Monday, February 22, 2016

When Character Was King

Technically, since he was president until 1981, Jimmy Carter was the first president in my life, but I was too little to know anything about him, so Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981 to 1989, is the president who I think of first when I think of the first U.S. president during my lifetime.  Reagan is famous for a number of things, all of which those who like to politicize everything argue about.  One is economic policy, which I don't think I'd ever heard about or even thought about as a kid.  Another was foreign policy, and even as a kid, I was pretty attuned to this.  Russia and her satellite states broadcast an ideology of oppression, were a clear and present nuclear threat, and fought wars and proxy wars to spread misery and oppression.  In a way, it had a personal connection.  I was well aware of my German heritage and was always fascinated by Germany.  Germany, of course, was separated by a wall, and not a wall of defense, but one meant to prevent people from leaving, from seeking a better life or from the "pursuit of happiness."  Reagan, famously, called on Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down [the] wall!"  Even as a young kid, I understood that Reagan was a man of principles and a man who knew how to lead.

Book cover image.In When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan by Peggy Noonan (ISBN: 978-0-14-200168-4), the former Reagan staffer (speechwriter), journalist, and columnist gives her take on the fortieth president.  The story starts when Reagan was a kid and ends as he succumbs to the Alzheimer's and the ailments of time.  One learns where he got his worldview from and how his early life influenced where he got.  Reagan's father, I learned, was an alcoholic, but he still imbued his son with principles that served him well in seeing the greatness in all people and in upholding America's tradition of equality.  Reagan's mother was a strongly and actively Christian woman, which also became a major part of his character.  He believed in God and believed God wanted to be part of people's lives.  One reads about Reagan's involvement in Hollywood.  He was arguably an up-and-coming star, but never went big time because he got involved in the actors' union and the more political side of things.  His political career was dogged by accusations of being just an actor, and acting likely helped him as he campaigned, but his real talent was likely in speechmaking to begin with.  The book recounts Reagan's entry into politics.  He was not, it seems, overly ambitious, but saw his involvement as a chance to help people, and that's where character came in.  Reagan had standards and stuck to them, providing for people a stable and strong standard behind which they could rally.  He was unabashedly religious, had no tolerance for racism, and knew that there was a distinct difference between democratic forms of government with capitalistic and those of the "evil empire," the Soviet Union.  Principles made it so Reagan, with an unwavering rear guard in his wife, Nancy, could set goals — goals based on character and principles — and achieve them, improving lives around him in the process.

I really didn't know what to think about the book before reading it, but I did somewhat doubt the decision to pick it up since I figured a weightier biography of one of America's all-time great presidents might've been in order before this shorter one that could really only promise an overview of the many things Reagan undertook and accomplished.  I learned some things about the man and his life, though, and was happy with the depth of the information about the bigger events in his life.  I thought Noonan did an admirable job with what might be called the backstory to Reagan's political career, which is really where his character was formed — in his childhood, in college, and as an actor and union activist.  I think she made a good argument for the role that character played in what Reagan was able to accomplish, whether it was overcoming political defeat, recovering strongly from being shot, or helping bring about the demise of Soviet Communism.  Overall, the book was an enjoyable read and really only solidified my view of Reagan as one of the all-time great presidents.  There were things I liked about the Bushes, but the book's title says it all about Reagan and that era, because it wasn't principles in certain times, as I feel it was with the Bushes, but princpled, strong leadership all the time.  It also made me want to learn more, so I will, someday, find my way into a weightier, more academic biography of this great man.

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1 comment:

Eric said...

Everything is just a story, whether a longer work or a shorter one. So that this shorter biography ended up being good for you is no surprise to me. Since they took the perspective of Reagan's character, the story has a purpose. A longer work may easily fall into the trap of just publishing a chronological list of events without a purpose or a unifying message. Although it's easy to think this is academic, it's not.

On the other hand, I'm working on a three volume series on Roosevelt. It's quite long, but it consists of a few stories and unifying messages. Incidentally it's a very readable biography that doesn't skimp on details. The details are just interesting because there's a purpose for their being included.