In the newest of the many, many books about Ronald Reagan – Reagan: An American Journey – America’s current occupant of the Oval Office receives but one mention: then-real estate developer Donald Trump only appears on page 714, offering advice (unsolicited and directly) to Reagan in late 1987 on how to deal with the then-Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the time the 40th President of the United States was in the middle of a multi-year, international diplomatic dance with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union over the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. and the USSR had aimed at each other. Gorbachev was in New York and pushing Reagan to drop his plans to develop a missile defence system (the Strategic Defence Initiative, or “Star Wars” as critics dubbed it). Trump’s advice, according to author Bob Spitz, was to hang tough. “In the art of deal making”, he said, “you should not want to make the deal too much.” 

The Trump advice was unnecessary. Reagan had steadfastly refused Soviet demands to drop SDI at two previous summits, in Geneva and Reykjavik. Moreover, he had been president for nearly seven years and had long demonstrated unwavering resolve. For example, in 1981, one of the few unions to support Reagan in the previous year’s presidential elections, the air traffic controllers, threatened to strike. That was illegal as they were deemed an essential service. But they struck anyway, and ignored the president’s warning to return to work or be fired. After only 2,000 controllers returned to their jobs at the nation’s airports, Reagan fired the other 11,000 and forbade them from ever being rehired.

Reagan displayed similar determination in 1986 when he ordered a missile attack on the “mad dog of the Middle East,” Libyan dictator Moammar Ghaddafi, after Ghaddafi sponsored a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub frequented by American soldiers. 

Through those actions and many others Reagan – the immediate presidential successor to Jimmy Carter – demonstrated that America was again led by a tough, decisive president who would not be pushed around at home or abroad.

Back to Trump: Spitz reports that Gorbachev met Trump not long after the New York summit, told him how much he loved Trump Tower, and invited the developer to build a similar creation in Moscow. After that “the New York real-estate magnate changed his tune” on how to deal with the Russians.

Unlike Trump, Ronald Reagan never “changed his tune” for tyrants. Also, unlike Trump (so far) Reagan’s success as a commander in chief rested on his willingness to surround himself, and keep, capable, smart people who knew more than he did. Reagan was not an intellectual or a military or economic specialist; rather he was a generalist with a few solid convictions and core ideas. But he recognized good advice and implemented it, relying on excellent instincts that rarely failed him or his country (with a notable exception of the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages affair that almost cratered his presidency).

But we are ahead of ourselves.

Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump campaigning for the U.S. presidency in 1980 and 2016.

The early Reagan

For those who imagine Reagan a patrician in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, (or the manor born Trump, for that matter) Spitz paints a very different picture in the first chapter of Reagan. The boy from Dixon, Illinois grew up poor with a father addicted to drink who repeatedly lost work and moved the family often. His chaotic early life was only partly ameliorated by the influence of his conscientious, religiously devout mother.

Spitz makes a strong case that Reagan was rescued from a tumultuous childhood by his love of stories, particularly heroic adventures about the North American West. In a town with not much to do, the boy took to reading – a lot: “Dutch had a library card from the time he was ten and was a fixture there most evenings,” writes Spitz, using the childhood nickname that stuck until he became “Ronnie” in Hollywood.

“The library was really my house of magic,” Reagan once said. His early bookish interests included tomes about birds and local wildlife and particularly Northern Lights by Gilbert Parker, a gift from his mother, Nelle, that introduced him to Canada and the Hudson’s Bay Company and tales of trappers and hunting white wolves in Saskatchewan.  

Perhaps the Parker book whet Reagan’s aesthetic appetite for the West (Spitz gives no opinion here) and informed both his private life (he loved horses and would eventually buy a California ranch) and his public image, which as actor, California governor and American president was that of a good-natured cowboy, sort of John Wayne-meets-Jimmy Stewart.

Other reading included Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories and glorified biographies of all-American athletes, along with Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Tarzan tales, and some science fiction.

The power of stories in life and career

A boyhood immersed in stories set the stage Reagan’s three major careers: acting, broadcasting, and politics. His own writing and speeches betrayed those early influences too; he told simple stories with clear plotlines pitting good against evil, where the heroic always triumphed over the dastardly and an optimistic, can-do ethic invariably overcame negative odds.

Reagan showed early promise as “the Great Communicator” he became, starring in high school plays and causing “a swoon in the audience when Dutch made an entrance onstage”, according to a schoolmate. Starting first on local radio he narrated baseball games and made the plays and players come alive. Later in Hollywood, and in writing commentaries and in giving speeches, throughout his career, great stories and charismatic delivery were his stock in trade.

