Before Reagan was Reagan:

A Review of Lou Cannon's Book on Ronald Reagan's Rise to Power


Friday, Mar. 05, 2004
Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (PublicAffairs 2003)

In a recent history of the Republican Party, the historian Lewis Gould criticizes the presidency of Ronald Reagan for consisting mostly of "rhetoric." Reagan, he implies, had few real ideas and instead relied on a few stock images and his acting skills.

This is an old knock on Reagan, but one that as the years pass, seems less tenable. Recent books of Reagan's letters and the speeches he gave before he became president reveal a man genuinely interested in policies and ideas. As Lou Cannon writes in his new biography, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power, "Reagan was no intellectual, but he knew what he believed and why he believed it."

This interest was, however, deliberately subsumed within a friendly and affable exterior. Reagan's training as an actor and long years of speech giving prepared him for national politics. Reagan's confidence, and his ability to characterize himself as a "normal American" served him to good effect in his victory over Jimmy Carter, who was perceived as highly intelligent but ineffectual.

Cannon, a journalist, is the author of several earlier books on Reagan, including a full-length biography. All in all, he has covered Reagan for over thirty years -- first for the San Jose Mercury News and then for the Washington Post. In this book, he focuses on the years when Reagan served as Governor of California, from 1966 to 1974, but continues on to the beginnings of Reagan's first term in 1980.

Cannon obviously admires his subject, but does not gloss over what he sees as Reagan's failings. Governor Reagan is a comprehensive look at Reagan's pre-presidential life, and a very worthwhile read.

How Reagan's Early Experiences Formed His Character and Outlook

As Cannon shows, the experiences Reagan had as a young man shaped his outlook and, in some cases, even his political opinions. Cannon discusses two influences in particular: Reagan's college years at Eureka College in Illinois, and his efforts to find work in Depression-era America.

Born in 1911, Reagan grew up in a lower-middle class family in Dixon, Illinois. His father, Jack, an alcoholic, was a salesman who had trouble holding down regular work. As a result, the family moved around until they settled in Dixon, when Reagan was a boy.

Reagan got along well with both parents, but clearly adored his mother Nelle. The household was generally pro-labor union, and Reagan's parents were supporters of FDR after his election in 1932. This political liberalism, however, was combined in his mother's case with a strong religious sensibility, which affected the young Reagan.

Eureka provided him with four good years. He majored in economics and sociology, but his major interests were drama, sports, and politics. Even in college, Reagan's life was occupied by a mixture of politics and entertainment. He acted in numerous student dramas, but also played a role in a battle over the future of Eureka's president and its curriculum.

In fact, the Eureka controversy gave rise to his first political speech. As Cannon describes it, the speech established in outline the form of the classic Reagan speech: it " rel[ied] on an accumulation of memorized detail . . . but [it] concluded, as Reagan speeches almost always did, with an emotional peroration."

Reagan graduated from Eureka in 1932, in the heart of the Depression years. The Depression was tough for him and his family, but these years did lead to Reagan's first entertainment opportunities, as an sports announcer for a series of Midwestern radio stations. He used these as a springboard to Los Angeles and to an acting career.

Soldier, Actor, Politician: Reagan's Early Years in Hollywood and in the Army

In 1936, Reagan arrived in Hollywood, and had his first role the following year. Cannon reminds us that Reagan was a pretty big star in his day, if not among the legendary celebrities of the era, and well respected as a solid actor.

Soon after arriving in California, Reagan made a series of movies that attracted the attention of the public and the Hollywood community. Cannon ably analyzes Reagan's relationship with his agent, the powerful Lew Wasserman.

In some ways, Reagan was a natural actor: he was known for being on time, and being able to memorize his lines, and he was respected as a professional on the set. These qualities, Cannon wryly notes, would come in handy during his gubernatorial years.

In addition to noting Reagan's professional skills, Cannon also assesses Reagan's film career. Reagan made a number of good films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and Cannon concludes that he was a solid B-film actor, despite later criticisms of his acting by Reagan's political opponents.

