American history, biographies, Bob Spitz, book reviews, Craig Shirley, Edmund Morris, H.W. Brands, Iwan Morgan, Lou Cannon, Paul Kengor, Peggy Noonan, presidential biographies, Richard Reeves, Ronald Reagan, Sean Wilentz, Steven Hayward, US Presidents
A good rule-of-thumb suggests that 25-30 years are required before sufficient time and historical distance have passed to take the true measure of a presidency. By that standard, Ronald Reagan may be the most recent president whose tenure we can objectively assess.
And while I’ve enjoyed almost every moment of this 2,180 day (and counting!) biographical journey, Ronald Reagan is the president whose biographies I’ve most looked forward to reading. After all, he’s the first president whose time in the White House I distinctly remember.
Over the past 2½ months I read a dozen biographies of Reagan including three traditional biographies, one “character study”, a two-volume series by Lou Cannon, a two-volume series by Steven Hayward and a four-volume “biographical coalition” by Craig Shirley.
It was a fascinating undertaking, to say the least…
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* “Reagan: The Life” (2015) by H. W. Brands – this is the fifth presidential biography by Brands which I’ve read and, as expected based on my experience with him, this comprehensive biography proves solid but not quite exceptional. With 737 pages, it is lengthy…but fast-flowing, well-balanced and often quite interesting.
The biography doesn’t break much new ground but Reagan’s political career is quite well covered (his early life, though, is reviewed too quickly). And Brands graciously incorporates large doses of historical context. But since Brands tends to observe rather than analyze or interpret, the book sometimes feels as though it lacks depth. It also lacks a vivid, descriptive flair which the very best presidential biographies possess — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* “Reagan: American Icon” (2016) by Iwan Morgan – this 333-page biography provides readers with a unique perspective since its author is a British professor of U.S. History. Written with a careful sense of detachment from the American political system (but no shortage of interest) it is efficient, straightforward and comprehensive.
But given its relatively compact size, this biography lacks the detail many readers expect from a cradle-to-grave biography and though its writing style is extremely articulate it is not particularly elegant or engaging. The most valuable feature of this book, other than it’s “outsider’s perspective” of our political system, is its final chapter which thoughtfully assesses Reagan’s political legacy. The biography is almost worth buying for those last nineteen pages alone
— 4 stars (Full review here)
* “Reagan: An American Journey” (2018) by Bob Spitz – this is the most recently published full-scale biography of Ronald Reagan…and what a wonderful surprise! Better known for his biographies of Julia Child and The Beatles, Spitz is an unlikely presidential biographer. But he possesses a wonderfully captivating literary style and writes with a sense of objectivity that is rare except among political agnostics.
Spitz’s 761-page biography is comprehensive, detailed, well-researched and generously descriptive. His coverage of Reagan’s pre-presidency (his pre-political career, in particular) is absolutely exceptional and may even surpass Lou Cannon’s coverage. Spitz’s review of Reagan’s political career, however, is comparatively unremarkable. Spitz is undeniably a shrewd observer of people which, combined with his talent as a writer, makes him a gifted biographer. But he is not a particularly skilled political analyst.
Readers seeking a comprehensive biography of Reagan with an emphasis on his political career may need to turn elsewhere…such as Iwan Morgan’s (for a good but efficient treatment) or Brands’s (for more detail) or supplement this biography with one that provides more penetrating coverage of his presidency (such as Cannon’s volume on that era) — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
* “When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan” (2001) by Peggy Noonan – this is essentially a character study of Reagan penned by one of his better-known speechwriters (who, unsurprisingly, clearly admires her subject). In fact, this often feels like a sympathetic eulogy, written just three years before Reagan’s death in 2004.
