The Magazine

The Real Deal

An author answers the question: What made Reagan tick?

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By PETER HANNAFORD
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The Essential Ronald Reagan

A Profile in Courage, Justice, and Wisdom

by Lee Edwards

Rowman & Littlefield,147 pp., $26.95

IN 147 PAGES OF TEXT, Lee Edwards has accomplished what Ronald Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, was unable to do in 674: He has captured the essence of the 40th president's character.

Unlike Morris, who resorted to the dubious device of inserting fictional characters and himself into the biographical narrative, Edwards works his way concisely and precisely through the chronology of Reagan's life, pinpointing the people and events that solidified his values and shaped his worldview. At the same time, his clear writing style carries the reader along smoothly from beginning to end.

While Edwards does not uncover new facts about Ronald Reagan's childhood and youth, he concentrates his efforts on relationships and events that show the development of Reagan's character.

The role of his parents in the development of Reagan's personality unfolds early in the book. His mother, Nelle, deeply religious and a teetotaler, made it clear to her sons that her husband's alcoholism was an illness. Thus, Reagan had a sympathetic understanding of his father, Jack. From his mother came his deep faith, his love of reading, his sense of duty, and the beginnings of his interest in acting (his mother often gave dramatic readings at church groups). His father, a cheerful optimist much of the time (even when business was bad), was a great storyteller.

Reagan's acting abilities developed while he was at Eureka College, where he also gave his first political speech (during a student strike to save classes and teachers' jobs in the midst of the Depression). Not long after landing his first job in radio, he learned--through making mistakes--the value of preparation, a lesson he carried with him throughout his career in films and public life. It was at WHO in Des Moines, where he was a sportscaster in the 1930s, that he showed his first concerns about "big government." His fellow broadcaster, H.R. Gross, later a member of Congress, discussed his conservative views often with Reagan, then a New Deal Democrat.

Edwards gives us an insight into Reagan's developing interest in world affairs from his early years in films. He tells of a fellow actor who said Reagan had "all the dope on just everything, from this quarter's up-or-down figures on GNP growth, Lenin's grandfather's occupation, baseball players' ERAs [and] the outlook for California sugar beet production."

Too nearsighted to serve overseas, Reagan, in World War II, was assigned to the Army Air Force's training film unit in Southern California. The details of this are covered in other books; however, the author reveals that Reagan, when he asked that his promotion from captain to major be canceled, wrote, "Who was I to be a major for serving in California without ever hearing a shot fired?"

At the end of the war, civilian bureaucrats took over where Reagan's unit operated and he had his first experience with (civilian) bureaucratic "empire-building." Reagan described it as resulting in "the first crack in my staunch liberalism." In those days, he had frequent discussions about issues with conservative friends such as businessman Justin Dart and actor Dick Powell.

The author takes us through Reagan's family life, first with Jane Wyman, then with Nancy Reagan, who was to become the single most important person in his world. His days as host of General Electric Theatre, and his question-and-answer sessions with GE workers, are covered. These events helped shaped Reagan's favored format for later political campaigns. At the same time, he bonded with average working men and women.

Later, in 1965, when Reagan was deciding to run for governor of California, Edwards visited his home for an interview and had a few moments to scan the books in the library. He was impressed by the volumes on economics and history, much read because they were "dog-eared and underlined." Edwards adds: "This was the . . . library not of a shallow actor, dangling at the end of someone's strings, but a thinking, reasoning person who had arrived at his conservatism the old-fashioned way--through careful study and serious reflection."