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on May 3, 2013
By far the most challenging biography of Reagan, John Patrick Diggins was not a conservative necessarily, but a fair-minded, opinionated intellectual, who dug deeply into Reagan's religious and Emersonian roots to discover why he acted as he did rather than dwell on the actual effects of the Reagan Revolution.

The key question is how Reagan, for the most part, succeeded without paying much attention to detail, when others, like his utterly failed predecessor, Jimmy Carter, created domestic and foreign policy disasters. Principally, he had faith in the overall goodness of the individual, who sought to please God by doing well.

The only President since George Washington to literally avoid war with a threatening major power, Diggins claims it was his fear of a nuclear confrontation, rather than a desire to win the Cold War,that drove Reagan to push for, and ultimately win, a nuclear arms reduction treaty. What this fine historian missed I think, is that Reagan knew the Cold War was soon to end if he enforced an arms buildup, gave circuitous aid to the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets, and broke government's tight hold on the U.S. economy,giving it room to bloom. All of this crippled the Soviet mindset. He did not abandon anti-Communist conservative thinking, as the author claims. It was necesary he knew, to remain tough and resolute. Only when Gorbachev emerged as Communist Party Secretary and Premier, and was greatly stunned by Chernobyl, did Reagan feel the time was right to negotiate. And after one failure over Reagan's insistence that the Stategic Defense Initiative not be scrapped, arms reduction was achieved when Gorbachev collapsed like a folding chair, giving in on every point of the eventual Treaty.

Reagan was personally unconcerned about his legacy. He was too modest a man to take credit. 18 million new jobs. Spurring millions upon millions to freedom from the Evil Empire. If you asked him about it, he might say what he did days before he left office. "On the whole, not bad." And think of what more he could have done if the Republicans had gained control of the House of Representatives. The Frankenstein Monster that is the federal government today might actually function within its proper constitutional limits.

This is a thought provoking book, which ought to be read in conjunction with Lou Cannon's fine biography, Ronald Reagan: Role of a Lifetime.
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on March 9, 2008
For the most part, the biographies that have been written about Ronald Reagan in the years since he left office have suffered from one of two defects. Either they have been overly critical and dismissive and failed to grasp the truly revolutionary aspects of the Reagan Presidency, or they have been overly worshipful, something more akin to adulation than real scholarship. In both cases, the differing interpretations of Reagan have likely been based on ideological differences and political resentments of the 1980s and beyond.In Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, John Patrick Diggins takes a worthy first step toward moving beyond either the worshipful or the hate-filled evaluations of the Reagan Presidency and gives America's 40th President the respectful, if not always positive, evaluation that he deserves.

Reagan's singular achievement, Diggins argues, was the role he played in bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Though he came into the White House with a promise to rebuild the American military and confronted what his advisers contended were Soviet-sponsored regimes in nations ranging from Nicaragua to Angola, it's clear that, very early in his Administration, if not before then, Reagan became committed to the idea of drastically reducing, if not eliminating, nuclear weapons.

Much to the consternation of his neo-conservative foreign policy team, Reagan made overtures to the Soviets as early as April 1981, when he wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev while recovering from an assassination attempt. The Brezhnev dialog never went anywhere, largely because Brezhnev was apparently too stubborn and too ill to actually pursue serious negotiations. Similarly, the short-lived reigns of his two immediate successors made pursuing peace impossible. As Reagan himself once quipped, "They keep dying on me."

It was only with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, who required reduced tensions with the U.S. to pursue his ultimately doomed strategy of reforming Communism, that Reagan was able to pursue his desire to bring both countries out of the horrifying doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.

One interesting thing that Diggins' book brings out is the extent to which many of Reagan's conservative supporters became convinced in the late 1980s that their leader had sold America down the river. Many of the same people who, on the occasion of his funeral in 2004, lionized him as the man who had "won" the Cold War. Among the critics were William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, and Henry Kissinger, all of whom seemed convinced at the time that the Cold War and the tensions with the USSR were a permanent and irreversible fact (Jeane Kirkpatrick had in fact said as much in her writings prior to being named U.N. Ambassador).

