Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Book Review: Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

I was 10 years old when President Reagan took office and 18 when he left. At that age I was influenced by pop culture not newspapers. Hence, Reagan was presented as a senile, war monger, harebrained ex-actor. Frankie Goes to Hollywood videos, 99 Luftballons, Land Of Confusion, the TV movie The Day After. Mushroom cloud imagery invaded my thoughts regularly. The term “Reaganomics” to me meant poor people cut off from lifesaving welfare funds. It was nonsense of course. The entertainment industry is overwhelmingly left wing. Their propaganda worked though, I was shocked when he was re-elected in a landslide in 1984. I thought everybody hated him.

Since then I have read a few books. David Stockwell’s The Triumph of Politics. It detailed Stockman’s time as head of the budget office, and how necessary spending cuts were virtually impossible when you’re trying to get elected. Also, The Power Game: How Washington Works by Hedrik Smith. This was an inside view of the process of what it takes to pass legislation during the Reagan years. Lobbyists, military bureaucracy, congress, the executive branch. It’s a miracle anything got done; what did was not done well.


So, even though I lean to the right, I’ve never had a great opinion of Reagan.

Recently I was visiting family in Ottawa and my father-in-law lent me Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. (Read the blurb, there’s no point of recycling it.) I knew that there something controversial about this book. It was love-it or hate-it among critics. I found out why very quickly. For his early years, author Edmund Morris creates a fictional, Illinois born narrator who witnesses Reagan first hand after meeting him at Eureka College. It’s a stretch, and very annoying at first. I was close to putting it down. But Morris is a gifted writer, and Reagan’s life from small town nothingness, to sportscaster, to Hollywood leading man and then on to General Electric spokesman and of course to politician, is too difficult to resist and I was compelled to keep going through the whole thing. (874 pages, including extensive notes and an index.)

Hollywood was as shallow back then as it is now. Reagan had one chance, one tryout, when he was down in Los Angeles covering spring training for his broadcasting gig. He got up, read from a sheet of paper for two minutes and that was enough. He was a good looking guy, with big shoulders and a great voice. He was signed by Warner Brothers for a long term contract a few days later. No Juilliard, no Actor’s Studio. (I’ve spent some time with a few actors in my day and that’s my way of saying “stuff your pretention”.)

Reagan’s first wife was street-wise actress/bombshell Jane Wyman. He was truly shocked when she left him and asked for a divorce. She became bored with him, especially his long political monologues at Hollywood parties. Jane was heard saying to a friend: “I'm so bored with him, I'll either kill him or kill myself."

This was telling of Reagan; the author made it clear that he was impersonal, and impervious to even the closest people in his life.

*Note on his Hollywood career. Bedtime for Bonzo is not a joke movie. Reagan plays a university professor who uses Bonzo the monkey for behavioral experiments to argue nature vs. nurture.

Reagan’s shift to the right was the result of two things. First simply, when he was a top grossing actor he had to pay the crippling 91% income tax that the top bracket had to pay from the WWII until the Kennedy administration. Secondly, was his disgust at radical labor movements. When the Screen Actors Guild, which he was president of, did not support a stagehand strike at the studios, he was threatened by union thugs who said they were going to throw acid in his face and ruin his movie star looks.

He spent his middle age as a company spokesman for General Electric, where he was able to go on the road throughout America to GE Plants and make speeches. His message of fiscal conservatism, tax cuts, and not being held hostage by labor unions, was received with tremendous approval from the middle class employees. As a politician he used this experience with great aplomb. He knew how to reach out to the people.

His political career is more well known to me but still made for great reading. He was a two term governor of California. In 1976, the incumbent Gerald Ford was chosen as the Republican nominee for president in 1976 even though Reagan had more popular support. He had to wait until 1980.

His two terms were groundbreaking for his tax cuts and de-regulation. With the booming economy he was re-elected by a record landslide in 1984.

It took Edmund Morris 14 years to compile research and write this book. Reagan himself had chosen him to be his “official” biographer. That does not mean it is a biased fluff piece; far from it. If Reagan had have been of sound mind to read it when it was published in 1999, I believe he might have been outraged through most of it. For me, it was a captivating read.


  1. You have to admit that Reagan was a great President.

  2. I will agree he was a great president. The best while I've been on the earth. However, not being able to control spending will always be a black mark, IMHO.