The Age of Reagan is what Edmund Morris’ Dutch, encumbered by fictional conceits, should have been. It has a sense of drama and climax befitting the rise of an actor to the presidency. It restores grand narrative back to history (the kind of book a conservative Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would have written) – that genre of history academics today shun as politically incorrect but laymen readers put on bestseller lists.
Hayward’s subtitle – The Fall of the Old Liberal Order – indicates his thesis. In 1964, a confident and bloated liberal leadership, peopled by academics and executive types who saw the world as complex, requiring equally complex answers, began a slow road to collapse. This collapse was sometimes self- inflicted (a tepid Vietnam policy, an overreliance on big government solutions), sometimes brought about from without (a totalitarian-minded New Left whose venom was directed almost exclusively at the Bobby Kennedys, Tom Hayden’s “little fascist,” and not the Bill Buckleys). Within ten years – ten years of rioting, of campus takeovers, of forcing policy quagmires – liberals would lose· their confidence. So too would American voters in the liberals’ ability to govern amidst· the breakdown in law and order. But those that filled the vacuum – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter – did not reject Great Society premises. Nixon created price controls. Ford, with the active participation of Henry Kissinger, orchestrated a Republican Yalta, the Helsinki Accords, a cynical acceptance of the
communist status quo in Eastern Europe. Jimmy Carter initially, promised to make human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy, but soon reneged, selectively applying this litmus test to America’s allies but not its communist enemies. By 1980, America seemed on the brink of collapse, bankrupt emotionally and philosophically. What was required was a figure to buck the prevailing pessimism (Nixon and Carter both spoke publicly about America’s “crisis of confidence”), Great Society solutions, and detente.
Enter Ronald Reagan, needed precisely because his philosophy does not progress, or regress, in its optimistic belief in America. His message resonated with voters tired of pessimism and American failure.
Much of what is appealing about Stephen Hayward’s book is its iconoclasm. This is not the familiar conservative tale of a great man bending circumstances to his will: The historical circumstances have to be correct before Reagan can appear as president. Hayward does engage in some familiar con·servative litanies (LBJ was insufficiently hawkish on Vietnam; Reagan and Goldwater were pilloried by a liberal-minded.media, etc.). But he also breaks ranks with the familiar (Nixon governed as a liberal and was too conciliatory with Mao; Carter did not instruct troops of the failed hostage rescue effort to avoid lethal force). Hayward never excuses Reagan for his whoppers (although he does argue the fibs resonate better than Clinton’s because they reveal fundamental truths about America).
Hayward’s argument about liberalism being mired in the past is convincing. Democrats in 1980 were still resorting to the 1964 campaign playbook by likening Reagan, as they did Goldwater, to Hitler. It never occurred to them that the world had changed. Voters who pessimistically believed that no president could effectively address national problems went with Carter. Voters who wanted change, lower taxes, a freer economy, and a firmer stance against Soviet adventuring supported Reagan. The Democrats misread the public, and misread history.
But the weakness that dogs most books about Reagan dogs this one. The enigma of his personality remains. He flits in and out of Hayward’s narrative like Batman, exciting mystery but revealing little about himself. As president, Reagan baffled insiders; now he baffles his biographers. Hayward avoids this pitfall by beginning the work in 1964, when Reagan has already switched political parties and is voicing his 1980s conservatism. Hayward sidesteps the question of what’ compelled Reagan’s switch too neatly. Perhaps solving that mystery
Democrats in 1980 were still resorting to the 1964 campaign playbook by likening Reagan, as they did Goldwater, to Hitler. It never occurred to them that the world had changed.
might shed some light on his personality. Henpecked husband? An out-of-work actor burdened with income taxes? A prophet ahead of his time? Hayward superficially plops for the latter but provides no compelling evidence.
For libertarians, Ronald Reagan has always been a mixed bag. It is true he came into office promising to reduce the size of government. It is equally true that he left that office eight years later with a ‘drastically increased national security structure. On one hand, he rolled back the excesses of the Great Society. But on the other, he may have subverted Congress and the press with Iran Contra.
But rhetorically at least Reagan blazed trails. Part of the reason Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” speech excited little controversy was that Reagan had made that phrase part of respectable political dialogue.
And that is something to celebrate for libertarians, who had been excluded from the national political dialogue by New-Deal-Minded Republicans and Democrats.