ore than 25 years after he last sat in the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan still towers over his party like a giant, one-man Mount Rushmore. In next year’s presidential election, half the voters will be too young ever to have cast a ballot for him. The 18-year-olds who cast their first ballot for Reagan in 1984 will all turn 50 in 2016. To gauge by the headlines, though, his is still the only endorsement that matters: “Ted Cruz Is No Ronald Reagan” (Slate); “Marco Rubio’s Reagan Moment” (the Hill); “How Is Scott Walker Like Reagan? He’ll Tell You” (New York Times); “Could Rand Paul Be Following in Reagan’s footsteps?” (CNN); “Is Huckabee the Next Reagan?” (CNN).
Partly this is a tribute to the 40th president’s historical reputation, which has steadily grown over time. Reagan is increasingly seen as one of the greats, and the dueling candidates for his party’s presidential nomination want to be associated with him. The same was true of FDR, after a fashion. (At an equal remove from 1944, Jimmy Carter kicked off his 1976 campaign at Roosevelt’s “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia.) But it is also a nod to the fact that the substance of Reagan’s legacy is disputed within his party in a way that FDR’s never was. Reagan remains the touchstone for conservative authenticity, even as quarrels over the content of Reaganism endure.
By the time he was elected in 1980, Reagan had gathered under his banner an astonishingly disparate array of supporters. Their common denominator was dissatisfaction with an increasingly McGovernite Democratic Party led by Jimmy Carter—that part goes almost without saying—but also a feeling that their various causes had been neglected or held in contempt by the Republican Party regulars. Reagan was the champion of libertarians and social conservatives, of neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, of entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers, of tax-cutters and budget-balancers. Unsurprisingly, all of them would end up disappointed, some sooner than others. Yet all of them would also end up looking back on his presidency, or at least on particular episodes within that presidency, as better than anything that has come since. All of them as well, it is too often forgotten, would at one time or another think that they had been betrayed by Reagan, though their anger was usually aimed at his entourage. Hence the popular lament of the 1980s: “Let Reagan be Reagan.”
Reagan was not an ordinary politician or an ordinary president. Gifted politicians are forever on the lookout for popular movements—new electoral blocs, ideological tendencies, motivated groups of volunteers and activists—that they can co-opt or corral, even as they stand apart from, and above, those groups. Reagan, by contrast, was a movement leader first and foremost. His appeal as a candidate for the presidency had surprisingly little to do with his two terms as governor of California, his only credential as a traditional politician. What mattered was that he stood at the head of what would prove to be the most consequential political movement of the latter half of the 20th century: modern American conservatism.
What, exactly did it mean to “be Reagan?” H.W. Brands’s new biography, Reagan: The Life, is of little use in supplying an answer. The book is shallow where the reader would profit from depth and deep on matters that should be treated shallowly, if at all. In the latter category is the deathless “October surprise” conspiracy theory, to which Brands unaccountably devotes an entire inconclusive chapter. (The theory: Fearing that President Carter might be boosted by a surprise pre-election release of the American hostages in Iran, the Reagan campaign team nefariously opened a back channel to the government in Tehran to forestall their release. Perhaps the chapter’s presence can be explained by the biographer’s having interviewed the Carter aide who assiduously pushed the conspiracy theory, but some research material deserves to end up on the cutting-room floor.) Brands caps this chapter with a too neat conclusion: “In the absence of an October surprise, November was predictable.”
Except Reagan’s victory wasn’t predictable. Only in the last days of the campaign was it clear that Carter would fall short. The break of undecided voters to Reagan came after the two candidates’ final debate, just a week before Election Day. Political aficionados will remember that as the occasion on which President Carter cemented his reputation for haplessness by invoking the authority of his daughter, who had just turned 13: “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry—and the control of nuclear arms.”
The key to Reagan, to what made him a successful movement leader and a successful president, was his alertness to and passion for ideas. He was ideological. This is the part of the story where Brands is shallow. Perhaps because he seems determined not to insult his subject (though condescension sometimes creeps in), Brands is keen to highlight all the ways in which Reagan was more pragmatic than many of his followers. This is the conventional view of things, no doubt: that to call a man a pragmatist is to praise him and to call him ideological is to damn him. But Reagan was an unconventional man, and a conventional biography misses the most telling aspects of his character.
The conventional biographer’s leitmotif is there in the first line: “Reagan remembered three things from childhood: that his father was a drunk, that his mother was a saint, and that his ability to make an audience laugh afforded an antidote to life’s insecurities and embarrassments.” Reagan’s craving for an appreciative audience is the theme Brands weaves throughout the book. No doubt he is correct, but it’s weak sauce. It tells us almost nothing about Reagan, except that we should be unsurprised he ended up in politics. What politician, after all, doesn’t crave the spotlight, the camera, the applause?
The book is shallow where the reader would profit from depth and deep on matters that should be treated shallowly. Brands devotes an entire chapter to a conspiracy theory.
