I had barely turned two years of age when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the fortieth President of the United States. He will always be my standard for what a president should look and sound like, because he was the first one I had. Still, I am a moderate-liberal and have many criticisms of Mr. Reagan's domestic policies. Here are the pros, cons and final assessment of this fascinating memoirs.
The Pros Mr. Reagan earned his moniker, "The Great Communicator." He is a natural storyteller, and there were many passages I read where I could practically hear him reading to me. The pace is quick and, unlike Bill Clinton's My Life, Reagan wisely refrains from name-checking everyone whose hand he ever shook on the campaign trail. An American Life is organized thematically rather than chronologically, meaning it's fairly simple to follow any one subject through from its origins to either its conclusion or, at least, its state as of the writing of this book. Given the sporadic nature of diplomatic progress, a purely chronological account would have been a nightmare to read. Reagan's language is very simple and accessible, and he frequently cites his own expansive journal entries, as well as letters written to and from Mikhail Gorbachev (among others). The most successful part of the book is that Reagan, in his own words, makes a legitimate argument for his perspective on things. As a child of the 80s, I saw the world very differently than did my president. It was nice to read for myself why he felt the way he did about certain issues, and what his intentions were.
The Cons The book feels comprehensive--unless you pay enough attention, or happen to have knowledge of events outside the scope of the book. The first 200-plus pages are dedicated to Mr. Reagan's life prior to becoming president. They often touch on his family, but it appears that by the time he was convinced to run for governor of California, his family all but disappears from the narration. It very subtly suggests an image of a man who became increasingly insulated from the rest of the world; everyone except the First Lady and his Secretary of State. I would have liked to read him at least acknowledge some of the unintended negative consequences of his policies (such as the reduction of funding to help mentally and emotionally disturbed poor stay in treatment centers), and this is absent entirely. In fact, Reagan does not seem interested in, or perhaps even capable of, admitting to anything negative--how else could the man who was president at the time of the first identified case of HIV/AIDS go an entire 726 pages and not mention it at all?
As a Democrat, I was also disappointed to read Mr. Reagan's characterization of my side of the political spectrum. For a man whose legacy is built on his ability to relate to opponents as people, and to work on building support through emphasizing humanity, it is remarkable to read the absolute disdain he held for his political opposition in Washington. He mentions Democrats several times, but never does he discuss any kind of effort at cooperating with them. He doesn't even try to suggest that they rebuffed his overtures--they're simply working entirely to defeat his every, well-intentioned act as president, and he takes his case to the people to put enough pressure on them to get his way. How could the same man that dedicated himself to establishing historic arms reduction agreements with the U.S.S.R. not do more to get along with his own government?
The Bottom Line I have come away from An American Life feeling that I better understand Mr. Reagan's motives as president. I no longer regard him as uncaring, hiding anti-poor/racist/rich, old white man-ism behind the rhetoric of conservatism and states's rights. I believe now that he did not intend any of the at-times cruel consequences of his presidency. For those who were already fans of Mr. Reagan, this book is a given. For those like me, who were not, I still recommend taking the opportunity to read his side of things. I haven't abandoned my ideals, but I have asked new questions of them--and that is the essence of An American Life.