I was in the slow lane for an oil change when a uniformed employee came over with a "complimentary" newspaper to help me pass the time.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2015 (2485 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I was in the slow lane for an oil change when a uniformed employee came over with a "complimentary" newspaper to help me pass the time.

He noticed I had a book in hand.

The Associated Press files
Ronald Reagan takes the presidential oath of office in January 1981, as his wife, Nancy, looks on.

CP

The Associated Press files Ronald Reagan takes the presidential oath of office in January 1981, as his wife, Nancy, looks on.

"What are you reading?" he asked.

I showed him the book's spine.

"Reagan?"

"Yeah, Ronald Reagan," I replied. "He was president of the United States in the 1980s."

He paused, then said, "Never heard of him."

It seemed surprising until I realized he probably hadn't been born when Reagan was first elected president 35 years ago. How do you remember what you never knew?

Even most of us who were around at the time likely recall little more about Reagan than his name and a few clichés associated with it -- Star Wars, Evil Empire, trickle-down economics, Iran-contra... and Alzheimer's.

And then, of course, there are all the things we might rather forget about the 1980s: the epidemic of airline hijackings, the arrival of AIDS, 13 per cent inflation, 20 per cent mortgages, 12 per cent unemployment... and the Cold War.

And therein lies the great strength of Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands. It's not so much an analysis of the policies of the 40th U.S. president as it is the story of his times, a reminder of who he was and what he did -- which was a lot given he was 78 when he left office with an astonishing approval rating of 63 per cent.

Brands, an American historian and author of 25 books (two of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) argues Reagan was the greatest U.S. president of the second half of the 20th century, a Republican mirror-image of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, the greatest president of the first half.

Both men, Brands reminds us, were supremely self-confident populists and outstanding orators who led the world out of wars -- one hot and one cold -- and freed hundreds of millions from tyrannies.

Both came to office when America was on its knees economically, and both restored prosperity -- Roosevelt by enlarging government, Reagan by reining it in.

Reagan admired Roosevelt, called him his political hero and a model president whom he emulated even after he quit the Democratic party for fear its deficit spending would bankrupt the country and enfeeble Americans by making them reliant on welfare statism rather than capitalist entrepreneurialism.

Brands tells Reagan's whole story: the boyhood poverty, his first (and addictive) taste of applause, his "movie star" career in Hollywood where he met his second wife, Nancy Davis, his role as FBI informant during the McCarthy era, his rise in politics through unionism, a television career in which he established himself as a voice of American exceptionalism, and his two terms as governor of California and two terms as U.S. president.

But Brands pays special attention to Reagan's unshakable faith in the rightness of American democracy and free-market capitalism and the wrongness of Communist tyranny.

In defence of capitalism, Reagan pursued a small-government agenda -- which Brands concludes he got half-right, cutting taxes but failing to rein in Congressional spending.

His anti-Communism was a complete success, Brands finds, arguing Reagan's unwillingness to embrace detente with Moscow even as he negotiated nuclear arms reduction agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev was instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

Throughout, Brands largely refuses to tell readers what Reagan was doing or thinking, and instead liberally quotes Reagan so the reader comes to see the consistency -- and depth -- of his positions and actions. The frequent references to Reagan's voluminous diaries (where we discover he could not bring himself to curse even in secret, resorting to h..l and d..n) are especially revealing.

If you know Reagan, Brands doesn't have much that's new to tell. But if your memories are weak, or if you've "never heard of him," reading Reagan: The Life is great way to fill in the blanks. It's also a surprisingly easy read.

Gerald Flood is a former Free Press comment editor.

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