Monday, April 16, 2012

When Character Was King, A Story of Ronald Reagan by Peggy Noonan

Published in 2001, 326 pages this is an outstanding book that I  acquired at our library book sale and one that will remain on my collection  shelf of the political and famous.  I admit before I say another word to being very fond of Ronald Reagan, his philosophy and his accomplishments, a Reaganophile if there is such a term.  I admired him from his time as Governor.  I was  fortunate to personally know Maureen , his eldest daughter, who did not always agree with her father politically.

  Peggy could have written most anything from her career  experiences in the White House , but the way she presents this autobiographical sketch demonstrates her skills as a writer.  She is a fantastic writer who emphasizes thru her story telling the character and dedication of Ronald Reagan as our President.  This book ends prior to his death while he is suffering from the incurable Alzheimer's that robbed him of the wonderful memories he built with his beloved Nancy.  He died in  2004, three years after this book was published. 

I was struck by the similarities between the characters and the backgrounds of  Reagan and Harry S Truman, maybe I was more alert to this because I had so recently read  David McCullough's "Truman", reviewed on this blog.  Then Peggy reveals similarities in both their characters and the  times of their presidencies and the crises they handled.  It thrilled me to read (pg 197) during the mid 1990's, when the University of Texas in Austin held a  symposium about a few  presidents where she represented Reagan and McCullough represented Truman and others represented Jimmy Carter, elder George Bush and Franklin Roosevelt.  I would have relished hearing both Peggy and David. 
This chapter which she titled, "The Power of Truth"  describes the special challenges an author faces in  capturing the work of a great leader.  "When you work for such a man,  when you're in the thick of it each day, you don't, as a rule,  talk about it in a fully forthcoming way to friends and family and reporters and curious people.  Part of the reason is loyalty.  Discretion is a way to demonstrate the loyalty you feel, or to show you feel it to people around you who might be watching.  Part of the reason is sheer busy-ness--people who have some role in a White House, for instance are so consumed with their part of the drama, with smoothing over the scheduling problem or planning the summit, that they don't take time to observe as much as they later wish they had.  Or if you do observe, you tend to see mostly your small area and can't always connect it to the big flow of events around you.  You're too busy to keep a diary (or now too afraid of subpoena)."  A  well written reasoned explanation as to why often it is difficult to write the truth about a leader.  She concludes that by the time  the people who were involved feel free to be somewhat indiscreet, they have often gotten very old.  Their memories  fade.  I am not so sure this is true today which shows yet again the immense differences in character of people  between then and now.  I think they lived in better times.   The copy to the right is the Contents and the titles of chapters.

On page 200 she describes more of Reagan's character and puts the traits in context of this time in history.  I was delighted to read how she insists on context; so many times we interpret through our own narrow prisms without consideration of what was happening during the time being described.  Peggy's readers need  to have grounding, a certain degree of awareness and a perspective of history.  " .. Ronald Reagan loved the truth.  We all do or say we do but for Reagan it was like fresh water, something he needed and wanted.  He loved the truth for a number of reasons, a primary one of which is that he thought it, in our current political circumstances uniquely constructive.  He thought that by voicing it you were beginning to make things better.  He thought the truth is the only foundation on which can be built something strong and good and lasting--because only truth endures. Lies die.  .....He wanted to put words into the air that were honest and have them take the place of other words that were not.  He wanted to crowd out the false with the true....."   That is powerful and  so similar to Harry S Truman, who remarked, "I don't give 'em hell, I tell the truth and they think it's hell."  How different from what abides in the White House today!   

I loved this book which might not be for an average reader who wants mere entertainment.  I love to gain depth of understanding from non-fiction and when it jives with my personal beliefs so much the better. When it is a great read about someone I admire that is like icing on the cake.

 I give it an easy 5 *****  out of 5.  It is a book I will keep.   Well done Peggy; very well done.