Book Review: Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan

Conservative Review

By: Nate Madden | December 31st, 2015

I was on vacation with my family on June 5th, 2004 when President Reagan passed away. I vividly remember watching every update on cable news and listening to them on AM radio as my father drove the four of us around Surfside Beach in the heat of a South Carolina winter. Born just after the collapse of the USSR, I had no idea what I owed to this man at the time. Thanks to his tireless work, my childhood was free of the looming fear my parents had known during the Cold War. I had never known what it was like to cower under my desk at school, preparing for what to do if the Soviets ever decided to end the world as we knew it. I had grown up a child during one of the largest periods of economic expansion in American history. To this man, whom I watched lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building on CNN, I owed so much. Being just shy of 13 years old, however, I had no idea exactly how much until later. This does not mean it’s too late to pay these respects. In reading “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” I am able to revisit this period in time. What sets this work apart from the host of other biographies about America’s 40th president is how intimately and delicately it handles the affairs surrounding the…?

Craig Shirley’s masterful storytelling and attention to detail immediately bring the reader to the Gipper’s bedside at Rancho del Cielo that solemn and historic summer. Rather than belabor facts, names and dates to the point of biographical sterility, Shirley remembers that the biographer’s role is first and foremost a storyteller, not a lecturer. The reader is lulled into a sense of actually being among the Reagans as distressed and somber calls were made and meticulously laid-out plans put into action. As I read “Last Act,” the final preparations for President Reagan became as real to me as were those for my own great grandmother in Central, SC in 2007.

Interspersed with accounts from the Reagan family in Southern California are vignettes from oft-forgotten segments of the former president’s life, essential to understanding the man, as well as—through the power of narrative—to gaining insight into the challenges currently faced by the Office of the President.

One such narrative that stands out is that of President Reagan and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, a former refusenik, gulag prisoner and outspoken critic of the USSR’s treatment of political and religious dissidents. After falling out of favor with the elites and intelligentsia in Washington and Manhattan for such thought crimes as believing in “a moral God…Christ, and…moral absolutes,” Solzhenitsyn also became a victim of detente policy. Having been kicked out of the Soviet Union, a man who had suffered for eight years in Stalin’s gulags would be snubbed by both President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for fear that embracing him would offend and upset relations with the Kremlin.

“Last Act” reads:

“The eyes of the world community were on Ford and Solzhenitsyn, and Ford’s fraidycat performance grated on many Americans, especially Reagan, who wrote his own nationally syndicated column blasting the president for the cold-shouldering of Solzhenitsyn…How far were Ford and Kissinger removed from reality? Solzhenitsyn gave speeches to the AFL-CIO in Washington and New York…thousands of commie-hating union men and women stood and applauded the old Russian of forbidden letters.

I find this story painfully analogous to what America has seen from its current leadership regarding the ongoing genocide of religious minorities at the hands of ISIS. Rather than meet with the victims of this genocide and take decisive action that would actually lead to its end, it seems that America’s leaders once again have chosen to kowtow to the leftist sympathy for the ideology of the oppressors while leaving the victims of tyranny to plead their case elsewhere. The mind boggles at how many victims of genocide—Christian, Yazidi, and Shia alike—have been denied audiences with this president while he holds Iftar dinners for groups and people tied to the Muslim Brotherhood…but I digress. Shirley’s detailed accounts of Reagan’s actions regarding refuseniks such as Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, and Sakharov remind the reader that President Reagan fully understood that, while politics undoubtedly ends at the water’s edge, freedom does not.

Craig Shirley’s latest work on the final years and legacy of Ronald Reagan is a rich and worthy addition to the vast canon of the President’s life. Informative, intimate and inspirational, Shirley carefully straddles the grey area between storyteller, biographer and historian to produce a volume that chronicles the legacy, the legend and the man himself. “Last Act” reminds the reader persistently of Reagan’s humanity in the midst of his legacy, while sparking an appreciation for his determination and zeal that cannot help but to inspire the reader to go and forge his or her own. Nate Madden is a Contributor to Conservative Review, a South Carolina native, graduate of The Citadel and the John Jay Institute, and passionate Atlanta Braves fan.