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Book Summary: Reagan by H. W. Brands

Reagan (2015) is the definitive account of the life of a towering figure in American history. Starting with his childhood in Illinois, the narrative follows the course of Ronald Reagan’s life, from his charmed days in Hollywood to his time as governor of California and, finally, from the White House to the world stage of the Cold War.

Book Summary: Reagan by H. W. Brands

Content Summary

Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? A deep dive on a towering figure of American conservatism.
The Crowd Pleaser
From in Front of the Camera to Behind the Scenes
A Political Star is Born
Governor of California
Defeat, then Victory
The Greatest Political Win
Battles Abroad, Battles at Home
A Historic Meeting
A Frustrating Summit
The Great Communicator
Summary
About the author

Who is it for?

  • All those who think they know what Reagan was all about
  • History buffs
  • People looking to understand modern American conservatism

What’s in it for me? A deep dive on a towering figure of American conservatism.

In the modern political era, Ronald Reagan is a controversial figure – deified by Republicans, demonized by Democrats. But during his life, the story was much more nuanced. His policies may have been unpopular with some, but his humor and relatable communication style made him almost universally popular as a person.

These summaries will take you on Reagan’s journey, from the Illinois church talent shows that gave him his first taste of applause, through to his first inauguration where he addressed half a million spectators, to his tense summits with Mikhail Gorbachev – where two men argued over the fate of the world.

Ultimately, Ronald Reagan changed the direction of the United States, using his folksy charm to turn it toward a new era of conservatism.

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • which surprising politician was Reagan’s hero as a young man;
  • how television helped make Reagan’s political career; and
  • why an astrologer helped set Reagan’s schedule.

The Crowd Pleaser

There were three things Reagan remembered from his childhood: His father was drunk, his mother was an angel, and making people laugh was an antidote to all his insecurities and embarrassments.

During those years, Reagan was no stranger to insecurity and embarrassment. His family moved around Illinois a lot during his boyhood, and they never had much money. His mother would put oatmeal in the stew pot and make a big show of it, as though cereal were the finest delicacy. Reagan also struggled to make friends. He was always the new kid in school, and wasn’t very good at sports.

But he did excel at one thing: performing speeches at his mother’s church. As soon as he earned his first laughter and applause, he was hooked and wanted more. And soon enough he found a skill that would propel him to the heights of his first career: theater.

Reagan attended college in southern Illinois. He was a mediocre student. But his good looks and prowess on the stage led to a career in student politics. He was mostly in it for the attention. Attention felt good.

In college, Reagan also fell in love – with movies. He’d spend hours watching both westerns and sappy silent films. His secret dream was to be an actor, but he didn’t dare tell anyone. Ascending to the silver screen seemed about as likely as ascending to the moon.

Radio, however, seemed like a reasonable alternative. So he applied for and landed a job as a sportscaster. It was 1933. Franklin Roosevelt had just been elected president, and Reagan was electrified by Roosevelt’s radio addresses – the Fireside Chats. All across the country, people huddled around their radios, uplifted and comforted by the confidence, candor, and strength of the president. Reagan listened, too. He listened and learned.

But he wasn’t satisfied with radio. He wanted more. So he talked his bosses into sending him to Southern California on a work trip. While there, he reached out to a former colleague he knew from the radio station, a woman who was trying to make it in Hollywood. After asking to see how he looked without his glasses, she introduced him to her agent.

Things moved quickly from there. The agent got Reagan a screen test with Warner Bros., but, before the results came in, Reagan decided to take the train back out east, returning to his regular job. In Des Moines, he got a telegram: Warner was offering a seven-year contract. Reagan’s reaction was instantaneous: “Sign before they change their minds.”

From in Front of the Camera to Behind the Scenes

In 1937, Reagan drove to Hollywood. And straightaway, he was sent for a makeover. Makeup and wardrobe were nonplussed. With his midwestern aw-shucks demeanor and decent, but not drop-dead-gorgeous, face, he hardly cut the figure of a Hollywood dreamboat. “They must think I’m Houdini,” grumbled the makeup artist when she first saw Reagan.

But the makeup artist’s opinion didn’t end up mattering. Reagan loved acting, and the camera loved him. He was a hit. He bought his parents a house, and gave his father a job looking after his fan mail. He also met and married Jane Wyman, an up-and-coming actress. These were happy, charmed years.

