H.W. Brands, whose latest is “Reagan: The Life,” knows that history isn’t one of the big, memorable classes for most people. He says that folks tend to forget the last names of their history teachers, but can remember the first name: Coach.
But the University of Texas biographer and prolific writer tried to drum up some enthusiasm for history on Saturday by talking about his new project: He’s trying to reach his 19-year-old students via their preferred social medium: Twitter. And he has been tweeting the history of America in haiku for a while. He’s up to about 1948, but doesn’t know how much longer he’ll keep going, because he thinks Twitter might be becoming old-hat to his students. Plus, he fears he might get bogged down in the Vietnam War, just like America did.
At any rate, he was at the Texas Book Festival Saturday to discuss President Ronald Reagan, not Twitter. And he believes that Reagan was the pivotal U.S. political figure in the late 20th century – that he embodied our country’s turn to the right after decades of following in the New Deal footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt.
Brands discussed Reagan’s youth, and his troubled relationship with his alcoholic father, when he didn’t know whether his dad was going to be a hero or an abuser any day of the week. So Brands believes Reagan kept most people at an emotional distance.
He says this background might be helpful in understanding what made Reagan “tick,” but it doesn’t explain why he was so successful politically, after being not so successful as an actor.
Brands’ explanation: Reagan was a fundamental optimist, and he didn’t focus on the bad parts of American history, like slavery and the military campaigns against Native-Americans, but always stressed the notion that our country was like a shining light on a hill.
Brands added a quip that drew a big laugh from the crowd, and perhaps was a warning to our current batch of politicians: “You can criticize America, but don’t expect people to vote for you.”