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Looking for the Perfect History

Conservatives keep waiting for the definitive history of the Reagan years.

By From the October 2009 issue

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The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989
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.

Hayward is somewhat critical of Reagan for taking what he says is so long to formulate a policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. But we know from Martin Anderson's Reagan's Secret War and Peter Schweitzer's several books that Reagan chaired almost every meeting of the National Security Council in 1981, during which time a policy of containment plus was debated and agreed upon. It was then set down in a national security decision directive, NSDD-32, by NSC staffer (and Harvard historian) Richard Pipes in early 1982-barely one year after Reagan took office.

In Hayward's now fast-paced narrative, 1983 emerges as the most significant year of the Reagan presidency because both the Cold War and the U.S. economy reached turning points. This was the year that Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" -- inspiring cheers by dissidents in the Gulag and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain -- and launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). It was also the year when the economy began to kick into high gear as a result of the Reagan tax cuts.

THE LAST THIRD of The Age of Reagan properly deals with the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, meetings that worried conservatives always suspicious of Communist motives and confused liberals who could not believe Reagan when he said he wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons. For the president, the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was truly mad. The controversial summits produced the INF Treaty, which eliminated an entire category of nuclear missiles and signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

In Hayward's opinion, the Iran-contra scandal "nearly snuffed out the lamp on top of Reagan's shining city on a hill." He faults Reagan for dealing with a terrorist government to secure the release of American hostages but absolves the president of any part in the diversion of funds to the Contras in Nicaragua.

At the end of 1987, following the "triple whammy" of Iran-Contra, the failed Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and the stock market crash, the liberal media were dusting off their headlines about "the stench of failure at the White House." Even some conservatives joined the chorus of dismay, unable to comprehend the import of the arms control agreement signed by Reagan and Gorbachev. One conservative who understood what was transpiring was the veteran Cold Warrior Brian Crozier, who in August 1988 described a "gigantic funeral service" for Communism that was being conducted by the Soviet Communist Party.

The American people evinced their desire for the continuation of the Age of Reagan by giving him "a third term" in the person of his vice president, George H. W. Bush. Further proof of Reagan's lasting influence was the election of a Republican House in 1994 -- which some observers called Reagan's "third landslide." There was also the enduring conservative philosophy of the Republican Party and the 1996 welfare reform, which incorporated the principles Governor Reagan had advocated in the early 1970s.

The Age of Reagan is a brilliant history marked by superb writing and prodigious research (66 pages of endnotes). But it ends on an uncertain note, quoting Midge Decter that "there was no Reagan Revolution" and Gary McDowell that Reagan did far less than he hoped and promised but "a hell of a lot more than people thought he would."

Reaganauts would have preferred Margaret Thatcher's summation that Reagan "won the Cold War without firing a shot" and presidential historian Stephen Ambrose's comment that "Reagan will be remembered as the president who reversed the decades-old flow of power to Washington."

As good as The Age of Reagan is -- and it's very good -- we are still waiting for the definitive history of the Reagan presidency.

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About the Author

Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author of many books about American conservatism, including the first political biography of Ronald Reagan.