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How Ronald Reagan brought America back to greatness—or not

H.W. Brands's new biography challenges popular myths about our 40th president.

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Ronald Reagan left "a deeper impression on the country and the world than any but a handful of other presidents," historian H.W. Brands writes in his eloquent new biography, Reagan: The Life. Certainly no political figure in my lifetime has had a bigger impact on the nation—though it's often been a destructive one.

The debate over Reagan's politics shaped my own formative years. I was nine when he was inaugurated in 1981; he was hugely popular in my hometown in southwest Michigan, a Republican area where it was gospel that taxes should be low, too many people were on welfare, and if the president illegally funded right-wing militias in Nicaragua, it was because the Democrats left him no other way to defend freedom.

As a teenager I realized this didn't add up to being true, let alone prudent or just, and I found liberation in saying and writing so. Ronald Reagan is one of the reasons I became a political journalist.

Twenty-six years after he left office, I'm on the side that views Reagan's tenure as the source of our reluctance to deal with climate change; the criminalization of poor minority communities though the wars on drugs and terror; the notion of American exceptionalism; and the philosophy that government, including the social safety net and public schools, is the root of our problems.

For years President Ronald Reagan fired up conservatives by railing against communism, but in 1987 he signed a treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce nuclear weapons.
  • Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library
  • For years President Ronald Reagan fired up conservatives by railing against communism, but in 1987 he signed a treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce nuclear weapons.

On the other side, adherence to Reagan's conservative principles has become a litmus test for Republicans. Even the centrists who lead the Democratic Party have taken cues from him and stress the limits of government.

But Brands—the author of ten other books about American politics—challenges both portrayals of Reagan. He shows that Reagan's right-wing rhetoric was divisive long before he became president, yet his ability to communicate optimism in the United States made him a unifying and popular leader. To Brands, Reagan was as effective at restoring the confidence of the country as FDR.

That's heresy to liberals. But Brands also goes after the Republican mythology of Reagan as an unyielding conservative. He notes that Reagan was happy to moderate his views to cut a deal, whether it was with Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill on tax policies or Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear arsenals. Nor does Brands ignore some of the darker chapters of the Reagan presidency, including his administration's covert scheme to fund anticommunist groups in Central America by peddling arms to Iran, a sponsor of terrorism.

Yet the same president worked with Gorbachev to hasten the end of the cold war, and the public forgave him for his sins when they noticed them at all. Even as a critic of the movement he spawned, I have to agree with Brands that Reagan's leadership gave the country a lift and allowed it to believe in its own greatness. Every president since has attempted to follow suit.

Still—to what end? At a time when the United States has troops in 140 different countries, packs its jails and prisons with the poor and the mentally ill, and struggles to pay for schools, it's also clear that claiming greatness isn't nearly enough.  v

Reagan, backed by Vice President George Bush (center), was willing to moderate his conservative principles to cut deals with Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill (right).
  • Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library
  • Reagan, backed by Vice President George Bush (center), was willing to moderate his conservative principles to cut deals with Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill (right).

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