Then, in 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America was thrust into war. Reagan, too nearsighted for combat, contributed to the war effort as an actor in propaganda films. He starred in dozens of pictures, which spurred young men to enlist in droves. These wartime movies were the first time the public began to associate Reagan with American patriotism.

But the war was the beginning of the end of his film career. Tastes had changed. There weren’t many projects for him, the studio said. After a few months larking about Southern California, he started getting involved in Hollywood politics, becoming a vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, known as SAG, in 1946. As he began familiarizing himself with yet another side of Hollywood, it became clear that there were more communists in the mix than he was comfortable with. The Depression had ravaged the film industry, just as it had ravaged every other one; in those uncertain times, communism was more popular in America than ever before – and more popular than it ever would be again.

As left-wing politics gathered steam, there were multiple strikes in Hollywood. Here was a chance for Reagan to come out on the side of what he believed in – the side of the studios, not the unions. His strength of conviction earned him the guild presidency of SAG in 1947, and the admiration of studio bosses all over town.

In 1947, his anti-communist stance brought him to Washington, where he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on communism in Hollywood. He argued that Hollywood could take care of its own shop, without interference from the government. In Washington, he found that he liked the political platform as much as he liked the movie camera. When ten members of the film community denounced HUAC, they were blacklisted by the studios. Reagan publicly supported the studios. His political career had begun.

A Political Star is Born

Things were getting exciting for Reagan. He’d found a new career in Hollywood politics. But things weren’t so good at home. As Reagan turned away from acting, his wife, Jane, became more and more successful. They grew apart, and, in 1947, they separated.

But he wouldn’t be single for long. A young actress, Nancy Davis, had her eye on Reagan. She orchestrated a meeting, and the two started dating. After a long courtship, they married in 1952. The two would be partners for over five decades.

Meanwhile, the soaring popularity of television was torpedoing movie attendance. In 1950 only four million American homes had a television; ten years later, that number had risen to 60 million. There was less demand than ever for aging actors of middling talent. Reagan would never again do any serious acting. Little did he know, however, that he would soon be to television what FDR had been to radio.

Reagan’s career in television began when General Electric offered him a job hosting a television series. The host would double as a traveling spokesman for GE. For movie stars, television was déclassé. But he needed a paycheck. He signed in 1953.

GE transformed Reagan from a mid-level Hollywood star to a spokesman for conservative America. His stories resonated with audiences in small-town America. Slowly it dawned on him that the party of Roosevelt, the Democrats, no longer reflected his beliefs. In 1962, he registered as a Republican.

The Republican party that Reagan joined seemed to have lost its way. It was divided between moderates like Nixon and conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who supported small government but also big defense budgets to fight the Cold War. Goldwater was the Republican nominee in 1964.

Reagan gave a speech on Goldwater’s behalf, which was televised nationally. It was a watershed moment for Reagan. He was serious, but not angry; funny, but not distractingly so. He illustrated points about smaller government and strong defense with images and relatable examples, honed over years of talking to normal folks. By the time he finished, he had won over his audience in Los Angeles as well as television viewers at home, who promptly contributed $1 million to Goldwater’s campaign.

Reagan had made a name for himself. And he’d isolated beliefs that he would stick to for the rest of his life.

Governor of California

Republicans in California started talking about a Reagan-for-governor campaign. It was perfect timing: civil rights and the student movement of the 1960s was triggering a backlash of conservatism, not only in California but throughout the country. Reagan’s principled stance of old-fashioned conservative values was popular in opinion polls. When influential conservatives threw their support behind him, Reagan was ready to announce his candidacy.

His platform was small government and the rights of individuals. He railed against the students protesting at Berkeley, and the tendency of Democrats to seek votes by pandering to “hyphenated Americans,” a derogatory term that’d been applied to unnaturalized citizens since the late nineteenth century. Reagan used it to refer to members of minority populations, such as “African-Americans” and “Mexican-Americans,” both of which were stylized with a hyphen at the time. And his message hit home: he won the Republican primary two-to-one against his opponent, and went on to win the election by a million votes.

As governor, Reagan wasn’t interested in the details. He wanted to focus on principles and big ideas, and leave the busywork to his staff. The biggest idea he had was to cut both taxes and government spending, the latter by 10 percent. It turned out he couldn’t do both. California’s budget was so unbalanced that tax hikes were the only solution. The tax increase would ultimately total $950 million.

