The Reagan Centennial: Hayward, Morris, and Reagan political biography

Some time ago, my friend Orrin Judd posted an insightful review of Edmund Morris’s widely panned “biography” of Ronald Reagan, the crux of which was as follows:

Edmund Morris was hired to be Reagan’s semi-official biographer on the strength of his Teddy Roosevelt biography, which truly is a great book. But there is one vital fact that noone realized at the time, and which still seems to elude critics and commentators; the book ends before it gets to the presidential years. We all just assumed: major political figure as topic + great book = ability (and or desire) to write a great political biography. But there is really no evidence that Morris understands, nor is curious about, the actual mechanics of politics and the impact of political ideas. In retrospect, it should have been seen as troubling that he was willing to set aside the Roosevelt story just as he got to what most biographers would consider the crux of the tale.

So we have here a terrific author, but foreign born and apparently uninterested in politics, trying to take on a man who transformed the political world. In order to begin to understand what had happened, Morris would have had to immerse himself, not just in personal interviews and old yearbooks and the like, but in research on the Cold War on American anti-Communism on the growth of the New Deal and the Great Society on Goldwater and Bill Buckley and so on. [Instead], he figured out a way to get around the heavy lifting. All the dodges and devices that he trots out are simply there to disguise the fact that he didn’t feel like learning what he needed to in order to produce a genuine political biography. Instead, he gives us a book that is almost entirely personal.

A great deal of scholarship in recent years has filled in many of the gaps left by Morris’s inadequate try at political biography, some of it by liberal revisionists who have grudgingly abandoned the longtime meme that Reagan was merely a substance-free actor filling a role (simply an untenable proposition these days, given the public availability of Reagan’s copious letters and diaries) but try to position Reagan as either a champion of some of their pet causes (really!) or something of a failure at remaking the liberal order (to borrow from another formulation).

Enter Steven F. Hayward, whose two tomes on Ronald Reagan taken together represent the best political biography of the great conservative leader.

When I learned that Hayward, spurred by Morris’s decision not even really to attempt a political biography of Reagan, would take on the HUGE project for himself, I was elated. Hayward is well-trained in American political thought, is a conservative intellectual who was never captured by the academy (perhaps that almost goes without saying of most conservative intellectuals), and is a fine writer whose work can be appreciated by both scholars and a general audience. If anyone could do the project justice, it would be Hayward.

Finally released in 2001, the first volume, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, was a page turner for me, for the reasons elaborated previously (Hayward’s writing and insight never disappoint) but also because this was a hefty, intellectual, conservative interpretation of Ronald Reagan’s early political life at a time when assessments were still dominated by sometimes venomous and frequently lightweight accounts from liberal partisans and media (to the extent there’s a distinction). In many ways, Hayward’s first volume set the tone for so much of the conservative interpretation of Reagan that was to emerge in subsequent years (and also set the bar high for liberal revisionists to come — such as Sean Wilentz, whose 2008 appropriation of Hayward’s book title speaks loudly — as it became increasingly clear that the nasty liberal interpretation of the lucky substance-free actor filling a role had been demolished by… reality!).

It also left many of us wanting for more. Namely, the second volume. For quite a long time.

Hayward’s second volume, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989, was finally released in August 2009 in hardcover form. Even though it had been on my must-read list for 8 years, I only finally got around to finishing the thing on my Kindle yesterday — ironically, one day after Reagan would have turned one hundred.

I’m happy to report that the wait was worth it — and the second volume is somewhat stronger than the first, precisely because of the wait: With the release of so much primary Reagan material since 2001 (especially in the form of letters and diaries), Hayward’s second tome is able to delve much deeper into the mind of Reagan — although, as Hayward demonstrates in many spots, so much of the private Reagan confirms our understanding of the public, political Reagan (some of it deepens and clarifies our understanding, of course). What is now definitively proven is that the old, substance-free interpretations of Reagan are untenable. He wasn’t just an actor who was the figurehead for American conservative political ascendance — he led and informed the movement, eventually at the highest level.

To return briefly to our contrast between Hayward’s political biography and Morris’s much less informative personal biography, I’d like to close with an excerpt from the second volume to frame its purpose in Hayward’s words:

I BEGAN THIS two-volume project more than ten years ago in the belief that Edmund Morris’s then-forthcoming official biography would be too narrow in scope, and more broadly that Reagan would fare poorly at the hands of what John Patrick Diggins calls the “media-academic complex.” The full catalogue of dismissive judgments of Reagan during his political career could fill a large encyclopedia. Michael Kinsley, an astute observer of politics, is typical of established liberal opinion with this judgment of Reagan from 1986: “It seemed to us, the carping critics, that this man was not terribly bright, not terribly thoughtful or well informed, not terribly honest, and in most other ways not up to the most important job in the world.” Or this, from the Nation: “Those without a sense of irony about American politics may find it hard to believe that a man of such limited vision, mediocre intellect, and narrow comprehension can cut a figure of world-historical importance.”

Although Reagan left office in 1989 with his popularity with the American people intact, it was the near-universal opinion of the commentariat that the eventual verdict of history on his governance would be negative, perhaps harshly so. Calvin Coolidge left office with high popularity too but, after two generations of rough handling by academic historians, became a president of low regard. Reagan was surely going to be “Coolidgized.” An American Heritage magazine survey of journalists and historians taken around the time Reagan left office ranked him as the second most overrated president, behind, surprisingly, John F. Kennedy.

[snip]

What follows is an integrated, analytical narrative, covering the whole of the Reagan presidency. Even at this length, I have had to be selective and often too concise, leaving out not only valuable detail but also entire episodes. (The long agony of the savings and loan disaster is omitted, for example, in part because it was a diffuse and bipartisan fiasco.) Above all, this is intended to be a study in statesmanship—reflecting in narrative form on some permanent questions that we are still working out in our current political scene. Although I have—and have always had—strong pro-Reagan sympathies, this narrative does not shrink from noting his weaknesses or from strongly criticizing his mistakes and errors, both large and small. Unlike the criticisms of media know-it-alls or ideological opponents, however, the criticisms here are intended to illuminate the deeper, permanent problems of politics and policy. The first volume of The Age of Reagan attempted to explain the deeper sources of the inevitability of Reagan’s election in 1980. The present chronicle of the ups and downs of his presidency attempts to explain Reagan’s durability and his legacy for politics today.

A word about the pace of the book: it is slightly lopsided. The early chapters linger in great detail on the first year of the Reagan presidency, which was its most important year not only because it was the most eventful but also because it laid down the baseline for more than two decades of subsequent political argument between left and right. That year was a genuine turning point, and as such, it deserves treatment in depth. It is also necessary to tell this part of the Reagan story in its fullness, as it is a case study in the difficulty of plotting a genuine change in the course of the nation’s affairs.

Those with an interest in American politics and history — and certainly conservatives — should treat themselves to these two volumes. They are worthy investments.