A comprehensive look at Reagan presidency

By Claude R. Marx
November 5, 2009

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Do we need yet another book on Ronald Reagan?

Conservatives and liberals have been rather busy the past two decades diagnosing the impact of the former president’s career. Just when one thinks all has been said about the subject out pops another tome.

Some of these have been thought provoking, such as James Mann’s look at Reagan’s efforts in the Cold War (“The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan’’) and Lou and Carl Cannon’s analysis of the impact that the Gipper had on George W. Bush (“Reagan’s Disciple’’).

There is both good and bad news about the most recent book on the 40th president, “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989.’’

First, the positive: It is a comprehensive, though biased, synthesis of almost all the available literature on the Reagan presidency. It will serve as a valuable one-stop reference book for scholars and general interest readers.

The bad news is that Steven F. Hayward’s prose is often turgid, and he gets so bogged down in detail that only the most devoted of readers are apt to finish this book.

Hayward, a scholar at two conservative think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Research Institute) sees his role as trying to rescue Reagan’s legacy from the liberal analyses that dominate academia and journalism. His last book, “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980,’’ laid the groundwork for this assessment of the Reagan presidency.

To make his points, Hayward is at times selective in his use of data. For example, when discussing Reagan’s economic policies he talks about all the groups that benefited but mostly ignores the economic disparity that was also a key result. He is dismissive of academic challengers who criticized Reagan from the left.

A bright spot of the discussion is Hayward’s recounting of the rivalry within the GOP between the supply-siders and those more concerned with the burgeoning budget deficits. He sets the stage with this dramatic setup:

“While the spending-cut/tax cut nexus remained prominent with mainstream Republican economists and among many of Reagan’s top advisers, the hard-core supply-siders rejected this linkage because of its association with Hooverite austerity. This divergence in economic premises set the stage for furious internecine controversy within the new administration.’’

Unfortunately, in this and other sections he breaks up his narrative by going off on tangents, often in the form of lengthy profiles of key players or historical figures.

Also, he sometimes goes to absurd lengths to back up his case for Reagan’s greatness. While Reagan was a game changer who will go down in history as one of the nation’s most consequential presidents, even most of his admirers will concede he wasn’t a first-rate intellect.

At one point, however, Hayward talks about Reagan’s thinking style as similar to Aristotle’s. Such metaphorical stretches don’t help the author’s case.

The late president’s ideological consistency and his accomplishments at home and abroad, which Hayward describes as “the fundamental unity of Reagan’s statesmanship,’’ have given historians and journalists much to work with.

“The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989’’ synthesizes considerable information but its length and predictable ideological conclusions make it less likely that it will be considered one of the standout treatments of the subject.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively about politics and history.

THE AGE OF REAGAN: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989 By Steven F. Hayward

Crown Forum, 768 pp., $35

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