John Sheaffer Reviews Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands

Perhaps it is unfair to compare H.W. Brands’ Reagan: The Life to Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln, but there are some interesting similarities. Both tell the story of the unlikely rise to the Presidency of a poor kid from Illinois. Each work is sweeping in scope and intimate in detail. Most tellingly, their deeply held beliefs, Lincoln’s that it is inherently unjust for one man to eat his bread from the sweat of another, and Reagan’s that reliance on Big Government destroys the individual’s character and ultimately, his freedom, formed the basis for their perseverance to change the world. And change the World they did, Lincoln the Great Emancipator, and Reagan, defeater of Communism. H. W. Brands is up to the task in bringing Ronald Reagan alive in this fast paced 816 page read.

From his humble beginning bouncing around rural Illinois with his alcoholic father and long-suffering mother, through failures at athletics due to near sightedness, young Reagan never stopped reaching for more; “He always wanted more” says Brand. And his relentless drive and discovery of the magic of the stage, opened the door to success, and an escape to Golden California. Brand takes us on a journey through those broadcasting days which led to Hollywood. Reagan’s attitudes toward Communism were formed while fighting against its growing influence as President of the Screen Actors Guild. We see how this led to General Electric and his foray into politics.

“A Time For Choosing”, the speech that defined Reagan, which he was broadcast nationwide during the Goldwater campaign for President, is where Brand begins his book, filling in around this core belief from which he never wavered. We witness the accomplishments and challenges of the two terms as Governor of California. The primary run against Ford and the victory over Carter are told in detail. Brand moves us through the two terms of the White House in page turning fashion. It’s all there but so well paced that the magnitude is easy to navigate. Tip O’Neil, Baker, Regan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, they’re all there. So is Iran Contra and SDI. Throughout the book Brand weaves in the anecdotes and one-liners that reveal the wit and wisdom of Reagan.

My only disapointment is that the final segment entitled “A Ranch in the Sky” did not dwell enough on Reagan’s Ranch in the hills above Santa Barbara, Rancho Del Cielo. This place embodied everything President Reagan stood for and defined “freedom” for him.

H. W. Brands book shows us why Reagan is still relevant today and what perseverance and a Belief in America can bring.


3.5/4 Stars

Reagan: The Life 


H.W. Brands


May 12th, 2015 (1st edition) 

816 pages