Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan

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Exit with Honor

William E. Pemberton. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Pp. 295 Paper ISBN: 076560096X

Summary

Exit with Honor, by William Pemberton, is a condensed biography of Ronald Reagan. It follows Reagan from his early life in small Midwestern towns to his career in Hollywood to the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento and finally to the White House. Pemberton mixes more traditional biographical styles with psychoanalysis or “Reagan on the couch” in an attempt to present the “real” Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a mystery to even those closest to him. The only President ever to lead a Labor Union, Reagan helped undermine labor as president. He was an admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, yet he is hailed by many on the Right as the antithesis to the New Deal. Reagan came across at once as a man with nothing to hide and someone who could never achieve true intimacy. His relaxed style of governing and seeming detachment from daily activities in the White House resulted in charges of ignorance and neglect, yet Reagan accomplished more of what he set out to do than any President since FDR. Reagan was known for his hard-line anticommunism but he happily met and developed a friendship with Soviet premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He left office with an approval rating of 70% but his anointed successor was unable to win reelection. Even Reagan’s critics have to admit that Reagan was a complex man.

Pemberton believes that some of the mystery of Ronald Reagan can be solved by probing the President’s childhood and early life. Ronald’s father, Jack Reagan, was a hard-drinking Irish Catholic “who during the Great Depression became an avid supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt” and who “detested the Ku Klux Klan and hated racism and bigotry.”(5) He taught his son to respect everyone regardless of their religion or color. Jack was a “restless man” and moved his family from town to town. His drinking often got in the way of his success and the family was always teetering on the edge of disaster. Ronald Reagan “recalled his childhood as similar to ‘rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls.’”(5) Pemberton suggests that this was an example of Reagan’s selective memory and points out that Huck Finn actually had a difficult and traumatic life.

According to Pemberton, it is common for children of alcoholics to develop an ability to escape into their imagination. Reagan certainly had his own fantasy worlds. Friends would later remark at his ability to conjure up vivid images of imaginary places or times. He learned to be self reliant and to ignore the problems around him. Reagan’s trade-mark optimism can also be traced to his childhood need to for security. Even in the worst of times he found comfort in the conviction that the future would be brighter and happier.

After escaping from the small town life and finding his niche in Hollywood, Reagan put his talents to work. He learned to take orders, memorize lines, and not ask questions. His job was to look and sound good. Although he never achieved great fame, Reagan starred in over 40 different films. The vast majority of these were low budget “B-films.” His career was interrupted by World War II. His contribution to the war effort was making propaganda and training films a few miles from his home. Upon return, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was known for his hard-line anti-communism and a questionable relationship with MCA.

It was in the 1950s that Reagan took a sharp turn to the political Right. Although his conversion is sometimes credited to his father-in-law, Reagan had already been moving in that direction. Pemberton believes Reagan’s appeal stemmed from his ability to unite Libertarians and Conservatives. His conservatism was “founded on his absolute belief in American exceptionalism, the idea that he would develop movingly in his verbal portraits of America as God’s shining “City on a Hill.”(49) Although he did not at first seem politically motivated, Reagan’s stardom rose exponentially after a nationally televised speech for Barry Goldwater. Wealthy backers quickly realized his potential and convinced Reagan to run for Governor of California.

Though Reagan made many mistakes on the campaign trail, his sunny optimism appealed to voters. He also exploited the culture war as well as anyone. In his college years, Reagan had participated in a Campus wide protest that almost shut the school down. But this did not mean he had any sympathy for the anti-war protesters at Berkley and other California schools. Reagan also learned to use “coded racism.” By 1968 it was clear that he was going to be a major player in the conservative movement. Nixon's implosion forced Reagan to put off his Presidential ambitions for a little while but he never left the lime-light.

In 1980, Reagan got his chance. His time in California was marked with appeasement of the Right and rejection of moderation. He held off running until it was clear that he could win. After a difficult four years in office President Carter presented him with that chance. In many ways, his administration was a continuation of his time in California. “The Reagan administration was, in the words of one observer, more ideological than partisan.”(92) Reagan was hardly aware of what was going on around him and seemed content to just be the face of the White House instead of the leader. Reagan’s optimism led him to believe everything at face value. His advisers attempted to shield him from criticism and only present what they thought he wanted to hear. The result was disastrous. Reagan fundamentally reshaped the economy without realizing that the federal deficit would dramatically rise. He happily looked the other way during the Iran-contra scandal because he believed the end justified the means. His one major success was with Russia, although Pemberton gives more credit to Gorbachev than Reagan for the thawing of the cold war. His time in the White House was a mixed success. The ramifications, both positive and negative are still being felt.

Commentary

David Houpt, Fall 2008

William Pemberton’s Exit with Honor has interesting insights and makes some interesting points but is poorly written and at times dull. The opening segments of the book are the most compelling. Though applying psychoanalysis on a historical figure through research of their life has its downfalls, it is an interesting way of trying to explain the decisions Reagan made. Pemberton rightly seizes on the idea that children of alcoholics create fantasy worlds. Even Reagan’s friends would remark that they often times did not know if he was speaking about a real place or an imaginary one. This style does have its problems though. It is easy to see how someone may have developed in hindsight. To what extent Pemberton was reading Reagan’s later life into his childhood cannot be known. It is entirely possible that Reagan was not bothered by his father’s drinking. After all, not every child whose father drinks heavily creates fantasy worlds and becomes an actor. I still find this style of biography interesting when compared to Nixonland or The Age of Reagan. These are books that focus on action and technique without ever really delving into why one would take these actions in the first place.

It appear that Pemberton attempted to do too much in such a small biography. As with any of the modern presidents, there is a huge amount information available on Ronald Reagan that a biographer must digest. The size and scope of the modern presidency makes generalizations and brevity difficult if not impossible. Pemberton did his research and he likely did it well. Condensing that information down into a small book seems futile. Much of the book actually read like segments of a larger, more complete biography. Or Pemberton wrote the book in segments and forgot to go back and look at what he had already written. There were major gaps (such as the 1970s) that were only touched upon briefly as well as whole paragraphs that were repeated almost verbatim. Even when discussing areas that I find fascinating such as campaign tactics and Congressional Politics, Pemberton’s lack of enthusiasm made the book difficult.

My final critic is that the title has no real meaning to the book. I understand the reference Pemberton is making to leaving Vietnam and the exit from the White House with a 70% approval rating, but these are not really central themes to the book. Pemberton could have done much better with a reference to the imagined worlds or even the reoccurring “city on a hill” imagery Reagan used.

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