Reagan, Diggins, argued, never accepted the neo-conservative view of history and rejected the idea that the Cold War was a permanent fact of life that could only end with an exchange of nuclear missiles that would destroy both nations, if not most of the civilized world. In fact, rather than being a true conservative, Diggins persuasively argues that Reagan was really more of a traditional old-style liberal, what we would today call a libertarian, and that his ideas were influenced more by the libertarianism of Thomas Paine and the romanticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson than conservative hero Edmund Burke. While Reagan courted social conservatives and neo-cons, he did not share their views on the inherent sinfulness and fallibility of man.

Diggins goes criticize some aspects of Reagan's record, most notably, in the domestic sphere, and he rightly criticizes him for the mis-handling of the Iran Contra affair. But, like I said, this is a biography not a hagiography. On the whole, though, Diggins does an excellent job of rescuing our 40th President from his detractors and his worshipers. Hopefully, other historians will follow suit.
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on May 17, 2007
Most authors who try to write an insightful book about Ronald Reagan eventually say in frustration, "It's impossible to get to know the man!" Indeed, the same man that many of us felt close to despite never meeting him was apparently a tough nut to crack in person. That hasn't given historians and biographers much to work with. Most famously, Edmund Morris, a brilliant biographer, laid a huge egg with the highly anticipated "Dutch."

Diggins seems to understand that it's hard to understand the man, so he takes a slightly different approach in this book. First, he studies Reagan's years in Hollywood and as Governor of California, looking at his stance and action on issues (especially Communism) and interpreting their meaning. Once Diggins' narrative reaches the White House years, he really leans heavily on the thoughts and actions of Reagan's advisers, especially the group Diggins calls Neo-Cons (new conservatives).

All in all, Diggins does a very nice job of taking a truly objective look at Reagan's Presidency - one of the first books that has enough temporal distance from the event to do it. That is a worthy achievement and wins this book four stars, but ultimately you are left with the sense that you missed the core of what made Reagan's Presidency what it was - both good and bad - Reagan.

Diggins often uses ideas from Michael Deaver's book about his years with Reagan, "A Different Drummer" to try to give perspective on the President. Despite being a close adviser, friend and fan of Reagan, Deaver does give a fairly objective look at the man. I recommend that book first, or maybe together with this one.
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on March 6, 2007
In this illuminating book "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History," John Patrick Diggins shows clearly that Ronald Reagan was a believer in the American dream and Emersonian in his optimistic belief in self-reliance and emphasis on individual freedom. Reagan worried about the danger of government as strong as totalitarianism. Reagan was ideological for libertarianism (often called liberalism in the old sense of that word). Reagan was not a social order conservative like Edmund Burke, who believed government was needed to restrain the dark side of people or impose an unfair social order. Instead, Reagan was optimistic about human freedom, like Jefferson, and not pessimistic like Alexander Hamilton. This split in ideology between liberty and order goes back to the early days of the American republic and way before that. Reagan was for liberty.

The history of Reagan's time in California is engrossing. Reagan adored FDR and was a staunch New Dealer. Then communists tried to infiltrate Hollywood and used lie after lie to do so. Reagan felt he was defending American became an anti-communist crusader, still as a FDR-loving Democrat, and then registered one day as a Republican and he never turned back. He then advocated free markets, freedom and the danger of government making bad mistakes with too much power. The story of Reagan's life before he became president is very important for understanding Reagan as a person and what he really believed. Reagan's extensive writings, speeches and political career show Reagan to be a thoughtful advocate of individual freedom. Therefore, he was a staunch enemy of communism or any form of totalitarianism. Indeed, the author argues that Reagan was in some ways anti-establishment in his optimistic belief in individual freedom. This may go back to his early years growing up with an alcoholic father. Reagan was leery of freedom being subjected to a fallible power.

Reagan's spirit was deeply shaped by his mother, a member of the Disciples of Christ faith (related to Unitarianism), which espoused an optimistic view of nature and personal responsibility.

