Disclosure: As a politically astute adolescent I was happy to see Ronald Reagan replace Jimmy Carter in the White House, but as a politically naive teenager a few short years later I found myself at a protest rally against his MX Missile plan under the Gateway Arch. By the end of his second term I believed the anti-Reagan rhetoric that filled the airwaves and echoed off the walls of my college classrooms. Now in middle age I find myself missing the man as I survey the political landscape. Any Republican eying the list of those seeking the 2012 nomination probably feels the same way.
Curtis Patrick’s book, Reagan – What Was He Really Like vol 1, only deepens that longing. In his book, the first of three, Patrick paints a portrait of America’s 40th president using as his palette the experiences of those who worked for him. While Patrick interviewed Lyn Nofziger, the book really makes Reagan come alive in the stories of those who worked for him like Nancy Clark Reynolds. Clark Reynolds held many roles working for the Reagans including Special Assistant to Nancy Reagan. Through her reminiscences Patrick skillfully portrays the complex relationship between Reagan’s dedicated team of helpers and Nancy Reagan. Over time many would run afoul of Nancy, and some lost their jobs because of it and even today Nancy Reagan remains a controversial figure among self-described Reaganites. But Clark Reynolds believes that Nancy was only being protective of her husband. “I had never in my life met a couple (Ron and Nancy) who were completely into one another as they were.”
As the Reagan presidency and his accomplishments as governor of California continue their inexorable slide into History, Patrick’s book reminds us that while History may not repeat itself, it does tend to whistle the same tune. He includes several news releases from the governor’s office with articles that discuss problems back then that exist in California today over 40 years later. The State spending more than it collected in taxes. The soaring cost of publicly provided health-care. The need for tax reform and overhaul. The troubled state of public education – including rioting students that at one point seemed hell-bent on killing him, even though he made higher education a priority and protected it from the budget cutting ax. Today’s headlines in California aren’t much different – except the Reagan administration attempted to seriously resolve the problems unlike the current administration running California today.
Patrick also undermines the myth of Reagan as being an intellectual lightweight throughout the book. Numerous interviewees stress the Reagan’s intelligence and ease at understanding complex problems. Buck Ware, lead advance man in the 1966 Reagan for Governor campaign, noted, “I didn’t fully appreciate him. I just didn’t have the intellectual tools, the language, the metaphors, to understand him until I had read two of Ayn Rand’s books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The philosophy she expounded on in Atlas Shrugged clarified and explained why I had been so deeply attracted to Ronald Reagan, and Walt Disney, as well.” Dr. Jim Gibson, who Reagan appointed to the Planning & Research Unit tasked with overhauling California’s woes, told Patrick, “A lot of people in the outside world, who weren’t close to him, couldn’t believe that this man didn’t just memorize the facts, but he understood them – he was intellectually bright!” “He was an intellectually bright man!”
Although the book focuses on his governorship of California, it does touch upon his presidency at points. In an interview with Tom Ellick, a public relations consultant and later Special Assistant to the Reagan Cabinet, Ellick relates an explanation that Reagan gave for his attendance at Kolmeshohe Cemetery in Bitburg Germany. Reagan’s visit had been extremely controversial across the political spectrum in the United States, uniting some Army officers, musicians such as The Ramones and Frank Zappa, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel against Reagan’s proposed visit. Nevertheless, Reagan visited the cemetery after his trip to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, spending 8 minutes there. Ellick remembers Reagan explaining to him:
“If the American people could understand how important it was that I did that.” “Helmut – Helmut Kohl was really in trouble and we needed him to be reelected.” “We didn’t want Germany to go back to the Willy Brandts – the Socialists.” “I knew it was important to Helmut – I knew there was som risk – but, when the trip was planned, we didn’t know there were any SS officers buried there!”
There have been numerous books on the Reagan presidency, most of them by those with their own personal vendetta or agenda against Reagan or his wife Nancy. What sets Patrick’s book apart is his relying upon the voices of the everyday people that were touched by the Reagans and helped Reagan to achieve the accomplishments that changed America and arguably, the world. While reading this book I was struck by its honesty and authenticity; there are no ulterior motives behind what Patrick quotes. People simply report what they recall. By interviewing so many people (the table of contents lists 20 but there are many more that are quoted throughout the book) the stories eventually dovetail and come together to provide a sense of what Ronald Reagan was like when the cameras stopped rolling and the press exited. Reagan thus becomes human and three dimensional through the interviews, and his triumphs more remarkable than what is remembered or reported in the history books.
Since we have the second incarnation of Jimmy Carter in the White House, America needs another Ronald Reagan now more than ever. While Republicans have evoked his name so much as to turn it into a cliche, this book points out why that search is pointless. Reagan was a true American original, a one of a kind that will never grace a statehouse or White House again. Yet his sensibility, his kindness and the determination he showed throughout his political career remind us living in a much more crass and cynical era that such people still exist. As Stu Spencer noted about his career in Hollywood, Reagan played good guys. “The good guy in the movies! He may have been with Errol Flynn in the movies, but he was the good guy.” In the end Reagan proved that just like the movies, in American politics the good guys can win.