Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review of H.W. Brands's New Reagan Bio

I reviewed H.W. Brands's new biography of Ronald Reagan for Truthdig this weekend. There's a lot to like in this bio, especially in the presentation. But as someone who teaches and writes about California topics, I was struck by some important omissions. To be fair, Rick Perlstein's Invisible Bridge, which I reviewed for The National Memo, also passed over some of this material.

Brands's portrait of Reagan resembles the one offered by Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan in both Sacramento and the White House. I interviewed Lou for my biography of Carey McWilliams and came away with huge respect--not only for the Reagan bios, but also for his work on the LAPD before, during, and after the Rodney King riots. Although Lou and I almost certainly differ in our assessment of Reagan and his legacy, much of what I know about Reagan I learned from Lou.

Lou also told me a story about his first book, which looked at Reagan and Jesse (Big Daddy) Unruh, the key Democrat in the state legislature and Reagan's opponent in the 1970 gubernatorial race. If memory serves, Lou wrote to several dozen public figures asking for interviews and general guidance. He heard back from precisely two: William F. Buckley and Carey McWilliams. Those two had a lot in common despite their different political orientations, and Lou felt, as I do, that it's important not to let ideological differences blot out such similarities.

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