While vacationing in California this past week, I purchased the recently-released second volume of Steven Hayward's monumental history of Cold War America, entitled The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989. The previous volume, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980, is a powerful analysis of the events following Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential Election, and juxtaposed the decline of progressive liberalism in the '60s and '70s with the simultaneous rise of Ronald Reagan and American conservatism as a political force. The book had a powerful effect on me when I first read it as a freshman at Middlebury College, and I was excited when I learned that Hayward was working on a follow-up. Although eight years have passed and the political landscape has undergone seismic shifts since the first volume's publication, Hayward doesn't miss a beat with The Conservative Counterrevolution, which continues seamlessly from the earlier work's concluding chapter wherein Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential Election. Although his explicit goal is to prompt a reevaluation of Reagan's presidency and its profound effect on the country's politics and culture, Hayward doesn't pander to his audience, nor does he attempt to project today's concerns onto the Reagan era. Instead, he guides his readers through a year-by-year, action-by-action analysis of Reagan's two terms, offering praise and criticism in equal measure. Consequently, a balanced portrait of the man and the times emerges, demonstrating the era's prosperity and revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary) character as well as the contentious atmosphere and the ferocity of the political battles that raged on Capitol Hill.
While the details of Reagan's clashes with Soviet leadership remain the most compelling parts of the story and are given due attention, Hayward takes great care to illustrate the domestic challenges facing the President as well. In addition to the well-known anecdotes about Reaganomics, judicial battles, and Iran-Contra, Hayward provides illuminating analysis of the President's relationships with figures such as Tip O'Neill, Bob Dole, David Stockman, and Alexander Haig. He also offers examples of how Reagan's influence affected the rise of individuals such as John McCain and Bill Clinton. Most importantly, he paints a portrait of how Reagan's presidency changed the nature of political discourse and belief in the United States. For people of my generation, it is hard to believe that many Republicans were against tax cuts and for the expansion of the welfare state as recently as 1979. Hayward does a magnificent job demonstrating how Reagan's presidency not only shifted the Republican Party's ideology, but also greatly affected the American people's views on taxation, regulation, and social issues.
What really make Hayward's history worthwhile are his meticulous attention to detail and his deep understanding of historical context. The Conservative Counterrevolution devotes many pages to explaining the country's state of mind before, during, and after Reagan's presidency, and explains in great depth how the President's actions affected it. It is difficult to comprehend that not long ago the very necessity of the office of the President was being questioned. After the failures of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, some wondered aloud whether the job was too big for one man. Reagan's presidency restored faith in the office itself, and such questions are no longer being asked.
More critically, not many young people are equipped to understand the condition of living in a world at odds with Soviet powers, nor the reasons for the Cold War itself. Most have been indoctrinated by the liberal establishment and believe that the conflict was merely a sad and unnecessary misunderstanding between two nations that could have lived in peace. Hayward rejects this view and brings into sharp focus the ideological differences that made enemies of the Soviets, as well as the tension and the sense of urgency that defined the period. His history provides a clear picture of the era and the people who defined it, none more so than the President himself.
The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989 is likely to be the best book on American history published this year. I strongly recommend it, and believe that it will one day be ranked as the definitive chronicle of the Reagan presidency. More importantly, I believe that just as its first volume sparked an historical reevaluation of Reagan, so too will this second volume contribute strongly to the increasingly robust thesis that Reagan was one of our nation's finest presidents.