by Craig Shirley
Issue 204 – May 23, 2012
Historian Doug Brinkley, who in addition to his many fine works also edited the Reagan Diaries and, more recently, a book on a recently discovered file of the Gipper’s musings, said not too long ago that the realm of Reagan scholarship is just beginning to open up.
In his newest book on the 40th President, Reagan’s Roots, author, speechwriter and Reagan confidant Peter Hannaford proves this point. There is much here to learn about the culture, parenting, heritage, poverty, struggles and yearnings of the young man who would grow up to become one of America’s greatest presidents.
Even with almost 1,000 books now published about Ronald Reagan, there is still much to discover, still much to learn about this endlessly fascinating man.
It is said that friends should not review books written by friends. On the other hand, enemies of the author or the topic are more suspect. Both Peter and I—and Reagan—long ago got used to being whacked by political enemies and thus learned as individualists to trust out own judgment and that of friends whose philosophy, motives and character we trust.
My only complaint about Reagan’s Roots is that it is shorter than I would have like. But then again, each page contains important information on Reagan’s development. Mark Twain, in later years, was once asked if he would have done anything differently in his works and the old tale spinner replied, “Write less.”
Hannaford—as one of the Reagan’s favorite speechwriters—like Reagan—appreciates the power of brevity. Reagan could keep a comment tight and compact when necessary. (“You and I have a rendezvous with Destiny.” “I paid for this microphone!”“There you go again.” “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) Marty Anderson—another of the original Reaganites like Peter—once said that Reagan could be “warmly ruthless.”
But even as the author of two books (with more to come) about Reagan and as the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, I discovered things in Reagan’s Roots that I did not know. His family in Ireland came from a hardscrabble Catholic upbringing and this, plus coming from the populist Midwest, surely played a role in Reagan’s political outlook. He was only two generations away from illiteracy. His great grandmother, Catherine, could only scrawl a mark next her name when she married Reagan’s grandfather, Michael, in 1852. It was at this time where the family once known as “O’Regan” and then “Regan” became “Reagan.”
Their first second son, John Michael, rejecting the poverty, squalor and oppression of Ireland, set out for the New World and there, with his new wife Jenny, began to build a life in rural Illinois. John and Jenny Reagan later had three children and it was their third, Jack, born in 1883, who would become the father of a President of the United States.
Nicely, Hannaford’s book contains interesting and important information about Reagan mother Nelle Wilson. (His middle name was of course his mother’s maiden name, a now largely discarded custom in which a child’s heritage was celebrated with names taken from both parents.) “Ronald” also was a Wilson family name and the fact that Reagan was thusly named indicated the powerful role Nelle had in their little family.
Everybody knows about Jack Reagan’s battles with the bottle but not everybody knows about the profound effect Nelle had on her youngest son, nor the Catholic perspective Jack gave to “Dutch” even though he was raised in his mother’s church, the Disciples of Christ. They settled in Tampico early in the 20th century, but the little town had more citizens then that it does now.
Eureka College, we learn from Hannaford, was vital to Reagan’s upbringing and self-worth, as was Dixon, a larger small town, located on the Rock River, where Dutch became a lifeguard. Another early Reagan biographer, Anne Edwards, says that a scout for the 1932 Olympics tried to recruit Reagan but his poverty prevented his trying out.
All in all, the book moves along nicely, is filled with interesting anecdotes and facts, and fills in a gap in the Reagan legacy, especially the ground level perspective Hannaford brings to it.
The group of original Reaganites is diminishing. Lyn Nofziger and Mike Deaver have passed on. Fortunately, others like Hannaford, Ed Meese and Marty Anderson are still with us, still going strong, still reminds us what it takes to make a great man and a great president.
Craig Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and author of “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All.”