Reagan had the rare ability to craft a speech on short notice from inside his head. One example: in September 1954, actor-broadcaster Reagan’s booking agent got a call from the superintendent of Los Angeles schools who needed a last-minute fill-in for keynote speaker at a teachers’ convention. Reagan’s agent initially said no because the actor hadn’t spoken on educational issues before. Reagan overheard the call, said “yes” and insisted he could cobble something together. Twenty-four hours later, Reagan spoke to 4,000 teachers and “got up there and gave a speech on education that just dropped them in the aisles”, his agent recalled.

Key to his success as a performer, and to sowing the seeds of his future political career, were the eight years he spent hosting General Electric Theatre on radio and television. It exposed him to a huge audience with whom he shared his gift for collating information, spotting what mattered and aligning it with his core beliefs in a way that also mattered to his listeners, in the process creating mutual empathy.

Though Spitz details Reagan’s ability to tell a good tale interspersed with just the right amount of passion, he argues (as have many other critics) that Reagan was not always a stickler for facts and accuracy. The author blames Reagan and his sources including Human Events, National Review and Reader’s Digest. But the broad-brush accusation is misguided. The question is whether whatever source Reagan relied on happened to be accurate or misguided on a particular matter. (I can look through any edition of the New York Times or the Toronto Star and find mistakes, daily, in assumptions and facts.) And then there is the not-inconsequential matter of a publication’s overall orientation. In Reagan’s case, William F. Buckley’s National Review was correct, for example, in expunging the conspiracy theorists, cranks and racists from the conservative movement early on (this by demanding writers choose between it and the conspiracy-laden John Birch Society). National Review was also right in its instincts and continual advocacy that communism could in fact be rolled back – a radical view at the time – and that the Henry Kissinger-Richard Nixon policy of permanent appeasement through the policy of détente was a mistake.   

Ethics-based from Democrat to Republican

Reagan was hardly the first, or only, entertainer or politician to skip over weightier, analytical tomes (as president his preference was for one-page briefing notes), but that tendency was countered by ethical foundations and real-world experience that contributed to his compassion and toughness in equal measure.

On the former, although his father Jack was a lifelong alcoholic, he was also an early moral teacher on some critical matters including race. When a re-issue of the racist film, Birth of A Nation, showed up in Dixon, the elder Reagan forbade Ronnie and his brother Moon from seeing it. Nor did Jack, an Irish Catholic at a time when that caste was not unfamiliar with prejudice, tolerate anti-Semitism, once going so far as to refuse “to stay at a hotel that barred Jews from its premises,” according to Spitz.

His mother, too, a devout Christian, was a significant influence on Reagan’s moral outlook: “Nelle…raised him to practice his faith by striving to alleviate poverty, denouncing segregation, welcoming immigrants, elevating abysmal labor conditions, and opposing war,” writes Spitz in a chapter on Reagan’s religious upbringing and its lifelong influence on how he viewed the world.  

Reagan's presidential campaign motto in 1980 was
Reagan's presidential campaign motto in 1980 was "Let's Make America Great Again".

Reagan’s worldview and later politics were indeed shaped by those parental principles and religiosity, and also by poverty. All three led him to support Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which attempted to mitigate the worst effects of the Great Depression with hugely interventionist social welfare programs. A decade later, as head of the Screen Actors Guild, he fought hard to empower actors against powerful Hollywood studio bosses who treated them like indentured serfs.

Reagan’s worldview and impact

Reagan the poverty-stricken lad, then young broadcaster and later actor who finally made significant money was not, apparently, changed by wealth. He instead continued the personal generosity that started in high school and college where a good chunk of his earnings often went to his ne’er-do-well parents, whom he eventually moved to California and supported for the rest of their lives. Similarly, after his time as president ended in 1989 and he moved back to California, he would personally give money to the homeless on the way to and from his post-presidential office in Century City.

To be sure, Reagan always believed that opportunity was the best remedy for poverty (as it was for him). His economic policies as governor of California and president usually reflected that priority over the notion that government could cure all private ills with public money. Spitz is critical of his subject’s fiscal conservatism, but he doesn’t let his disagreement colour his reporting on Reagan’s personal compassion.

