Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order - 1964-1980

The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order is one of the more unusual history books that I've read in my time. The first of two giant volumes, the book follows the general history of the United States from 1964-1980. The strange part of this focus is how Ronald Reagan, the American president from 1980-1988, is only part of this sprawling epic as a sort of supporting actor who shows up now and again to remind you that he exists.

Reagan and the 1964-1980 Time Period

For a book that is supposed to be about Reagan, the author spends maybe 1/5th of the book actually talking about the man. Stephen Hayward explains that, without this knowledge of the events that came before, one can't truly understand and appreciate Reagan's two terms in office. As I have yet to start the second volume (I need a break!), I can't yet attest to the validity of this approach. But having just finished the first volume I can say that I still doubt that this was a good move. Fact of the matter is that Reagan, while having a modicum of influence every now and then during this time period, really did not matter much. And insisting on covering every event in the 16 years before his presidency came off as excessive and seemingly irrelevant. I found it akin to the idea of starting a book about World War II by reading a prequel volume about World War I. Certainly, the first war and the Treaty of Versailles caused the other, but can't we just summarize that instead of having to read 800+ pages to get to what you are really reading the books for?

However, for a book that is only occasionally about Reagan, I found it extremely engrossing. Stephen Hayward writes in a way that makes the book a page-turner, and that is exceedingly rare for a bulky historical door-stopper. He does an excellent job of pulling you into the crises of the times, from the riots of the Civil Rights era to the oil emergency during Carter's administration. On top of that, his grasp and explanation of the United States' foreign policy and the maneuverings of the Cold War is top notch; every move that the United States made during that time is assessed along with its effects on its allies and enemies. The only parts of the book which I found to be slower/less interesting were the sections where Hayward describes the various primaries and campaigns for President as they occurred. It was hard for me to get past all the painfully cutthroat and cynical politicking without getting very irritated; I often found myself wishing that these sections would end so that I could get to the more interesting domestic and world events and their effects on the United States.

Holy Bias Alert

But, more than anything, what made the book exciting, unbelievable, and jaw-dropping to read was the author's clear bias in favor of the Republican side of things. For the record, I've nothing against biases in biographies or histories; it is truly impossible to avoid getting attached to your subject, so to be unbiased is often the rarer occurrence. But damn... I don't think I've ever seen a bias like this.

It is difficult to explain, but essentially Hayward let his own impressions of events color the way they are presented in the book. At its worst, I was beginning to feel like I was reading an alternate history of America as presented in some sort of odd parallel universe. Some examples:

  • Hayward spends a paragraph or so about what made the Civil Rights Act a good thing, then spends at least thirty pages explaining how it was the worst thing to ever happen to America and how we are still trying to recover from it today.
  • Every single Democratic president he spends time on comes off as incompetent, opportunistic, vain, and often actively working against the interests of the United States. By contrast, Nixon and Ford come off as well-meaning and comparatively honorable and decent men. Considering that everything I've learned previous to this suggests that Nixon and Ford were both pretty awful presidents, I was understandably surprised.
  • He spends a paragraph on how the Three Mile Island incident was terrible, but then pages on how it really wasn't that bad and that we always blow it completely out of proportion.

Martin Luther King Jr. is depicted as vacillating and fairly unimportant. Lyndon Johnson in particular is portrayed as the worst president ever to hold the office (Carter being the second worst). I found this to be very odd, especially when, after a hundred or so pages of explaining how Lyndon Johnson's time as president was one awful, horrendous crisis after another, Hayward then explains that the U.S. economy was actually pretty good during LBJ's terms of office.

Lastly, I noticed that Hayward had a habit of focusing on the actions and influences of (almost always leftist) extremists in a fashion that made it seem like they were the main voice of the people when they were actually less than 5% of the public. Hayward points this out himself a couple times in the book and then goes on to seemingly write exclusively of what these extremists did in a way that makes it seem like they were the central catalyst of events, which is almost certainly incorrect. But this focus on the crazies and the crises helped to make the book an incredible page turner, so there's that at least.


All in all, I came pretty quickly to the conclusion that pretty much every part of the history in this book had to come with a grain of salt. It was certainly eye-opening and I'm sure that most of it is historically correct, but the fact that he would generally only present one side of things made it feel like I was being brainwashed at times. For example, I can't remember a single instance where he pointed out something good that LBJ had done, and he also never explained any beneficial motivations to the man; Hayward always would point out how the decision to intervene in Vietnam or create a government agency to fight poverty was a cynical and cold-hearted bid for votes. And I refuse to believe that. While that factor is always present in any decision the president makes, that is hardly the only system by which the president makes his choices.

Anyways, I did really enjoy reading this book as an entertaining, if painfully biased, history of the United States from 1964-1980. Reagan himself was always interesting when he showed up, but that was fairly rare until near the end of the book. I will be interested to see how Reagan is depicted during his years in office; up to this point, Hayward has portrayed Reagan as a golden, kindhearted crusader of the people and the embodiment of American optimism. It will be intriguing to see if Hayward will be levelheaded and fair in pointing out Reagan's mistakes when he was in office (Iran-Contra Affair, I'm looking at you!).

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