Understanding Reagan; and Ignoring Liberal Orthodoxy
Byline: Peter Hannaford, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York, has written a remarkable book about Ronald Reagan. It is remarkable because the author freed himself of the orthodoxy of modern academia in order to see his subject not as one-dimensional but whole.
As a young man on the University of California's Berkeley campus in the 1960s, Mr. Diggins saw Mr. Reagan through left-liberal eyes, and later saw the Reagan presidency as "little more than the age of avarice and savings-and-loan scandals." Unlike many of his academic colleagues, however, he dug into the growing body of evidence about the formation of Mr. Reagan's view of the world and the president's "intelligent, sensitive mind with passionate convictions."
In "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History," Mr. Diggins writes, "Reagan, it is now clear, delivered America from fear and loathing. He stood for freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart." His book examines each of these.
The author claims Mr. Reagan was an intellectual descendant of both Thomas Paine (which he would have acknowledged) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (which, despite Mr. Reagan's occasional quotations of Emerson, is largely coincidental). He says Mr. Reagan was a "romantic" in the sense that he imagined a future always better than the past or the present. Mr. Reagan often preached that government should get out of the way so individuals could "go as far and as high as their talents take them." Mr. Diggins sees this as evidence that Mr. Reagan saw God as benign, even beneficent.
He poses the paradox that American democracy is, at the same time, liberal and conservative. "America is liberal in its means and conservative in its ends," he writes, noting, "The confident Reagan felt no need to listen to either the somber warnings of the Founders or the sermons of sin-struck fundamentalists. Instead he convinced Americans to believe in themselves."
Mr. Reagan's early years (and his mother's influence on his outlook) are summarized, as is his growing hostility to communism during his Hollywood years and his time as governor of California. The main domestic events of his presidency are covered, such as supply-side tax cuts and welfare-reform efforts.
The book's central thesis is that Mr. …