Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Review: RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: RONALD REAGAN AND THE CAMPAIGN THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Craig Shirley (ISI Books, 2009)



Well... (as the hero of the story might have put it...) the wait for the followup to Shirley's REAGAN'S REVOLUTION, though somewhat longer than expected, was certainly worth it. As Shirley's earlier book has come to be regarded as a definitive portrait of Ronald Reagan's near-miss challenge of Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination, so this much thicker tome is likely to stand as the standard account of Reagan's successful capture of the White House in 1980 -- at least from a Reagan-friendly perspective -- for the foreseeable future. That all-important election is now far enough in the past that the story needs to be retold, especially now that the first great wave of "Reagan revisionism" is being met by counterblasts from some writers on the Left. The facts that Reagan was anything but a universally respected and popular figure (even within his own party and campaign staff), and that Reagan nearly blew what should have been a clear victory over a fatally weak and incompetent incumbent President, have been blanketed beneath the haze of golden memories streaming from the unforgettable experience of Reagan's state funeral. Shirley lays out many familiar anecdotes from the campaign trail, rustles up a few new ones for our delectation, solves a long-standing "mystery" in the bargain, and, though his bias in favor of Reagan is always evident, gives both friends and foes their fair share of ink. (Shirley's favorable description of Ted Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention is particularly notable. Perhaps his discovery that a number of Kennedy hands, angry at Jimmy Carter for personal, political, and ideological reasons, apparently voted for Reagan influenced his posture here?)

One of the great questions about the 1980 campaign concerns how a set of Carter's debate briefing books got into the hands of Reagan's people. Shirley presents evidence that Paul Corbin, a shadowy figure on the Kennedy periphery, was responsible for the theft. I remember when "Debategate" blew up and how some elements of the media seized on it as a way of trying to, in some sense, delegitimize Reagan's election. Shirley argues that the books contained nothing more than records of Reagan's past statements and, as such, didn't materially affect the candidates' debate performances. While that can be fairly debated, I think that Shirley puts the kibosh on any claims of "Republican dirty tricks" here.

As thorough as Shirley is, I think that his text could have done with just one more read-through by an objective editor familiar with Shirley's style in REAGAN'S REVOLUTION. The earlier book was informally written and contained several funny anecdotes but never strayed over the line separating seriousness from silliness. The tone of RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY, by contrast, can only be described as sophomoric in places. The use of words like "kinda" and "natch" in what purports to be an exhaustive history of an historic election rubbed me the wrong way, I must admit. I mean, Teddy White pioneered the "campaign biography" and never resorted to such shenanigans. Also, a few too many sentences are "clunkily" written for my taste. Perhaps Shirley was so focused on packing the narrative with detail (did the original version of the text really run to 1700 pages, as one Amazon reviewer claimed?) that he paid less attention to how he was writing. If you can ignore the occasional gaucheries, however, you'll find this to be a truly fascinating read.

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