As a boy, I read hortatory biographies of Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, each intended to teach young people lessons of character as found in the lives of these great leaders. The genre included more than presidents as subjects – I remember similar volumes on Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver – but among presidents, only those three. By this, his 100th birthday year, Ronald Reagan has become the subject of a similar instructional literature, except these books are for adults.
Contributions include James M. Strock’s “Reagan on Leadership,” Peter Robinson’s “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life” and Steven F. Hayward’s “Greatness.”
No one owns the “on leadership” franchise, which by now is vast. Mr. Strock fits the mold with good stories and apt insights. He offers sound advice on everything from having a vision to speechwriting to personal discipline, as illustrated in the story of his man. Mr. Robinson and Mr. Hayward are more singular. Both speak to a broader audience on deeper questions of life and character.
Mr. Robinson was a speechwriter to Mr. Reagan. (He wrote the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech.) His volume is highly personal. Readers come away knowing both subject and author. Lessons include observations on the value of marriage, faith and optimism.
Mr. Hayward writes with a higher purpose. Author of the monumental “The Age of Reagan” volumes, he surveys parallels in the lives and characters of Reagan and Winston Churchill. What makes extraordinary leaders, he asks? What are the common virtues as well as experiences that we can see and profit from in the examples of these two great statesmen?
Now a new author has entered the field. Margot Morrell was part of the presidential staff during the 1980-81 transition and is now an executive trainer. “Reagan’s Journey” is an insightful but oddly spotty addition to the list.
Ms. Morrell is particularly strong in addressing Reagan’s early years. She shows a boy who from an early age displayed great promise despite having to struggle against great odds.
The young future president was shy, nearsighted and precocious. Though critics later labeled him a dullard, he could read by the time he was 5 and had close to a photographic memory.
His father was a gifted raconteur with a drinking problem, which led to his losing jobs and moving to ever more modest homes. His mother used the father’s failings to teach lessons of forgiveness and God’s grace, leaving the child with an inner confidence and optimism that lasted throughout his life.
With a family unable to afford higher education, he talked himself into a scholarship and employment waiting tables to cover his way at Eureka College, a small liberal arts school in Illinois not far from home. Then he got his older brother to come to the school, with the result that he remained through their lives the senior of the two.
He displayed a remarkable ability to seek out good advice and plan ahead. After college, a local mentor told him to look beyond the moment and decide what “you’d like to do.” He realized his greatest loves were sports and performing. He had won a best-actor award at a Northwestern University contest against entrants from Princeton and Yale and had been urged by the head of the Northwestern drama department to consider a career in theater.
He decided on the new field of radio sports announcing and found a part-time job in Iowa calling games. Within two years, after seeking coaching from co-workers, he was the most popular announcer in the state. A few years after that, he used a California trip covering the Chicago Cubs’ spring training to talk his way into a screen test.
Ms. Morrell falters in her account of the political man. She gives only a nodding reference to the battle with Hollywood communists, Reagan’s first exposure to the ideological conflict that would largely define his place in history. Her treatment of the 1980 campaign, another defining moment, left me wondering if she had stopped paying attention after the New Hampshire primary. Also, to the end of each chapter, she appends a document – extended excerpts from Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural and Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” speech, for example – not always for any clear reason. Despite such oversights and quirks, she remains an engaging and instructive narrator.
Asked once why the American people responded to him so strongly, Reagan answered, “They think I am just like them,” revealing, of course, that in his mind he wasn’t, or at least not entirely. The life-lessons-for-adults Reagan genre – sui generis among writings about presidents – suggests that many others agree and hunger to grasp the secret behind his stupendous accomplishments. This branch of Reagan literature may have started along the well traveled “on leadership” path, but it has broken off in a more searching direction. Margot Morrell has produced the latest addition to the shelf, but unless I miss my guess, hardly the last.
Clark S. Judge is managing director of White House Writers Group Inc. He was special assistant and speechwriter to President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush.