Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Review: THE AGE OF REAGAN: THE CONSERVATIVE COUNTER-REVOLUTION 1980-1989 by Stephen Hayward (Crown Forum, 2009)

Like Craig Shirley's recent book on Ronald Reagan's 1980 Presidential campaign -- which, interestingly enough, also took more time to be released than originally expected -- the second volume in Hayward's AGE OF REAGAN exacta is likely to stand for some time as the default pro-Reagan survey of its subject matter (in this case, Reagan's two terms as President). It also, like Shirley's volume, misses top-drawer status by just a hair. Hayward eschews the sophomoric language that Shirley occasionally used in favor of a straightforward narrative style, so the words aren't the problem. The real disappointment is how many important topics are either ignored entirely or skimmed over in passing, the victims of Hayward's relentless focus on the "twin peaks" of the Reagan era, the success/failure of "Reaganomics" and the events of the final decade of the Cold War. You'll find nothing here on the savings and loan crisis (which Hayward admits up front) but also nothing on South Africa, the great liberal foreign-policy obsession of the 1980s, and a surprisingly meager amount on the Religious Right, even in its somewhat fluid pre-Christian Coalition phase. The final chapter is also something of a letdown, primarily because Hayward spends so little time on linking Reagan's accomplishments to the triumphs and follies of the conservative movement today -- a linkage that he had explicitly promised to explore in some detail in the first volume.

Despite the holes in the narrative, Hayward does succeed in clearing the air of several misconceptions about the Reagan years. First and foremost, he dynamites any lingering impressions that "we all stood together behind the Gipper" as the Cold War wound down. The quotes from Vietnam-traumatized liberals and leftists about the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, Grenada, and similar would-be flash points are numerous, and damning. Oddly enough, Hayward makes no mention of Ted Kennedy's coziness with ex-KGB master Yuri Andropov, which would have fit right into his laundry list of defeatist declarations. A discussion of South Africa would also have been helpful here, as the huge amount of noise made about that country by the Left during the 80s would have provided a useful contrast to its deafening silence when it came to the USSR and Eastern Europe. Hayward gives Mikhail Gorbachev his proper due for helping to ease tensions and bring the Cold War to a virtually bloodless conclusion, but he also makes it clear that Reagan was anything but an amiable onlooker to these events; his resolve obliged the USSR to find a leader who would at least attempt to reverse the country's economic slide and compete with a newly confident America.

Hayward also nixes the notion of Reagan's second term as being a "failure" defined solely by the Iran-Contra scandal. 1985-89 saw the major breakthroughs with Gorbachev, the passage of a landmark tax-reform package that was thought to be impossible at the time, and the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine, which has since led to the creation of a conservative alternative media, a luxury that Reagan himself did not enjoy. If Reagan's second term was a letdown compared to the first, Hayward argues, it was partially his own fault. In "Realignment Manque," the most provocative part of the book, Hayward takes the Reagan reelection campaign in 1984 to task for not attempting to "de-legitimize" the intellectually sclerotic Democratic Party and fighting hard for Republican gains in the Congress. Instead, Reagan encouraged Democrats to support him without leaving their own party and used the cheerful but vacuous theme of "Morning in America." Hayward's argument is hard to answer, but he does not really discuss why Reagan chose to campaign in this manner. My own view is that this was another example of Reagan going over the heads of the elite media and establishing a personal bond of trust with voters. By so doing, he was able to counteract media bias (which was plenty bad, though nowhere near as raw and ugly as that seen during the "W" years), but he did so at the cost of blunting the edges of his rhetoric.

Finally, Hayward muddies the expected good guy/bad guy domestic debates of the era by pointing out how often Reagan was at odds with members of his own party. Bob Dole may have been a good senator and an effective spokesman for Viagra, but he does not come off at all well here. The waterier RINOs of the Lowell Weicker/Charles Mathias ilk are treated even more harshly (not least by quoting Reagan's disgusted diary entries about them). Hayward likewise details the worries of conservatives that a legacy-haunted Reagan might be snookered into signing a bad arms-control bill with Gorbachev late in his Presidency. Despite making these points, Hayward mystifyingly fails to tie them together with observations on the modern-day GOP in his final chapter, "The Reagan Revolution and its Discontents."

Though it will probably not convince a Reagan hater to "join the church," Hayward's book is an effective first stab at a complete assessment of the man's Presidency. I think it is safe to say that better books on the subject are in our future, however.

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