He also tussled with the University of California. First, he raised tuition. Then he dispatched state troopers to quell resulting protests on the Berkeley campus. When the protestors fought back, he deployed a helicopter to spray them with tear gas. In Santa Barbara, a protester was killed by police. But despite the unrest, Reagan’s resolve ultimately won the day: the University of California accepted Reagan’s tuition hikes. Reagan was easily elected for a second term.

Meanwhile, Richard Nixon’s presidency was unraveling due to the Watergate affair. In August 1974, Nixon resigned, and Vice President Gerald Ford took over. Reagan knew what this meant: there was no longer a Republican heir apparent. The road from California to Washington was now wide open.

Reagan had two years to kill before the presidential election, which he definitely planned to enter. In the meantime, though, he needed a way to stay connected with the public. Given the choice between a television show and a radio program, he surprisingly chose the latter. “People won’t tire of me on the radio,” he explained to stunned advisors.

By the end of his radio career, Reagan was addressing around 50 million people per day. His remarks were less focused on specific policy, and more on general conservative principles. But what was really important was that he made for easy listening. People may have disagreed with him, but they rarely found him disagreeable.

Defeat, then Victory

Challenging the incumbent Gerald Ford in the presidential race of 1976 was a desperate move. But, at 65, Reagan was already old by American political standards, and he wasn’t sure how much of a career he had left. He didn’t mind splitting the Republican Party and he didn’t mind that President Ford had the machinery of government to use in his favor.

He lost the primary to Ford, but, by the end, Reagan had more visibility than ever before. He didn’t use his new platform to support Ford, though. You see, Reagan believed that the best thing for the country would be for Ford to lose to Jimmy Carter, which would finally discredit Republican moderation. Whether Ford’s loss truly was the best thing for America is up for debate. But one thing’s for certain: Jimmy Carter’s win was the best thing for Ronald Reagan.

When Carter took office, he was immediately beset by foreign policy problems. He’d campaigned on a platform of human rights and decency in the foreign sphere. But critics loudly claimed that he was naively ignoring the real tyrant – the USSR – while harping on smaller offenses committed by relatively small fish. His problems crystallized with the Iranian Revolution, when an angry crowd stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and kidnapped dozens of diplomats and staff.

Reagan’s announcement of his candidacy for president in 1979 came as no surprise. Carter was terribly unpopular: only three out of ten Americans approved of his performance. Then the Soviets inadvertently helped Reagan’s tough-on-communism campaign by invading Afghanistan. But the real strength of Reagan’s candidacy was the failing economy. Voters blamed Carter for the economy, for the Tehran hostage crisis, and for being weak on the Soviets.

Even a solid debate performance couldn’t save the incumbent. Reagan’s victory was overwhelming. He beat Carter by more than eight million votes.

Reagan had been talking about smaller government for years. So it’s no surprise that most government agencies were wary of his presidency. The only departments that were relieved at his election were defense – he was staunchly in favor of a stronger defense budget – and the CIA, which Reagan viewed as critical to the Cold War effort.

He was also famous for his uncomplicated views: at one point he said, “My theory of the Cold War is: We win and they lose.” His presidency would come to reflect this broad simplicity.

The Greatest Political Win

Reagan’s first order of business after his 1981 inauguration was the economy. Cutting taxes is politically easy, because it makes everyone happy. Cutting spending is politically hard, because it causes everyone pain. Reagan decided to start with the easy part. Speaking to Congress, he presented his four-part economic plan. He called for a 10 percent tax cut across the board. He also called for $49 billion in government spending cuts, deregulation, and monetary policy reform. He couldn’t bring this plan home by himself; he would need Congress’s support.

But before he could begin lobbying in earnest, disaster struck. As Reagan was leaving a Washington hotel after a speech, he was shot by a deranged man hoping to get the attention of the actress Jodie Foster. Coughing up blood, he was rushed to the hospital. He collapsed immediately upon arrival.

Doctors made a desperate search for the bullet, which they eventually found lodged next to his aorta. After a tense surgery, they managed to remove it.

Reagan was rattled by the shooting. His wife, Nancy, was devastated by it. For weeks afterward, she could hardly eat or sleep. She worried constantly about where the next bullet might come from. Looking for comfort wherever she could get it, she began consulting a San Francisco astrologer on what days were good or bad for Reagan to travel or make public appearances. The astrologer quietly joined the presidential schedulers, to the consternation of some of his staff.

After he recovered from the shooting, Reagan’s approval numbers were as high as they would ever go, at 68 percent. But despite his popularity, his economic plan moved slowly. Frustrated, Reagan deployed his most surefire weapon: himself. He spoke to the American public in a televised address, explaining the plan in a way that was relatable and humorous. At the end, he called on people to contact their representatives. People obliged: phones in the Capitol began ringing off the hook. The budget finally passed.

