Books and Reviews: A Uniter, Not a Decider

July 1, 2007 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: NeoconservatismIran-Contra AffairHeads Of State

Books and Reviews: A Uniter, Not a Decider

Mini Teaser: Jacob Heilbrunn analyzes a spate of recent Reagan biographies, which demonstrate that neither George W. Bush nor any of the presidential candidates can lay claim to Reagan's unique legacy.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

Jules Tygiel, Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006), 392 pp., $14.95.

Thomas W. Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 302 pp., $29.50.

Paul Kengor, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (Los Angeles: Regan Books, 2006), 412 pp., $29.95.

John Patrick Diggins, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History (New York: Norton, 2007), 493 pp., $27.95.

Ever since Ronald Reagan left the White House, his reputation has been on the upswing. Now that George W. Bush is floundering and the GOP has forfeited control of Congress, Reagan's legacy looms even larger. Only by returning to the conservative principles that Reagan espoused, his admirers suggest, can the GOP hope to regain its once solid electoral footing.

At the 2007 Conservative Political Action Committee meeting, Rudolph Giuliani referred to Reagan no less than a dozen times to present himself as the Gipper's true heir. John McCain also claimed Reagan's mantle, praising him as "an apostle of freedom." And at the annual Frontiers of Freedom Ronald Reagan Gala, Mitt Romney invoked Reagan's legacy, pointing to his successful prosecution of the Cold War as a model for the War on Terror and citing his observation that, "I have seen four wars during my lifetime and none of them began because America was too strong."

Beneath the paeans to Reagan, however, lies a potentially divisive battle over what he actually represented. Depending on which conservative camp you listen to, Reagan was either a bold crusader who championed the creation of democracies around the world or a cautious pragmatist who would have viewed George W. Bush with horror. The first camp consists of neoconservatives who advocate active American involvement in democratizing the Middle East, citing the Reagan legacy of confronting communism and promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. In their view, Reagan would have applauded U.S. engagement in Iraq. According to Norman Podhoretz, for instance, Bush has demonstrated that he is "a fiery follower of Ronald Reagan."

But to traditional, realist conservatives, the neoconservative appropriation of the Reagan legacy is heresy. This camp holds that Reagan, unlike the neoconservatives, was always reluctant to use force abroad. In America Alone, Stefan Halper, who served in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and Jonathan Clarke, a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, argue that "the neoconservative assertion of a line of descent from Reagan's foreign policy is far-fetched." They maintain that Reagan did not conduct an open-ended campaign for democracy and that he sought to avoid the direct use of U.S. force in any conflict, from Central America to Afghanistan. The Reagan Doctrine, in other words, wasn't an open-ended invitation to perpetual warfare around the globe, but a shrewd assessment that relying on surrogates could achieve American aims more effectively than direct intervention and that direct negotiations with adversaries could sometimes pay big dividends. Nor does the conservative critique of Bush end here. Libertarian conservatives, such as the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner, complain that Bush has strayed from the anti-big-government campaign Reagan waged. Bush, by contrast, has allegedly been bedazzled by the program of "national greatness" espoused by William Kristol and David Brooks. A big spender, he has repudiated the Goldwater-Reagan tradition and become an advocate of big government-even, in the words of economist Bruce Bartlett, an "impostor" and "pretend conservative."

To complicate matters further, this line of critique has been picked up and modified by the Left. During his presidency, liberals routinely excoriated Reagan. He was either derided as an "amiable dunce" or an unamiable one whose bellicosity might well have triggered a nuclear cataclysm. Today, however, Reagan has become a useful club with which to bash Bush. Former New York Times columnist Russell Baker recently lauded Reagan as a wise leader in The New York Review of Books. And Time magazine literally went weepy, depicting Reagan with a tear rolling down his cheek as he contemplates the desolate condition of his once-proud conservative movement. The message is clear: Reagan was a sensible old fellow who had nothing in common with the current generation of conservatives.

