Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review - An American Life: The Autobiography, Ronald Reagan

An American Life: The Autobiography


Ronald Reagan

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Politics & Washington, D.C.

Synopsis: President Ronald Reagan recounts his eight years as president.

Date finished: 24 April 2013

Rating: ****

When I was five, Ronald Reagan was running for president. My folks were farmers, and they believed only the democrats looked out for farmers, so they voted democrat. As election coverage ramped up, my older brother taught me this ditty:

     Ronald Reagan – he’s no good
     Send him back to Hollywood
     Jimmy Carter – he’s our man
     If he can’t do it, no one can

That was my introduction to the president who would serve during most of my childhood.

In second grade, our teacher, Mrs. Miles, told us President Reagan loved jelly beans, and our class sent him some. This was about 1982, at a precious time in our history when those jelly beans may very well have ended up in a glass dish in the oval office. He sent us a personal letter thanking us for the candy, and we were pictured in the local newspaper. I figured if the president of the United States could take time to thank a bunch of second graders in Taylor, Wisconsin (population 365), he wasn’t all bad. Of course, I didn’t tell my folks that—and especially not my big brother.

Like all presidential memoirs, this one was full of facts and figures and dates and read much like a history book. He discussed all the things I remember hearing about growing up but not understanding until now: Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, the Iran-Contra affair, the traffic controller union strike, supply-side economics, peace through strength, Reagan & Thatcher, Beirut, nuclear disarmament, Star Wars, Gorbachev and the USSR, etc.

I was disappointed by some of the omissions. There was no discussion, for instance, about his famous amnesty bill. Did he think this was a failed move on his part? Did he think that writing about it in the 1990s when George H.W. Bush hadn’t done anything to close the border (as I understand it, part of that bill) was violating the 11th commandment (thou shalt not talk ill of fellow Republicans)? Whatever the reason, a mention of it should have been provided, I think.

The most glaring omission, however, was the lack of personal family information. While he talks quite a bit about his parents, brother, and childhood, his marriage to Jane Wyman and the welcoming of his children Maureen and Michael was mentioned in a single paragraph (page 92). Meeting and marrying Nancy only warranted two pages (121-123). The births of Patti and Ron were mentioned only in passing. On the other hand, he waxed poetic about his horses over and over. Obviously, he made a conscious decision that family matters were private and not fodder for a book, but I maintain that this is a memoir and readers deserve those details.

In a day when the current crop of Republicans has Reagan on such a high pedestal, he’s nearly deified, it’s nice to read about the man in his own words. He was confident and humble. He was well-spoken and witty. He was hot-tempered and even-keeled. He was patient. He was kind. What’s better, he was one of the last great statesmen, I can see that now. It was eerie how many of the problems he faced as president are being faced by our current president: economic recession, nuclear armament of nations run on unstable ideals, the threat of unstable idealism (the spread of communism and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and jihad), and of course, the ever present Israel/Pakistan conflict. What’s more interesting, however, that on every issue, our current administration is the idealistic opposite of President Reagan’s administration. Reagan turned the economy around, our current economy languishes. Reagan called for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the current administration will not call terrorism by its name.

I read this book hoping I’d find some of the speeches I remember from my childhood, and I was not disappointed:

     You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of   
     man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
     —from a speech delivered for the Barry Goldwater campaign

     They [economic ills] will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the
     past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In the
     present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem….all of us need
     to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states, the states created the federal
     —from his first inaugural address

     General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and
     Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr.
     Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
     —given near the Berlin wall (which would come down in the next administration)

Some various quotes:

     To Gorbachev:
     We don’t mistrust each other because we are armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.
     (page 13)

     There probably isn’t any undertaking on earth short of assuring the national security that can’t be handled
     more efficiently by the forces of private enterprise than by the federal government. (page 120)

     No government has ever voluntarily reduced itself in size… (page 129)

     By 1960, I realized the real enemy wasn’t big business, it was big government. (page 135)

     Once started, a federal program benefiting any group or special interest is virtually impossible to end and
     the costs go on forever. (page 197)

     University of California student rioters telling Pres. Reagan he didn’t, couldn’t, understand their
     You weren’t raised in a time of instant communications or satellites and computers solving problems in
     seconds that previously took hours or days or even weeks to solve. You didn’t live in an age of space
     travel or journeys to the moon, of jet travel or high speed electronics…”
          When he paused to take a breath, I said:
          You’re absolutely right. We didn’t have those things when we were your age. We invented them.
     (page 179)

     If I could be elected president, I wanted to do what I could to bring about a spirited revival in America.
     (page 219)

     I believed—and intended to make it a theme of my campaign—that America’s greatest years were
     ahead of it… (page 219)

     The economic recovery system was threefold: Cut tax rates, get government regulators out of our way,
     and reduce government spending. (page 312)

     …frankly, I’m not sure a man could be a good president without a wife who is willing to express her
     opinions with the frankness that grows out of a solid marriage. (page 380)

     For years, I’ve heard the question: “How could an actor be president?” I’ve sometimes wondered how
     you could be president and not be an actor. (page 393)

     I’ve believed many things in my life, but no conviction I’ve ever held has been stronger than my belief that
     the Unites States must ensure the survival of Israel. (page 410)

I came away from this book with an appreciation for Reagan as a man and as a president. I also felt proud of my country, truly honored to be an American, fighting on the side of good, propping up other nations, tearing down walls, being a shining city upon a hill for the whole world.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

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