Reagan Co-Opted

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Reagan Co-opted Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History By John Patrick Diggins (W.W. NORTON, 493 PAGES, $2795)

Reviewed by Peter J. Wallison

HIS IS A BOOK I VERY MUCH WANTED TO UKE. Not because it was supposed to reflect a liberal's awakening to the importance and significance of Ronald Reagan, but because I hoped it was abook by a member of the academy that took Ronald Reagan seriously.

One of the remarkable things about Reagan is the dearth of serious scholarly works about his presidency. Although Professor Diggins could describe him as one of the three greatest presidents in American history-the others being Lincoln and Roosevelt-the number of scholarly books on Reagan, almost two decades after he left office, can be counted on one hand.

This is reflected in Diggins's bibliography. Most of the cited works are by journalists, and cover specific issues in Reagan's political life, or memoirs by journalists or figures in the Reagan administration. Diggins's text mostly cites Lou Cannon's book-President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime-the title of which suggests the arch way in which, at the time Cannon was writing, many people in the press thought of Ronald Reagan.

Still, the Cannon book is one of the fairest and most balanced available. As Diggins acknowledges, "Reagan's reputation has suffered from northern liberal biases that dominate the teaching and writing of American history today."

But there is another and perhaps more practical expianation for this. Press coverage, often cited as the first draft of history, is really quite a bit more influential than that.

Historians and political scientists read the New York Times, Its coverage of Reagan promoted the idea that he was simply an actor going through the motions as president-reading from speeches written by his staff, dutifully following the directions of his shrewd advisers, falling asleep in cabinet meetings, and generally sleepwalking through history.

The fact that this imagery fit neatly with the interests of some of his staff in exaggerating their own importance was lost in the media's pell-mell acceptance of this narrative. If you're a scholar and believe this stuff-and why not?-you're not going to make your reputation by studying the Reagan presidency.

To be sure, there were some problems with this story. Reagan was successful again and again in getting the things he wanted most-the tax cuts, spending cuts, tax reforms, increases in military appropriations, and other priorities seemed to fall into his lap. Before Reagan became president many observers of the presidency concluded that it was just too big a job for one person.

What we needed, they suggested, was a corporate presidency, with several executives dividing up the work. But Reagan made the job look easy-so easy that he was accused of being lazy.

Once, when asked whether he was working as hard as he should, Reagan responded, "Well, they say that hard work never hurt anyone, but I say, why take a chance?"

But there is in fact an explanation for Reagan's success. He had a strategy for his presidency in which he would govern with principles and ideas rather than by constantly intervening in the decision-making process of his administration. As Diggins notes, "Reagan thought ideas were real and could move mountains."

He also selected four objectives that he wanted to achieve:

* Reducing the role of government in the economy through tax and spending cuts.

* Forcing American companies to compete by freeing trade.

* Compelling the Soviet Union to come to the bargaining table though a military buildup.

* Restoring the American people's faith in themselves.

He concentrated almost entirely on these-and achieved them all.

This was a completely different template for running the presidency from the one FDR pursued, and Reagan showed that it could be successful. …