MOST Americans believe that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are two of their five greatest presidents along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. OUP has done well to bring out their short biographies by well known experts, who have written extensively about them. The one on Kennedy is a highly condensed version of Dallek’s eight-hundred page biography of the President. Written in the form of a long essay, it takes us through the life of Kennedy to discuss the key aspects of his internal and external policies, his assassination, and his legacy. The one on Reagan is organised differently. It has five chapters: four on different periods in Reagan’s life as actor, governor, and President, and a short one on his legacy. The volumes also provide a comprehensive list of “sources” and “bibliography” on them.
Kennedy was born into a prominent Irish family of Boston, with strong social connections. His childhood and early manhood were plagued by severe health problems, and he had to suffer a series of hospitalisations. Though his image of a playboy with good looks did not help his cause to enter politics, he played his cards well to get over these disadvantages. After convincing Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate, he made a televised speech in which he drew attention to the problems facing the country, which was well received; he extended support to Martin Luther King, which won him praise and public support; and he outsmarted Nixon in the famous televised debate with him, which virtually sealed his win. After winning the presidency, he won the hearts of his people by making a short but rousing inaugural speech, parts of which became famous: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” He carefully chose people for his cabinet to consolidate his position.
Kennedy’s tenure was dominated by his involvement with external events, which began disastrously, with a setback in Cuba, for which he owned responsibility. He improved his image in Europe, in which he was helped by his charming wife. He started a long and sustained engagement with Khrushchev, for controlling the use of nuclear weapons, and pressurising him to end the Cuban crisis, which had threatened global peace.
At home, Kennedy encouraged people not to block efforts at integrating the blacks into the social order and insisted upon the Congress to make a comprehensive Civil Rights Law. He initiated an impressive reform agenda—about tax cuts, education, medicine, and civil rights—but his unfortunate assassination put a stop to it. It was, however, carried out later by Johnson. Kennedy’s major achievement was that he “inspired visions of a less divisive nation and world, and demonstrated that America was still the last hope of mankind.”
Reagan, unlike Kennedy, had no impressive ancestry. He was a popular student in his school and college, took different jobs soon after his education, read self-improvement novels, and fashioned his life almost after them. He became an actor and worked in many films. Because of his steady rise in public life, he espoused rugged individualism, championed the cause of freedom, opposed communism, became a Republican in 1962, and won his candidacy for governorship. As governor, he advocated reduction in the size of the government, and made heavy use of conservative rhetoric, but followed flexible policies. His chances of winning the presidency were enhanced by Carter’s unpopularity and a host of domestic and foreign problems facing the country.
As the President of his country, he tried and also succeeded in creating a close bonding with his people and giving them a sense of community. In the main, his administration tried to reduce business, cut federal income tax rates, and foster a new social ethic on the use of drugs and the role of religion in public life. Defying the Keynesian methods of dealing with recession, he introduced “supply-side economics,” called “Reaganomics,” though much of the success he achieved in this area was because of the decline in world oil prices. He appointed more than 400 judges during his tenure, which gave a pronounced conservative slant to the country’s judiciary. Hs immigration policy raised the number of legal immigrants and offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants. In the area of foreign policy, he worked hard to project the military power of America. In spite of the setback caused by the Iran-contra debacle, he made possible the liberation of several countries. He accepted changes in the Soviet Union and signed with Gorbachev a treaty to eliminate intermediate range missiles.
His major achievement is that he broadened the base of the Republican Party, gave conservative direction to judiciary, and made a lasting impression on American politics.
The volumes on the two presidents are quite informative and provide all the essential details about their career and achievement. They are also quite readable and should be of interest to all kinds of readers.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, ox26DP)