The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order by Stephen F. Hayward
Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom by Andrew E. Busch
Reagan, In His Own Hand, edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson
Tell your liberal friends, without cracking a smile, if you can: 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; the kind of history that shaped the consciousness of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. A new generation of conservative scholars is coming on the scene and their writings are already beginning to alter our understanding of the 20th century.
Left-leaning scholars like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Garry Wills, and Doris Kearns Goodwin will not disappear or simply be forgotten, of course, but their near-monopoly is being broken. In Schlesinger's books, especially in his monumental (and still unfinished) The Age of Roosevelt, he expounds the canonical themes of the Left's interpretation. In the 19th century, American democracy was tempted by slavery; and the crisis over slavery, the "crisis of the House divided," was the defining event of the century. In the 20th century, America's temptor was privilege or plutocracy, which threatened to subvert democracy through the promises of an ill-gotten prosperity. Although democracy had vanquished both Tories and slaveholders, it now faced the less overt challenge of "economic royalists" who imperiled the economic equality necessary for democracy. The characteristic crisis of the 20th century, therefore, was the crisis of capitalism, epitomized in the Great Depression, and the hero who vanquished "the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties" was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who freed democracy from the chains of limited government, enabling it to subdue capitalism in the New Deal's regulatory and welfare state. This self-satisfied picture is about to change, however, because conservatives have now begun to tell their own story and to provide a fresh, candid reinterpretation of the course of modern American politics.
Steven F. Hayward's The Age of Reagan is a magnificent new history of our times. It is a big book in every way and yet it reads quickly and delightfully. Hayward received his Ph.D. in History in 1996 from the Claremont Graduate University, where he studied with Leonard Levy, John Niven, and Harry V. Jaffa, among others. He is now a senior fellow and director of the Center for Environmental and Regulatory Reform at the Pacific Research Institute, the distinguished free-market think tank in San Francisco. 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. He understands firsthand the ins-and-outs of modern regulatory politics, and his previous book is Churchill on Leadership, so he knows statesmanship when he sees it. Withal, he is fair to those he criticizes, rarely suppressing an argument or fact that might tell in their favor. Throughout The Age of Reagan, he appeals to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and, to a lesser extent, Murray Kempton, as witnesses who saw and said invaluable things about the resurgence of conservatism and the parlous condition of their beloved liberalism.
Above all, Hayward is a gifted writer who presents us with a vigorous historical narrative. For all its defense of traditional history, the Right cannot boast of many narrative historians, which is one reason that liberal chroniclers dominate the bookstore shelves. Hayward may have learned from the examples of John Lukacs and Paul Johnson, probably the best living conservative narrativists, but Hayward has a better command of political ideas than either and is much less error-prone than Johnson. (Hayward's prose succumbs to the occasional infelicity, however.) Having read quite a bit of Churchill, Hayward might be expected to have adopted something of the great man's heroic approach, but though Reagan is at the center of this book it is not told consistently from his point of view. Perhaps William Manchester's volumes on Churchill come closest to providing a model for Hayward's account.
At any rate, The Age of Reagan is not a biography but a history, an emphatically (though not exclusively) political history of the last third of the past century. Modeled on Schlesinger's The Age of Roosevelt, Hayward's book (the first of two proposed volumes) bears the subtitle, "The Fall of the Old Liberal Order," his wry salute to the subtitle of Schlesinger's first volume, "The Crisis of the Old Order." For Schlesinger, the old order was the regime of limited government and unlimited capitalism that he thought Roosevelt had replaced; the old order, in short, was conservatism, the conservatism of the Fathers and the post-bellum Republicans and Calvin Coolidge. For Hayward, at century's end, the old order is liberalism, the novel purposes and institutions of government ushered in by FDR and brought to new peaks of arrogance and zeal in the Great Society. Accordingly, The Age of Reagan begins in 1964, at liberalism's supreme moment of triumph and modern conservatism's nadir, when Lyndon Johnson had crushed Barry Goldwater in the presidential election; when the Great Society was aborning.
His focus and starting point allow Hayward to sidestep the problem that proved fatal to Dutch, Edmund Morris's official biography of Reagan. (One wag suggested that the book should have been titled Botch.) The problem is trying to find the real, i.e., inner Reagan. "While Reagan can be described," Hayward admits, "he is nearly impossible to explain." Hayward concludes, sensibly, that the real Reagan is the Reagan we can know if we apply ourselves to the close study of his words and deeds. The Age of Reagan thus concentrates on the "outside story" of American politics and of Reagan's life. "Above all, he was a serious man," Hayward notes. Reagan ran for president of his own party in 1976's GOP primaries. Reagan was no lucky simpleton or bumbling amateur; he was one of the century's most ambitious men. "Cunning," Hayward rightly calls him. Rehearsing for his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan resisted his advisors' efforts to get him to memorize briefing material. (Carter's briefing book, Hayward reports, was a thousand pages long. Reagan's was 71 pages.) During the mock debate he said to his team, "I was about to say, 'There you go again.' I may save it for the debate."
