A Review of James H. Broussard,
Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America.
New York and London: Routledge, 2015.
[NOTE: One of the joys—and curses—of being a professional historian is the lure of “revisionism.” That’s when, every generation or so, the historical consensus about important events or individuals begins to shift. George W. Bush, for example, can’t wait for this to happen, because historians’ contemporary opinions of his presidency were so negative. And, deep in his San Clemente man-cave, I’m sure that Richard Nixon, even to his last breath, felt that “history” would vindicate him.
To historians, revisionism is as inevitable as death and taxes (because they’re not generally members of the 1%). So, it’s natural, even for a historian who did not vote for Ronald Reagan, to realize that the old historical carousel keeps on a-turnin’.
Exhibit A is James Broussard’s concise biography of Ronald Reagan, a well-crafted, thoughtful attempt to burnish the late President’s historical reputation, especially if the reader has little first-hand knowledge of the Reagan years. (And, yes, having lived through a historical period does make coming to terms with the inevitability of revisionism more than a little challenging!)]
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Imagine trying to do justice to the life of any significant President of the United States (and even I will admit that Reagan qualifies) in under 200 pages, and select a representative group of ten “documents” to offer readers insight into the way that President’s mind worked. Within the constraints of this format, James Broussard characterizes Ronald Reagan as a popular, telegenic leader with significant accomplishments, but also one whose flaws were real.
The picture of Reagan’s upbringing presented here is Horatio Alger-ish, but with the subject having acting “chops” in addition to the requisite grit and determination. Reagan’s early life was difficult—his dad, Jack, was ambitious, but also had numerous problems, including alcoholism. Son Ronald (who preferred the nickname “Dutch,” because he believed it sounded more “manly” than his given name) coped successfully with his father’s issues, but the experience made him a “very private person.” (8)
Young Dutch’s release valves included boys’ books emphasizing the triumph of good over evil; sports and extracurricular activities in high school, especially acting; and seven consecutive summers as a lifeguard in Dixon, Illinois. When Jack Reagan was sober, he was a New Deal Democrat, as was his son. Dutch, who clearly wanted to get the heck out of Dixon after graduating from Eureka College, managed to secure a radio announcing job in Iowa, a screen test in Hollywood, and a contract with Warner Brothers in 1937.
Reagan’s Hollywood career was generally undistinguished, but he did demonstrate considerable skill in politics, at least in his role as member—and eventually president—of the Screen Actors Guild. In the 1940s, Reagan traversed the political spectrum from “Hollywood liberal” to “conservative.” During the post-World War II “Red Scare,” he abandoned his opposition to anti-Communist “witch hunting” and became an advocate of “naming names,” something for which “liberals” in Hollywood never forgave him.
Reagan’s first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman, ended in divorce in 1948. Within a year, he had taken up with actress Nancy Davis, whom he married in 1952 and who would remain the love of the rest of his life.
A turning point in his career came in the mid-1950s, when Reagan became associated with the General Electric Company. Host of GE Theater, Reagan, coached by public relations maven Lemuel Boulware, traveled to factories and parroted the company’s line against the alleged threat of “big government” to private enterprise and individual liberty, eventually adding the danger of Communist encroachment abroad to his list of perils. Yet, while Reagan was beginning to sound like a grim-visaged conservative, Broussard insists that he maintained his optimism, a trait that ultimately proved decisive in his career.
Once the Technicolor western series Bonanza drove black-and-white GE Theater off the air, Reagan turned to politics. He first achieved national recognition in 1964, thanks to his work on behalf of the overmatched Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was trounced by incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson, but Reagan and his advisers managed to convert Reagan’s growing conservative “star power” into the governorship of California in 1966.
As Governor, Reagan emphasized a short list of pragmatic ideas, not a call for an ideological crusade. Still, conservatives tended to listen to Reagan’s rhetoric and ignore his actions. For example, the Governor hoped to achieve across-the-board budget cuts, but he ended up signing “the largest [tax increase] by any state ever until that time.” (68) Already, we can see the “Great Communicator” at work. In Broussard’s nifty summary, Reagan’s gubernatorial career “reflected his personal popularity and marked only a brief interruption in the state’s steady drift to the Democrats. . . .” (83)
His unsuccessful challenge to incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976 taught Reagan useful lessons, and in 1980 he ousted another incumbent, Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reviewing the details of the campaign, Broussard admits what, to those of us who lived through it, seems an accurate assessment: “[N]either Ronald Reagan nor his conservative issues won the 1980 election. Jimmy Carter lost it.” (101)
According to Broussard, President Reagan knew what he believed on certain “big” issues but was willing to leave “minor” issues to his subordinates. His “big issues” included inflation, the economy, the Cold War, rebuilding the military, and eliminating nuclear weapons. By the end of his eight years in office, Reagan had made his mark in most of these areas, for better or worse. [On the “for worse” side, I remember trying to assure my own children, and my high school students, that, just because Reagan’s administration thundered doomsday scenarios when discussing nuclear war, that didn’t mean we’d incinerate humankind any time soon. Not that I actually believed it, but still. . . .]
