Brands, H.W. Reagan: The Life. New York: Doubleday, 2015.

America is full of great admirers of President Ronald Reagan, both because he made so many Americans hopeful again and because he was the political leader most responsible for the shift of American politics to the right.  America is also full of people who dislike Reagan precisely because he was the political leader most responsible for the shift of American politics to the right. Perhaps most importantly for America’s political future, America is increasingly full of people who do not remember Reagan, or who know him only from the myths that have developed around him–myths that to a large extent are untrue. As Jeb Bush, the former Florida Governor and son of President George H.W. Bush once remarked, both President Reagan and his father would have a difficult time securing the Presidential nomination of today’s Republican Party.

H.W. Brands’ easy-to-read biography, Reagan: A Life, is a must read if you want to separate Reagan the myth from Reagan the man. The mythology of Reagan has eclipsed who he was and what he actually stood for to such an extent that he is cited by conservatives as standing for things he actually opposed, and he is vilified by liberals who would be pleasantly surprised by much of what he believed.Reagan, as governor of California and President of the United States, was no liberal, though he was earlier in his adult life. [1] But if you read this biography you will realize how, if we could return to Reagan’s politics–especially his pragmatism and willingness to compromise–we would be quite a way down the road to a place where we might again find substantial political consensus.

A. Reagan’s Pragmatism and His Willingness to Compromise

As noted by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his review of the Brand biography, “Reagan was a vastly more governance-oriented politician than the famous quote from his first inaugural address would suggest. (“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”.)‎ [2] He understood that the purpose of politics is governing, and that governing inevitably requires compromise. As he told aides on many occasions, ‘I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.’”“As Reagan himself put it, when he agreed as President to raise taxes as part of the 1982 budget deal, ‘A compromise is never to anyone’s liking. It’s just the best you can get and contains enough of what you want to justify what you give up.’”‎Brands repeatedly documents that Reagan was not an unbending ideological purist, but a pragmatist. In addition, Reagan possessed an almost unlimited ability to communicate in a folksy, humble way with which people connected. For example, as Governor of California, when a budget stalled in the California legislature due to Democratic opposition to his proposed budget cuts, Reagan compromised by dropping his opposition to the withholding of state income taxes. Acknowledging that he had previously said his feet were set in concrete on the withholding issue, he joked, “That sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet.”

B. Policies Reagan Supported That Would Vaporize a Republican’s Political Support Today

As both Governor and President,  Reagan was a conservative, advocating conservative positions against high taxes, big government, urban riots, campus unrest and anti-war protest. But in California he compromised with Democratic lawmakers to pass a moderate budget, welfare reform [3] and a bill expanding the right to abortion. Later, as President, he reached deals with Democrats who controlled Congress to reform immigration laws, bolster the solvency of social security and simplify the tax code. As stated in The Economist’s review of Brands’ biography, “Modern day Tea Partiers who hold Reagan up as an exemplar of conservative purity would be horrified at some of the things he actually did.”

Not only was Reagan a pragmatic compromiser, but many of the substantive political positions he took would vaporize a politician’s support from the Republican Party today, including:

1. Immigration Reform. President Reagan signed a bill that granted amnesty to nearly three million illegal aliens (and further extended it to another 100,000 after signing the first bill). “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here for some time and may have entered illegally,” he said.

“Reagan would never back the authoritarian roundup and deportation that Trump advocates, or the Big Brother tracking of immigrants, ‘like FedEx packages’, as Gov. Chris Christie proposed…While Trump vows to build a giant wall, Reagan is best known for four words: ‘tear down this wall.’” [4]

2. Tax Increases As Well As Tax Decreases. Overall, Reagan cut taxes dramatically. But depending upon how one counts, Reagan raised taxes between four and eleven times. His pragmatism was utterly unlike today’s Republicans, who almost all have taken Grover Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes. Reagan had the political skills to work towards his long-term goals while, in the short-term, compromising.‎

3. T‎he Debt Ceiling. Reagan repeatedly raised the debt ceiling. (Eighteen times, compared to eight times under Clinton, seven times under George W. Bush, and six times under Obama.)

