I read The Age of Reagan, the first volume of a massive two-volume biography, because I wanted to learn more about Ronald Reagan. I knew something about Reagan’s presidency, having been an adult for part of it, and that Reagan had been Governor of California, a popular speaker and commentator, head of the Screen Actors Guild, and an actor himself. But I knew very little about how Reagan came to be President. This book filled in many of the gaps. However, as the author, Steven Hayward, makes clear up front, it is a book not about Reagan, but the Age of Reagan. That is, it covers American political life from 1964 to 1980, with Reagan as a key character, but it is not really a biography of Reagan, at least in the traditional sense.
What I took most of all from this book is that everything old is new again. Or rather, much of what is old is new again. The same political behaviors we often treat as new developments are on full display, as are divisions in American society perhaps exceeding what we have today (although arguably different in quality). That doesn’t necessarily mean we should have a false sense of confidence that everything is hunky-dory with us today, but it does mean we should not reflexively assume that things now are the worst they’ve ever been.
Hayward is a Reagan partisan, as he freely admits in his introduction, though this book is not a polemic and it strives to be even-handed. The book is straightforward and chronological in structure. It opens with Lyndon Johnson’s defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and with Reagan’s classic speech in support of Goldwater, A Time for Choosing. Hayward then follows the development of the Johnson administration, in its enormous expansion of domestic spending and legislation at the same time Johnson expanded the Vietnam War. It is hard for us to conceive this time, a time when Americans largely trusted government; when no problem, domestic or military seemed beyond the reach of social engineering and scientific application of supposed newly discovered principles of human action; and when American wealth and power seemed certain to expand far into the distant future. But, of course, the resulting semi-consensus (which, perhaps, should not be overstated) quickly fractured.
Thus, Hayward identifies 1964 as the apogee of liberalism. In 2001, when this book was published, that was a plausible argument, but after eight years of Barack Obama, and then Hillary Clinton coming close to winning the White House, the argument is at least more complex. But back to The Age of Reagan. As Johnson’s first elected term came to a close, campuses and cities descended into violence (even though only a tiny minority of citizens supported unrest in either place, and the anti-war movement was always very unpopular, a fact ignored by today’s aged hippies reliving their supposed glory days). Meanwhile, Reagan began his rise by winning the race for California governor in 1966. He was quite successful as governor, but the country continued to spin in a centrifuge, with Vietnam, economic decay, civil unrest, and rising crime dominating the thoughts of Americans. The book traces all this, month by month, through the election of Nixon in 1968.
Hayward is clear-eyed about Nixon’s good and bad traits, but he notes (shades of current events) “Quite aside from the personal animosity Nixon generated, there was also an undercurrent that Nixon’s election was a fluke, that his administration was somehow illegitimate, because, after all, the Democrats are the natural ruling party.” Nixon, of course, was no conservative, as Hayward also covers. Among other sins, he hugely expanded government spending on dubious programs such as the “Family Assistance Plan,” which, when opposed by conservatives, one Nixon aide suggested (presumably tongue-in-cheek) be renamed the “Christian Working Man’s Anti-Communist National Defense Rivers and Harbors Act of 1969”—though given such more recent acronym abominations as the “PATRIOT” Act, we shouldn’t laugh too hard. Hayward proceeds to cover Nixon in detail, both domestically and with respect to foreign policy.
The Age of Reagan brings home how divided the late 1960s and 1970s were, with such low points as Supreme Court Justice Douglas, in 1970, endorsing violence “when grievances pile high” as “the only effective response.” He was attacked at length for this on the House floor by Republican Minority Leader Gerald Ford, as well as by many others not seduced by the era’s frequent flavor of morally justified leftist violence. It is a fair question whether our differences are really greater today, where, yes, the Left is again using violence to try to impose its will, but with much less organization and rigor. The young men, white and black, who organized violence on the Left fifty years ago were hard men, willing to take real risks, and clear-eyed, even if seduced by bogus ideologies. Today’s violence is driven by soft campus leftists, effeminate men and masculine women, children of incredible privilege, mostly given unearned rewards all their lives. If smacked in the face, as they should be, they would run screaming back to their mommies—but they never risk that, because they confine their violence to safe zones and rely on the knowledge that not only do all their teachers and school administrators support them, but that there will be no penalty if they riot, shut down opposition speech, or otherwise behave badly. And they are the opposite of clear-eyed, for they lack all coherent thinking, since never in their lives have they been required to think or debate other than by chanting idiocies. They lack even a coherent ideology, being seduced not by Communism or its variants but by whatever the latest identity politics or denial of reality du jour is. Such people are not really comparable to the Left of the late 1960s; they would dissipate like mist in the sun in any real conflict. Nor is their power growing; they are simply not relevant, except as a distraction, and with any luck, at a near-future campus riot against conservative speech, a bunch of Trump-supporting ironworkers with baseball bats will break some bones, thus solving the problem.
Hayward then turns back to Reagan as California governor. Various problems confronted Reagan, including student unrest fomented by small groups of radicals. Reagan’s attitude toward violent and disruptive campus protests was exemplified by his comment about New Left campus tactics in 1970: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” (He would have supported the baseball bats.) Of the student radicals, Reagan followed the course suggested by Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, “A confident administration bent on defending intellectual values, and consequently determined to destroy the power of its essentially anti-intellectual adversary, can generally win.” This is what happened, and with these and other successes under his belt, Reagan was easily re-elected as governor in 1970.