Schools took a 20 percent cut. Food-stamp funding fell 15 percent. Support for public housing fell 40 percent, and the arts and humanities took a 30 percent hit, among other cuts. It was everything Reagan had expected, and more. The tax and budget cuts were, as he put it, the “greatest political win in half a century.”

Battles Abroad, Battles at Home

Reagan’s victory lap didn’t last long. He may have scored a tax-and-budget win, but he was struggling to find his foreign-policy footing. The Caribbean basin was in the crosshairs of his National Security Council. Communism was spreading in the region, emanating from Cuba, which was backed by the Soviets. Nicaragua, where the Soviet-backed Sandinista party was threatening the US-backed government, was particularly worrying.

The administration decided to arm the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, known as the contras. Publicly, Reagan adopted bellicose rhetoric, saying his administration would do “whatever is necessary” to ensure peace in the Caribbean. Listeners also understood that, to Reagan, “peace” meant the suppression of communism. Some of the action he took would be extremely controversial, like planting mines in Nicaraguan harbors to disrupt supplies from the USSR and Cuba.

Early in his presidency, Reagan famously referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. In Reagan’s book, communism may have been evil, but he couldn’t simply avoid or dismiss the USSR. Reagan managed to walk a fine line: he thundered against Soviet aggression to the American public, while leaving the door open for negotiation. Arms reductions, and ultimately elimination of the nuclear threat, were at the top of the agenda. And in order to get the Soviets to the negotiating table, he had to convince Congress to fund his defense plan. That was the counterintuitive logic of the Cold War: Reagan had to produce more arms to get the Soviets to agree to disarmament.

As the 1984 election approached, Reagan looked extremely presidential on state visits to China and Europe. The Democrat Walter Mondale was gearing up to challenge Reagan, buoyed by a good Democratic showing in the midterms. But in 1983 the recession finally broke, turning the election in favor of the incumbent.

But Mondale had a card to play. Reagan was 73 when he was nominated, the oldest person ever to run. That fact didn’t go unnoticed by the Democrats, who, after a shaky debate performance, demanded Reagan undergo a test to measure senile dementia. When challenged directly about his age, Reagan had a disarming riposte: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” he replied. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Reagan won by a landslide, carrying 49 states. And, for his second term, one goal stood out more clearly than the rest.

A Historic Meeting

In March 1985, Reagan learned that Mikhail Gorbachev had been named leader of the Soviet Union. His administration was happy with the choice. Gorbachev was a reformer, and he was smart enough, they thought, to bring the USSR back to the negotiating table. In a letter delivered by Vice President George H. W. Bush, Reagan pledged to engage Gorbachev seriously in negotiations.

But arms negotiations weren’t the only things on Reagan’s agenda. The economy and the situation in Nicaragua were still primary preoccupations. He paid considerably less attention to the details of policy papers, not to mention to his staff: in an unprecedented move, his chief of staff switched jobs with his treasury secretary. It was soon up for debate whether Don Regan, the new chief of staff, was up to the job. Nancy Reagan, for one, was no fan. Remember that name – Don Regan. He’ll reenter the story in chapter 10.

Reagan felt he had bigger fish to fry. He became fixated on organizing a summit with Gorbachev, despite the advice of hawkish members of his administration. He was convinced that personal diplomacy was the best way to break the stalemate between the two superpowers. Representatives for the two leaders decided on a place and a date for the meeting: Geneva, November 1985.

Reagan knew it wouldn’t solve all their problems. But the important thing, to him, was that they make a start. His instinct was correct: as soon as the two leaders met, they developed an instant, easy rapport. Relations weren’t as simple – they didn’t get anywhere on arms control – but they liked each other enough to set up two future summits. Reagan wrote later that that alone made the meeting a success.

Meanwhile, at home, Reagan needed to focus on the issue that would become the centerpiece of his second term: tax reform. He wanted to reduce tax rates and close loopholes that allowed the wealthiest Americans to get out of paying what they owed. He argued that these changes would benefit the economy as a whole. To get Congress on board, Reagan played his most reliable card: appealing to the American people. He went on a tour of the US to argue his case. Even so, it took some cajoling to get the plan through Congress – but finally he secured the votes. It was the most sweeping revision of the tax code since World War II.

Abroad, though, multiple situations were about to go south.

