Out Run Politics
Margot Morrell’s biography of Ronald Reagan, titled Reagan’s Journey: Lessons from a Remarkable Career, covers the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s upbringing and career. In this book, Morrell “seeks to capture the man Reagan insiders knew.”1 Extensive with quotes from first-hand accounts, yet biased in selection, Reagan’s Journey: Lessons from a Remarkable Career focuses more on President Reagan’s character than the specifics of his administration. Morrell aims to convert the reader to the likings of Reagan and does not make an effort to camouflage her evident bias toward the former president.
Like most biographies, this book is told in chronological order, and opens with the backdrop of Reagan’s family on both his father and mother’s side. In describing the characteristics of his parents, Morrell establishes where certain facets of Reagan originated from. For instance, his hard-working mindset and democratic ideas came from his father, John (Jack) Reagan, while his devotion to God and altruistic tendencies were inherited from his mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan. Dime novels and The Printer of Udell, a book that “left Dutch with ‘an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil,’” were external influences that launched Reagan’s craving for success.2 During this time, the radio, a novel technology that inspired Reagan to pursue a sportscaster career, was also invented. Unlike most of his peers at the time, when only “seven percent of the population [went] to college,” Reagan matriculated to Eureka college.3 During his college years, he sharpened his leadership skills, focusing on school activities and drama. After graduating, Reagan set his career interest in entertainment and sports and gradually crawled up the radio industry with the support of numerous mentors. Reagan became a star of the business, with a captivating voice that artfully delivered the sports games to his audience. The charisma that emanated from the cadence of his voice was crafted during his sportscaster years.
The second quarter of the book shows Reagan shifting careers and establishing experiences that would bring him closer to his fate as a politician. At the apex of his sports casting career, Reagan took a chance and landed an audition with Warner Brothers Studio. He signed a contract with the studio and drove to sunny California to fulfill his unrealized dream. As Reagan’s career seemed to upturn in Hollywood with rolls in successful films such as Knute Rockne – All American and King’s Row, he was called to duty in the army due to WWII.4 Because he suffered from terrible vision, Reagan stayed within America and created training films. “Halfway through his military career, Reagan noticed ‘the first crack in [his] staunch liberalism’” when there was a reduction in civilian staff but an increase in bureaucrat employees.5 After he was discharged, he assumed leadership as the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Reagan met Nancy Davis, a television actress at the time, at a dinner party; the two bonded through commonalities and she soon became his “trusted confidante.”6 As it became harder for him to land acting gigs, a new opportunity opened up to Reagan with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Manufacturers ramped up production, an action that caused many labor strikes. A company named General Electric tried to avoid radical unions by hiring a spokesperson, Ronald Reagan, to tour the plants to explain to employees the realities and systems of business. This outreach program, known as Boulwarism, gave Reagan a gratuitous amount of experience in public speaking, and granted Reagan opportunities to communicate with the workers directly. The turning point of Reagan’s political career came when he supported Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 through a spellbinding speech, “A Time for Choosing.” Although officially still a Democrat, his involvement in General Electric and his unpleasant experiences with unions during his SAG years, pushed Reagan’s principles to the right.
Morrell describes Reagan’s step into his political career in the third quarter of the book. Although Reagan claimed himself that politics were not his strongest suit, pressure from voters made him “willing to serve if called.”7 Reagan announced his campaign for the California governorship as a GOP candidate, which inevitably ended his acting career. His advisors worked to rebrand him as the “citizen politician,” an outsider that listened to the words of the people. Reagan won the GOP primary. Promising to shrink the federal budget under his program, the “creative society,” Reagan’s campaign ran on the platform of “’integrity and common sense’”, and won the election.8 As governor, he cut taxes and charged tuition for California colleges. Reagan ran two terms, and began preparing to campaign against president Gerald Ford in the 1976 election. Unfortunately for Reagan, the chances of winning were slim, and he lost the election. Undeterred and more determined than ever, Reagan reran for presidency in the 1980 election with the campaign slogan, “A New Beginning,” and won. His inaugural speech told his plans to unleash the economy, contain bureaucracy, defeat communism, and revive patriotism. Shortly after his inauguration, Reagan was shot an inch away from his heart by a “deranged young man,” but maintained his cordial attitude.9 The “Great Communicator” went through many challenges during his first term, including the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike, the “Evil Empire” speech, the inaction of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and the Beirut bombings. By the end of his term, his approval ratings were high, and he won the reelection.
