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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reagan’s Roots’
Question of the Day
Because he was a consequential and engaging president, Ronald Reagan continues to fascinate the public and help sell books. The desire by all the Republican presidential candidates to present themselves as wanting to run the country with Reaganite values shows the resiliency of Reagan’s worldview and values. Those wanting to learn about his accomplishments have a vast array of books and articles from which to choose. His presidency has been analyzed by academics, journalists and partisans (with varying degrees of success) across the political spectrum. However, less has been written in recent years about the facts that shaped his character and beliefs.
Peter Hannaford, a former Reagan aide who has written five previous books about his former boss, fills this gap nicely with the concise and insightful “Reagan’s Roots: The People and Places That Shaped His Character.”
Mr. Hannaford, whom this writer has known professionally for 20 years, focuses on the small towns in Illinois where Reagan lived until he graduated from college and gives readers a strong sense of the values that permeated those venues during the early 20th century.
“The characteristics we most associate with Reagan - self-confidence, self-reliance, optimism, modesty, loyalty, tolerance, good humor, determination and reverence for God - all came from his forebears, his parents, teachers, coaches, clergy and boyhood friends. And they were all in Illinois. More particularly, they were in the northwest quarter of Illinois,” he writes.
The arc of the narrative will be familiar to anyone who has read biographies of the former president. Where this book is helpful is in Mr. Hannaford’s descriptions of the communities and Reagan’s relationships with the people who lived in them.
In chapters on the five communities in Illinois where Reagan lived, the author describes their physical characteristics and provides thumbnail historical sketches. While the descriptions provide a strong sense of place, the best parts of the book are the profiles of the important people in the future president’s early life.
Reagan’s mother, Nelle, was a devout Christian who often participated in dramatic performances at her church. She recruited her son to participate, and that is where his passion for both was nurtured. Although Reagan showed charisma even as a child, he had a quiet side as well. His acting helped foster his communication and interpersonal skills.
The future president’s talents in these areas also were encouraged by mentors such as the Rev. Ben Cleaver, the pastor of his church in Dixon. He “became an important sounding board for things on young Reagan’s mind,” Mr. Hannaford writes. Cleaver’s daughter, Margaret, was Reagan’s first serious girlfriend and co-starred with him in high school and college dramatic productions.
In addition to teaching young Reagan about drama and religion, these relationships also helped him develop a positive outlook on the world. The idea that you shouldn’t dwell on setbacks because everything is part of God’s plan and all will turn out for the best was the prism through which he viewed life.
Though Reagan loved his father, Jack, he had to overcome the negative outlook on the world that stemmed from the elder Reagan’s business setbacks (which caused the family to move frequently) and alcoholism.
“Dutch [the future president’s childhood nickname] liked his father’s love of stories and jokes, but Jack had a cynical turn of mind, partly as a result of the various disappointments he faced (and probably disappointment in himself). Nelle, on the other hand, exuded optimism, and it constantly rubbed off on Dutch,” Mr. Hannaford writes.
The author doesn’t engage in any psychological analysis, which might have helped readers better understand the link between Reagan’s childhood and his personality as an adult. He also doesn’t discuss what impact his father’s alcoholism had on Reagan’s future relationships and ignores any bad habits and negative traits (such as lack of attention to detail and a reluctance to tell people things they didn’t want to hear) that might have stemmed from his experiences as a youth.
Despite those small shortcomings, this informative and well-written book sheds light on an important part of the life of the man who would become our 40th president.
Claude R. Marx is a journalist whose reviews have appeared in the Weekly Standard and the Wilson Quarterly.
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