One More Book Offers Memories of the Gipper

Posted September 4, 2009 at 5:43pm

It seems there have been a plethora of books, articles and commentary on President Ronald Reagan’s life and legacy throughout the past year. As conservatives ceded the White House to liberals, they clung steadfastly to memories of their great hero, the movie-star-turned-president who continues to be held up as a great light for the GOP.

Though Reagan isn’t around to defend himself against criticisms of Reaganomics as the country continues to grapple with the economic crisis, biographers and former staffers have sought to shed light on the 40th president and to dispel rumors about his intellect and leadership skills.

In his new book, “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989,— Steven Hayward continues in the task of illuminating the Reagan presidency. He meticulously details Reagan’s actual role in the country’s affairs and attempts to dispel some of the more negative takes on the former president.

Reagan’s life story — small-town boy goes to Hollywood, becomes a famous actor and grows up to be president — is the stuff movies are made of. His unique path was a departure from those who came before him but, according to Hayward, could also have been why his critics viewed him with disdain.

“He had such a strange background for a president,— Hayward said in an interview, referring to Reagan’s years in Hollywood. “He didn’t really rise up through establishment channels.—

Despite Reagan’s congenial public persona, he was often criticized for being a less-than-brilliant and even lazy president, “a creature of his handlers,— Hayward said. He is not the first to come to the 40th president’s defense. In their book, “Reagan’s Secret War,— which was released in June, Martin and Annelise Anderson used their former boss’s own speeches and writings to illustrate his leadership and intelligence. (Hayward quotes Martin Anderson frequently in his own book.)

According to Hayward, Reagan was likely aware of what the media and political skeptics said about him, but he also had his reasons for keeping his smarts under wraps.

“He was more intellectually curious than he let on,— Hayward said. “He learned it was better to be underestimated than to be brainy … there’s an advantage to not being seen as the smartest guy in the room.—

It was important to Reagan that he appeal to the common man and that the American people were able to relate to him. But, as Hayward discusses, he also had strong convictions that were not easily compromised.

In the 639-page tome, which is the second in a two-volume biography, Hayward covers many of the highlights of Reagan’s presidency, including the economic crisis the country faced during the early 1980s and, of course, Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War.

Hayward addresses the economic climate at the beginning of Reagan’s first term early on in the book. His explanation of the situation, and of the theories being discussed at the time, is thorough and to the point, allowing even those readers who do not have a firm grasp on economics to follow the narrative. It does, however, feel a bit like the approach Reagan himself took to domestic and foreign issues. The former president knew he had to address the economy before he could focus on the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union, and Hayward seemed to know he also needed to deal with that aspect before moving into foreign affairs.

Hayward explains the situation Reagan faced in this way: “While circumstances required that he move at light speed on the economy, the circumstances of foreign policy in 1981 dictated that he move very slowly.—

Although there has been some question recently about the impact of Reaganomics on the country, Hayward said Reagan’s overall place in history is safe.

“It’s unlikely that we’ll go back to pre-Reagan tax rates,— he said. “That part of the legacy is secure.—

Given the scope of the book, there were some elements of the presidency that were left out. Hayward said he did not focus on famous ceremonial speeches Reagan made because, while important, they have already been widely covered. He also left out the savings and loan crisis, which he now says he would have liked to include.

“It’s kind of boring except in the context of what has happened since,— he said, referring to the current economic situation.

Of course, the economy does come up in the book, but the focus shifts to foreign policy issues, the political climate in Washington at the time, Reagan’s responses to various crises with which he was faced and the impact the Reagan revolution had on the country. In his final chapter, Hayward focuses particularly on this last point — the final days of the Soviet Union, the lasting effect Reagan had and the appreciation he earned even among liberals and those who questioned whether there had actually been a Reagan revolution.

Hayward’s writing is crisp and to the point, maintaining a readable pace for the lengthy work. Filled with important facts and interesting anecdotes, the book is an illuminating read for anyone interested in American history. But considering the depth of the book and the commitment it requires, those with a serious interest in the Reagan years would likely enjoy it most.