Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Wordcraft -- A president's life & a few words from the author

Reagan: The Life
by H. W. Brands
What’s inside the 700-plus pages of Reagan: The Life, the latest in the stream of books by H.W. Brands, historian, professor, and yes, that history guy you saw on the Texas Rising miniseries?

Brands isn’t saying. As he told his audience at the opening session of the annual Rejebian summer book series, “Woodrow Wilson (subject of another of Brands’ books) once said he would never read another book if he could talk 15 minutes with its author instead.”

So Brands talked, although for considerably more than 15 minutes. After a show of hands indicated many in the audience not only remembered Reagan the politician but Reagan the actor, Brands launched into his bittersweet theme: if Ronald Reagan had been a better actor, he would never have been a politician. It was a thought still more staggering when Brands linked Republican Reagan, architect of modern American conservatism, with Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, creator of 20th century American liberalism, as the two most influential presidents of their century.

What’s the link? And how was he going to explain a phenomenon that decades later still amazes: how a thoroughly ordinary actor managed to change the political climate of a country? And maybe: why wasn’t Reagan, outwardly affable, pleasant-looking, and hardworking – all the gifts that helped him in politics -- a better actor?

Brands credits the key to a conversation with a radio interviewer who told him, “if you want to understand Ronald Reagan, the one thing you need to keep in mind is that he was the son of an alcoholic father.”

This wasn’t news to Brands. Reagan himself had mentioned it himself in his memoirs. But, Brands’ source said, “The reason I know about this is because I am the son of an alcoholic father. (When) the first person you want to model yourself on is utterly unreliable, you do not trust anyone with your emotions.”

Underneath Reagan’s outward pleasantness – all that most voters would ever encounter – his emotional distancing, the “veil” even his wife Nancy spoke of as coming between them, destroyed him as an actor. “He would not go to that place in the human heart where the deepest emotions lie.”

Ironically, that very defensiveness may have saved him as a politician. Have to go head to head with the leader of an “evil empire” as Reagan did? Maybe you don’t want to trust him with your deepest emotions.

Reagan made no secret of voting for FDR in each of his presidential campaigns. But as FDR’s influence rose, Reagan’s acting career declined. He descended from making movies to huckstering for corporate America to giving a last ditch speech for Republican Barry Goldwater’s DOA presidential bid in 1964. It was that speech (ever afterward referred to reverently as “THE speech”) that set him on the path to a new career. Because if there was one thing he had learned as an actor, if there was anything he had in common with FDR, it was “the power to convey a vision.”

And for Reagan, the adulation of a constituency was as bracing as applause is for actors. He had found his new calling.

(What, you wanted a review? Try this one at The Dallas Morning News. This Wednesday Rejebian continues with a topic dear to the heart of host David Rejebian, Peter Belakian’s Black Dog of Fate, about the Armenian immigrant experience, one known to Rejebian’s grandparents and series founders.)

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