On foreign affairs, Spitz deals at length with the Iran-Contra affair. Recall that was where senior U.S. government officials secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran, this in hopes of an exchange for American hostages in the Middle East, and directed the money to fund anti-Sandinista government rebels in Nicaragua. In Spitz’s telling, Reagan, the generalist, pushed for some sort of deal and then paid scant attention to the illegal details, including violating the existing ban on arms sales to the regime in Iran. He did so because he could not accept that Americans might die as hostages if could do something to secure their release. But the entire affair skirted and broke U.S. laws. It was a betrayal of his public position that the American government would not negotiate with terrorists and likely encouraged additional hostage-taking. It was also one of the few times Reagan chose bad advice over good. Moreover, Reagan’s more solid advisers, Secretary of State George Schultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger had been kept out of the loop by the CIA’s director Bill Casey and by National Security Adviser John Poindexter. Reagan’s presidency was saved only by his own, belated frankness with the American public, who believed he was more sinned against than sinner, i.e., ill-served by aides such as Poindexter, and Oliver North, more than directing them a la Richard Nixon and Watergate.     

No friend of tyrants

More positively and perhaps the best example of Reagan’s foreign policy success, was his stewardship of the Cold War. Reagan’s pivotal 1983 speech labelling the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” demonstrated his grasp on how presidential rhetoric could be used as a force for good around the world. He highlighted the moral contrast by reminding his audience how far America had come, away from the institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism which was once a blight on the American creed that all men are created equal.

Ronald Reagan delivers his famous
Ronald Reagan delivers his famous "evil empire" speech at the National Association of Evangelicals Convention in 1983.

Modern anti-Western critics, perversely including the current U.S. president, routinely cite America’s historical moral failings as evidence of moral equivalency with her enemies (as if Russian, Chinese or Saudi Arabian policies towards their citizens today are little different from the way American or other Western governments treat their citizens). Reagan used such failings to show the distance travelled, and encouraged those living under totalitarian powers to resist and to retain hope.         

Spitz, as with other critics then and now, suggests Reagan was over-the-top in labelling the Soviet Union as an evil empire. But surely an openly imperialist dictatorship that tortured and murdered its people for political dissent was evil. Readers would have been better served had the author chronicled how Reagan’s evil empire speech resonated with freedom seekers around the world. Consider Soviet-era political prisoner Natan Sharansky who, much later after his release, said that when he and his fellow prisoners heard of the speech, they celebrated it as “the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution – Reagan’s Revolution.”

Indeed it was, and Spitz’ work would be fuller had he acknowledged Reagan’s second-term accomplishments (concurrent to Iran-Contra) were a “gamble” worth taking that changed the world emphatically for the better. Not only did they fatally weaken the Soviet Union, but they also bolstered global support for Western liberal democracy against all its competitors, including radical Islam, in ways both spiritual and material. For instance, there is a direct path between Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and the “Iron Dome” that protects Israel from incoming Islamist missiles today.

The inner Reagan revealed

Reagan: An American Journey is a herculean effort to chronicle the life and impact of Ronald Reagan and simply the best work on the most consequential American president in the last half of the 20th century. It is leagues above the official Reagan biography released in 2000 by William Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. In that similarly long tome, the biographer was so self-absorbed that he spent the first chapter writing about himself and not the 40th president of the United States.

Spitz makes no such mistake and instead tackles perhaps the most difficult topic for Reagan chroniclers: the man’s inner life. The flipside of Reagan’s attachment to grand narratives and storytelling over intellectual musings including deep self-reflection was that few saw the inner Reagan. “He didn’t share his thoughts and feelings with anyone,” writes Spitz, noting Reagan was “popular and admired but has no close friends.” It was an observation repeated throughout Reagan’s life. He was not narcissistic, but also not introspective enough to see that his own behaviour could alienate others, including those he loved. 

His first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman, was acrimonious and ended spectacularly with her blowing up over Reagan’s political self-absorption. A series of romantic flings followed, ending with a shotgun marriage to Nancy Davis. Despite its auspicious start, by all accounts this proved to be a durable and loving partnership right to the end. Post-presidency, and especially when Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Nancy Reagan was his fiercest protector.

The diagnosis was made public the day Reagan himself found out on November 5, 1994. In a handwritten note to the nation he said he felt fine but recognized the inevitable deterioration to come and wished “there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” 

The last line was an obvious throwback to the “morning again in America” slogan of Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign and an emphatic declaration of his innate optimism even in the face of an insurmountable challenge. That was the core of Reagan’s inspirational and successful life and leadership, and Spitz’ book is a welcome reminder of it during the dark, anarchic reign of Donald Trump.  Reagan also promised to “make America great again” – it was his campaign slogan in 1980 – but not by burning it down.

Mark Milke is an author, columnist and founding board editorial member of C2C Journal. His newest book is Ralph vs. Rachel: A tale of two Alberta premiers.