“Reagan: The Life” by H.W. Brands was published in 2015. Brands is a professor at the University of Texas, a prolific author and a two-time Pulitzer finalist. He has written nearly thirty books on a wide range of historical topics including biographies of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR (each of which I have previously read and reviewed).
The first full-scale biography of Reagan in over a decade, this 737 page book contains 114 chapters organized into seven major sections. But while its heft could intimidate some readers, Brands’s narrative is extremely articulate and free-flowing. Very few presidential biographies of comparable length are this easy to read.
Brands devotes about one-third of the book to Reagan’s pre-presidency. But the narrative sweeps too briskly through his childhood – about a page per year – moderating somewhat when the aspiring actor moves to Hollywood. The pace still feels rushed during Reagan’s eight-year stint as governor of California and only slows appreciably when he is fully enmeshed in presidential politics. The book ends with about three-dozen pages that review his retirement, Alzheimer’s diagnosis and political legacy.
It is clear from the outset that Brands is friendly to his subject, but he seems intent on maintaining a sense of balance throughout the text. While he consistently compares Reagan favorably to Franklin Roosevelt (Reagan’s early presidential idol), Brands rarely fails to take the shine off his subject’s halo when warranted.
Perhaps more than any other biographer I’ve encountered, Brands goes to extraordinary lengths to provide historical context for his subject’s life and actions. The reader is seldom unaware of the economic, political or social backdrop associated with moments described in this book. But he sometimes provides so much context that Reagan becomes peripheral to the narrative.
Of the numerous excellent moments in this book, ones of particular note for me include the discussion concerning allegations that the Reagan campaign interfered with efforts to free the Iranian-held hostages, the chapter devoted to Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, the chapters covering the Reykjavik summit and the periodic references to tension between Donald Regan and various members of the administration (including Nancy Reagan).
But for all its strengths Brands’s biography falls short in several areas. First, the authior often injects lengthy quotations and portions of transcripts into the narrative. This can be distracting on its own, but since he has a penchant for letting Reagan speak for Reagan, it often leaves an impression that Brands is just observing rather than analyzing and critiquing.
This biography is generously replete with stories, anecdotes and on-the-scene reporting. But few of these tales will break new ground for readers familiar with Reagan. In addition, the narrative’s focus during his presidency can be quite inconsistent. Brands’s excellent coverage of the Reykjavik summit, for example, fills more than thirty pages…while Reagan’s response to apartheid receives a single paragraph.
Brands also conspicuously under-reports the influence which religion had on Reagan’s life. Having recently read several biographies of Jimmy Carter (which highlighted the role Carter’s faith played in his life), the man who Brands describes in this biography seems almost…agnostic. Finally, despite its impressive length this book feels surprisingly light and fails to provide as many penetrating observations and keen perspectives as I would have expected from Brands.
Overall, H.W. Brands’s “Reagan: The Life” provides a wonderful starting point for readers seeking a comprehensive introduction to the life and legacy of the 40th president. It is fast-moving and remarkably engaging, but often proves a better history text than biography. And for all its merit, this book never quite delivers the richly-hued and penetrating portrait of Reagan it seems to promise.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars