H W Brands, Ronald Reagan: The Life. Doubleday, 2015
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were a symbiosis: two very different characters who simultaneously led a conservative revival after decades of decline. They were the most important political leaders of their countries since the Second World War. Both picked up the cans that predecessors had kicked down the road: trade unions holding government to ransom, rampant inflation caused by Keynesian economics, and the relentlessly expanding but decreasingly productive state. While Thatcher fought Arthur Scargill, Reagan defeated the air traffic controllers’ union, which had threatened to clear the arterial skies. Parallels can be drawn throughout H W Brands’s hefty 800-page biography, but British readers should bracket out the trials and tribulations of Thatcherism to immerse themselves in this fascinating American life.
Eternally known as ‘The Gipper’ after his most celebrated Hollywood role as a footballer, Reagan was brought up in a Democrat family in Illinois. The New Deal had saved millions from the Depression scrapheap, and Reagan regularly cited its architect, Franklin D Roosevelt, throughout his political journey. After the war, however, Reagan had a day of reckoning. As head of an actors’ union, he was troubled by the overt support for communism and the Soviet Union in Hollywood. He saw the federal schemes of Roosevelt morphing into the ideology of statism, which interfered in lives and stifled the freedoms espoused by the Founding Fathers.
After his acting career faded, Reagan joined the Republican Party, and was elected Governor of California. Conservatives were in the doldrums in the 1960s, but Reagan was a popular figure with a unique ability to connect with ordinary people. In 1968 he pitched for the Republican nomination for the presidency, but it was not until his third try in 1980 that he was put before the American electorate – and the rest is history.
Exposure to the ‘useful idiots’ in the movie business influenced Reagan’s later battle with communism. Unlike Jimmy Carter and previous incumbents of the White House, Reagan decided to confront the enemy. He was sceptical of arms control treaties, believing that the Russians were exploiting the West’s internal weakness (in this there are similarities with Donald Trump, who sees through climate-change agreements that allow recklessly polluting China to build hundreds of coal-fired power stations).
The USSR seemed to have a bright future in the 1950s, as Khrushchev relaxed the rigidities of Stalinism, but his reforms were not appreciated by party purists. By the 1970s, as the Kremlin desperately tried to keep up with the military prowess of the Americans, living standards for the masses were worsening. Ordinary Russians cooped in chilly concrete apartment blocks were forced to queue for bread, and a greasy roll of offal was as much as they could expect to feed the family. Meanwhile, informers lurked in every corner of the grim oblast.
Western society has allowed liberals to write the political history books and claim the credit for all social progress. But let us unapologetically assert this truth: it was Ronald Reagan, not the mealy-mouthed social democrats of Europe, who ended the Cold War. The Berlin Wall tumbled after Soviet hegemony had been undermined by a resolute president in Washington. Reagan exploited internal weakness in Russia by substantially increasing defence spending, pushing Brezhnev towards bankruptcy. The Soviet system, despite the once-powerful state propaganda, was losing legitimacy.
With a moral compass influenced by his Hollywood past, Reagan simplistically divided the world into good and evil. He used the Solidarity movement in Poland to present this dichotomy: godless Communists versus a culture steeped in Catholicism. Supporting the Gdansk shipyard workers’ protest, Reagan built a rapport with Karol Wojtyla, the Pole who had become Pope John Paul in 1978. Liberty was a Christian value at the bedrock of the American Constitution, and by casting himself as leader of the free world, Reagan beckoned to people who endured atheist totalitarianism.
‘God bless America’ was the closing line of all Reagan’s speeches. Secularist liberals on the seaboards had long dominated American politics, but he forged a strong bond with the evangelical Christians of the flyover states. Disparaged by the establishment, now these folks had a friend in Washington. Reagan took counsel from them, perceiving their ethos as the true spirit of America. If their free will was to be subjugated by the state, what hope for the oppressed in other parts of the world?
Domestically, Reagan turned the supertanker of public spending around. He reduced taxes, again on the principle of individual freedom. One amusing story is of Reagan’s first meeting with Paul Volcker, head of the Federal Reserve. As this esteemed expert sat facing the president, he was taken aback by the opening question: ‘Why do we need a Federal Reserve?’ Reagan’s aide Martin Anderson recalled Volcker’s reaction: ‘The view was priceless. His face muscles went slack and his lower jaw literally sagged a half-inch as his mouth fell open. For several seconds he just looked at Reagan, stunned and speechless.’ Volcker recovered to engage in a useful dialogue on monetary policy. This was classic Reagan: for a healthy democracy, people in positions of power should justify their existence.
Naturally Reagan is a bête noire of the intellectual Left, but he remains widely revered in American society, as illustrated by this anecdote. A professor at my London university was speaking to an audience of scholars and clinicians from New York, and referred to Reagan’s divulgence of his diagnosis of dementia. The opinionated professor needlessly added that this positive signal in reducing stigma about the disease came despite Reagan being a ‘profoundly evil man’. Assuming the listeners would be enlightened Democrats, he was taken aback by the heckling.
Reagan was a true conservative in a Republican Party that had slipped its moorings – arguably like the British Conservative Party today. A quarter of a century after his administration, Brands had access to declassified reports. With revealing quotes from documents and diaries, he tells a thoroughly illuminating story of a great man.