My friend Steven Hayward’s The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order was published eight years ago. Upon its publication, Charles Kesler saw something epochal about the book itself. Kesler declared: “The end is near. Not the end of history, but the end of liberal history, the kind of history written by liberals, for liberals, and usually about liberals[.]”
Kesler found Hayward’s book to be “a magnificent new history of our times. It is a big book in every way and yet it reads quickly and delightfully.” Kesler continued: “It’s hard to think of anyone who would bring a better set of skills to this task than Hayward, who combines a broad knowledge of 20th century history and historiography with a ready appreciation of modern economics, particularly the key breakthroughs in monetarism, supply-side theory, and public choice.”
That book was the first of what were to be two substantial volumes. It took us to Reagan’s election in 1980. Following its publication, however, Hayward took time out, among other things, to write two related books: The Real Jimmy Carter and Greatness: Reagan, Churchill and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.
Today is the official publication date of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989, the concluding volume of Hayward’s history of the Reagan era. Having read the book in bound galley, I can say that Kesler’s praise of the first volume applies equally to the second. It is an important, instructive and entertaining book.
If you ever worried, as I did, that we would never be able to communicate to our children the climate of opinion against which Reagan operated, and therewith the magnitude of Reagan’s achievement, Hayward’s books provide great comfort. Hayward has captured the truth of the times.
I invited Steve to write something about the concluding volume of The Age of Reagan for Power Line readers on its publication date. He has graciously accepted as follows:
Many thanks to Power Line for opening the site for a few guest words from me. No one has been a bigger booster of my idiosyncratic works, which is a good place to start with a short explanation for why I’d write such a long (750 pages) book, let alone two such books. The successful convention in non-fiction publishing these days is short books, usually polemical or narrowly thematic. Instead I’ve chosen an old-form chronological narrative, precisely because it is a neglected form practiced only by Paul Johnson and a few other conservative authors.
It is also intended to fill an important gap in the growing Reagan literature. Most of the Reagan literature, even by worthy conservative authors but especially his grudging liberal admirers, focuses on the dramatic Cold War story or aspects of his compelling political persona, and either ignore or get wrong his domestic policy story. Above all, the book is intended as a narrative analysis of statesmanship, and argues that Reagan’s statecraft must be understood and evaluated as a whole, not as separate compartments.
There was a reciprocal influence between Reagan’s domestic and foreign policy views, because they derived from the same principle. In the book I write: “Lincoln wrote that all nations have a central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The same can be said of great statesmen. Churchill’s central insight might be said to be that the distinction between liberty and tyranny is real and substantial–a distinction too often obscured in modern social science or willfully avoided by pusillanimous politicians. Reagan’s central idea was a variation of Churchill’s, and can be summarized as the view that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, both in its vicious forms such as Communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy.” Reagan made this argument explicitly, most prominently in his speech to the British Parliament in June 1982.
Telling Reagan’s domestic policy story is more difficult than the Cold War story, in part because the record was mixed and in part because it is more wonky, i.e, it lacks (with some exceptions, such as the Bork nomination) the same kind of personal drama as the Cold War. As I write in the opening of the book, Reagan never mounted the barricades outside the Federal Trade Commission and said, “Mr. Regulator–tear down this rule!” But it is an important story to recall and understand as many of the issues of the time are still alive today in the Age of Obama.
The book is revisionist in several ways. In going carefully through events, and especially the very useful entries in Reagan’s personal diary, I was struck by how often Reagan complained about opposition from Republicans in Washington. He complains about Republican weakness as often if not more often than he complains about Democrats and the news media. In this respect, Reagan’s experience was similar to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, when Roosevelt faced strong opposition in his own party to many of his New Deal measures. Like Roosevelt, Reagan’s influence on his party’s character increased after he left office. Other authors have largely overlooked this aspect of Reagan’s story.
Finally, I conclude with some cautionary notes for conservative admirers of Reagan and point to what I call “Reagan’s unfinished agenda.” Although Reagan made some important changes to the shape of American politics, Reagan didn’t succeed at some his highest objectives such as reducing the size and reach of the federal government, and government has resumed growing at a fast rate and is set potentially to explode under President Obama. Reagan foresaw this and warned about it; too many of the conservatives who claim to be Reaganites today do so in a superficial way.
Conservatives who want to carry on or extend his legacy should ponder more deeply the lessons of Reagan’s failures, the limitations of democratic politics, and relearn the art of constitutional argument, which Reagan did better, though still imperfectly, than any Republican since Calvin Coolidge.
PamajasMedia has also posted Ed Driscoll’s interview with Hayward about the book, and NRO has posted John Miller’s podcast with him about it . Please check them out and consider buying this important and timely book.