Reagan's proactive optimism helped bring liberty to Eastern Europe. Reagan and his Secretary of State George Schulz reached out to USSR leaders and negotiated arms reductions and a peaceful end to the cold war. Reagan believed in other people. He saw institutions and government as the problem -- not people. Very few people, other than Reagan, believed that Communism would collapse. Yet Reagan saw it coming, because he viewed communism as an unnatural system. Contrary to what neo-cons falsely claim, Reagan's charm and sincere diplomacy with Gorbachev achieved the end of the Cold War peacefully. (Read Reagan's autobiography to hear it from Reagan himself.) Reagan pivoted from confrontation to a peaceful unraveling of USSR due to Perestroika and the fatal flaws of communism, with a push from Reagan. This is an important book about the Cold War.

The book says that Reagan (the Cold War), Abraham Lincoln (American Civil War) and Franklin Roosevelt (World War Two) were the three greatest liberators, and that Reagan deserves to be recognized as a great president. Reagan's can-do optimism led him to negotiate a peaceful end to the Cold War.

I would like to add that Reagan's burial site is inscribed with these optimistic words: "I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there's purpose and worth to each and every life." Reagan spoke these optimistic words at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and these optimistic words express what Reagan wanted to be remembered by. They express his optimistic belief in individual liberty. Reagan optimistically wrote in his autobiography "An American Life" that "every individual is unique, but we all want freedom and liberty, peace, love and security, a good home, and a chance to worship God in our own way; we all want the chance to get ahead and make our children's lives better than our own." He wrote that "my mother always taught us: 'Treat thy neighbor as you would want your neighbor to treat you,' and 'Judge everyone by how they act, not what they are.'" Reagan believed in individual freedom. Reagan optimistically told Americans to believe in themselves and reach to an optimistic future.

This book is great at accurately explaining Reagan's outlook, but I think this book should be supplemented further with An American Life, Reagan's Autobiography and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.

This book is one of the maybe five or ten essential books about Ronald Reagan.
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on May 1, 2007
I thought I knew Ronald Reagan. I thought he won the Cold War by engaging the Soviets in an arms race & forcing them to capitulate when they could no longer afford to keep up. I thought he was was a hawk & not a peacemaker. I knew he was not an intellectual & also not the amiable dunce his detractors said he was. I also knew he had the courage of his convictions. But I never knew how devoted Ronald Reagan was to an idea & how the idea of freedom was so central to his thinking until I read this wonderful intellectual biography. John Patrick Diggins in his Ronald Reagan, Fate, Freedom, And The Making Of History re-introduces me to the man & President I once loved & it has, sadly, tarnished the admiration I had for him. There is a place for a reassessment of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Much has changed since he left office. As an intellectual biography this book demands some patience & diligence to assimilate the ideas brought forth.

Diggins shows how Reagan's philosophy of freedom is actually borrowed from an earlier tradition of political liberalism or libertarianism which itself is indebted heavily to the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reagan, Diggins says, was bequeathed his ideas of freedom by the Universalist religion of his mother & his education at Eureka College, a small, liberal arts & Christian school in Illinois.

Reagan had a core belief in the goodness & competency of each individual. He believed that if each individual was left alone without the interference of government each individual would create their own wealth & happiness. In this belief he falls away from the guilt-ridden Christian fundamentalist doctrine of sin & away from the constructions of the Federalists who were so influential in the writing of our Constitution. Diggins says Reagan's Christianity didn't need the concept of sin or guilt. Those concepts were impediments to the power of individual choice.

His fundamental belief in the ability of men to rise above their government allowed him to use his negotiating skills learned as a president of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood to barter an end to the Cold War. He believed if he could sit down face to face with a Soviet leader & both agree that a nuclear war would mean the death of civilization & thus a nuclear war could not be won. He ignored his Neo-Con advisers who believed communism & the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union would last forever & who believed their leaders would never negotiate. Reagan believed men & not governments made history. In Mikhail Gorbachev he found a kindred spirit & together they were able to rise above history & dismantle both nuclear arsenals & walk away from the insane asylum of Mutual Assured Destruction.

