Reagan versus the Intellectuals

By McClay, Wilfred M. | The Public Interest, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Reagan versus the Intellectuals


McClay, Wilfred M., The Public Interest


As Samuel Johnson once remarked, we more often need to be reminded than to be instructed. That pithy observation helps us take the proper measure of Dinesh D'Souza's newest book, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader.(*) It must be conceded at the outset that, from a strictly scholarly or historical standpoint, this is not a trailblazing book. There are no new discoveries here, no startlingly original interpretations, few fresh facts. Nor is such a slim volume meant to preempt or compete with the massive authorized Reagan biography currently being written by Edmund Morris, or even with the earlier biographical efforts of Lou Cannon, Laurence Barrett, Ronnie Dugger, Garry Wills, et al., or the score-settling memoirs too numerous to mention. Indeed, given its light and accessible touch, a touch reminiscent of the book's subject, it is more like an extended essay than a standard biographical or historical study.

And yet, D'Souza has made an extremely useful contribution not only to our understanding of Ronald Reagan and his presidency but of the American past and present. He has accomplished this by doing what historians do best, when they are on their game: presenting the flow of ideas and events in a larger perspective that reveals their ultimate direction and deeper meaning. If his book is more a boldly stroked sketch than a detailed portrait, so much the better.

Such a book may be especially necessary to redirect our thinking in the case of Reagan, a president who, from the start, has elicited an appalling level of unconcealed loathing from the liberal scribes who keep the tablets of our civilization and who had already drafted the "story" on him long before it had run its remarkable course. Even before the 1980s were finished, catch phrases such as "decade of greed," "smoke and mirrors," and "new Gilded Age," along with images of an avaricious, aggressive, corrupt, ignorant, and bumbling administration, had become engraved in the pages of standard history textbooks and fixed in the minds of most educated Americans as the principal "story" of the era. So effective has this spinning of the past been, with its relentless minimizing of Reagan's truly astonishing record, that even his fellow Republicans, beginning with the "kinder and gentler" George Bush, have come to accept it, if only by silent assent.

Hence Reagan, the bold and canny politician whose opponents always underestimated him to their later regret, the winner of the Cold War and restorer of national self-confidence and economic health, is in danger of being underestimated by history. D'Souza wrote his book to remind us that it was Reagan, not his clever detractors, who turned out to be right about the vulnerability of the Soviet Union, right about the preconditions of economic recovery, right about the resiliency of the American spirit, right about everything that mattered, about which the "wise men" were consistently wrong, in ways they have never fully acknowledged.

One of the most satisfying features of D'Souza's book is its collection of quotations from learned fools, all of whom were certain, with an arrogance bordering on contempt, that they understood the world better than a dim bulb like Reagan. We are treated, for example, to the collective wisdom of Seweryn Bialer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Paul Samuelson, James Reston, Lester Thurow, Strobe Talbott, and Stephen Cohen, all of whom lectured the public about the growing strength of the Soviet economic and political system in the early 1980s. All of these men concluded that the Soviet regime was much too firmly entrenched to be effectively challenged. Those who thought otherwise, as Reagan did, were (in the words of Schlesinger) "wishful thinkers" who were only "kidding themselves," and indeed, were endangering the very survival of the planet. When the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later, they were of course stunned. Schlesinger marvelled that "no one foresaw these changes," conveniently forgetting that Reagan had foreseen them and had been ridiculed for predicting them. …

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