The editors of Reagan, In His Own Hand, the superb collection of radio talks that Reagan composed during his wilderness years of 1975-79, collect the testimony of many eyewitnesses who affirm that he was "constantly writing," in airplanes, in cars, in hotels, at home. He was also reading, especially National Review (he was a charter subscriber), Commentary, and other journals of public opinion. He would appoint Jeane Kirkpatrick, for example, and many other scholars to his Administration on the basis of articles by them that he had read. And still, the Left and many on the Right persisted in underestimating his mind and political savvy. Reagan played to their weakness, as Hayward explains. "No one in Establishment politics could quite believe Reagan when he repeatedly said in various forms, 'I say there are simple answers to many of our problems—simple but hard.' 'It's the complicated answer that's easy,' Reagan liked to say, 'because it avoids facing the hard moral issues.'"
Hayward is the first to put Reagan's defense of "simple answers" into a larger moral and political framework, showing why Reagan so offended the liberal sensibility. "The premise of the administrative state is that our public problems are complicated," Hayward writes, "with 'no easy answers,' whose remedy requires sophisticated legislation and extensive bureaucratic management." But "the creed of the administrative state makes the idea of citizen self-government seem quaint or obsolete," and so Reagan tried constantly to remind Americans that the alternative to self-government on the basis of common sense and general moral principles was the divine right of kings, even if those kings were now called experts.
The Age of Reagan is very good on many levels. Hayward is capable of fine set-pieces, painting the general scene of the mid-'60s or early 1970s. He appreciates the inside baseball of political campaigns, without forgetting the larger issues in play. He has a marvelous eye for the pretensions of social scientists, who figured largely in the twin disasters of Vietnam and the Great Society. Indeed, one of the book's strengths is his vindication of the conservative insight that the same kind of hubris lay behind both the War on Poverty and the Whiz Kids' conduct of the Vietnam War. Sargent Shriver, in charge of the War on Poverty, predicted in 1966 that poverty would be wiped out in ten years. An assistant secretary of defense, at about the same time, beamed that "'the new knowledge can literally solve any problem.'" What Hayward calls the "active expert management" of the Pentagon's civilian experts, fresh from Harvard Business School, led to the fiasco of graduated response, and he recounts in infuriating detail the heartless and mindless leadership of Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara. The apostles of arms control, another social science fad, come in for the same withering scrutiny. Nor does Hayward spare the amoral "realists" in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, chief among them Henry Kissinger. Though he rightly objects to Kissinger's "de-moralization" of American foreign policy, Hayward seems to have no place left for Reagan except on the side of the foreign-policy "idealists," surely an odd set of bedfellows for the perceptive critic of Carter's naïve human-rights policies.
The Age of Reagan is at its best when Hayward fixes his gaze on the battle of political ideas that raged during the long liberal crack-up. He limns the differences between what he calls "reform liberalism" and "radical leftism." The former were the mainstream liberals of the New Deal and Great Society, the latter the "kooks and sociologists (LBJ's term) of the New Left who despised the liberals as capitalist dupes and running dogs. Hayward pays close attention to the parallel developments within the civil rights movement, especially the emergence of Black Power. Above all, he shows why mainstream liberalism crumbled so easily under these assaults, having cut itself off from mainstream political opinion as the result of its own relentless commitment to bureaucracy, expertness, and moral progressivism. The Age of Reagan is meant to answer and supplant Schlesinger's The Age of Roosevelt. In fact, the context suggests that Hayward regards Reagan as the greater figure and perhaps, in time, as the more influential president. But again, the book's tight focus on the events of 1964-1980 allows Hayward to sidestep direct comparisons between Roosevelt and Reagan. Though he traces some links between the New Deal and the Great Society, Hayward emphasizes their differences. The New Deal was more interested in civil engineering, the Great Society in social engineering, he claims. Yet how could that distinction account for FDR's National Recovery Administration, not to mention Social Security? Hayward avers that Reagan "brought the Republican Party to the cusp of realignment, the consummation of which did not occur for more than another decade." So Reagan did not achieve what FDR did, a thoroughgoing partisan realignment of the classical type. "Reagan exposed the fractured and increasingly hollow character of what passes for liberalism…, preparing the ground of political debate on which American politics is still being conducted today," Hayward concludes.