Noonan’s book will never be mistaken for a traditional biography. And although it provides surprisingly broad coverage it cannot substitute for a conventional birth-to-death review of Reagan’s life. But anyone hoping to really understand Reagan’s elusive inner-self will appreciate this author’s exquisite writing as well as her penetrating insight into this somewhat mysterious man — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
* Lou Cannon’s (unplanned) two-volume series includes “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power” (2003) and “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” (1991). Cannon is a journalist who covered Reagan’s entire political career and brings an unprecedented degree of familiarity with his subject to this task. Although neither of the volumes provides the most captivating possible reading experience, in the aggregate they form what seems to be the standard reference on Reagan’s life (excluding, perhaps, his post-presidency and legacy)
The first volume (topically) was written last; here Cannon covers Reagan’s life from the earliest days of his youth up through his campaign for the presidency in 1980. There may be no more detailed, valuable or balanced coverage of Reagan’s gubernatorial career than this, but some readers may find it too detailed — 4 stars (Full review here)
The second volume (primarily covering Reagan’s presidency) was written more than a quarter-century ago – about a dozen years before Cannon wrote his volume on Reagan’s early life. This weighty volume feels like thoughtful, penetrating history but provides a less exciting story than some will desire…with an almost exclusive focus on Reagan’s public life and a tendency to portray him as a relatively disengaged and aloof president — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* Steven Hayward’s two-volume series is comprised of “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980” (2001) and “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989” (2009). Written somewhat in the spirit of Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Age of Roosevelt” series on FDR (though from a right-of-center perspective), these volumes place an emphasis almost as much on the times as the man.
The first volume is far less a biography than a captivating exploration of America’s cultural, economic and political currents between 1964 and 1980. Reagan himself does not even consistently appear until past its halfway point. But while it is a refreshingly readable review of American history during the 1960s and 1970s, I cannot rate it as a biography — Unrated (Full review here)
Hayward’s second volume, by contrast, is primarily a biography – essentially a detailed examination of Reagan’s presidency within the political, economic and social context of the 1980s. In that respect it is often excellent. But as good a political biography as this proves to be, it misses most of Reagan’s personal life…and the author’s pro-Reagan stance will be too pronounced for some
— 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* The four books by Craig Shirley which I read were not written with the intention of seamlessly covering a broad swath of Reagan’s life or forming a cohesive series. Instead, each of these books covers an consequential period in Reagan’s life and, in the aggregate, the four books loosely form a tetralogy which cover Reagan’s life from his unsuccessful 1976 campaign through his death in 2004.
“Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All” (2005) is a detailed and often interesting account of Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1976. The author’s “fly on the wall” perspective is useful and he provides a helpful review of the decline of the Republican Party during the 1960s and 1970s which set the stage for Reagan’s national ascent. But the book’s utility will depend on the reader: someone familiar with Reagan’s life will find this revealing – and perhaps not sufficiently detailed. For almost everyone else, the book is likely to raise more questions than it answers
— 3½ stars (Full review here)
“Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980” (2017) covers the four-year period between Reagan’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1976 and his successful effort to become the Republican presidential nominee in 1980. This book proves quite easy to read, but often feels informal and breezy and lacks the depth and substance which it deserves — 3 stars (Full review here)
“Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America”(2009) primarily covers Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. This book is not only the longest of Shirley’s four volumes (with 600 pages) but it also the best. It provides a fascinating “behind the scenes” perspective and Shirley does a good job analyzing the tactical issues involved in Reagan’s primary campaign as well as his campaign against Jimmy Carter. Many will find this book worth reading on a standalone basis — 4 stars (Full review here)
“Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan” (2015) is a detailed review of the week between Reagan’s death and his interment in California. And in that respect, the book is often excellent: poignant and revealing. But readers who, like me, approach this book expecting a comprehensive review of his retirement and legacy will be sorely disappointed. And the author’s often hyper-partisan tone combined with his chronologically disjointed narrative make this a disappointment — 2½ stars (Full review here)
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Having just spent 10 weeks (and 6,400 pages) with Ronald Reagan I cannot fail to point out that the ideal biography of this president does not yet exist.
But I know what it would look like: the first half of Spitz’s biography (covering his pre-political career), the portion of Lou Cannon’s series covering Reagan’s gubernatorial career, an abbreviated version of Craig Shirley’s coverage of Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, and either Cannon’s or Iwan Morgan’s coverage of Reagan’s presidency (with a healthy dose of the context Hayward provides for the era)…and Morgan’s assessment of Reagan’s legacy.
Best Biography of Reagan: “Reagan: An American Journey” by Bob Spitz
– “President Reagan” by Richard Reeves
– “The Age of Reagan” by Sean Wilentz
– “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” by Paul Kengor
– “Dutch” by Edmund Morris