American history, biographies, Bob Spitz, Craig Shirley, Edmund Morris, H.W. Brands, Haynes Johnson, Lou Cannon, Paul Kengor, Peggy Noonan, presidential biographies, Richard Reeves, Ronald Reagan, Sean Wilentz, Steven Hayward, US Presidents
During my transition between presidents it has become customary for me to pause a moment, take a deep breath and reflect on what I’ve learned on this fascinating adventure.
But with just 154 days until Presidents’ Day 2019 (my target for completing this first broad sweep through the best presidential biographies) there is precious little time to smell the roses…
The next two months will be jam-packed, with a dozen biographies of Ronald W. Reagan totaling about 6,500 pages. That sounds like a lot, but only time will tell how close I’m able to get to his inner core.
By most accounts Reagan was remarkably easy to befriend…but famously difficult to know. No less than Edmund Morris (a Pulitzer Prize-winning author tasked with writing his authorized biography) found him utterly enigmatic and bewildering.
Reagan did, however, leave behind lots of footprints including a presidential diary and no shortage of friends, family and colleagues who put pen to paper with their impressions of the man and his legacy. Still, the hurdles for a prospective biographer seem somewhat high.
* I’m starting with H. W. Brands’s “Reagan: The Life.” Upon publication in 2015 it was the first full-scale biography of Reagan to appear in over a decade. This will be my fifth presidential biography by Brands, and I’m counting on him to set the bar high. (I’m already halfway through, so I know it’s good…the real question is whether it will be great.)
* Next I’m reading two volumes by Lou Cannon: “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power” and “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.” Cannon was a reporter who closely covered Reagan’s political career from its earliest days in the mid-1960s through his presidency. These two books are often considered the ideal launching point for anyone trying to understand Reagan’s public life.
* In somewhat similar fashion, Steven Hayward has attempted to capture Reagan’s political life in two large volumes, but from a seemingly broader perspective. “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980” apparently emphasizes the era over the man, and explores the issues which made his election likely (if not quite inevitable). “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989” reviews and dissects his presidency in an attempt to understand his executive actions as well as the durability of his legacy.
* Craig Shirley is a well-known, prolific Reagan biographer. The four books of his I’m reading
“Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All”
“Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980”
“Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed
“Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan”
do not constitute a series, per se, nor do they provide complete birth-to-death coverage of Reagan. But in the aggregate they do seem to provide compelling reporting of many important periods in his life (including his post-presidency).
* Next I’ll read two “non-traditional” biographies of Reagan: Peggy Noonan’s “When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan” and Haynes Johnson’s “Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years.” The former is a well-read book (by one of his well-known speechwriters) that I hope sheds some light on his inner-self, and the latter (by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author) promises to challenge the notion that Reagan presided over an era of fiscal fidelity and fairness-for-all.
* I hope to wrap up Reagan with Bob Spitz’s soon-to-be published “Reagan: An American Journey.” This biography (which is due out October 2) seems to promise comprehensive coverage of Reagan’s life with a colorful narrative. If one thing about the 40th president surprises me, it’s how few full-scale biographies of Reagan have been written. So, at least for now, I consider this upcoming release a must read on Ronald Reagan.
* * *
There are countless other books covering one or more aspects of Reagan’s life which I’ve been urged to read including “The Age of Reagan” by Sean Wilentz, “President Reagan” by Richard Reeves and “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” by Paul Kengor. Each of these is likely to end up on my “follow-up” list.
And no journey covering Reagan would be complete without reading “Dutch” by Edmund Morris…and seeing what all the fuss is about.
Do feel free to let me know what else I’m missing!