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Reagan as History

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Kiron K. Skinner is the director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Ronald Reagan’s role as one of the luminaries of the 20th century was secured by his success in putting policies in place that shaped the new millennium. Born on February 6, 1911, he died at the age of 93 on June 5, 2004. Between those historical bookends, Ronald Reagan would become a radio announcer, actor, president of the Screen Actors Guild, Governor of the most populous state in the Union, fortieth President of the United States, and, finally, a champion by example for bringing national attention to Alzheimer’s disease. After switching political parties in 1962, Reagan became the most effective spokesperson for political conservatism in 20th-century America. Since his passing, most Republican seekers of the Oval Office pay homage to Reagan by claiming to be his—and only his—heir.

Who was Ronald Reagan, and how did he accomplish so much? In Reagan: The Life, H.W. Brands takes on this assignment by chronicling the varied aspects of the life of a man often described as an enigma. William E. Pemberton begins Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan by quoting John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest: “Reagan . . . had that distant dream; the powerful thing about him as President was that you never knew how much he knew, nothing or everything, he was like God that way, you had to do a lot of it yourself.”

Deciphering the enigmatic Ronald Reagan is difficult because of the prodigious written record surrounding him. Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush kept diaries, were prolific letter writers, and authored many speeches and other writings. Along with other scholars, my co-authors and I have established that Reagan, too, was a prolific author of letters, speeches, radio commentaries, and a wide variety of political tracts 1 What distinguishes him from his predecessors and successors, however, is that his personal writings are joined by the voluminous paper trail he produced in real time and at a rapid rate during his 16 years of state and Federal government service. Combining these personal and official documents, including records created during his six political campaigns, yields many millions of pages that reveal the man and his policies. Moreover, the U.S. system of declassifying documents (a characteristic of a mature democracy) and growing social pressure for increased transparency have made these documents available to the public as expeditiously as possible.

H.W. Brands is the first scholar to write a major Reagan biography that captures the arc of Reagan’s life from childhood to his post-presidential years. This impressive work could have been undertaken only by a scholar who is deeply knowledgeable about American history. Yet Brands did not grapple in a complete way with the extensive Reagan paper trail. Reagan: The Life does not appear to be based on many of the recently declassified national-security documents of the Reagan era. While it makes use of the private papers of some of Reagan’s cabinet members, the papers of other cabinet members and close advisers in Sacramento and Washington are not cited. It is difficult to know if Brands used the voluminous secondary literature on Reagan written by former aides, journalists, and scholars because he only cites what he quotes, and his book otherwise lacks a bibliography. In his section on sources, Brands refers to the importance of Reagan, In His Own Hand and Reagan, A Life in Letters, my co-edited books of Reagan’s writings; Reagan’s two biographies; his presidential diaries, edited by Douglas Brinkley; and two of Lou Cannon’s books on Reagan, among other works. Brands cites these volumes and the memoirs of Reagan’s closest advisers throughout his book.

Reagan, In His Own Hand drew enormous attention when it was published because it revealed that, after being a two-term California Governor and as he pondered his presidential bids in 1976 and 1980, Reagan wrote hundreds of commentaries for his nationally syndicated radio program, in which he addressed most major policy issues of the day. ...

Read entire article at The American Interest


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