The Magazine

Reagan in Retrospect

Recapturing the 'counterrevolution'-- now three decades old.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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The Age of Reagan

The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989

by Steven F. Hayward

Crown Forum, 768 pp., $35

What Would Reagan Do?

That is the question many conservatives have been asking recently. In a sign of the times, that phrase even has its own page on Facebook with over 3,800 fans. It is a reaction to the unpopularity of the presidency of George W. Bush and the widespread feeling that both his administration and the formerly Republican-led Congress had betrayed the conservative ideals of the Reagan Revolution.

It is also a natural question because we have been riding a recent wave of Reagan revivalism among historians and journalists. The publication of Reagan's diaries, letters, speeches, and radio commentaries has shown not a disengaged, dimwitted actor working off a script, but a man deeply engaged in the issues of his time. Books by nonconservatives such as John Patrick Diggins, Sean Wilentz, and James Mann have also given Reagan his due. In the most recent presidential leadership survey of historians by C-SPAN, Reagan ranks tenth, just ahead of Lyndon Johnson and just behind Woodrow Wilson.

Now comes the second volume of Steven F. Hayward's portrait of Ronald Reagan. Hayward, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has modeled his book after Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s Age of Roosevelt, which helped cement FDR and the New Deal's reputation. Schlesinger made no bones about his liberalism. His hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt; Hayward is an unabashed conservative whose hero is Ronald Reagan. But he aims for a more balanced treatment than Schlesinger. In doing so, Hayward has produced a long, but lively, romp through Reagan's two presidential terms.

Hayward has a knack for understanding and interpreting Reagan the politician better than most who write about him, with the possible exception of Lou Cannon. Reagan's personality, though, still remains a bit of an enigma. This book is not about psychoanalysis. It is about politics, pure and simple. That is Hayward's greatest strength as a researcher and writer, and he wisely plays to it, although this approach is not without its problems. He has an ability to re-create the political debates of the time by relentlessly mining newspapers and magazines. The Age of Reagan will transport readers back to the contentious political fights of the 1980s.

Hayward reminds us that the 1980 election was actually a lot closer than people think. Despite an electoral college landslide, Reagan won only slightly more than 50 percent of the vote (in a three-way race) and much of his margin of victory was gained by late-breaking votes in the election's final days. Those who complain about the ugly tone of recent politics, or the tough criticism of Barack Obama, would do well to read Hayward's recounting of the bitter accusations hurled against Reagan. Just one example: The Nation warned after Reagan's inauguration that America had "embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era." Reagan's liberal opponents also threw around words like "Hitler," "fascism," and "Ku Klux Klan."

Still, the question arises: Do we need another Reagan biography now? Hayward's book is not based on any new research, although he does make use of the recently published Reagan diaries. One gets the sense that when Hayward began the project over a decade ago, he felt it necessary to put out a full-throated defense of Reagan from liberal critics who would seek to diminish his legacy. He even calls Reagan the "Rodney Dangerfield of modern American presidents." Reagan may deserve a bit more credit than he is currently getting from historians, but one can hardly say that he has been getting no respect.

There is a general consensus that Reagan's was an important and consequential presidency. Even Barack Obama agrees, stating during the presidential campaign, "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it."

This makes Hayward's claim for a revisionist account of the Reagan years sound a bit off-key. "Revisionism" is a fighting word among historians: It implies a complete reversal in previous interpretations of the subject or, worse, a massaging of evidence to support a political agenda. To Hayward's credit, his book does neither of these things.