Ronald Reagan’s autobiography An American Life is less a book than an icon. Presidential memoirs play an almost ceremonial role in American life, serving as monuments to civic religion. They appear in one or two volumes, are dutifully bought in greater or lesser quantities, and rarely read. Nevertheless, Americans expect these public manifestations of intellectual seriousness from their senior statesmen. Presidential memoirs are reassurances that the system works, and that contentious and evanescent leaders are also sages, equal to the task of governing the United States. As such they are oddly impersonal documents, acts of obligation rather than testaments of their authors. Indeed, some presidential memoirs have been committee productions, churned out by teams of staffers before receiving the former president’s imprimatur. Though Ronald Reagan’s name graces the title page of his book, he acknowledges the assistance of Robert Lindsey, a professional writer.
An American Life fits readily into the general pattern of presidential memoirs. To ask what Ronald Reagan’s autobiography has to tell history about his life or administration is to miss the point. The book fulfills its civic function by serving as a parable, illuminating the American Dream. The contours of Ronald Reagan’s story are as familiar as a film script. He relates the proverbial rags-to- riches tale of a poor boy making good. As he tells it, his success was the result of hard work and luck. He downplays the role of shrewdness and ambition in his ascent to greatness, making his work much less interesting than it might have been, but much more palatable as a wholesome and edifying entertainment. As such, Ronald Reagan’s memoirs are a triumph of form over content.
Ronald Reagan was born February 6, 1911, in a flat located above a storefront in Tampico, Illinois. His father, John Edward Reagan, was a hard-drinking Irish American who drifted from job to job as a salesman. His mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, was of Scots-Irish descent. Ronald Reagan’s early life was disturbed by frequent moves as a result of his father’s restless search for opportunity. His father’s drinking led to numerous quarrels and periodic disappearances. Nevertheless, Reagan dedares that he and his elder brother Jack enjoyed a happy childhood. Though the Reagans were poor, he claims that he never felt any social stigma as a result of his family’s economic status. His mother took in sewing to supplement his father’s income, the family never owned a home, and he grew up wearing his brother’s discarded clothing, but Reagan notes that his family always had enough to eat, and that they enjoyed simple pleasures, to some degree lost today. When his family settled down in Dixon, Illinois, the young Reagan spent countless hours playing along the Rock River and in the hills and cliffs above. Indeed, Reagan compares the life he led growing up in rural Illinois with that celebrated by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). In Reagan’s retelling, despite the grimness of the problems confronting his family, his childhood becomes an idyll, a tribute to a vanishing, yet comfortable world in which kindly people live together in harmony, helping one another in times of need and enforcing a rough sort of social justice, all without the intrusive presence of the federal government. Spiritually, Ronald Reagan has never left this nostalgic conception of his youthful environment. His America remains a preserve of sturdy individualists, resolutely cutting their own path through life. Nothing in his subsequent experience has shaken the social vision Reagan imbibed as a child.
As Reagan grew older, he acquired two lifelong loves: football and acting. In high school he played guard on the varsity football team, and school productions gave him his first experience with dramatic roles. Reagan talked his way into college in large part to further these enthusiasms. He received a scholarship at Eureka College, a small institution owned by the Disciples of Christ Church. At Eureka, Reagan majored in economics but devoted much of his time to extracurricular activities, including playing on the football team, swimming, and serving as president of the student body. Reagan had to struggle to earn the money to stay in college, for a month after he matriculated the stock market crashed. During the Great Depression, Reagan’s father, a lifelong Democrat, headed the Works Progress Administration Office in Dixon. Reagan observed the gratitude of unemployed men for jobs rather than welfare handouts, and received his first introduction to the frustrations of dealing with the Washington bureaucracy.
Upon graduation in 1933, Reagan wanted to pursue a career as an actor, but acting jobs were scarce for untried college graduates at the height of the Depression, so he turned to broadcasting as a means of breaking into show business. He won a position as a sportscaster in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1937, while covering the spring training camp of the Chicago Cubs in Southern California, Reagan made an appointment with a Hollywood agent. Within days he had a contract with Warner Bros. Starting out as a regular in “B” pictures, Reagan worked his way to star status. His successful film career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in a special film unit in the Army.
More important for his future career,...
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