An American Life

by Ronald Reagan
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2202

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.

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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, Reagan began taking an active part in the political strife wracking Hollywood in the late 1940’s. Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the union representing the actors and actresses working in the motion picture industry. In this position, he joined in the struggle to limit Communist influence in Hollywood. His travails as a union leader began to work a political transformation on Reagan, hitherto a convinced New Deal Democrat. The experience of dealing with Hollywood leftists began the process of undermining his liberal assumptions. This metamorphosis continued in the 1950’s, as Reagan became a spokesman for General Electric, and traveled across the country speaking to business groups. Here Reagan learned of businessmen’s frustration with governmental regulation and red tape. The stories Reagan heard on the road reinforced impressions about the federal bureaucracy he had received during his youth. Reagan continued to believe in the founding principles of the Democratic Party, best enunciated by Thomas Jefferson, which held that government was at best a necessary evil, and that as much as possible power should reside in the hands of the people. Increasingly, Reagan regarded the Democratic party as having disastrously fallen from these principles, instead creating and maintaining a bloated and coercive governmental apparatus which stifled individual initiative and private enterprise. He decided that the troubles facing the United States were the result of big government rather than big business. In 1960, Ronald Reagan officially took the step of joining the Republican Party.

According to Reagan, his political career was almost the result of inadvertence. In the early 1960’s, he became a popular speaker for Republican causes. A milestone in Reagan’s life came in 1964, when he made a highly successful televised speech in support of the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Influential Republicans in California began touting Reagan as a likely gubernatorial candidate. Americans do not want their leaders to pursue political power too eagerly, so Reagan at first dismissed the notion of running for office. Ultimately he allowed himself to bow to public pressure and declared his candidacy for the governorship of California.

Ronald Reagan’s first political campaign adumbrated the themes of all those which followed. He ran against big government and high taxes, positioning himself as the champion of the ordinary man and woman against the Overweening and impersonal regulatory state. He also defended the cause of traditional values, which seemed under attack by both governmental programs and the increasingly radical student body in California’s university campuses. Reagan easily won the 1966 election, and the same platform brought him reelection in 1970. As governor of California, Reagan developed his distinctive managerial style, setting clear goals for his administration, and then letting his subordinates carry out his policy with little interference. During his governorship, Reagan also began to develop a taste for public life. He grew to enjoy the give and take of political debate, and experienced the satisfaction of seeing his ideas translated into law.

Ronald Reagan’s success as governor of California inevitably raised the possibility of his becoming a candidate for the presidency. Reagan did not discourage such speculation. The prospect of capturing the presidency increasingly intrigued him. He had become more convinced than ever that the federal government had grown too large and expensive. The blandishments of his supporters to lead a crusade against Washington finally induced a none-too-reluctant Reagan to enter the 1976 presidential campaign. Reagan devotes only three pages of his book to his unsuccessful attempt to wrest the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford. A detailed description of defeat would conflict with An American Life’s iconographic purpose. In any case, Reagan’s narrow loss to Ford proved to be only a temporary delay in his quest for the White House. The 1976 Campaign established Reagan as a serious contender for the presidency, and in 1980 he easily captured his party’s nomination. That fall, Reagan handily defeated Jimmy Carter in the general election.

Ronald Reagan’s account of his presidency in An American Life provides only an impressionistic picture of his term of office. Reagan effectively conveys his guiding intentions, but fails to show how his policies were or were not implemented in practice. There is a general chronological drift to Reagan’s recollections, even though their thematic organization defies coherence. He touches on a number of the most important episodes of his presidency, such as the disaster which befell the Marines in Lebanon, the Grenada invasion, the Iran- Contra affair, and his arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, without drawing the connections between them. Some highly significant events, such as the American reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1987-1988, he does not discuss at all. There are no revelations about the Reagan Administration in An American Life. Its contents would be familiar to a faithful newspaper reader of the 1980’s. For example, in his memoirs Reagan still claims that he knew nothing of the actions of his subordinates in the Iran-Contra affair.

What An American Life does very well is illuminate the goals Ronald Reagan set out to achieve as a political leader and president. He was determined to cut taxes and the size of the federal government. He did manage to make substantial reductions in taxation but failed appreciably to rein in the Washington bureaucracy. The result was that spending remained high, even as federal revenues were declining, leading to massive budget deficits. Reagan recognizes the limited nature of his successes and pleads eloquently for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and a line-item veto for the president as means to controlling federal spending. Reagan also believed as he entered office that American military might was in decline relative to the Soviet Union, and he set out to restore America’s defenses. Hence Reagan launched a massive buildup of the American armed services. Related in his own mind to his defense policy was his horror of the possibility of nuclear war, and the American strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which held that only the prospect of the annihilation of both superpowers in a nuclear exchange deterred nuclear conflict. Believing that accepting such vulnerability was insane, Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to begin the development of defenses against nuclear attack. His abhorrence of traditional nuclear strategies was so intense that he clung tenaciously to SDI despite widespread criticism in the United States and efforts by the Soviet Union to link progress in arms control to his abandonment of the program. The accomplishment of which Reagan is most proud, with which he essentially ends his book, was the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed with the Soviets in 1987, which resulted in the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons.

While An American Life will not pass muster as history, it serves well enough as a presidential memoir. In its assertions and its silences it celebrates Ronald Reagan and his presidency, its very heft reassuring readers of the gravity of the subject. The book offers no more insight into the inner passions of Ronald Reagan than an official portrait bust. For example, Reagan repeatedly praises his wife Nancy in the course of the book. His first marriage, which lasted eight years, merits only two sentences in An American Life. Nevertheless, Ronald Reagan’s autobiography offers easy and entertaining reading. It effectively captures some of the personal charm of the man, and the book is generously studded with his famous anecdotes. Reagan has served his legend quite well.An American Life is a monument, and nothing more.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. November 4, 1990, V, p.1.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 23, 1990, p. 15.

Harpers. CCLXXXII, January, 1991, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 4, 1990, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLI, November 26, 1990, p.634.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, December 20, 1990, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, November 18, 1990, p.1.

Newsweek. CXVI, November 12, 1990, p.36.

Time. CXXXVI, November 5, 1990, p.74.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 21, 1990, p.1370.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, November 4, 1990, p.3.

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