Hayward measures the distance we've come from the Great Society with a sly juxtaposition. Campaigning in September 1964, LBJ got up on the roof of his car in Providence, Rhode Island, and gushed: "'And I just want to tell you this: we're in favor of a lot of things and we're against might few.'" That's "as good a single sentence of Great Society liberalism as can be conceived," Hayward rightly observes. Thirty-two years later, another Democratic President told Congress, "'The era of big government is over.'" That it was Bill Clinton who made this startling announcement might be regarded as doubly significant, a confirmation of how much LBJ's own party had matured. Then again, Clinton's career might cast doubt on the health or even the existence of the Republican realignment that Hayward thinks Reagan helped to accomplish.
Reagan himself had a deliberately ambiguous relation to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Reagan liked to associate himself with Roosevelt, invoking FDR's name (and his 1932 promise of a 25 percent cut in the budget) even in his acceptance speech at the G.O.P. Convention in 1980. Yet Reagan repudiated FDR's programs and legacy, occasionally remarking (to the consternation of journalists) that "the basis of the New Deal was fascism." Hayward notes the ambiguity but does not clarify it, alas. It is odd that the author of a book implicitly comparing the two Presidents does not take more of a stand on Roosevelt's significance. Perhaps Hayward is reserving the subject for his second volume, which will be devoted to Reagan's presidency. In the meantime, The Age of Reagan is the best single-volume account of Reagan's rise and liberalism's fall. This superb book deserves and undoubtedly will get a wide readership.
Andrew Busch's Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom begins where Hayward's history leaves off. Although aimed primarily at an academic audience, it is accessible to general readers who will find in it a high-minded defense of the goals and achievements of the Reagan Administration. These need a defense, particularly against the low blows and sucker punches that liberal academics love to throw. Busch, a professor of political science at the University of Denver, does an excellent job of warding off these blows and does some (he could do more) counterpunching of his own. He describes the 1980s as "a decade not of greed but of liberty," and argues persuasively that the Reagan presidency should be judged, in the first place, by its own standard, the enhancement of American freedom. For its intelligent and scrappy defense of Reagan's economic, social, and defense policies, Busch's volume wins a place on the short shelf of indispensable books about the Reagan years—alongside Reagan's own speeches and the new collection of his radio addresses; the excellent first-person accounts of Edwin Meese, Martin Anderson, and George Schultz; and the illuminating studies by such as William Muir, Richard McKenzie, and Robert Bartley.
What distinguishes Busch's work, however, is its attention to Reaganism as "a new public philosophy." By the late 1970s, American liberalism had retreated into its own shell, arguing either that ideology was obsolete or that liberalism was the ideology to end all ideologies. In either case, liberalism could not be challenged on principle. Busch calls the resulting form of public policy and political debate "incrementalism," by which he means that because liberalism's ends could not be challenged, all that remained of political life was a stale debate about means and implementation—"a series of incremental choices framed within the context of 'compassion' and 'problem solving.'" This incrementalism, he points out shrewdly, "led Americans into a government far larger and more powerful than anything they would willingly have chosen had they been shown it in its entirety in 1932." Worse still, incrementalism appeared to be an automatic or ineluctable process, "for which there seemed to be no fixed point of responsibility." In short, "a fundamental transformation in the nature and ends of American government had taken place," without a serious debate and "without reference to the first principles of American politics."
Reagan insisted that these principles still mattered and forced liberalism to engage in an open debate about ends, not simply means. Reaganism, explains Busch, stood for a return to "reflection and choice" in American politics; a recovery, in theory and practice, of self-government. Busch's account of the epic stakes for which the Reagan Administration fought is excellent. He shows, in effect, that there was a domestic Cold War raging that was more important in some respects than the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Most of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom is devoted to the evaluation and defense of the Administration's policies in light of its return or attempted return to "the first principles of American politics." Busch downplays some of the divisions within the Administration on what those principles were, and he doesn't subject Reagan's own views of them to too much scrutiny. (Reagan's favorite shorthand for the founders' aspirations—"the ultimate in individual liberty compatible with an ordered society"—is actually more Wilsonian than Jeffersonian.) Federalism was "the constitutional lodestar" of the Administration, declares Busch, but what did this imply about the relation of states' rights to individual rights? Reagan spoke often of "the sovereign states," a formulation that Lincoln and most other Republican presidents would have rejected. The Administration's attempted return to the doctrine of enumerated powers was "a clear failure," Busch writes, though he lauds the effort to recover "the metaphor of enumerated powers." Perhaps the Reaganites would have gotten further if they had argued less about federalism and more about separation of powers and the nature of individual rights, two principles that cut closer to the bone of the modern liberal state.
Nonetheless, Busch's volume offers a bracing defense of Reagan's statesmanship—against conservative as well as liberal critics. For that, and for his helpful diagnosis of contemporary liberalism, he deserves our thanks. Taken together, these three new books remind us movingly of how much Ronald Reagan deserves our thanks.