Ronald Reagan is a controversial figure. Like most recent Presidents he seems to be – to use that over-worked phrase – a divisive one. People either love him or they hate him; he either saved the world or darn near destroyed it. I am sure readers of this blog will have little difficulty figuring out which side of the debate I am on. When it comes down to it, count me on the side of Reagan.
So yes, count me as biased on Reagan. I think he was one of the good guys. But my appreciation of the man involves more than just gushing complements and empty nostalgia. I am fascinated by Reagan warts and all. Politicians are flawed human beings just like the rest of us. Reagan made mistakes, had faults, and was wrong about issues. What made Reagan important was his ability to rise above his faults and mistakes to achieve great things; to become a leader. Like all historical figures to some degree, Reagan has become a icon and a figurehead. He is a projection of what people want and need not a living breathing person. But Reagan the saint is less interesting than Reagan the person.
Not surprisingly what prompted these musings is a book: How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by Peter Robinson. Robinson, a former Reagan speech-writer, has written an interesting and unique book about our 40th President. The book is part biography, part auto-biography, part self-help, and part leadership guide. With the title How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life you are probably thinking that it is simply a hagiography; a love letter written to Robinson’s former employer. And in some ways it is. But what makes it interesting is that Robinson relates how Reagan impacted his life personally and how the qualities that the young speech-writer admired played a crucial role in Reagan’s success.
Robinson basically lucked into a job writing speeches for then Vice President Bush. Just out of college, and recently humbled by his complete inability to write a novel, Robinson was seeking a mentor and a role model; not too mention trying to figure out what it meant to be a White House Speech writer. In the course of his duties for the Vice President and eventually the President, Robinson began to study what made Reagan tick. As a speech-writer he needed to get “inside” Reagan to a certain degree in order to write speeches that sounded genuine but it was more than that to Robinson. While his fellow graduates were starting out in the world of high finance and business, Robinson was going to work each day for the White House. And just like them he needed a mentor or a model, someone to learn from and emulate. For them it might be their manager or boss or even the CEO. For Robinson it ended up being the President.
This unique perspective makes the book interesting and easy reading. Robinson outlines the ideas and characteristics that made Reagan successful: his optimism, his stable temperament, his commitment to action, his steadfast belief in the importance of speaking the truth, etc. But while politics might be the context of this book it is not the central them. Sure there are political points made and Robinson’s belief in Reagan’s success encompasses the success of his political beliefs. But at the heart of what Robinson describes is character and leadership. Reagan succeeded because of who he was and what he stood for but also because of how he lived his life. A great many people shared Reagan’s political and policy positions but Reagan brought a unique character and leadership style to those positions.
In this way, Reagan is a quintessential example of the “Great Man” view of history. If you take Reagan away things turn out very differently. I won’t rehash the issues that Robinson touches on but from economics, taxes, and the size of government to communism, abortion, and America’s place in the world, Reagan’s commitment and his leadership made a crucial impact.
To be honest I don’t think this book will change any diehard’s minds about Reagan. But Robinson does capture in many ways the essence of Reagan to those who love him. It is to his credit that he does this in a fascinating and almost touching way. The reason this book is so readable, in my opinion, is because it deals with issues we all can relate to. Robinson avoids the harsh partisan rhetoric, and the boring policy wonkery, and concentrates on the deeper ideas and values that made Reagan great while tying this to his own development and career. The result is a character study of one of the most important historical figures of the twentieth century plus an inside view of what it means to be a young White House speech-writer. After reading the book I came away with a greater appreciation for Ronald Reagan and for Peter Robinson.
So whether you are a Reagan fan looking for further insights or a Reagan detractor trying to figure what the other side sees in him or somewhere in between, Robinson provides a personal and insightful view into Reagan’s life, character, and leadership. As a result he helps us understand both Reagan the President and Reagan the man.