H.W. Brands’ judicious biography of Ronald Reagan is as much about the art of governing as about the man himself. Even though Reagan made his reputation as a staunch conservative and deplored the unprincipled maneuvers of officeholders, he ought to be called the Great Compromiser, as well as the Great Communicator. Reagan raised taxes when that was the only way to achieve goals such as tax reform. He negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev despite calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Even as members of Reagan’s team pressured him to nix any agreement that would reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile, he realized that Gorbachev wanted to make a deal on arms reductions.
Brands’ biography, “Reagan: The Life,” will not appease Reagan’s opponents. The biographer clearly presents his subject as a great leader who seized the initiative on crucial occasions. In Brands’ book, Reagan is no mere actor spouting lines. Reagan wrote a good deal of his own material, and he confidently conducted one-on-one negotiations with the astute and tireless Gorbachev, who came to respect and even admire his adversary.
Brands also explores Reagan’s blunders. Reagan deluded himself that he did not trade arms for hostages in the Iran-contra scandal. He configured his administration so that others took the blame. In a corporate setting, Brands points out, Reagan would have been fired as an incompetent manager. But his way of delegating authority and protecting the office of the presidency seems, in Brands’ view, a sign of political genius — although it also meant that those close to him, like his national security adviser, John Poindexter, never told the chief executive the full truth about what was done in the president’s name.
If, unlike President Jimmy Carter, Reagan never contributed to peacemaking in the Middle East, this is because Reagan had no taste for the kind of minute details that derailed Carter in other instances. Under Reagan, millions of dollars were wasted working on an antiballistic missile system that still seems unfeasible, and that delayed arms reduction talks with the Soviets owing to Reagan’s refusal to concede the valid Soviet point that it appeared as if he were trying to launch a first strike while protecting America’s own offensive capability. But Reagan eventually learned to see the world as Gorbachev did, and that made all the difference in ending the Cold War.
In Brands’ book, Reagan emerges as a great but terribly flawed president who managed to reorient government priorities after the exhaustion of liberal administrations and ideas, but one who also burdened the country with enormous debts that his successors had to pay down.
Carl Rollyson is the author of “American Biography” and the forthcoming “A Private Life of Michael Foot.”