Reagan's poor eyesight prevented him from being on active duty during the Second World War. Instead, he served in the Army Air Corps. After a short stint at training, he spent most of his Army Air Corps time in Hollywood, in a unit headed by Jack Warner, a founder of the Warner Brothers studios. It was honorable military service, if not as dangerous as that of the front-line troops, but Cannon probably makes more of it than necessary.

More important for the future governor, in 1947, Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild. This position not only gave Reagan a certain amount of visibility in the entertainment community and experience in the details of negotiation, but it also launched him into the central political issue of the late 1940s: the supposed spread of Communism in America.

In the 1940s, Hollywood was in the throes of the Red Scare. Everyone seemed to believe that movies were uniquely vulnerable to Communist influence. And indeed, the Communists had tried to make inroads there, through a number of front organizations.

Reagan was never a Communist nor he was he ever even sympathetic to Communism, and he fought several battles to keep Communists out of the film industry and its unions.

Yet at the time, Reagan was not a militant anti-Communist either, preferring the Truman Administration's moderate anti-Communism. He did testify before the House un-American Activities Committee, but without endorsing its tactics.

Reagan as Governor: Two Terms of Achievements Before His Presidency

The bulk of Cannon's book is taken up with Reagan's 1966 candidacy for governor, his victory, and his achievements in his two terms. (Cannon does cover some of the early presidency, but those sections are largely drawn from his earlier Reagan biography.)

The details of California politics may not, in themselves, be of interest to most readers, but here, put in context, they are significant, for they serve to foreshadow Reagan as President. Here, we are introduced, for example, to Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, and others who entered national political life along with Reagan. And we also see how, during the California years, Reagan honed a few central themes -- about government, politics, and basic issues such as tax reductions -- into a wining message.

As the California years showed, Reagan was well served by having combined strong conservative instincts and principles with a career in entertainment, a profession that is usually among the most liberal. In addition, his boyhood and college years had imparted a strong sense of social justice and pro-union sentiment -- neither of which were known to be Republican attributes in the 1960s. For example, Reagan never disowned his pro-Roosevelt sentiment, quoting him often while President.

In his terms as Governor, Reagan concentrated on renewing Californians' trust in their state government, and returning state finances to a better footing, after some disastrous missteps by the former governor.

These two themes were to reappear in 1980, when Reagan won the White House. In addition, many of his supporters followed Reagan to Washington.

Reagan and His Famous Stories: Effective, But Often Embellished

The issue of Reagan's use of storytelling as a political device will likely remain one of the most controversial of his presidency.

Reagan was an accomplished storyteller; he had an endless number of stories about his own life and those of others, which he used regularly in speeches and addresses. But most of these stories were embellished or exaggerated. For Reagan's critics, that was enough to make them suspect. Some argued that these stories, especially those about his own life, were simply untrue fairy tales.

Others, including Cannon, take a different approach, however. While subsequent research his shown that Reagan polished his stories without at times too great a regard for the facts, Cannon argues that the point of these departures from strict realism was not to deceive, but rather to convey a moral of the way things should be.

As the essayist and critic Russell Kirk wrote, "Ronald Reagan put on the mask of the Western hero . . . and truly lived the part, and became the Western hero." Indeed, it was these abilities that made Reagan so effective. Reagan's cheerful assumption of the role he had created for himself drew voters to him; he used, as Cannon writes, his image as a "regular" American to great effect.

Setting the Backdrop for A Historic Presidency

In hindsight, it is clear that the eight-year presidency of Ronald Reagan was a crucial turning point in American history. In foreign affairs, Reagan paved the way for the end of the Cold War. And domestically, no political figure has been able to generate the following and loyalty Reagan commanded.

In Governor Reagan, Cannon shows us how that remarkable career began. In reviewing his legacy as Governor, Cannon at times is perhaps little too soft on Reagan. For instance, Cannon spends only a little time on Reagan's critics (then and now) and their major critiques of the man and his Presidency.

Nevertheless, the wealth of information Cannon has amassed, and his skill in presenting it, together make this portrait of Reagan as Governor a worthwhile review of his career.

Gerald J. Russello, an attorney, lives in Brooklyn.

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