So who's the authentic Reagan? The crusader of neoconservative lore? A cautious pragmatist? Or was he something else entirely? A quartet of new books offers an excellent opportunity to reassess him. Though Jules Tygiel, Thomas W. Evans, Paul Kengor and John Patrick Diggins come to different conclusions about Reagan's presidency, they share some things in common: Each stresses the importance of his early life, and each suggests that Reagan created and choreographed a role for himself as a leading actor on the world stage long before he actually became president. Far from being someone who can be blindly emulated, Reagan emerges as a unique figure who grafted the optimistic spirit of the New Deal onto conservative principles, thereby creating a political hybrid that probably cannot be duplicated.

Unlike his older brother Neil, Ronald had an ambitious streak from the outset. In late spring 1922, the eleven-year-old Reagan came across a novel written by Harold Bell Wright, an author affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, which Reagan and his pious mother had joined. The book was called That Printer of Udell's: A Story of the Midwest. It told the story of Dick Falkner, a boy who rose from poverty and the disgrace of an alcoholic father to something greater-a life of public service and widespread veneration. Blessed with good looks, charm and eloquence, he marries the girl of his dreams, helps the poor and wins election to Congress. After finishing the book, Reagan told his mother, "I want to be like that man."

As Jules Tygiel observes in his marvelous Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism, Reagan had "discovered a parable that would uncannily presage his own rise." In recounting Reagan's rise, Tygiel, who is a history professor at San Francisco State, provides numerous insights into Reagan. His book, which he notes at the outset is not based on original research, is filled with penetrating observations. It would be hard to think of a more lucid and cogent discussion of Reagan.

Tygiel notes that, like his youthful hero Falkner, Reagan was the son of an alcoholic father whom he would find one winter evening lying drunk on the front porch of their home in Dixon, Illinois. Reagan would gravitate toward his mother Nelle, a frustrated actress who enjoyed dancing and performing, often giving readings at church. But his father's lack of prejudice also left a deep impression on him: He barred both Neil and Ronald from attending the racist movie Birth of a Nation and refused to stay at a hotel that barred Jews.

Reagan found his greatest sense of fulfillment by working as a lifeguard at Lowell Park, starting at age 16, for six years, rescuing 77 swimmers. It was, you might say, his first starring role and one with a captive audience. "You know why I had such fun at it?" he later said. "Because I was the only one up there on the guard stand. It was like a stage. Everyone had to look up at me." Again and again, Reagan would crave that feeling.

At Eureka College, where he participated as a freshman in a 1928 student strike that made national headlines and ousted the puritanical school president Bert Wilson, he sought to stand out as well. Neglecting his coursework and relying on his photographic memory to slide by, Reagan participated in a dizzying array of extracurricular activities, including Alpha Epsilon Sigma, the dramatic club. Upon graduation, Reagan got his big break when he landed a job as a radio sports announcer. The Great Depression was at its peak, but radio was taking off, and Reagan earned a handsome $100 a week. He polished his speaking skills by recreating baseball games on air-in a pinch, out of thin air-and quickly became a celebrity in the Midwest.

But Reagan wanted more. He boldly chucked his radio career to head for Hollywood in 1937 on the basis of a Warner Brothers contract that could be terminated after a mere three-month probationary period. Reagan, who was a staunch admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, fit right in at Warner Brothers. According to Tygiel, "Strong supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Harry and Jack Warner drew many of their movie plots from the newspaper headlines, often focusing on social issues like urban and rural poverty." Alas, Reagan never broke beyond the B-movie genre; he lacked, or was too lazy to develop, the acting skills needed to hit the big time.

Where Reagan did assume a very prominent role was in Hollywood politics. Here he shone. Tygiel notes that "Reagan always sought out people to discuss world affairs, sports, or whatever topic had recently caught his fancy. He remained a dedicated reader, absorbing information from books, magazines, and several daily newspapers. He always had a fund of information, facts and statistics at his fingertips." Reagan was moving from naive, New Deal liberal to Harry S. Truman, Cold War liberal. It was his first political metamorphosis.

Essay Types: Book Review