Is there a good book about the Reagan administration out there?
April 18, 2009 9:31 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a solidly researched and well-written book that critiques Ronald Reagan's administration?

Last Sunday during the Swan family Easter do at my place my brother and his 21-year-old son opined that Ronald Reagan was one of the three best U.S. presidents, that he ended the Cold War, and that his administration was good for the economy, etc.. Anything I tried to say to the contrary was dismissed as "leftist propaganda" by my nephew. So, I would like to give my brother a book on the topic for Christmas. I need something readable that comes across as very reasonable and fair-minded. Title suggestions, please?
posted by orange swan to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
An American Life : The Autobiography

But seriously folks, both An American Life, and The Reagan Diaries are pretty interesting-- reading his own words, he comes across as very thoughtful and more sympathetic than one might think.

I'd probably shy away from Dutch-- while certainly readable, the book crosses the line between fiction and non-fiction a probably a bit more than you'd want.

The Reagan bio I enjoyed reading the most was probably "President Reagan, The Triumph of Imagination" ... once you get past the kind-of schlocky title, it's a very reasonable text that highlights the benefits and detriments of his leadership style. One bit that jumped out at me was the consistent notion that he saw himself as a leader more than a manager. He wanted staff to come to him with a consensus, then present it to him. The book notes that his staff (Starting with Don Regan) very often took that as license to make decisions and use the President as little more than a rubber stamp sometimes--- so after the book argues in favor of his style of prioritizing (especially in contrast to the micro-managerial administration of President Carter), it also shows how sometimes the hands-off leadership style worked against him.
posted by Seeba at 9:46 PM on April 18, 2009

Rachel Maddow had James Mann on her show earlier this week, interviewing him about his new book "The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan". You might appreciate that book, or others mentioned on the Amazon page. You might have to jump forward to around 2:00 into that show segment to get into the interview.
posted by hippybear at 10:20 PM on April 18, 2009

I should mention, I've only seen the interview, and have not read the book being discussed.
posted by hippybear at 10:25 PM on April 18, 2009

The best and most readable single volume I've ever found on Reagan and his time is Sleepwalking Through History by Haynes Johnson. Johnson's a former Washington Post staffer, not sure if that works for or against his role as a "leftist."

Another excellent overview, with a tighter focus on Reagan himself, is Reagan's America by Garry Wills.

Both of these books are highly critical of Reagan and his regime. Their research is pretty much impeccable.

(By way of credentials or something, I wrote my undergrad thesis on Reagan's relationship with the media.)
posted by gompa at 11:30 PM on April 18, 2009

Strongly seconding Sleepwalking Through History, adding Lou Cannon's Reagan biographies, a little surprised that gompa didn't mention On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency.
posted by box at 9:52 AM on April 19, 2009

Best answer: I would go with something a little less forcefull than gompa's great recommendations. I would suggest a book that is rather sympathetic in tone in many places but devestating nonetheless; President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon. This is a book that will firmly establish that the presidency was often beyond the capabilities of Reagan. The book isn't an total character assassination, but it should be clear from it that Reagan is not even the greatest president of your nephews lifetime, let alone in the top 3. From Entertainment Weekly (I am amazed they picked it up - it was also reviewed by serious folks like the NYRB):
Aide after aide testifies in these pages that the President ''did not react to 95 percent of the material that was brought to him,'' that ''he made no demands, and gave almost no instructions,'' and that his excuses for not at least glancing at the various background papers supplied him in preparation for meetings and decisions were invariably lame. ''Well, Jim,'' he told chief of staff James Baker, explaining why he hadn't opened the briefing book for the Colonial Williamsburg economic summit, ''The Sound of Music was on last night.''
Cannon was a reporter who covered the Reagan white house so the work is pretty accessible. It may have the added benefit of not totally slaying your nephew's hero worship, but simply making Reagan human, cause you don't want to be that uncle either.
posted by zenon at 10:18 AM on April 19, 2009

I haven't read it and it obviously isn't aiming to sound balanced, but an advert for a book about Reagan called Tear Down This Myth caught my eye today. (
posted by Kirn at 11:47 AM on April 19, 2009

Response by poster: I bought the Ronald Reagan: Role of a Lifetime book for my brother (my nephew will read it too since they live in the same house still and always read each other's books). I wanted a book that would read as really fair, giving credit for Reagan for the good things he did while not giving him a pass on any of the bad.

It may have the added benefit of not totally slaying your nephew's hero worship, but simply making Reagan human, cause you don't want to be that uncle either.

Nor could I be, at least without extensive surgery and hormone therapy.
posted by orange swan at 4:10 PM on May 19, 2009

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