One definition of history is the telling of events that shaped who we were and what we have become. In “Reagan: The Life,” acclaimed historian Henry William “H.W.” Brands narrows that concept into the definitive narrative of Ronald Reagan.
It starts with the 40th president’s boyhood in small-town Illinois, moves to his Hollywood acting career, and segues to his governorship of California and subsequent White House years from 1981 until 1989. What best informs the storytelling, though, are the behind-the-scenes dramas, historic moments (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) and intimate details. It’s the Bee Book Club choice for June.
Brands, 61, holds a Ph.D. in history, an M.S. in mathematics and an M.A. in liberal studies, and teaches history and government at the University of Texas at Austin. He votes as an independent. He has written 25 books of history, biography and politics, noted for their accessibility to the everyday reader. Two biographies were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes, and his story of the California Gold Rush set the bar for that transformative adventure. “In all my books, I let the characters speak for themselves, and avoid weighing in as the intervening historian,” he said by phone.
He’s also a sought-after, animated, slightly eccentric lecturer and star of documentary films. When asked if he watches the History Channel, Brands said, “Some, but mostly I appear on it.”
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Before all that, he was a traveling salesman for a year for the family cutlery business and, later, a high school math teacher.
“I became really interested in history while I was a salesman in the late 1970s, before cable TV and the Internet,” he said. “I traveled between Portland and Denver, and would throw a bunch of history books from my grandfather’s library into the back of the car. I would find myself in middle-of-nowhere towns with long evenings to fill, so I got up-close-and-personal with the journals and letters written by Western explorers – primary material, (which is) the purest form of history.”
In writings and talks, Brands has referred to the “cult of the president,” in which “we make too big a deal of the president.” Is that even possible?
“Theodore Roosevelt was the first celebrity president,” Brands explained. “He established the model that the president would be the center of American political consciousness. There’s a complicity between the president and the media and writers like me, because it’s a whole lot easier to report in a dramatic fashion on an individual than it is a group, like Congress. That’s led us to expect way too much of whoever is in the White House.”
Brands’ original title for “Reagan: The Life” was “The Last Hero,” mostly because “the presidents since Reagan have seemed very much smaller,” he said. “Americans like their presidents to be larger-than-life figures, and Reagan knew how to ‘perform’ the presidency, which was crucial to his success.
“Also, the Cold War was over after Reagan. To seem larger-than-life, the president must have a worthy adversary and appear to be a heroic protector. Reagan was tilting against the Soviet Union. After that, presidents have taken on Al-Qaeda and other gangs of thugs who don’t have 10 million nuclear weapons.”
Brands didn’t go into the Reagan book “as a fan, nor did I dislike him,” he emphasized. “I just wanted to observe and see what the evidence told me. We tend to think that presidents do great things all by themselves, but Reagan himself would have recognized that he was the beneficiary of some lucky timing.
“On the domestic economic side, we owe as much to Paul Volcker as to Reagan,” Brands said. “As chairman of the Federal Reserve, he wrung the inflationary expectations out of the economy.
“On the foreign policy side, if (Soviet leader) Leonid Brezhnev had lived another six years, we would not remember Reagan as the president who vanquished communism and brought the Cold War to its successful conclusion, because Brezhnev did not want to talk,” he continued. “Then Reagan tried to talk with Yuri Andropov and then Konstantin Chernenko. They wouldn’t talk, either, and then they died. Then along came Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.”
Brands is tuned in to the national psyche when it comes to history. Are we in touch with our past?
“As a people, we have never been particularly interested in history, and that’s a challenge I face every time I walk into a classroom,” he said. “America has always been the land of the future. Generally, older people tend to be more historically minded than younger people, because most of their lives is in the past tense rather than the future tense.”
For a few years, Brands has been writing a history of the United States on Twitter – in haiku, no less, the 17-syllable Japanese form of non-rhyming verse. “I’m up to World War II,” he said, “but the technology may become anachronistic before I can finish.”
What will history have to say about the historian?
“Here’s what I hope: Fifty years from now, somebody will be walking through a library or bookstore and come across my books,” he said. “They will say, ‘Here’s a writer who took the past seriously enough to give readers something that was of interest and educational value.”
Brands has “lived” vicariously in multiple centuries. If he could time-travel back, where wouldhe land? “I imagine myself in the 1880s,” he said thoughtfully. “The West was still frontier territory, but at the same time modern America was coming clearly into view. The past and future were in constant tension.”
Free tickets available
- What: Noted historian H.W. Brands at the Bee Book Club
- Where: Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento
- When: 6 p.m. Thursday (doors open at 5:15 p.m.)
- Tickets: Free at www.beebuzzpoints.com
- Information: (916) 321-1128; www.hwbrands.com
Get 30 percent off of “Reagan: The Life” (Doubleday, $35, 803 pages) through Thursday at Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Hornet Bookstore at CSU Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley
Also coming to the Bee Book Club
Thriller novelist James Rollins of El Dorado Hills for “The Bone Labyrinth” (July 16), and Sara Paretsky for her next V.I. Warshawski mystery, “Brush Back” (Aug. 6).