‘Dutch’ Treat

Some presidents have come from families of property and high renown—or notoriety. Think only of the Roosevelts and Kennedys. And other presidents come from humble circumstances, sometimes very humble.

Ronald Reagan belongs to the second group. His family moved from one rented apartment to another as his alcoholic, shoe-salesman father struggled to hold a job. Young “Dutch,” as he was known, took many lessons from his experiences growing up, including the importance of hard work and self-reliance. He worked his way through college, found jobs in radio during the Depression and went on to become a Hollywood star, governor of California and, finally, president.

In “When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan,” Peggy Noonan examines the sources—and consequences—of Mr. Reagan’s idealism, honesty, religious faith and patriotism. From his days as an anticommunist leader of the Screen Actors Guild to his legendary words to Mikhail Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall, the book investigates the way Mr. Reagan’s convictions and character affected his life, his presidency and history. A few excerpts:

Early lessons: “[Mr. Reagan’s father] felt he had been discriminated against in the old ‘No Dogs or Irish Need Apply’ days and ways, and it made him despise prejudice with a committed and consistent passion. He established the idea of equality as part of the family’s conversation, part of the way the family understood itself. They were people who stood for tolerance.”

Artistic ambitions: “Ronald Reagan did not so much have the natural talents and cast of mind of a businessman or economist or political figure, he had the natural talents and cast of mind of an artist. It is what he thought he would become, his first arguably serious ambition. As an adolescent he had thought he might become a cartoonist. And indeed he went through all his life drawing faces, caricatures and cartoons, designing leather crafts and memorizing poetry.”

Opposing communist fronts in Hollywood in the 1940s and ‘50s: “Reagan loved argument, loved freedom and thought everyone should join the fray—anarchists, Wobblies, monarchists, whatever. But if a political group refused to come forward publicly and put forth its programs in the democratic daylight; if it chose to pursue power secretly, by guile and deception, silently taking over institutions and moving for power through force—well, that was what the Nazis did in Germany. That’s what Fascists and the supporters of dictators do. That wasn’t the American style at all.”

Mr. Reagan’s simple tastes, as displayed at his California ranch: “You can imagine the expectations of Gorbachev as he was driven up this road. He knew about capitalism and how capitalists and powerful men live in America. And the expectations of the queen of England, who knew something of how the famous in America lived. And they saw: a shack. And they thought: This is how staff lives! This was nothing like his dacha, her castle. It is a little one story house with stucco and adobe walls. They are painted white. There’s a red tile roof.”

Unpredictable interests: “It is not true, as has often been said, that Reagan wasn’t curious. He just wasn’t curious about what you’d expect a man like him to be curious about. If he was talking to a doorman at the Mayflower Hotel about how they park and retrieve the cars on a busy night, he’d be learning something and be truly interested. If you were a professor back from China or the Sudan and had real-world observations, anecdotes and history, he’d eagerly take it all in.”

His famous “Evil Empire” speech: “He felt that previous American leadership had not taken on the principles of Marxist-Leninist philosophy because we had feared to offend. But Reagan was not inhibited in that way. He thought: We can scarcely make the Soviets worse, and the truth might make things better. Or at least establish the only platform on which things can become better.”

His habit of telling jokes: “I think he thought everyone was too serious. I think he realized today’s dreadfully somber problem is next week’s joke about the hell we went through last week, and he figured he’d just speed up the process. I think he was also fun all the time because the constant tragedies and injustices of life while painful were also by definition passing—everything changes, today is setback, tomorrow bounty.”

Taking criticism: “The reason he took criticism so well is that he had been trained in receiving it in Hollywood. Not as an actor in the reviews, though there was some of that, but when he went up against Communists and Communist sympathizers and the anti-anti-Communists of Hollywood. They had threatened his life and livelihood. What was being called an evil idiot compared to that?”

Positive reflections: “I am still searching for an anecdote about Reagan that truly reflects badly on him. When I talk to or read the works of people in politics, entertainment or journalism who didn’t admire or agree with him, they will, if they get going, tell you Reagan was lazy, or naive or a bore. But they never say he was low or unkind or dishonest or untrustworthy. I think his character is the least criticized of any great political leader of the century.”