April 9, 2007 | 0 comments
Conservatives keep waiting for the definitive history of the Reagan years.
The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution
Steven F. Hayward
(Crown Forum, 639 pages, $35)
Books about Ronald Reagan do not yet rival the Amazonian flow of works about Abraham Lincoln, but they continue to pour forth as historians, political scientists, and journalists try to answer such questions as: Was Reagan a great president or only a Great Communicator? Was he prescient about the decline and fall of the Soviet Union or merely lucky? Did his tax cuts unleash an era of unprecedented prosperity or a decade of greed? Was there an Age of Reagan and if so, will it have a lasting influence on American politics?
In The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, the liberal best-selling author James Mann credits Reagan for “a crucial role” in ending the Cold War but protects himself against being called a “consymp” (conservative sympathizer) by insisting that the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev played “the leading role” in bringing the four-decade-old conflict to a close.
In The Age of Reagan the prizewinning Princeton historian Sean Wilentz — a liberal — concludes that Reagan was the preeminent political figure for more than three decades, dramatically changing “the sum and substance of American politics,” but leaving behind a polarized country and a vital center “badly in need of rescue and repair.”
In addition to such scholarly works, there have been attack books like Tear Down This Myth by the prizewinning Philadelphia journalist Will Bunch, who writes that the most urgent task facing America is to “exorcise” the mistaken notions that Reagan’s tax cuts caused the economic recovery of the 1980s and that his military buildup helped end the Cold War.
There have also been charming memoirs like The Reagan I Knew by William F. Buckley Jr. and revelatory books like Reagan’s Secret War by Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson, the latest of their invaluable contributions to the Reagan literature (and reviewed in these pages last month).
Conservatives have been waiting for the definitive history of the Reagan years. In the mean-time, they have cut and pasted from reporter Lou Cannon’s detailed trilogy, Ed Meese’s insider account of his decades with Reagan, Paul Kengor’s thoughtful examination of the role of Reagan’s faith in his decision making, and other works.
Hopes for a nonpareil history were raised — mine among them — when the first volume of Steven F. Hayward’s splendid The Age of Reagan was published eight years ago. (Note: You cannot copyright a book title — thus Professor Wilentz was within his authorial rights to call his work The Age of Reagan.)
Covering the years between 1964 and 1980, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order was big, bold, and ambitious — Hayward proposed to do for Ronald Reagan what the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger did for Franklin D. Roosevelt: to make the man and his times one and the same. Hayward described Reagan’s political skill, his persistence, the conservative philosophy that undergirded his every action. Hayward was especially good in his presentation of the reasons for the rapid decline of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s.
AND NOW WE HAVE the second volume of Hayward’s The Age of Reagan, subtitled The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989. The 639-page book starts with a ringing fanfare, promising to show how Reagan “transformed the Republican party in his own image.” Hayward suggests that rather than being called the Great Communicator, Reagan should be known as the Great Liberator, by virtue of having won the Cold War and having freed Americans from looking to the government in a time of crisis for a solution. The prologue is titled “Lion at the Gate,” and the author frequently compares Reagan to the indomitable British statesman Winston Churchill.
The early chapters examine in close, almost excruciating detail the first year of the Reagan presidency because it confronted the question that has occupied the nation since the Great Depression: how much government do we need?
As Hayward himself admits, the pace of the book is “slightly lopsided.” The rhetoric of the early pages is often highly technical as Hayward explains the positions of the contending economic factions. I learned far more than I wanted to know about monetary theory, investment incentives, “free banking,” and whether supply-side economics is or is not microeconomics applied to macroeconomic “aggregates.”
But Hayward captures the intense political battle between the administration led by the president and the Democratic majority in the House led by New Deal liberal Speaker Tip O’Neill over the size and duration of the tax cuts. The administration prevailed because Reagan went on national television and urged the public to lobby Capitol Hill for his bill. They responded so enthusiastically that O’Neill admitted, “We are experiencing a telephone blitz like this nation has never seen. It’s had a devastating effect.” The final House vote on the Economic Recovery Act of 1981 was 238-195, with 48 “conservative” Democrats defying the party leadership and backing Reagan.
The Reagan tax cuts set in motion economic forces that resulted in the longest period of peacetime prosperity in American history — and they were heard around the world. “Nearly all industrialized nations would emulate the Reagan plan,” Hayward writes, “and reduce their marginal income tax rates” in the following decades.
A compelling chapter is the one dealing with the attempted assassination of Reagan and how he rebounded to secure approval of his economic plan — counseling everyone to “stay the course.” At the same time, the president laid the foundation for a new U.S. foreign policy based on ending the Cold War through negotiation from a position of military strength.
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