Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: The Age of Reagan, Vol II

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It was Ronald Reagan’s most famous line, but his advisors didn’t want him to say it. He wrangled over the line with his senior aides, the State Department, and the National Security Council even as he flew on Air Force One to West Berlin. Now that the Berlin Wall is gone, the line memorialized forever, and Reagan celebrated for his role in ending the Cold War, many of the same advisors claim they were for the line all along—or even wrote it.

Steven F. Hayward calls the Berlin Wall speech “a perfect microcosm” of Reagan’s political career, highlighting two important things about Reagan. The first is Reagan’s insight and imagination—the way he thought about issues on a large scale. The second is the extent to which Reagan had to battle against “the conventional reflexes of much of his own party and staff” as well as the Democrats and adversarial media.

Hayward examines both aspects of Reagan’s statecraft, focusing on the second, in the long-awaited second volume of his definitive Reagan biography. While it stands alone as a history of Reagan’s presidency, The Age of Reagan (Vol. II): The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980 - 1989 takes up where Volume I, The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, leaves off—Reagan’s first Presidential election.

Several books focus on Reagan’s foreign policy, but Hayward devotes equal effort to Reagan’s domestic policy. Hayward’s thesis, which sets his book in a class apart from other biographies, is that “there was a seamless quality to Reagan’s domestic policy outlook and his Cold War grand strategy” because Reagan embodied as a statesman Abraham Lincoln’s concept that all nations have a “central idea” from which all minor thoughts radiate. Reagan’s central idea was “that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, certainly in its vicious forms such as Communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy.” Or, as Reagan himself put it more succinctly, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Hayward recognizes that the story of Reagan’s domestic policy lacks the personal drama of fighting the Cold war against the Evil Empire. As Hayward quips, “Reagan never stood in front of the Federal Trade Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency and said, ‘Mr. Regulator, tear down this rule!’” But Hayward does a good job of making the domestic side interesting. He is a deft writer with a light touch and he effectively uses primary source materials such as contemporary headlines and Reagan’s own recently published White House diaries.

Hayward’s other strength is his ability to break down complicated matters into simple facts with enough detail for full comprehension, but without bogging down the main narrative. For example, his cogent explanations of the economics behind Reagan’s tax reductions, the convoluted politics making a tangled mess of our Central American policies, nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets, and the Iran-Contra affair are a helpful background for understanding the significance of these events and Reagan’s role in them.

Although the book is titled The Conservative Counterrevolution, Hayward shies away from concluding that Reagan’s realignment of American politics rose to the status of a “revolution” sufficient to counter the liberal revolution of the early Twentieth Century that culminated in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He admits that the idea of a “Reagan Revolution” is still an open question for those on both the right and the left.

However, Hayward argues, Reagan’s transformation of the Republican Party in his own image was an enormous, and enormously difficult, achievement in its own right. Reagan had other domestic achievements as well: he managed to slow the rate of government growth; he shifted attitudes about taxation so that reducing tax rates became widely accepted as a legitimate goal; he energized the marketplace of ideas by abolishing the Fairness Doctrine, which hobbled radio and TV commentators; and he initiated a “series of noisy open debates” on constitutional-level ideas about the nature and role of government.

Hayward finds this last point most significant. The Constitution and principles of the Founding Fathers were central to Reagan’s political rhetoric. For example, Hayward notes that Reagan mentions the Constitution ten times in his memoirs—ten times more than his four predecessors, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Johnson, combined. Even as the Iran-Contra scandal was sapping the strength from the Reagan administration in its last days, Reagan fought for passage of five constitutional reforms packaged as the Economic Bill of Rights. These reforms included a federal spending limit, a line-item veto, a balanced budget amendment, prohibitions on wage and price controls, and a super-majority requirement for tax increases—issues still being debated today.

Hayward is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, so it is no surprise that he approaches his subject from the right. Reagan fans will no doubt enjoy it more than Reagan detractors. But Hayward’s work is definitely biography, not hagiography. The Age of Reagan deserves a spot on any serious historian’s book shelf.

First published on The Internet Review of Books in December 2009.


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