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How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life
By Peter Robinson
Regan Books
HC, 263 pg. US$24.95/C$38.95
ISBN: 0-0605-2399-9

The Tao of The Gipper

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 27, 2003

How Ronald Reagan Changed My LifeThe assertion that Peter Robinson is a lucky man is something that he likely wouldn't argue. Born and raised in a small town in New York, Robinson attended Dartmouth and Oxford before landing a job at the age of 25 writing speeches in the Reagan White House, first for Vice President George H.W. Bush and eventually for the president himself. Robinson was witness to some of the most remarkable events in American history and served one of the most highly regarded men to ever serve the highest office in the land.

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life isn't a critical look at the Reagan presidency, rather it is Robinson's attempt to chronicle the life lessons he learned by observing Ronald Reagan. Part personal memoir, part character study, Robinson's tribute to Reagan is a warm and engaging look at a man who was equally capable of changing the course of history and touching people on a personal level.

There are typically two schools of thought concerning Ronald Reagan. Depending on your political preferences, Reagan was a doddering fool who advanced a right-wing agenda at the expense of the nation or he is as sainted a figure as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Robinson paints another picture of the man, who resembled the people who typically voted for him. Robinson's Reagan was an ordinary man who happened to be blessed by fortune to enjoy success in the worlds of entertainment and politics. How did a man who was born and raised in a small town and who went to an unremarkable college eventually come to lead the free world?

"How did Reagan do it? When I found myself wondering how such a nice guy ever got to be President, I had merely encountered the question in one of its many guises. How did a former movie actor persuade the American people to take him seriously? How did someone who graduated from an obscure college in the Midwest where by his own admission he paid little attention to his studies, someone former secretary of defense Clark Gifford famously termed an 'amiable dunce,' develop the most sweeping policy agenda since the New Deal? How did such a relaxed, genial man confront the Soviet Union so ruthlessly?"

Robinson initially believed the answer was merely luck but as he observed Reagan he began to realize that the real answer was strength of character and a core set of principles that governed how Reagan lived his life. Realizing that despite his education and important job he, as he readily admits, was little more than a self-absorbed callow youth, Robinson began to take note of Reagan's qualities and begin to incorporate them into his own life. They aren't particularly complex life lessons -- work hard, respect others, be at ease with yourself and that words matter, among others -- but they are important. Numerous anecdotes show how Reagan personified these principles and how Robinson incorporated them into his own life.

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life isn't merely a self-help guide. Robinson also takes the time to give the reader a glimpse into the process of speech writing and the behind the scenes battles that often occurred between different factions over their contents. Robinson's best known speech, the one that Reagan delivered in Berlin and contained the line "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" was the subject of ferocious debate with White House staff, the State Department and diplomats concerned that it might insult the Soviet leader. Not surprisingly, relates Robinson, it was Reagan himself who decided the line was too good to leave out.

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life is a touching portrait of America's 40th president and a fine guide to principles that may be obvious to most but often not acted upon. Robinson weaves together the right mix of history, biography and self-examination and threaded it with humor and insight. It's doubtless that some will find it a saccharine love letter to Robinson's former boss, written by a Republican to honor one of the party's most beloved figures. They are either correct and this is nothing less than a blatantly hagiographic exercise or perhaps they simply haven't learned the simple little life lessons that Reagan taught Robinson.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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