The last quarter of the biography covers Reagan’s second administration, which started off with bad news: he lost his top advisers. Additionally, his visit to Bitburg to meet Mikhail Gorbachev at a Nazi cemetery brought controversy. To worsen his foreign policy matters, Muslim terrorists hijacked a plane, killing an American and keeping passengers hostage for 17 days. The year 1986 was filled with unfortunate events: the Challenger space shuttle exploded, Chernobyl power plants leaked, Iran had kidnapped Americans, a Russian summit failed to make peace, and the Iran-Contra scandal was published. His speech in Berlin that demanded Gorbachev to “’tear down this wall’” was overlooked.10 Although his second administration was less celebratory than the first, Reagan concluded his presidency with a farewell address claiming that the Reagan Revolution was “simply ‘a rediscovery of our values’ and a return to ‘common sense.’”11 Similarly, the author describes the optimist’s legacy to be one that “revitalized the U.S. economy and set America on a path of sustained growth.”12
Morrell’s goal for her book goes beyond a simple biography. She wishes that through her biography, readers could learn and incorporate characteristics of Reagan that brought him to an unlikely success. In an interview about this book, Morrell said the biography seeks to answer “how did he do it, and what can the rest of us learn from him.”13 The way Morrell formatted the book also aligns with this idea. After almost every chapter, Morrell lists, in bullet points, the lessons Reagan’s story gave. She also succeeds these lesson points with questions for the reader to answer that are synonymous with the chapter’s morals. As in the many other biographies of Ronald Reagan written by conservatives, this book makes no attempt to dilute the fact that the author is a staunch supporter of Reagan: “Today the name Ronald Reagan is synonymous with great leadership. He led by example.”14 Morrell’s reverence for Reagan is so strong that she scavenges to find the Reagan within the reader by encouraging reflection.
Margot Morrell is an expert in leadership. She “speaks at business conferences and universities around the world,” and her better known book, Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, also details how an individual exerts his leadership.15 Her affinity toward Ronald Reagan, however, started by chance when she picked up a Times Magazine and educated herself on his policies. Morrell actually worked on the Reagan campaign herself as part of the “Presidential Personnel on the 1980-81 Reagan Transition Team – on loan from an executive search firm.”16 She familiarized herself with Reagan’s associates for six weeks and evidently sourced enough primary documents, displayed in the numerous accounts of Reagan she cites throughout the biography. Morrell is adept in collecting such primary source documents; Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer was sourced “over the course of fifteen years and five continents.”17 Her degree in library science explains how she was able to accumulate the myriad of sources. The fact that she has been working in corporate America for 24 years and has written her biography on a revered Republican president insinuates her political background as a member of the GOP. These factors of her background certainly give Morrell a bias in examining Reagan’s presidency.
This book was written in 2011, the year the Arab Spring erupted and the adverse effects of the George H.W. Bush administration were experienced. At a time when the world was under chaos due to the havoc in the Middle East, Morrell’s book seems to suggest that a true leader must take the helm. As Millennials first-handedly experienced the economic downturn that resulted from the accumulation of debt during the Reagan and Bush Jr. administration, the GOP party lost support of the youth. In fact, “Today, about half of Millennials (50%) are Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, while just 34% affiliate with or lean to the GOP.”18 Morrell’s biography could be an attempt to galvanize youth towards the Republican Party. With the rise of Obama’s grassroots campaign, the new president was also definitely a threat to the traditional Republican Party’s strength.
The opinions of reviewers are starkly contrasted. Publisher’s Weekly claims that the book is “part biography, part self-help. Anyone who doesn’t credit Reagan with saving the world will be irritated by the uncritical praise the author lavishes on him.”19 Clearly, Morrell’s biased approach is transparent to other readers. Interestingly enough, the only reviews that truly exhibit praise are sourced from the publisher. Peter Hannaford, author and longtime aide to Reagan, says, “In 284 fast-paced pages, Reagan’s Journey spells out the secrets of his success.”20 Anthony Dolan, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and principal speechwriter for President Reagan, claims the book is “Splendid, wonderful…something special with unique insights into Reagan.”21 Unfortunately for Morrell, the only positive reviews came from other individuals that have apparent biases in favor of Reagan.
