Yesterday I interviewed the historian H.W. Brands about his biography of Ronald Reagan–and it went really well! I was nervous, cuz I’m new to interviewing authors on the show, but Brands was super friendly, chatted with me for three times the allotted 20 minutes I’d requested, and afterward I kinda bounded around my apartment, happy to’ve not looked like an idiot, except I’m still on the hook about this question–it’s been asked by my roommate and a couple colleagues and a bartender–of whether or not I like Reagan, now that I’m done with the book, as either a political figure or a human being.
Brands has an interesting contention, though, about the whole genre of presidential biography; he’s real eloquent on the subject in this speech from Politics & Prose in which he argues that, in the United States, there’s a kind of cult around the presidency, a kind of transcendent fascination with everything from their wardrobe to their schedule to their diet and sex life and haircut.
Brands is averse to this. Not necessarily cuz he believes it’s unhealthy in and of itself but rather because the cult can become so avid that it distorts their perception of how the world was moving around that figure.
Ronald Reagan, Brands is at pains to emphasize, did not end the Cold War.
Was he instrumental in it? Sure. But so was Margaret Thatcher, Mikhael Gorbachev–there’s a pretty wide cast of characters, depending on how you want to tell the story.
So Brands’s concern is that the cult of the presidency tends to narrow the aperture through which readers look at world events. And, accordingly, throughout Reagan he sometimes abandons his subjects (the Gipper himself) for three or four pages at a time in order to detail some squabbling within the administration, or to play out a particular HUAC hearing, or explore Nancy Reagan’s intense and well-founded concerns for her husband’s safety.
Hence, in the aftermath of Brands’s book, when I sit around wondering whether or not I’m fond of the figure in question…I think the historian would be glad if I didn’t bother with that question. I think he’d say it’s way more constructive to simply take a cold eye toward the dude’s accomplishments, his failures, and then simply contextualize the dude’s actions within his historical moment.
I felt the same way, sort of, after reading Jonathan Alter’s wonderful biography of Jimmy Carter (Reagan’s predecessor). I had certain opinions about Carter, about why he behaves a certain way, why he made certain choices, why he won the first election and lost the second. (By the way: you can hear my conversation with Jonathan Alter about his President Carter biography on the podcast, here.)
But I can’t claim to’ve reached a verdict about the man, or about the politician.
The book left me with too complex an understanding.
The same can be said of Brands’s job with Reagan. I’m still registered as a republican even though I’ve never voted for a member of that party, and over the past couple years have become kinda repulsed with where the party’s headed such that I’m a bit itchy to get out of it, but part of what I feel now (being, essentially, a progressive) is that I’m supposed to hate Reagan. Or his presidency, at least. Indeed, after the interview, I went to Redbar and chatted with a bartender about my affinity for the book, and how I was charmed by the subject, and–allowing that the book might indeed have been good–she balked at the last part. “Reagan was awful!” Started telling me things that I didn’t quite know, things that might actually be different tilts on facts I picked up from the biography.
But I’m sure it’s naive to feel like, as an im- or explicit member of a certain group, I’m supposed to adopt their roster of enemies too. I’m still thinking my way through this whole “presidency” thing I’ve been on a kick about for so long.