Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution - 1980-1989

The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution is the second volume of the two part biography of President Reagan by Stephen Hayward. In it, we see Ronald Reagan as president from 1980-1989, his mistakes, failures, successes and victories.

Finally, We See the Man

One of my main criticisms of the first volume of The Age of Reagan was the fact that Reagan himself rarely showed up in his own biography; instead, the book focused on the presidencies and time period before Reagan, from 1964-1980. Happily, this volume focuses on nothing but Reagan, and in it I was able to get a great sense of who Reagan was as an individual, what made him tick, and what inspired him to make his policies while America's leader.

I am convinced that, personality wise, Ronald Reagan was one of the best presidents we've ever had. Stephen Hayward takes us on a compelling journey through Reagan's presidency, focusing particularly on Reagan's own personal philosophy and stalwart belief in the goodness of the United States and what it stands for. For Reagan believed utterly that the United States was a grand country capable of doing anything it set its mind to. All of his heart aligned itself behind the inherent love of liberty and freedom that every man and woman possesses. And, in a step that many presidents have failed to make, Reagan made absolutely sure that everyone knew this. There is a reason that Reagan was dubbed The Great Communicator; in just about every speech he gave, you could feel powerfully his faith in America as special, able to meet any difficulty or crisis that it ran into to.

What made this quality so powerful, and the reason why Reagan is so loved today, is that this unbridled optimism came when it was needed most. For America's previous three presidents (Carter, Ford, Nixon) were ones who gave America plenty of reason to doubt itself, its system of government, and its ability to defeat the Soviet Union. Carter spoke of America as being in a "malaise" and destined to become a lesser power, Ford failed to make much of an impact on the people, and Nixon's Watergate scandal brought with it a populace with far less faith in the goodness of America and its bureaucracy. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union appeared to be at its strongest. The U.S. military and economy appeared weak from Vietnam and oncoming recession respectively. It is in this backdrop that Reagan stepped in and restored people's faith and optimism in the future, when all looked at its bleakest.

The President

As mentioned in my review of the previous volume, Stephen Hayward has a strong bias toward Reagan that occasionally obscures the truth and tells the history from one perspective. By Hayward's measure, Reagan was unsurpassed in domestic and foreign policy, the greatest president we've ever had. However, I did not come to this conclusion. The fact of the matter is that, domestically, Hayward is unable to hide the fact that Reagan was stymied at near every turn. Going into office with the goal of shrinking the government, the size of government grew nonetheless. Reagan's economic policy of instituting supply-side economics (the belief that tax cuts for the wealthy = wealth for everyone) achieved short-term victory then a quick overturning. Although I'm sure there is one out there, having just finished the book I can't think of a single domestic policy that Reagan managed to implement successfully.

On a foreign policy level, Reagan was much more successful, effectively making the Soviet Union repeatedly freak out. One of my favorite stories was of Reagan's command to have every submarine in the U.S. navy stealthily navigate near Russian ships so that they could ping their radar all at the same time (scaring Russia shitless and illustrating to them the technological advantage had by the United States at sea). Another was of Reagan's order to have one of his secretaries collect every Soviet joke he could get his hands on so that Reagan could turn around and use them on the Russian leaders when he met them at summits. Funny moments aside, Reagan's greatest achievement in foreign policy was in showing America's strength to the Soviets instead of embracing his predecessors' philosophy (of compromising and standing down in the naïve hope that the Soviets would reciprocate). On top of this, Reagan's idea of SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative, more popularly known as Star Wars, that would have been an anti-missile shield) served to scare the Soviets more than anything, contributing greatly to their willingness to grudgingly back down where previously they would have held their ground in diplomatic initiatives.


In the end I really enjoyed reading this book, though it sure was a long haul. Reagan was definitely one of the more interesting presidents to read about; his indefatigable optimism and willingness to communicate as clearly to the American people as he could made him a very effective and loved president. Stephen Hayward makes the narrative exciting and easy to follow; his only downfall was his painful bias. Some examples include: Hayward's belief that the president should be able to break the law whenever he deems it necessary (argued in order to excuse Reagan from any criticism associated with the Iran-Contra scandal), the minimal time spent on the Chernobyl incident (maybe 2 pages of ~650) despite Hayward's own admission that Chernobyl was a significant reason in the Soviet Union's decline (he did not spend much time on this because he is transparently pro-nuclear energy), and Hayward's assumption that reading the Constitution literally (aka: conservative originalism) is the only valid way to institute justice in the American legal system (see my review of The Nine for an explanation of why this is kind of silly) without even addressing or countering alternative points of view.

Thus, while I did very much enjoy this book, I would point out to any potential future reader that you need to take what Hayward says with a grain of salt. He covers the Reagan presidency with remarkable detail, but does so from the perspective that you are a staunch Republican, often choosing not to address other points of view. But, nonetheless, I would recommend The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution. Reagan was truly one of the more inspiring presidents that America has had, and he was a key factor in the Soviet Union's downfall. Just be prepared to raise an eyebrow and look up some of the things Hayward goes on about from time to time.

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