A Frustrating Summit

Lebanon had been at war with itself for years. By 1985, the Iran-backed militia Hezbollah had kidnapped seven Americans for ransom. The administration agreed to a transfer of weapons from Israel to Iran, in exchange for Iran’s promise that the hostages would be released. When only one was freed, the administration oversaw more and more weapon transfers to Iran, in the hope that more hostages would be let go.

At the same time, Reagan was at war with Congress over funding the Nicaraguan contras. Congress had barred him from supporting them. But, meanwhile, without the president’s knowledge, members of his own administration had gone rogue. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, had put between $3 and $4 million in proceeds from the Iran weapons sale into an account that the contras could access. North had decided not to tell Reagan, so that the president would have plausible deniability regarding the arrangement.

But Reagan hardly paid this debacle any attention. His full focus was on arms negotiations. He and Gorbachev agreed to continue their fraught discussions in Reykjavík, Iceland, in October 1986. Once Nancy’s astrologer agreed to the details, it was put into the schedule.

Republican hawks were incensed that Reagan would meet with the enemy. They let him know that, on one issue in particular, he would have to show no weakness: the issue of a missile defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. If he did, they assured him, he would pay a political price. The American and international media, on the other hand, accused him of not bringing anything new to the table. For Reagan’s part, he thought an agreement for the reduction of ballistic missiles was in reach.

Gorbachev made the first concession of the weekend, when he accepted the American position on intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Reagan was caught off guard; he had nothing to offer in return. Gorbachev wanted the Americans to limit SDI to lab testing for ten years. Keenly aware of the Republican threat, Reagan insisted that SDI was totally off the table.

They went on like this all weekend. Neither party gave any ground on SDI. Frustrations grew, as both men realized that the high hopes for the summit would go unrealized. It wasn’t even a matter of technology – it was a matter of how Reagan appeared to his constituents. Both men realized they wouldn’t get another chance like this. In the end, Reykjavík was a failure. And in the court of public opinion, Reagan looked like the intransigent one.

The Great Communicator

As Reagan was recovering from Reykjavík, things went from bad to worse. It came out that the US had sold weapons to Iran right before American hostages in Lebanon were released. It looked like the two were connected, but Reagan swore to Congress – and the American people – that they weren’t.

People didn’t buy it. According to one poll, only 14 percent of Americans believed him. But it was only when the attorney general dredged up Oliver North’s secret bank account of Iranian money provided to the Nicaraguan contras that Reagan understood that he might have actually broken the law. Whether or not he knew about it wasn’t the issue. He remained responsible for what happened on his watch. And, increasingly, it seemed that what had happened on his watch had been illegal.

North was fired. But the public were still furious. Reagan’s approval numbers were at record lows. Remember Don Regan, from chapter 8 – Reagan’s chief of staff? Well, unsurprisingly, Nancy Reagan blamed him. And, for once, Reagan’s other advisors lined up behind her. Don Regan saw the writing on the wall. He resigned angrily, and, in retaliation, published a tell-all book in which he exposed Nancy’s reliance on her astrologer. The revelation caused a good deal of embarrassment to the White House.

But, ultimately, neither the astrologer nor the Iran-Contra affair could tank Reagan’s reputation. The scandal faded; the rest of his term was a victory lap. Republicans feted him everywhere he went. Reagan’s folksy humor and relatable anecdotes made him hugely popular. With an endorsement from Reagan, Republican nominee George H. W. Bush won the next presidential election handily.

The adulation continued as Reagan transitioned away from the presidency. He earned up to $2 million per speech, and banked $5 million for two autobiographies.

But he was showing worrying signs of cognitive decline. In testimony regarding Iran-Contra in 1990, he couldn’t recall the answers to over 100 questions about events that had taken place during his presidency. He seemed old and confused. At a physical in 1994, Reagan was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After ten difficult years, with Nancy by his side, he died in 2004 at his Los Angeles home.

Reagan is remembered as the Great Communicator. Indeed, his infectious manner of speech inspired listeners to follow where he led. And where he led was to a sharp turn toward conservatism in America, after a half-century of liberalism.

Summary

The key message in these summaries is that:

Reagan was never a detail-oriented man, and he didn’t become one as president. But by using his big-picture perspective and natural charisma, honed over many years of talking to regular folks, he managed to change the course of American politics – as well as world history.

About the author

H. W. Brands is the author of more than 30 books on American history. He is currently the chair of the History Department at the University of Texas, Austin, and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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