reagan: The Life.
While the book is accurately labelled a biography, it has a focus—the presidency and the arc of Ronald Reagan’s life from the unhappy child of a drunken father and a loving but overworked mother to the Oval Office.
The boy spared himself the agony of the early life by losing himself in stories and learning to tell them. He became an indifferent college student, and then a radio sports announcer calling football games in Davenport, Iowa. A fairly ho-hum and typical life, but one filled with events that upon reflection, seems to be both amazingly fortunate and not entirely without plan.
The radio-trained voice made the aspiring movie star stand out over his competition. His alliterative name appealed to his new bosses—so, unlike many young actors, he kept it—a political asset, not having to explain a name change. The realization that big time movie stardom wasn’t in the cards led to a change in media and the wider and more consistent audience of a popular television show—The General Electric Theatre. What next? Why, politics, of course.
These earlier years occupy less than 20 percent of the book. Its thrust is the political years as actor Reagan became Governor of California and then President of the United States. The post-presidential years bring the over 700 page volume to a quick conclusion.
This is no cut-and-dried account of a life. In the discussion of sources, Brands explains that his primary sources came from Reagan himself—his speeches, diaries, letters, and memoirs. Just as the young Reagan was a storyteller, so was the man, and so is this biographer, sharing anecdotes as illustrations of even the most serious events.
I enjoyed reading the book for the stories as much as for the insights I gained from the inside view of the public events of these important years in our history. I read straight through, but I’m not going to lay it aside. Rather, it’s going to be near where I watch the news, so that when a candidate from either party quotes RR, I can grab the book and find out what he really said.
A final word on Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech. Both presidential advisor Howard Baker and the State Department advised Reagan to omit these words from his speech, but the President refused—and made history.
Trilla Pando holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Houston; she taught in both Texas and Georgia. Her research focused on women in Texas and Houston. The Bainbridge (Georgia) Post-Searchlight published her weekly column on food and local history. She now lives and works in Houston.