Reagan was anti-government first & anti-communist second. Ronald Reagan made war at the same time on government in his own country. He started a political movement which, through the means of his & subsequent Republican Administrations & Republican-controlled Congresses, have been successful in extirpating the governmental restraints the modern liberals have enacted into legislation since the administrations of F.D.R. This was the true Reagan Legacy. Modern liberalism lies moribund at its feet. The ending of the Cold War brought the U.S. almost unbounded power & riches. And Reagan empowered the individual to wield the power & spend the riches. Tax cuts & deregulation were the devices the Reagan Revolution used to dismember government & we are left the results. Should we rejoice?

Unbalanced, almost unfettered, power of the individual over government brings greed & corruption. The rich & powerful can now devour the poor & the weak without the restraint of government. The gap between the rich & poor grows. The American Dream is now part of the nostalgia of the Fifties. How peculiar because Ronald Reagan believed the fulfillment of the American Dream was every citizen's right & legacy. Get government out of the way & let the individual go to it.

His belief in the goodness of the individual & the evil of governmental restraint has brought us all the damage that the unrestrained individual can wreak upon society. There is an irony here. Reagan's nemesis was the Hollywood communist & today no one, not even a Hollywood actor, would claim to be a communist. His socialist foes have slunk off to academia & other repositories of power reaped from the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. Now the secular humanists of liberal academia & those conservatives (so diametrically opposed) who now evoke the Reagan legacy have one thing in common: neither are accountable to religion for their actions. The individual reigns supreme.

I am a child of the Cold War & for the end of the threat of a nuclear war between the two Super-Powers I have only Ronald Reagan & God to thank. For the rest I am deeply saddened.

John Patrick Diggins has brought the ideas of Ronald Reagan to the table & he has done it in a way the non-academic reader can enjoy. I confess I know little of the philosophy of Emerson & probably won't be digging deep to acquaint myself with it. But I am pleased that the connection between the old & new was made so eloquently by Professor Diggins. I enjoy having to think my way through history. I would strongly recommend this work to anyone who admired Ronald Reagan or to anyone with an intellectual curiosity about him. I find no faults with this book.
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on May 30, 2007
It is good to see serious scholarship on the Reagan years emerging, the problem I had here was this book reads much more like a college political science class textbook than a "read by the pool" book. The lengthy quotes from philosophers and theorists, while important to the author's thesis, often caused my mind to wander off the subject.

That is a problem with all historical analysis. How do you write it in a way to contribute to the understanding and knowledge of the general reading public? In this case, I am afraid that many will not want to wade through much of the text to try and understand where the author is going.

Then again, maybe it is only political junkies like me (or nerds if you prefer that term!) who would be reading this book by the pool.
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on May 3, 2015
Thank you.
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on June 10, 2007
I never thought I'd give a five-star review to a book with which I had disagreed in so many places. But this is just a fantastic book; original, provocative, magnificently insightful, and oftentimes poetic. It should revolutionize understanding of Ronald Reagan, even if not every interpretation in the book holds up.

Diggins sets out to rescue Ronald Reagan from his acolytes on the right and his detractors on the left. He argues that both fundamentally misunderstand the nature and meaning of his greatness. For Diggins, Reagan is clearly among the greatest two or three Presidents after Lincoln. He credits Reagan with finding a peaceful way to end the Cold War, and for the Soviet Empire to dissolve without war or violent revolution. Diggins states that this is one of the great political surprises in all of history, and so it is.

Diggins rejects the conventional rightist explanation that the Soviet Union collapsed only after Reagan and his conservative Administration challenged the Soviets on every front: via a military buildup with which the Soviets couldn't contend; with counter pressure against communist aggression around the world; with the strategic defense initiative, etc. In fact, Diggins depicts many of Reagan's policies, both domestic and international, as misguided. Diggins contradicts the Reagan view that many of the world's communist insurgencies were facilitated by Moscow. Diggins further asserts that the Soviet Union imploded on its own, and would have done so with or without US economic and military pressure.

