Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography
By David T. Byrne
Potomac Books, 2018
The title of David Byrne’s book, Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography, is apt to induce giggles in the back ranks from wags who no doubt remember the famous Saturday Night Live skit where a doddering President Reagan burbles niceties while handing out jelly beans to schoolchildren until the press leaves the room, whereupon he instantly transforms into a hard-charging multi-lingual genius who out-thinks everybody in the room. The scene’s brilliance rests on the common view of Reagan as a kindly old man of decidedly average intellect ... in other words, jelly beans all the way down. “Intellectual biography of Ronald Reagan?” those skeptics might say. “That’ll be one mighty slim book.”
Byrne’s book is 175 pages in its main length, and it’s not without padding. Byrne, an adjunct professor of history at California Baptist University and Santa Monica College, frames his study in terms of Reagan’s ideas, his “political philosophy,” but the he spends most of his time talking about Reagan’s religious faith, citing it, for instance, as the wellspring of the man’s famous sense of optimism: “After all, according to the Word of God, the righteous will be rewarded,” he writes (referring to the ancient Middle Eastern text otherwise known as the Bible). “This became psychologically satisfying during times of despair, such as the Great Depression, which hit just as Reagan graduated college.” Reagan succeeded during the Great Depression, we’re told, “because he was not deterred. Life is never easy, but the Bible maintains that the good will prosper. A Christian can believe in the imminence of a better age, even in times of crisis.”
Obviously, objections to almost every syllable of this kind of stuff leap up right away. There are no documents from Reagan’s college days that show him to be especially devout, for instance. And since it was written over many centuries by many entirely human authors, the “Word of God” also frequently laments that the righteous will not be rewarded. And the extent of Reagan’s “success” during the Great Depression was that he had a job and so didn’t starve to death. And anybody can believe in the imminence of a better age ... Christianity isn’t a requirement. And of course none of this has anything to do with an intellectual biography. Reagan was a hair-slicked smart-talking cocky jock in college; any of his friends at the time would have spit up at the idea of his even having an intellect, much less using it.
Byrne eventually grasps at the few straws that might possibly, by a stretch, be fashioned into a foundation for talking about the intellectual biography of a much older Reagan, whose at times millenarian religious views could occasionally be amplified by issue-stances on things like civic responsibility and the increep of socialism. Certainly there was some intellectual content in Reagan’s steadfast opposing of Communism and the Soviet Union, although that was always at least as much Hollywood as it was Hobbes. But such sand-sifting was always going to be a tough job, and Byrne largely foregoes it in favor of banging on about Reagan’s faith.
Reagan, we’re told, believed that “God and freedom are inexorably bound,” which is true on some facile ground but which is immediately blown into shards of outrage by easily-falsifiable claims about the inherent Christianity of the United States. “Believing the relationship between freedom and religion is a zero-sum game ignores the fact that a puritanical zeal coupled with a love of liberty produced the young American republic,” Byrne writes. “America’s Founding Fathers loved liberty, but they were not completely secular. They were indebted to America’s religious heritage.” (They were not in any way so indebted; they explicitly rejected the very idea of such debt; and they were very nearly completely secular.)
Byrne’s emphasis on religion forces him into predictable contortions when it comes to a glaring contradiction commentators pointed out while Reagan was still in office. How could a decent, God-fearing man such as he described himself to be, they asked, also so energetically attack established governmental programs designed to help the poor and comfort the afflicted? To his credit, Reagan often had the good grace to be either evasive or silent on this point, but Byrne exercises no such restraint, delivering instead quietly horrifying passages like this:
Christianity downplays the significance of this material and fallen world. This world means little because it is so brief compared to the eternal duration of our next lifetime. Those who spend their lives focusing on the material aspects of this world are misguided ... Helping the poor is noble, but it was never a sacrament. Helping the poor is morally righteous, but never at the expense of the spiritual world ...
It may ultimately be impossible to write a true intellectual biography of Ronald Reagan. Despite the preposterous staged publicity photo on the dust jacket of Byrne’s book, Reagan was no reader. He had an avid instinct for empathy and a well-practiced skill at bluffing, but his diaries and letters show him clearly to be an almost entirely emotion-driven creature, governed by reacting to things rather than pondering them, and largely a stranger to introspection. But even if such a book were possible, it would have to be a radically different kind of enterprise than this present one to convince an objective reader that it wasn’t, in fact, jelly beans all the way down.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.