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The truth about Reagan.

Reagan: The Life

By H.W. Brands

Doubleday, $35

Ronald Reagan upended his critics and unsettled his idolaters. He also has thwarted a third group: his biographers.

The outline of the 40th president's remarkable story is generally well known. Compiling the details, the dates, the references, and providing a lucid beginning-to-end tale is the easy part. Many authors have done that. Getting to know what made Reagan what he was is a lot harder.

H.W. Brands, a respected historian and University of Texas educator, has written persuasively about presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He's the latest author for whom the inner Reagan has proved elusive.

Brands does chronicle plenty and offers a lumbering, supportive chronology. You learn about the "rootless" childhood and the "indifferent" student. He describes the radio announcer who "spun a good yarn," facts notwithstanding.

He shows you an optimistic young man who revered FDR, and whose family benefitted from the New Deal--though, later, the candidate would build "a political career bashing what Roosevelt had created.

Here, too, is the aspiring actor who "loved the camera"; a performer comfortable in his roles, on TV with The General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days, and as leader of the Screen Actors Guild. "He discovered he liked the politics of the film industry," Brands writes.

Reagan's position would lead him to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Reagan enjoyed the "openly political stage.... And he was good at it.... He could feel the room and sense its mood." But, after discussing the committee's work and the blacklist, Brands concludes, "Creative work suffered when fear ruled. But the risk was worth taking, for the good of the country.

By now, you may start thinking that Brands is a bit too sympathetic. That forgiving, friendly point of view shades his writing about Reagan's decision-making and actions before, during and after the White House. And it undermines Brands' valuable spadework, from documents to interviews. The result suggests more Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on JFK than Robert A. Caro on LBJ.

Reagan's story needs insight and perspective, analysis and context. His record as California governor and as the pivotal president in the second half of the 20th century can withstand the scrutiny and the fallout.

Brands is better when focusing on Reagan's skills as the most effective voice for conservatism beginning in the 1960s, specifically his televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. "People could disagree with Reagan, but rarely did they find him disagreeable," Brands notes.

Reagan would easily win the GOP gubernatorial primary and the 1966 general election. He'd be re-elected in 1970. Reagan could speak as an ideologue, but he ran the state as a pragmatic politician. He opposed abortion, for example, but also relaxed abortion laws. "Reagan's pragmatism was a refection of his ambition," Brands writes.

That would carry over to the presidency. Reagan stressed tax cuts but also agreed to raise taxes; he assailed communism, yet dealt with Soviet leaders; he'd nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court but be content with Anthony Kennedy. "He took what he could get," Brands explains, "never holding practical results hostage to ideological purity."

Reagan understood the role of the president, mastered the media, kept his image intact, resonated with voters and was rewarded by them. The 1980 and 1984 contests were brilliant examples of political strategy, advertising and the devastating one-liner. Candidates still ask voters, "Are you better of than you were four years ago?"

Brands' then-this-happened account of Reagan's two presidential terms is highlighted by his discussion of the give-and-take between the president and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader. His narrative comes alive describing their relationship. Brands rightly says Gorbachev was "Moscow's gift" to the president. "Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union was predestined.... Yet the timing of the demise depended on someone willing to acknowledge the undeniable."

Similarly, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was a "gift" from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Volcker curbed inflation, leading to economic growth at "just the right time for Reagan." Reagan's overall economic policy and its ongoing impact merit more examination, as do the intricacies of the disastrous Iran-Contra affair.

Brands concludes with the expected: He equates Reagan with FDR, as right-left bookends. He adds that "in certain respects, Reagan's accomplishment was greater." Brands will need a sharper, more searching volume to show that, and to give Reagan his due.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment During World War II

By Richard Reeves

Henry Hold and Co., $32

"How could this have happened here?"

That's the question Richard Reeves asked himself every time he drove by a faded sign in the desolate high desert between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The sign marked the site of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of 10 concentration camps where more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were locked up during World War II.

As a group, these first-and second-generation Americans were fiercely patriotic and committed to the "American way." They were successful farmers, businesspeople, students and community leaders. But in time of war, their racial connection to an enemy trumped their rights as citizens.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment During World War II tells their tale with energy, compassion and moral outrage. Reeves, a veteran journalist, answers his own question with meticulous care--documenting the decisions made in Washington by the world's most powerful men, and how those decisions affected the lives of ordinary Americans whose only crime was to be of Japanese descent.

Within 10 weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, all Japanese living on the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest were ordered out. The given reason: They were a threat to security, potential saboteurs whose loyalty would lie with Japan rather than America. Families were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for hastily built prison camps in some of the bleakest corners of the nation.

Among those sent to the camps were the actors George Takei and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, as well as Norm Mineta, a member of Congress and a cabinet secretary under two presidents.

Few Caucasians emerge with honor from the tale. John J. McCloy, the quintessential Eastern Establishment power broker, dismissed the U.S. Constitution as "a scrap of paper." Earl Warren's name would become synonymous with civil rights for African-Americans as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1942, as attorney general of California, he enthusiastically supported the imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese descent.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept a low profile on the issue, letting others whip up emotion in favor of internment, then signing of on it after public and official sentiment had made it inevitable.

As the United States wrestles once again with its never-ending questions of assimilation and immigration, Reeves reminds us that our nation has always been formed by "the almost blind faith of each wave of immigrants--including the ones we put behind barbed wire."

"We are a nation made by immigrants," he writes, "foreigners who were needed for their labor and skills and faith--but were ofen hated because they were not like us until they were us."

By Peter M. Gianotti & John Reinan
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Title Annotation:BOOKCASE; Reagan: The Life
Author:Gianotti, Peter M.; Reinan, John
Publication:Investigate HIS
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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