Throughout my blogging career I have often thought of reading specific books tied to holidays or historic anniversaries to bring a little topicality to the blog. For the most part these thoughts rarely connected in practice (I did manage to post a topical post last night and one two years ago on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day).
This year, on a whim I decided to read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years: Ronald Reagan by Michael Schaller. Figured it was president’s day weekend and all, why not read a presidential biography. And one that was 100 pages seemed like a good place to start. I have probably a dozen books on Reagan but have read few of them due to their length and my lack of focus. So here was a chance to dive in to the shallow end before moving on to larger works.
Here is the publishers description:
In this short biography, Michael Schaller, acclaimed historian of the American political right, offers readers a poignant account of Ronald Reagan’s life and achievements, from his small-town upbringing in rural Illinois to his cinematic success in Hollywood, entry into politics as governor of California, and meteoric rise to the White House, where he served for eight years. The polarizing Great Communicator oversaw many developments that changed the face of American politics and life-the Iran-Contra Affair, the establishment of “Reaganomics,” the largest military buildup in peacetime US history–and as such remains a figure about whom much is written and much has yet to be discovered. Schaller revisits each of these episodes during and leading up to the Reagan presidency, taking into account the latest scholarship and research. In doing so, he makes clear their significance at the time and in later years.
Obviously, that 100 pages means it is really just a brief overview of his life and career rather than any sort of in-depth analysis. And Schaller has no sympathy for Reagan’s conservatism. But, like most short biographies, it provides a useful outline and introduction to the man and his times.
It is important not to have too high of expectations of a book like this. Rare is the writer who can make a 100 page biography into anything more than an introduction that hits the high points and attempts to outline some key takeaways. And Schaller is no exception. Clearly it isn’t a hagiography but neither is it a hit piece per se.
But if he isn’t exactly outright hostile to Reagan and conservatism he is deeply skeptical about what he sees as the gap between Reagan’s rhetoric and reality. From the beginning he sees Reagan as deflecting anything negative, or contrary to his perspective, in order to focus relentlessly on the positive; and to deny events or facts that contradict his worldview. Schaller sees this trend in Reagan’s personal life, the stories and anecdotes he tells and his record as president. Reagan lived in his own world so he wouldn’t have to bump up against the harsh reality of the wider world.
Schaller also positions conservatism as a reactionary force in America; perhaps sometimes understandably so, but basically outside the mainstream. He grants that Reagan may not have been personally racist but supported policies supported by racists and used “code words” like state’s rights. Schaller also never seems to question the effectiveness of government programs or growth. Any cuts are understood to hurt the needy and any success in the economy is viewed as helping rich fat cats rather than the average person; a more conservative court system is seen as reducing rights and hurting minorities, etc.
What Schaller argues is that Reagan made a deep connection with the American people thanks to his talents as an actor and a communicator combined with his optimistic and confident focus on the greatness of America. A relentless focus on a few big things and a staff who handled the details made this success possible. Schaller also notes that Reagan was a great deal more flexible than his conservative supporters recognized or probably would have liked. From taxes and the size of government to foreign policy Reagan compromised when he believed it furthered his long-term goals. This allowed him to be successful in negotiations and avoid clashes that would lower his popularity (which he effectively use as leverage).
The book views Reagan’s legacy as less clear than might be assumed. Yes, he pushed America to the right but in an evolving and less permanent way; more evolution than revolution. And Schaller makes a point that irritates conservatives to this day: for all of Reagan’s rhetoric and success little progress seems to have been made on the size and scope of government or the large social issues like abortion and family dysfunction.
While I can appreciate Schaller’s instincts as a historian to be skeptical about grandiose claims and to instead focus on the messy details and reality of history, this short work strikes me as a sort of perfect encapsulation of the mainstream liberal view of Reagan. A man who used his unique skills to ascend to great heights but whose underlying beliefs and policies belied his sunny demeanor and rhetoric. What is frustrating is that Schaller never brings his skepticism to bear on any underlying liberal assumptions in he same way he does Reagan’s ideas and arguments. So at times it reads as an attempt to undermine Reagan’s claims and place in history rather than an introduction to the subject. Rather than balanced and inquisitive it feels merely skeptical or even cynical.
If you are looking for a biography that takes Reagan’s ideas and policies seriously you will need to look elsewhere. But this short work does nevertheless provide a useful outline of the major issues and events of Reagan’s life and gives readers a good place to start. If nothing else it will give conservative readers, or fans of Reagan, a handy outline of the criticisms against the former president and the conservative movement he jump started.
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