Reagan applied a “hands-off” management style to his presidency (111), spending lots of vacations at his California ranch and weekends at Camp David. This lack of oversight created problems, allowing Cabinet members, including most famously Interior Secretary James Watt, to head off in controversial directions. Still, the “Great Communicator” did pressure Congress on issues he felt were important. For example, he pushed through the nomination of numerous conservative federal court justices, including Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court, the start of an important, and ongoing, trend.
In evaluating Reagan’s domestic programs, Professor Broussard credits him with slowing the growth of government, “aside from its responsibility for national defense.” (122) Broussard believes Reagan’s “greatest domestic triumph” was to leave inflation “weaker, wounded and far less dangerous.” And yet, he points out, “[T]he bad consequence of tighter money was a serious recession, the worst economic downturn—or at any rate the worst unemployment—since the Great Depression of the 1930s.” All of which, I imagine, sounds fairly ho-hum to readers in the twenty-first century–unless they lived through the period, as I did. (125)
According to Broussard, on foreign policy issues the Reagan Administration was split between pragmatists (including Reagan himself) and hardliners (who were “more Reagan than Reagan”), over dealing with the Soviet Union. The President’s firm approach to the Communist giant seldom wavered, despite the occasional shakiness of public opinion; his sunny pronouncements seemed to allay popular misgivings. One concrete, immediate outcome of this policy was the signing by Reagan and Soviet Chairman Gorbachev of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987; a long-term result, Broussard argues, was the implosion of the Soviet Union, which occurred after Reagan had retired from office.
Broussard’s treatment of Reagan’s second term is painful to read, though perhaps not as painful as having lived through it. There were high points—for example, tax reform in 1986. But the President’s misstep regarding the ceremony at the Bitburg cemetery in 1985, where he praised the dedication of those buried there (including German SS troops)–and the news broke in the U.S. during Passover Week? The “Iran-Contra” disaster, which began like a re-run of our slog into Vietnam and ended up a serio-comic screen test for “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”? In Broussard’s telling, those controversies were mostly the fault of Reagan’s advisers–Chief of Staff Don Regan; National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane; and the ever-popular conservative “hero,” Colonel Oliver North, who played Batman to his “Robin,” Fawn Hall. (The thuggish, “anti-Communist” “Contras” as the “moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers”? Really?)
A congressional committee reporting on the “Iran-Contra Affair” criticized “Reagan’s lax—almost nonexistent—management style but f[ound] no evidence of culpability in illegal activity”; special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh added that, “while numerous people broke the law, there was no evidence that Reagan approved or knew of the illegal diversion of money to the contras.” (169) Obviously, admirers of Ronald Reagan will interpret those conclusions differently from people who don’t admire him, who might ask, “What about Truman’s belief that ‘The Buck Stops” at the President’s desk?
Among the “minor” domestic issues President Reagan didn’t seem to care much about was AIDS. Broussard argues that Reagan’s approach to the epidemic was “more complicated” than his critics admit: “[H]e understood that AIDS was a terrible plague, sympathized with its victims, denounced discrimination against them, and spent billions on AIDS research.” Yet, his biographer also acknowledges that Reagan was reluctant to lead on the issue (his speech on AIDS came only in 1987); his administration included “people who were vehemently hostile to homosexuality and who sometimes actually mocked the victims of AIDS”; and the President failed “to take up recommendations of his own federal commission” on AIDS, established in the wake of his 1987 speech. (170-171)
Broussard’s last chapter, “Ronald Reagan’s Legacy,” is masterful. Reagan deserves to be considered “the great American conservative champion” (179), he maintains, even if his actual views and actions on key issues are unacceptable (if done by someone not named Ronald Reagan) to today’s more frantic, ideologically lock-step GOP. To Broussard, Reagan was the FDR of the Republicans, a strong leader who was not only good for the country but also revived his party’s fortunes.
In Broussard’s view, Reagan was “the only president in a fifty-year period who was able, not merely to slow, but actually to reverse the rising tide of federal discretionary spending. Conservatives praise this achievement and treasure it in future memory. For liberals, it was a disgraceful abandonment of government’s duty to meet public needs.” (182) And yet—once Reagan left the White House, Washington’s impact on American citizens revived and flourished, regardless of which party was in power.
To Professor Broussard, “Reagan’s greatest achievement by far . . . is the successful—indeed victorious—end of the Cold War.” (184) There are those who award the lion’s share of credit for this development to Soviet Chairman Gorbachev; Broussard responds, “Even Reagan’s most fervent supporters cannot claim that he alone produced this change, but all except his most bitter critics agree that he had something to do with it.” Moreover, “few would disagree that Reagan’s impact, both at home and abroad, was profound.” (188)
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James Broussard’s study of Ronald Reagan argues that his legacy was, on balance, positive. The biography is brief, readable, and even-handed, avoiding, for the most part, “triumphalism” in evaluating Reagan’s achievements. Selections from ten of Reagan’s speeches amplify Broussard’s analysis, and a two-page “Note on Sources” (which can be supplemented by a more extensive bibliography at the book’s website) directs interested readers to more detailed accounts of the man and his era.
Reagan’s champions have been lauding him for a generation now; to the GOP, he remains “St. Ronald.” Yet, Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America is not part of that echo chamber. Broussard writes as a scholar, not a partisan. Intended for a college audience, the volume also could be used profitably in secondary school Advanced Placement U. S. History classes. “Read this one for the Gipper” and decide for yourself.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)