But Diggins credits Reagan for seeing beyond other US strategists, and for understanding the opportunity and necessity of negotiating communism's demise without war. Diggins depicts Reagan as seizing a unique historical moment, and understanding how to do business with Gorbachev. He portrays Reagan not as a warrior but as a great diplomat and educator of the international public. The final pages of the book are very moving, when Reagan goes to Moscow State University and addresses the Russian people. Taught that the pursuit of wealth led to despair and to self-estrangement, they instead heard from Reagan that free economies were the path to fulfillment and self-reliance, something that America's "academic-media complex" (a felicitous phrase) failed to understand, perhaps because their own well-being depended less than the Russians' on such understanding.

One needn't agree with Diggins's take on Reagan and his policies in all respects, and I certainly did not. But Diggins is absolutely right in showing the Reagan that was utterly misunderstood by the American left. Far from being a warmonger, Reagan maintained a horror of nuclear war, and he fully grasped the folly of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction that had held decades of American thinkers in its deluding sway. Reagan understood that an American President could not assure his people's, or the world's, security solely with the threat that he could destroy the Soviet Union while the USSR destroyed America. As Diggins noted, the survival of humanity depended utterly on innovative conceptual thinking, and this Reagan had, perhaps uniquely among American statesmen of the time. Many of Reagan's policies, from his attachment to SDI to his determination to negotiate disarmament, rightly or wrongly stemmed from the priority that he attached to avoiding a nuclear exchange, indeed a higher priority for him even than his lifelong objective of destroying communism.

Diggins also reveals a Reagan that was in many ways very distinct from the American religious right. Reagan rejected the traditional religious view that humankind was inherently sinful and needed to be restrained. Rather, Reagan saw human nature as fundamentally good (a view Diggins says he acquired from his Transcendentalist mother), and he tried to eliminate government restraints upon that noble nature. The support of the religious right for Reagan was in many respects a consequence of their common objection to American liberalism, and especially its coddling of communist strong-arm tactics. Reagan understood the tendency of the American left to look the other way from the worst habits of America's enemies (a tendency that persists today), and he felt an obligation to speak out against this. But Diggins argues that while Reagan and the religious right made common cause, Reagan's fundamental view of humanity was far different from theirs.

Reading this book was, for me, an unusual if not unique experience. At first I was surprised by several of Diggins's interpretations, which were counter to my own. As I read on, I found the book so provocative, so original, that I found myself reconsidering many of my own long-held views, and loving the book despite my occasional disagreements. Around page 200 or so, however, I reached a sort of critical mass in no longer tolerating what I believed to be interpretative errors by Diggins. He wrote one too many statements that I felt were inexcusably sloppy and ahistorical, shattering my faith in some of his other judgments. But then on the strength of the book's final chapters my reading experience recovered, and by the end I felt that Diggins had put his finger on something fundamentally great about Reagan, so important, and so right, that it outweighed the other factual beefs I had compiled along the way.

Among the many examples of the sloppy statements that Diggins makes en route: He says early on that the US government now faces its highest debt in history (in reality, debt has been declining, and is fairly typical of historic norms.) He writes that Carter easily beat Ford in the 1976 election (in reality, it was one of the closest elections of the era). At one point, Diggins mocks Reagan for reminding Gorbachev of the US/USSR common cause in WWII (Diggins parenthetically wonders what Gorbachev thought of this, given that America had looked the other way as Hitler prepared to attack Russia. This is an absurd aside from Diggins, given that Stalin himself was sending resources to Hitler on the eve of his attack on the USSR. Most assuredly, Gorbachev would have been well aware that Stalin's tunnel vision had been worse than FDR's.) He also asserts that no American statesman has ever offered a rationale for why the Vietnam war was fought, an absurd statement even for a strong opponent of that war.