4. Gun Control. While Reagan was a proud member of the National Rifle Association, two years after he left office he supported the Brady Bill, the law that required background checks for gun buyers with criminal records or histories of mental illness, including by writing an op-ed in The New York Times in support of the Brady Bill. [5] Reagan’s words against assault weapons helped ensure passage of a separate legislative ban on assault weapons the following year. ‎The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and all attempts to reenact it since have been unsuccessful.

5.‎ Gay Rights. Reagan strongly opposed a California ballot measure called the Briggs Initiative that would have barred gay people from teaching in public schools, and Reagan is generally credited with the measure’s defeat. As President, his speech on the AIDS epidemic was eviscerated by both the gay community and the Christian Right, a fact that in itself indicates how far removed his position was from today’s politics.  [6]

6. Abortion. Reagan was pro-life, but as governor of California, he signed a bill into law that liberalized abortions. (‎Reagan’s reluctance to sign the bill was due to a provision it contained that permitted abortions in cases in which the fetus might be deformed, and his fear that allowing abortions of deformed fetuses might lead to unintended consequences.) As a result of this legislation, the number of abortions performed in California went from a few hundred a year to over a hundred thousand. Reagan came to feel that a truck had been driven through what was intended to be a narrow broadening of the availability of abortion, and he became even more pro-life as a result. But the expansion he thought he was supporting is beyond the pale to many conservative Republicans today.

7. Unions. Reagan was proud of having been the only American President to have been the head of a major American union, the Screen Actor’s Guild. But as President, he famously fired striking air traffic controllers (whose union had endorsed Reagan for President). Reagan felt strongly that there was a vast difference between the right of workers in private industry to strike (which was legal, and in fact when he was the President of the Screen Actor’s Guild Reagan had led the first strike ever called by that union), and strikes by Federal government employees (which was not legal). Reagan also was in favor of right-to-work laws, which are generally opposed by American unions and have been used by business to suppress unions. But it should be noted that three of the most successful heavily-unionized countries in the world, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, have open shop unions; consequently, right-to-work laws are not inherently anti-union. Perhaps this is one more area in American political life in which Reagan-style principled pragmatism could have a role to play…and Liberal Republicanism should embrace.

C. Reagan’s Humanity and His Ability to Communicate

Given the cynicism that pervades our current politics, it is also worth remembering Reagan’s humanity and communication skills.

H.W. Brands’ biography does an excellent job of demonstrating that Reagan was an old-fashioned gentleman, not a bully like so many conservative Republican politicians and media pundits today. [7] Brands relates a story from one of Reagan’s co-stars in a movie that featured a lot of very pretty women. “He [Reagan] was never a guy looking for the bed. He was a guy looking for companionship more than anything else.” Brands also quotes extensively from a letter Reagan sent to an old friend from his hometown of Dixon, Illinois who had lost her husband in World War II and been left alone with a young son. She felt she had lost her one true love. Reagan wrote,

“Can you believe that God means for millions of really young people to go on through life alone because a war robbed them of their first loves?…A girl’s judgment of [a man] should be based only on his respect for her wishes…‎Love can grow slowly out of warmth and companionship and none of us should be afraid to seek it…Now I am going to seal this letter very quickly and mail it because if I read it over I won’t have the nerve to send it.” [emphasis original]

A person could be forgiven for noticing the difference in the feelings and values expressed above by President Reagan and those of too many politicians today…

Brands points out that “Reagan told stories and jokes better than any president since Lincoln. He understood the disarming power of humor: that getting an audience to laugh with you is halfway to getting them to agree with you.” Also, in contrast to most of today’s politicians, Reagan famously rejected the pessimism that many Americans felt at the time he was elected President.

Reagan as President has been described as genial and easy going, as well as more disengaged from detail than many other Presidents. But as Donald Regan, who first served as Reagan’s Treasury Secretary and later as his White House Chief of Staff commented, ” Reagan’s method worked well enough to make him president of the United States–twice, both times in landslide victories, the second time with 57 percent of the popular vote [and 525 electoral college votes]– and well enough for the nation under his leadership to transform its mood from pessimism to optimism, its economy from stagnation to steady growth and its position in the world from weakness to strength. Common sense suggested that the president knew something that the rest of us did not know. It was my clear duty to do things his way.”

