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Shedding light on 40th president

November 1, 2009

Review originally published in The Post and Courier, November 1, 2009.


Reviewer Michael S. Smith II, executive editor of The Ethical Standard
Sunday, November 1, 2009
THE AGE OF REAGAN: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989. By Steven F. Hayward. Crown Forum. 753 pages. $35.

Regarding the complexity and depth of the character of the 40th president, neo-conservative journalist Midge Decter once forecast, “It will, one day, take a truly gifted writer, perhaps a novelist, to solve the puzzle of such a man.”

Twenty years since his presidency ended, few gifted writers other than Steven F. Hayward have come close to piecing that puzzle together.

“The Age of Reagan” is Hayward’s massive second installment in his voluminous effort to illuminate not just the details of his protagonist’s personal life and political career, but also the dynamism of Reagan’s truly exceptional — and at times perhaps prescient — albeit frequently misunderstood wisdom of forethought. For Hayward, “Reagan’s variety of future-oriented optimism rooted in historical attachment has become almost unrecognizable in the age of postmodernism that is openly contemptuous of history and historical experience.

“Indeed,” Hayward continues, “the dominant theme and focus of this narrative is to survey and tie together the massive number of arguments Reagan opened up on nearly every front of American political life.”

In so doing, Hayward brings into focus the brilliance of Reagan’s leadership by highlighting his efforts to steer America’s future onto a path that eventually would expedite the conclusion of the Cold War faster than most analysts imagined possible. An equally, if not more, important component of his manuscript is, of course, Reagan’s struggle to reshape economic philosophies at home in ways that would yield unprecedented levels of prosperity for Americans. An outcome, Hayward argues, realized after his presidency ended.

Hayward painstakingly dissects the economic conundrums of the late 1970s and early ’80s in order to reveal the driving forces therein, with much emphasis placed on the entrepreneurialism inherent in Reagan’s efforts to combat them.

Not to worry: Hayward’s latest is not a policy wonkish dramatization of the machinations behind the so-called “sausage-making” that was the legislative process during the Reagan era. Nor is it an exercise in economic philosophical pontifications. Yes, that process and Hayward’s analyses of the economic environment preceding and during Reagan’s presidency are central elements of the book. Yet in its entirety, this work is instead a gripping analysis of Reagan’s efforts to steward America’s future, while frequently struggling to reshape the values of even his own political party.

When Ronald Reagan entered that office, Hayward explains, “The sense of national crisis,” for many Americans, was quite “palpable.” As former Reagan staff member and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels later remarked, before leaving that office, Reagan turned his presidency into that which “the Kennedy years remain for liberals: the reference point, the breakthrough experience — a conservative Camelot.”

With “The Age of Reagan,” Hayward has achieved an unparalleled feat in what may be the finest account of that experience, an account that cries out for the attention of our current president and his advisers.

Copyright © 1995 – 2009 Evening Post Publishing Co..

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