There are many such slips in the book, and one is a bit surprised that an editor didn't catch and remove them. But in the end, they do not undo one of the most fascinating reinterpretations of a Presidency that I have ever read. In Diggins, Reagan finds his most important biographer to date. Diggins finds in Reagan the "greatness of soul" that saved the world at a truly critical time. Reagan's legacy deserves and needs this understanding, and Diggins's book is the finest available place to discover it.
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on November 9, 2016
A plainly biased view of Reagan. Diggins' description of the "Nutmeg Invasion" of the island nation of Grenada in October, 1983, is characteristic. I am well familiar with the Grenada operation, having served at that time in an Air Force flying unit involved in it. Diggins makes it out to be an unnecessary over-reaction by neocons in the Reagan Administration. Diggins describes the effort to build the new airport on the island as "Cubans [providing] tractors to build an airport strip," later stating the new runway would be "less than 10,000 feet long, large enough to accommodate island puddle jumper prop planes but too short for jet bombers and large cargo planes." (According to Wikipedia, then-Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who was killed by Stalinist political opponents prior to the US action, stated the new airport referred to by Diggins was intended to make the island more accessible to European and American tourists. It's runway is 9,003 feet in length.) Diggins' description is used to create the impression in the reader that the Reagan Administration's response to the crisis was a gross over-reaction. It is completely off the mark. Soviet long-range surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft had operated from Cuban bases since the 1950s, shadowing US Navy submarine operational test and war-game exercises in the Caribbean. An additional base in the far eastern chain of Caribbean islands would have been a welcome operating field for those aircraft, expanding Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere. For comparison, the single runway at Reina Beatrix International Airport on Aruba, heavily used daily by airline aircraft comparable in size to the Soviet Tu-95 Bear bomber, is only 9,276 feet long. Sangster International at Montego Bay, Jamaica: 8,735 feet long. Et cetera. A reader inclined to see the worst in the Reagan presidency will find Diggins' book reassuring. Unfortunately, facts are skewed to suit the author's political viewpoint. Buyer beware. A balanced biographical perspective this is not.
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on March 21, 2007
In this book, a distinguished professor of history examines the education and fundamental beliefs of Ronald Reagan; the liberalism and conservatism of his time; and his goals, objectives, accomplishments, failures, and triumphs as President of the United States of America. In the process, he makes some profound observations and comes to some rather surprising conclusions.

Three such observations stand out: 1) Reagan's formal education and religious upbringing pre-dated the radical liberalism of his time in office, i.e., he wasn't an "intellectual"; 2) his brand of Conservatism was remarkably close to the Liberalism of an earlier time; and 3) Reagan won the battle with the student activists in the 1960s but may also have lost the war, since those radicals went on to become the university professors who were, and are, his most vocal political critics.

The author contends that Reagan's major flaw, as president, was that, as a result of his early encounters with communism in the 1950s, he became obsessed with communism, which he perceived as truly evil, and came to interpret every action of the Soviet Union in that light. This, the author contends, caused him to misjudge and misunderstand much of what was happening in South America and in the Middle East. For example, he failed to realize that those fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan weren't "freedom fighters," but were, in fact, the zealots who would go on to become today's Islamic terrorists.

The author further contends that it wasn't until Reagan came to the profound conclusion that the greatest threat to America and to the world at large was nuclear annihilation, for at that time both the United States and the Soviet Union had the capability to destroy the world. This was a threat which had hung over the world like the sword of Damocles for almost forty years. It was then that Reagan saw the folly of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and made the elimination of nuclear weapons his highest priority. That realization led him to become an enlightened statesman and a leader unique in world history. In the author's opinion, not only did he succeed in bringing an end to the "cold war," in eliminating the threat of nuclear annihilation, and in facilitating the break-up of the Soviet Empire, but he did something unprecedented in world history. He ended a long-standing confrontation with an avowed enemy state without resorting to war and for the first time in world history an empire collapsed without war or revolution.

I don't agree with everything Professor Diggins contends in this book and sensed an underlying theme of radical liberalism throughout much of it. But all things considered, this may well be the most important book about Ronald Reagan, and his life and times, that has been written to date. As a minimum, it is the most complete and comprehensive study of Reagan's political life that the reader is likely to find. It makes the reader think and makes him wonder, and may change his mind a time or two. But what makes the book truly remarkable is that the author, an admitted liberal (of unknown persuasion) freely admits that he misjudged Ronald Reagan during his presidency and now, after studying his subject, ranks him alongside Abraham Lincoln as one of America's greatest presidents.

(But please, Professor Diggins, Vince Lombardi wasn't the coach of Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish.")
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