Monday, May 2, 2016

Ronald Reagan by Jacob Weisberg (2016)

This is part of The American Presidents series, which are all very short sketches of U.S. presidents.  I've read quite a few of these, and liked some of them immensely; others I've found to be simply so-so.  This portrait of Ronald Reagan is really quite good; once I started it I had trouble putting it down.  The writing was crisp and interesting.

What I know about Reagan is what every child of the 80s knows about Reagan.  Movie star, with a iron dragon of a wife, had Alzheimers.  His presidency pretty much fills a memory backdrop to being in school:  he was president from the time I was 9 or 10 until I was a senior in high school.  I remember jokes we told about Russian presidents (tell Yuri to go a cliff "and drop off"  - get it); "jokes" he told about Russian presidents ("we will begin bombing Russia in five minutes"); I remember him getting shot (we weren't sent home early).  The names in this book - Deaver, Regan, Caspar Weinberger, Oliver North were names repeated on the evening news by John Chancellor or Tom Brokaw.  Bedtime for Bonzo.  My dad, a rabid democrat, didn't like him.  I lived in a Republican bastion which did.  Thinking about Ronald Reagan is like going through an old childhood scrapbook:  remember when Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro a word "that rhymes with witch?"  Remember when Nancy Reagan was on Different Strokes?  Remember Joan Quigley?  Remember when we bombed Libya (I really thought that was the end of the world, quite frankly; that all out nuclear war had started), or when we invaded Grenada?

Was this book well-researched?  My knowledge of Reagan is mostly that scrapbook, so I can't really tell. You pick up bits and pieces over the years; but this was probably the first book I read about Ronald Reagan.  It was good, but I'd like to not make it my last.  The farther away you get from an event or a presidency, the less chance there is for bias there creeps into a biography or work of nonfiction (ideally, I guess; this isn't always true).  People who adore and worship Reagan definitely still exist, but that's more and more a caricature.  The people who despise Reagan still exist as well; when Nancy Reagan died recently, my Facebook feed was full of gay guys from that time period who wrote about how the Reagans ignored AIDs and were horrible people for doing so.  Yes, that's true.  But that kind of hatred has lessened over the years.

Ronald Reagan (The American Presidents, #40)Ronald Reagan by Jacob Weisberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know whether this was a well-researched book about Ronald Reagan or not. It seemed to be. What I do know is that I enjoyed reading it immensely. These short biographical portraits in the The American Presidents series have run the gamut from great to so-so (I don't think I've yet read an all out horrible one), but this one definitely swings towards the great end of the pendulum. I think that's partly because this was like opening a cultural and political scrapbook of my childhood. Nostalgia reigned supreme here; the names, places, and events scattered throughout the book were the NBC Nightly News of my life, ages 10-18. I remember jokes WE told about Russian presidents (tell Yuri to go a cliff "and drop off" - get it); "jokes" HE told about Russian presidents ("we will begin bombing Russia in five minutes"); I remember him getting shot (we weren't sent home early). The names mentioned in this book - Deaver, Regan, Caspar Weinberger, Oliver North were names repeated on the evening news by John Chancellor or Tom Brokaw. Bedtime for Bonzo. My dad, a rabid democrat, didn't like him. I lived in a Republican bastion which did. Remember when Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro a word "that rhymes with witch?" Remember when Nancy Reagan was on Different Strokes? Remember Joan Quigley? Remember when we bombed Libya (I really thought that was the end of the world, quite frankly; that all-out nuclear war had started), or when we invaded Grenada? I'm sure you children of the 80s can think of more things than that. What is in the book (the death of three Russian leaders one after the other) will remind you of whatever isn't in the book (the fifth grade playground joke about Yuri Andropov, for example). For a history book, and a short one, this was great fun.


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