On the other hand, the tenacity with which Reagan would get his teeth into an idea and never let it go made him unlike any other president in our time. And the degree to which some of his core ideas were novelties, representing a radical break with Republican orthodoxy, is lost on Brands. To take one striking example, Reagan might actually have agreed with Amy Carter that nuclear weaponry was the most important issue of the day. His views on nukes were quite possibly unique within his own administration and among world leaders. He hoped to get rid of them. The Strategic Defense Initiative appealed to him because it offered, in theory, a solution to what he saw as the moral horror of nuclear deterrence: that it required the deliberate targeting of millions of civilians in both the United States and the Soviet Union. It is difficult to overstate the eccentricity of his position. He was possibly alone within his own administration in believing nuclear weapons might be abolished. Absent that conviction, he would probably have been happy to do the “pragmatic” thing and bargain away SDI. But he wouldn’t do it. And his stubbornness, borne of conviction, helped push Mikhail Gorbachev toward the reforms that proved fatal to the Soviet empire.
SDI—and the prospective cost of countering it—was far from the sole source of pressure Reagan brought to bear on the Kremlin. Brands is fixated on summitry, on the meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, and Moscow. There’s no denying the high drama of those meetings, but he overvalues their importance and correspondingly undervalues the importance of Reagan’s instinct, ideological to the core, to challenge Moscow across the board, both rhetorically (the “evil empire”) and also on the ground, in places such as Central America and Afghanistan. The CIA’s assistance to the Afghan rebels, an initiative begun under Carter but greatly expanded by Reagan, gets surprisingly little mention in the book.
Brands also discounts the moments of direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s a curious view of the Cold War to hold, as Brands does, that “the overarching story of the Cold War’s European theater was that nothing much happened there.” That is nonsense. When Reagan sought to place medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20s, which came about in early 1983, millions of Germans and Britons marched in the streets.
Brands’s account of Reagan’s tax and budget fights is also curiously deaf to ideological nuance. David Stockman, the budget chief, looms far too large in the story, perhaps because his famous confessions to the Atlantic’s William Greider (and his own later memoir) were so quotable. Stockman is variously and confusingly described by Brands as both a supply-sider and a neoconservative. Stockman was in fact a political chameleon who spent time in almost every ideological camp but ended up as a voice in the wilderness, decrying the abandonment by Reagan of the quest for a balanced budget. Perhaps Reagan’s greatest break with prior Republican orthodoxy was his devotion to tax cuts and economic growth. He may have talked ceaselessly of balanced budgets, but tellingly, whenever something had to give way, it was fiscal rectitude. Reagan especially refused to move toward lower budget deficits by moderating his defense buildup, greatly frustrating not just Stockman but any number of old-guard Republicans. In the greater scheme of things, their frustration was of trivial importance compared with the prize that was eventually won by the buildup—victory in the Cold War. By choosing as he did, Reagan seems to have grasped that it is not just debts that government policy leaves to future generations but also assets.
There’s an organizational upside to an ideological administration: Everyone working for it has his marching orders. Brands quotes Stuart Spencer on Reagan’s affinity for his aide Ed Meese: “If you were sitting in this room and you asked Ed about an issue, he could give you the precise answer that Ronald Reagan would give you. He totally understood Ronald Reagan ideologically, because they’re so much alike ideologically.”
This was true for not only a cabinet member and top adviser such as Meese, but for hundreds of lower-level officials as well. There was a peculiar flavor to the Reagan years in Washington that was owed to the man at the top and has not been seen since. The administration was full of peevish, quarrelsome personalities who leaked like crazy and fought among themselves semi-openly. But here’s the thing: Most of them, most of the time, thought they were advancing the boss’s agenda.
If the upside was creative ferment and what we might now think of as an administration that implemented its policies by crowd-sourcing, the downside was freelancing and privateering. Exhibit A is the Iran-Contra scandal, which cast a pall over the last two years of Reagan’s administration and was actually two scandals. The lesser was Reagan’s decision to violate his own principles and allow a scheme to go forward in which Iran would be supplied with arms and in return (he hoped) Hezbollah would release its American hostages. It was a curious episode not least because the explanation seems to be that Reagan, by most accounts a man who was emotionally distant except with his wife, was personally tormented by the plight of the hostages and their families. The more serious scandal was the decision by a Marine lieutenant colonel seconded to the National Security Council staff to divert profits from the arms sale to the anti-Communist resistance in Nicaragua in contravention of a congressional prohibition. Oliver North, as ideological as Reagan, thought he was cleverly advancing the boss’s agenda.
If there is to be a successor to Reagan, it seems obvious if paradoxical that it will not be a candidate who necessarily takes as his point of departure the particular ideas of Ronald Reagan. Reagan himself was nobody’s successor. (Though the Barry Goldwater campaign launched his political career, many of Reagan’s ideas were unrecognizable to Goldwater by the time he became president.) He had a restless mind, he read a lot and wrote a lot, he was open to new ideas and bereft of deference to many of his party’s traditional views. He went his own way, and as so often happens with successful presidents, the party fell in behind him.
Brands writes clearly if not always gracefully. There are notable clunkers—“[Don] Regan’s recommendation to ignore the deficit carried the administration further across the Rubicon that guarded the Italy of fiscal responsibility from the Gaul of unconditioned tax cuts”—but only a few. And this part of his summation is hard to quarrel with: “Reagan entered office amid a crisis of the public sector, when the liberal status quo was floundering. Reagan tipped the balance back to the right, reviving conservatism as the more credible force in American politics. In foreign affairs, he confirmed America’s world leadership and set the century’s second form of totalitarianism, communism, on the path to extinction.”