The book then follows Nixon’s 1972 re-election, Watergate and its aftermath. This discussion contains interesting facts conveniently thrown down the memory hole by the Left, including that George Wallace ran as a Democrat for President and might well have won the 1972 nomination, if he had not been shot. Hayward notes how Nixon was frustrated by the bureaucracy, which by 1972 was already wholly a partisan instrument of the Democratic Party, a situation infinitely worse today, due to the massively greater power and reach of the federal administrative state, and one which Trump may very well be unable to overcome any more than Nixon did. The book also covers the various troubles of the 1970s; détente (with much discussion of Henry Kissinger); the brief and ineffective administration of Gerald Ford; the rise of Jimmy Carter (more ruthless than he is given credit for); Carter’s even-more-ineffective Presidency; and Reagan’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain the 1976 Republican nomination.
Finally, Hayward covers Reagan’s successful run for the 1980 Republican nomination, and his defeat of Jimmy Carter. As with his earlier run against Jerry Brown, Reagan’s opponents both underestimated him and preferred to run against him rather than more “moderate” candidates, thinking they could paint Reagan as an extremist. And they did their best to so paint him—as a Newsweek writer said after the 1980 Republican convention, “The Reaganites on the floor were exactly those who in Germany gave the Nazis their main strength and who in France collaborated with them and sustained Vichy.” Some things never change, as we can see in 2017. But, as they say, if everybody is Hitler, nobody is Hitler, so such attacks have lost much of their impact. And, of course, they did not prevent Reagan from being (narrowly) elected in 1980, nor are they likely to have much impact nowadays, other than further marginalizing the Democratic Party.
One theme of Hayward’s book is how often people, opponents as well as friends, underestimated Reagan. Famously opaque and with extremely few close friends, though friendly to nearly everyone, people often thought Reagan lacked depth or subtlety. Hayward repeatedly demonstrates the opposite, from Reagan’s outstanding extemporaneous speaking ability to his deliberate mispronunciation of the word “government” as “guv-mint,” meant to show contempt but often interpreted as simplemindedness. When considering his first run for California governor, for example, rather than traveling the state giving set speeches, Reagan “chose to give short speeches [more than 150 of them], followed by questions and answers from the audience. This helped dispel the view that he was ‘merely an actor’ reciting lines.” This is nearly unimaginable in the modern day, where Obama was incapable of coherent speech without a teleprompter and Trump is just incapable of coherent speech. Neither could have survived even one freeform question-and-answer session where questions where not pre-screened and pre-selected—although Trump might at least force his way through it without stammering and saying something that revealed his true thoughts he was trying to conceal, as Obama so often did. Not to mention that as governor, Reagan held 409 press conferences, where he similarly answered unscripted and unscreened questions. But, of course, Reagan used false perceptions of himself to his own advantage.
Hayward also often notes that Reagan frequently told stories that were apocryphal or distorted. Of course, all politicians do that (witness Hillary Clinton’s serial lies, from being shot at in Bosnia to only using her illegal email server for personal email), so it’s not like Reagan is exceptional (although the usual suspects tried to paint him that way at the time). But as Hayward says, the difference with Reagan was that, unlike most politicians, his “whoppers were never about himself, but always about the deeper meaning of America, both what was right with America and what was wrong with America. That’s why the accuracy of his whoppers was always secondary to their teaching, which resonated deeply with Americans who had grown disaffected with the leadership of the nation.”
One conclusion that comes through clearly in this book is that every time one political party or faction is in power in America, they always make the mistake of concluding that their dominance is permanent, or at least likely to last for decades. In fairness, there is some precedent for this, in the dominance of the Republicans until Roosevelt, and of the Democrats from Roosevelt to Nixon. But for the past fifty years, not only has this been proven false, but it has extremely rapidly been proven false. Witness James Carville, in 2009, predicting forty years of nationwide Democratic dominance. By the same token, Republicans who think that recent Republican triumphs presage permanent re-alignment are unlikely to be correct. For confirmation, in fact, we have only to look at this book, written in 2001 and containing various statements that suggest the author believes conservatism will be ascendant in the United States for the foreseeable future.
Another fact that comes through clearly in the book is that the bitter hatred of the Left and the elites in general directed at conservatives hasn’t changed. For example, Jerry Brown (again now, governor of California), running against Reagan (and losing), proclaimed “[Reagan] is the spokesman for a harsh philosophy of doom and darkness.” Brown said Reagan was “an agent of white backlash” (to which Reagan wittily replied, “I’m the agent of a Brown backlash.” Brown further said that conservatives “are the shock troops of bigotry, echoes of Nazi Germany, echoes of another hate binge that began more than 30 years ago in a Munich beer hall.” This tactic of hyperbolic smears, and this type of phrasing, hasn’t changed in fifty years. Similarly, just as Trump was attacked because he was supposedly endorsed by the KKK, Reagan was attacked by the media and the Left (but I repeat myself) because he was endorsed by the John Birch Society. More skillful than Trump, Reagan merely said he welcomed support from anyone, but that their endorsement was simply proof that he had “persuaded them to accept my philosophy, not my accepting theirs.” While I think Reagan nostalgia among conservatives is a distraction and a waste of time, it certainly would be nice to have politicians who could spar as well and cleverly as Reagan could, rather than the ones we have now.
In any case, this book expanded my knowledge about the Age of Reagan, although as I say it didn’t tell me as much about Reagan himself as I would have liked. I’ll read the next volume, which presumably is all Reagan, all the time. But I certainly learned a lot from this volume, and it’s well-written and easy to read, despite its length—so if you have an interest in the period, I highly recommend it.