- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. Let me expand a bit. I sense that you may feel that I am free of problems. Let me assure you that I have the same anxieties and insecurities as anyone in this auditorium — maybe more.” — Cary Grant
Change “Cary Grant” to “Ronald Reagan” and you’ll find that all of the current Republican Party aspirants to the Presidency want to be like The Great Communicator. Even the mainstream media today is reasonably friendly to the 40th President, who was born Feb. 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois and died in Los Angeles in 2004.
It wasn’t always so, writes Winston Groom (“Forrest Gump”) in a new brief biography aimed at young adult readers, ” Ronald Reagan Our 40th President” (Regnery, 200 pages, reader’s guide, bibliography, index, $12.95). During his two terms as president (1981-1989) Reagan was belittled, attacked and scorned by what Groom calls (and I, as a daily print and online journalist since 1966 can confirm) the overwhelmingly leftist, liberal, “progressive” mainstream media, especially the print media. Groom himself was a reporter for the late, lamented The Washington Star, which was a moderately conservative counterbalance to the liberal Washington Post. That role is played to a degree today by The Washington Times, but the Star was special.
While “Ronald Reagan Our 40th President” is the first book about the Great Communicator written especially for young adults, aged 12-18, it’s a very good introduction to Reagan for older readers, especially in this short-attention span era.
Groom traces Reagan’s early years in small town Illinois, especially Dixon in Lee County, on the Rock River, where “Dutch” Reagan was a football player despite being too nearsighted to play baseball. “The ball is bigger and so were the fellows” is how Reagan explained his proficiency at football, displaying a sense of humor that has often been neglected in accounts of Reagan. His father, Jack, was an alcoholic, or a “drunkard” in the parlance of Groom, who later reformed and stayed on the wagon, working on Reagan’s fan mail when Reagan was a movie star. His mother, Elle, was a “saint” and kept the family together. Reagan’s middle name, “Wilson,” was his mother’s maiden name; he was not named for Woodrow Wilson, as I had long thought. In 1911, Woodrow Wilson was an obscure governor of New Jersey, taking over the executive branch of the Garden State a few weeks before Reagan was born.
Dutch Reagan was a lifeguard at the Rock River beach in Dixon and saved dozens of lives, writes Groom. The job paid for much of his expenses at Eureka College, east of Peoria in central Illinois, where Reagan also waited on tables and had a small scholarship. College was something Reagan and his mother wanted, Groom writes, noting that the the future Governor of California and President of the U.S. was an avid reader. Like all Illinois towns (including nearby Rochelle, where i grew up) Dixon also had an excellent public library. The educational bar was high in Illinois when Reagan (and I) grew up, especially in northern Illinois.
Groom writes about Reagan’s career as a radio sports reporter and his entry into the movie business. His interest in dramatics in high school in Dixon was encouraged by an English teacher there and led to a career in movies — and an education in tough negotiating during his leadership of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Handling the Russian and other foreign leaders was something Reagan could approach with ease after dealing with take-no-prisoners Hollywood movie moguls!
Groom doesn’t neglect the blemishes of Reagan’s administration, including Iran-Contra, but he emphasizes the attributes of Reagan that made him a successful, popular (except with the newsies) president. A personal note: Reagan was the first — and last — Republican president I voted for. I was disgusted with Carter, for whom I voted in 1976, and turned to Reagan. It was the right move on my part, but I never told my dyed-in-the-wool Democratic Party mother, who died in 1984.
What are the lessons young adults can take away from Groom’s book:
* Reagan had to learn to work with many liberal friends and colleagues throughout his career as both governor and President. This is a quality, Groom says, that many wish we had with our leaders today.
* When Reagan graduated from college in 1932, he had a very difficult time finding a job, something with which today’s graduates can identify. The recession continues as far as job-seekers are concerned.
* Reagan grew up in a staunchly Democratic family — in a part of Illinois that was strongly Republican — but his life experiences drew him to the Republican party, Groom says. One of the life experiences was with his movie career, when the top marginal tax rate was in the 90 percent range. This discouraged people from making money, since they knew it would go to the ever-expanding federal government.
* The kind of hard work and determination young Ronald Reagan displayed should be an inspiration to today’s young adults, Groom says.
I’m astonished at the belittling of Reagan’s movie career by his detractors, not to mention the denigration of his military service, often by writers who have had no military service at all. Reagan enlisted in a reserve Army cavalry unit in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937, serving first as a private and then, later in the year, as a 2nd Lieutenant while still a broadcaster. Cavalry in those days still involved riding horses, which Reagan developed a love of and a proficiency for that he used throughout his life. His poor vision kept him from combat, but he served honorably in the army’s First Motion Picture Unit, being promoted to captain in 1942.
As far as movies are concerned, he was — in the opinion of many — a solid, dependable, professional actor, making dozens of movies. My two favorites are “The Hasty Heart” (1949) and “The Killers” (1964) his last movie. The best man at his wedding to his second wife, Nancy Davis, was the noted actor William Holden, a good friend. The matron of honor was Holden’s wife Ardis. Reagan’s first wife was the actress Jane Wyman. Maureen and Michael were the children from that union, with Michael being adopted. Patti and Ron Jr. were the children from Reagan’s marriage to Nancy. Groom discusses the differences with Reagan, a traditional parent, and his rebellious children in a frank manner.
Groom writes of the assassination attempt early in Reagan’s first term, as well as Reagan’s efforts to create order out of the shambles that the Carter Administration had left the country. On the whole he was successful, Groom writes, although Reagan was unable to halt the growth of the federal government. The Grenada invasion and Reagan’s dealings with the Soviet Union are dealt with in a concise fashion. The only error I spotted was on Page 104 when Groom writes that Israel became an independent state in 1947; It became independent from Britain in 1948, after which it was attacked by several Arab armies bent on the nation’s destruction — as many still are.
About the Author
Winston Groom, born in 1944, and a Vietnam War veteran, is the bestselling author of “Forrest Gump”. His other books include the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Conversations with the Enemy” and “As Summers Die”. Prior to becoming an author, Groom worked as a journalist for The Washington Star, and he currently writes for The Weekly Standard. Groom and his wife live in Point Clear, Alabama.