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Brands’ biography provides the reader with an opportunity to come to know President Reagan in ways that cut through the myths. The biography also provides guidance for young politicians today, who might benefit from emulating Reagan’s willingness to compromise, his optimism and his humanity. America almost surely would. [8]


1. Brands quotes Reagan speaking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt shortly after FDR became President, “I soon idolized FDR.” And “At the end of World War II, I was a New Dealer to the core…I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” Reagan’s beliefs slowly drifted politically right over the years. A Republican only since 1962, he was fifty-one years old when he switched from being a registered Democrat to being a registered Republican.‎ (Reagan was fifty-six when he first won public office, to the governorship of California in 1966, and nearly seventy when he became President.)

Interestingly, as a young adult, Reagan idolized FDR’s domestic policies, but not his foreign policies. (As a young man, Reagan was an isolationist, in contrast to FDR’s internationalism. But this was common then–as young men John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart were all members of or contributors to a committee formed to oppose American involvement in what became World War II, the America First Committee–a name that is perhaps hauntingly coming back into vogue today. See Lynne Olsen, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II.) Reagan evolved to become an internationalist like FDR with respect to foreign policy, but became a conservative opponent of FDR’s New Deal with respect to domestic policy (at least the extent to which New Deal-style policies had expanded by the time Reagan entered politics almost two decades later).

2. In his first Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan stated “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” ‎For decades that quote has fueled a Republican Party that has morphed beyond Reagan’s belief in limited, decentralized government. In fact, the Republican Party has taken Reagan’s principles to extremes way beyond the place the conservative but pragmatic Reagan had advocated.

Reagan’s famous quote about government is taken out of context by the all-government-is-bad crowd. What Reagan said was “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The present crisis to which he referred was the state of the economy and the high inflation that existed in 1980. Reagan’s quote is used today as if the words “In this present crisis” were not part of what he said, as if it were an indictment of all government, all the time.

In fact, as described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his outstanding book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party:

“Reagan’s inaugural address revealed his skill at rousing conservatives while retaining moderates. The address is best known for his pronouncement that ‘government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ But Reagan quickly reassured the nation that he was no right-wing anarchist: ‘[I]t’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.’”

3. As Governor of California, Reagan stated that “welfare has proliferated and grown into a Leviathan of unsupportable dimensions. We have economized and even stripped essential public services to feed it’s appetite…I believe that the government is supposed to promote the general welfare. I don’t believe it is supposed to provide it.”

Reagan compromised with the Democratic legislature to enact welfare reform. Robert Moretti was the Democratic Speaker of the California legislature. When Moretti and Reagan first met to discuss welfare reform, Brands says Reagan stated, “What do you want to talk to me about?” and Moretti said, “Look, governor, I don’t like you particularly and I know you don’t like me, but we don’t have to be in love to work together. If you’re serious about doing some things, then let’s sit down and start doing it.” For a week they met daily, then for another week their aides did the same. The result was a compromise that tightened eligibility requirements but increased payments to the needier who remained on welfare to reflect more accurately the cost of living in California.

4. Tim Egan’s New York Times op-ed “Ronald Reagan, Heretic”, September 4, 2015. In 1981 President Reagan did sign Executive Order 12333 that permits the collection of electronic data of US persons outside of the United States.

5. See Ronald Reagan‘s op-ed in The New York Times, dated March 29, 1991, “Why I Am For The Brady Bill”

6. See James Duke Mason, “The Gay Truth About Ronald Reagan“, The Advocate June 5, 2014, ‎whose author, writing ten years after Reagan‘s demise stated “I know I am going to be torn apart by many of the readers of this article, considering that I am a young gay progressive Democrat who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the defense of a conservative Republican, but ultimately the context matters.”

7. The recent wave of resignations of media pundits of all political stripes in disgrace evidences that the culture of bullying by media pundits is pervasive and that such bullying extends beyond the political realm. President Reagan, in contrast, was a gentleman.

8. Having tackled FDR in a biography called A Traitor To His Class and Reagan in this biography, it is the hope of some of us that Professor Brands will bring his special skills to writing a biography of President Obama.‎