The extent of praise that is bestowed on Reagan is so extreme, it discredits the commendations that he may actually deserve. It seems as if Morrell is aware of Reagan’s critics, because the tone of her words becomes more defensive when discussing Reagan’s weak points. For instance, when discussing the Iran-Contra Affair, Reagan’s largest scandal, she precedes the paragraph by stating Reagan had colon surgery to elicit sympathy in that his judgment may have been affected. Morrell’s diction is idealistic to the point that it does not convince the reader that her claim is true: “Reagan spent time at his beloved mountaintop ranch near Santa Barbara, riding horses…and thinking. He thought ‘about the lost vision of our Founding Fathers and the importance of recapturing it’”22 It is ironic that she emphasizes how Reagan always listened to multiple perspectives, but does not write in various viewpoints herself. There is also an odd balance of gravity of book. She dedicates three chapters to Reagan’s sports casting and acting careers, while summing his presidencies in two chapters. The reader could have a better sense of history if Morrell had given up a few subchapters on Reagan’s spectacular speeches for some background information on the zeitgeist of the eighties. While the excerpted primary source documents at the end of each chapter are interesting to read, the comprehensive, self-help questions that follow them confuse the purpose of this biography. Clearly, extensive research has been done on Reagan, but it is unfortunate that the sources of her cites are mostly from supporters of Reagan. Readers are limited to Reagan’s edited side, instead of an honest evaluation of his political career.
Morrell supports the assessment that the United States turned away from 1960s liberalism and toward conservatism. She never mentions how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s expansion of the federal government has relieved poverty amongst workers. Rather, she supports Reagan’s fiscally conservative notion that “the solution…was to cut taxes.”23 She also defends Reagan when discussing his shift in party association: “’I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.’”24 Furthermore, the author acclaims Reagan for “containing the mushrooming growth of the federal government.”25 Reagan handled the government in conservatively unprecedented ways; he cut taxes drastically through Reaganomics, withheld payroll deductions, and required college tuition in California for the first time. However, he did not pursue any progressive agenda.
Reagan’s Journey: Lessons from a Remarkable Career provides insight on Reagan from the viewpoints of insiders, like Margot Morrell. While she provides extensive citations, her viewpoint is unapologetically biased in favor of the President, and the confusing format of the book creates an odd combination of a self-help book and a biography. The biography gives a limited view of Reagan’s administration, and only those who wish to indulge in the lavish compliments Morrell bestows upon Reagan would want to “join [her] in exploring Reagan’s Journey.”26
1. Morrell, Margot. Reagan’s Journey. New York: Threshold Editions, 2011. 6.
2. Morrell, Margot. 25.
3. Morrell, Margot. Personal Interview.
4. Morrell, Margot. 76-79.
5. Morrell, Margot. 84.
6. Morrell, Margot. 104.
7. Morrell, Margot. 156.
8. Morrell, Margot. 173.
9. Morrell, Margot. 215.
10. Morrell, Margot. 256.
11. Morrell, Margot. 258.
12. Morrell, Margot. 286.
13. Morrell, Margot. Personal Interview.
14. Morrell, Margot. Back cover.
15. “Margot Morrell.” Leadership Lives RSS. Leadership Lives LLC, 2011. Web. 23 May 2016.
16. Morrell, Margot. 6.
17. “Margot Morrell.” Leadership Lives RSS. Leadership Lives LLC, 2011.
Web. 23 May 2016.
18. Kiley, Jocelyn, and Michael Dimock. “The GOP’s Millennial Problem Runs Deep.” Pew
19. Research Center RSS. 2014. Web. 23 May 2016.
20. “Nonfiction Book Review: Reagan’s Journey: Lessons from a Remarkable Career by Margot
21. Morrell. S&S/ Threshold, $25 (303p) ISBN 978-1-4516-2085-6.” PublishersWeekly.com. Web. 23 May 2016.
22. “Reagan’s Journey.” Leadership Lives RSS.
23. “Reagan’s Journey.” Leadership Lives RSS.
24. Morrell, Margot. 197.
25. Morrell, Margot. 4.