Culture > Books

Books: Reagan, father and son

Books | An admirer revises revisionists, a son brings back the legacy

Issue: "Washington Gets One Right," Dec. 6, 1997

In his book on Ronald Reagan, Dinesh D'Souza--author of Illiberal Education and The End of Racism--has given us a good read, but not for the expected reasons. It falls short as a biography: Mr. D'Souza isn't a storyteller, he's a policy guy. He's reliable and precise with figures and quotes, but he's given to frustrating generalities, more reverential than useful. "The nation's woes called for nothing less than a man who could turn the tide of history and renew the American spirit," Mr. D'Souza writes. "In California, there was such a man." "Dixon [Reagan's hometown] was small-town America, a Norman Rockwell setting where people borrowed sugar from their neighbors and policemen stopped in for apple pie." That last example might have been interesting, even charming, if Mr. D'Souza had talked to someone who actually borrowed sugar from the Reagans, or even someone who could confirm that the Reagans had ever actually bought sugar. As it is, the passage shows a beltway-deep understanding of the art of biography. But Mr. D'Souza isn't trying to write the definitive biography (let's hope a pro like William Manchester will tackle that). He's really out to revise the revisionists. There is nothing more fun (journalistically speaking) than resurrecting an expert's old quotes and cheerfully showing that the expert was wrong. In this context, Mr. D'Souza's book is delightful. "Sovietologist" Stephen Cohen of Princeton University said in 1983 that Mr. Reagan suffered from "a potentially fatal form of sovietophobia ... a pathological rather than healthy response to the Soviet Union." Michael Kinsley (whose online magazine, Slate, is failing miserably) opined at the outset of the administration that Mr. Reagan was "not terribly bright" and "not up to the most important job in the world." Reagan was right, Mr. D'Souza demonstrates, and this book is nice to have on the shelf, ready for a read-through when we begin to doubt that yes, those really were the good old days. In contrast, my opinion of Michael Reagan's new book might have been unfairly influenced by my circumstances on the day I read it: I was in bed, convalescing, and much of the time my 14-month-old son was beside me (he wasn't feeling well either, but he was mainly there for the Ritz crackers). So when I read Mr. Reagan's accounts of his dad, which are loving and respectful, I was touched. Here's an example: Michael Reagan tells of how he learned to hug his father, who responded awkwardly, at first. But "these days, because of the Alzheimer's, he doesn't always know my name when I come to visit him, but he knows who I am. I'm the guy who always gives him a hug." And throughout, Michael Reagan rises above most contemporary autobiographies by not excusing his own past bad behavior. "I'm glad I finally stopped fuming and agonizing about the problem between my dad and me," he writes. "I'm glad I finally became part of the solution." This is not an autobiography. The personal material is inexpertly meshed with political manifesto; the combination becomes an all-but-stated announcement that Michael Reagan is ready to enter national politics, to take up his father's mantle. But unlike other would-be heirs to Ronald Reagan, Michael Reagan gets it right. His father often repeated something Kemp & Co. have forgotten: "There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers." "If you are thinking about divorce, adultery, or separation, stop!" he writes (and he notes he himself is divorced). He speaks with a frankness that's easy for someone on the outside, but it's refreshing nonetheless: "Every day I open the newspaper, hoping for some sign the Republicans have grown a backbone-and every day I find that the Republican majority has caved on yet another issue." There's one glitch in Michael Reagan's party plans; he himself is no longer a Republican. He quit the party last March, much as his father quit the Democratic Party. No problem, Michael Reagan writes today: "I'm taking a leave of absence from the Republican Party-but I hope to return soon." Expect something of a dust-up at the country club.

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