Ronald Reagan by Dinesh D'Souza
Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader
by Dinesh D’Souza
Free Press. 292 pp. $25.00
Ronald Reagan, who was lucky in so many things, was perhaps luckiest of all in his enemies. From the beginning to the end of his remarkably successful political career, they never ceased to underestimate him. The persistent idea that he was an “amiable dunce” (Clark Clifford’s phrase), captive to an absurd and rigid ideology, meant that for the most part it did not take much for him to appear statesmanlike.
That used to puzzle me. Why would otherwise smart people be so foolish as to let their opponent beat them on the cheap? In reading Dinesh D’Souza’s spirited if uneven survey of the Reagan presidency, the answer becomes clear. To his liberal adversaries, especially the intellectuals among them, a man who held to Reagan’s fundamental conservative beliefs—and who did so without ambivalence or qualification—could not be other than a dunce. But it was not just liberals who thought in this way. Even many of Reagan’s own associates wondered at his success. “He knows so little,” remarked Robert McFarlane, his National Security Adviser, “and accomplishes so much.”
He did indeed accomplish much, as D’Souza chronicles in a brisk set of topical chapters skimming the highlights of Reagan’s White House years. After weathering a severe recession, the economy, spurred by a controversial tax-cut program that Reagan steered through Congress with flair and skill, took off in 1983 on the longest peacetime expansion in American history. Leaving behind the stagflation of the 1970’s, the economy grew steadily over the next seven years, while inflation, unemployment, and interest rates all declined.
Reagan’s success in international affairs was equally dramatic, reversing the decline of the 70’s when, as D’Souza notes, the USSR had gained a nuclear advantage over the U.S. and brought nine nations under its imperial sway. Although the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire came after Reagan had left office, it was his administration that prepared the ground for victory in the cold war by restoring American leadership both militarily and politically.
But no list of specific achievements can quite do justice to the Reagan presidency. As D’Souza indicates in a sometimes shrewd, sometimes superficial account, Reagan revived the spirit of his nation, his party, and his cause. Indeed, he revived the presidency itself: it is easy to forget how pervasive the notion had become, in the wake of poisonous disagreements over Vietnam, racial disunity, the Watergate scandal, and the stumblings of the Ford and Carter administrations, that America was essentially ungovernable. Reagan’s program of conservative restoration, summarized in his invocation of family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom, ended the national malaise, while also bringing his own party to the verge of political ascendancy.
Finally, well before the demise of socialism, Reagan helped to transform the terms of debate of American politics. For the half-century following the New Deal, Americans had been taught to look to the federal government as the guarantor of economic health and security. Reagan’s counterrevolution not only frustrated the Left’s long-nurtured ambition to expand America’s modest welfare state into a social-democratic redistributive regime, it revitalized faith in such traditional and presumably outmoded traits as individualism, private enterprise, voluntarism, and personal responsibility.
Given all this, it comes as no surprise that a conservative analyst like D’Souza (his previous books are Illiberal Education and The End of Racism) should conclude that Reagan was “not merely a successful President” but a “truly great” one. Indeed, D’Souza boldly ranks him as equal in achievement to Franklin D. Roosevelt and surpassed only by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. That is a very large claim, and the arguments against it, as D’Souza concedes, cannot be put down simply to ideological prejudice.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously said of FDR, Reagan was a first-rate temperament, but a second-rate intellect. He held to his ideology in ways that could be as simplistic as his critics charged. He was sometimes shockingly ignorant and ill-informed, and he lacked FDR’s saving grace of intellectual curiosity. Not only was there much he did not know, but much he thought he knew was not so. His work habits, too, were less than heroic, and sometimes—as in the Iran-contra fiasco—he took a hands-off management style to the point of irresponsibility. From the point of view of his conservative supporters, perhaps most damaging of all was that he could not always be relied upon to carry through on his own principles. Despite his inveighings against the evils of big government, the size of government grew relentlessly during his term of office; despite his convictions about the evils of the “evil empire,” his dealings with the Soviet Union, its allies, and its clients could be surprisingly inconsistent.
Yet despite all this, Reagan was undoubtedly, as D’Souza’s subtitle suggests, an extraordinary leader, though unfortunately D’Souza is not as helpful as he might be in explaining the why and how of it. Thus, in his key analytical chapter, “Spirit of a Leader,” he categorizes the qualities that make for success in this realm under the headings of “vision,” “action,” and “consent.” Reagan, according to D’Souza, knew where he wanted to go; he was willing to act “even in the absence of full information”; and he had the ability to articulate his vision “in order to rally the people behind it.” Explanation at this level of generalized banality explains nothing.
The most important psychological fact about Ronald Reagan is that he had the healthiest ego of any President in memory. His was a remarkably well-integrated personality; the nearest thing to a disability was his emotional reserve, the psychic distance he maintained from those around him. That, however, is a common trait of charismatic leadership, which often pays a price, and exacts a cost, in personal intimacy.
Reagan’s well-grounded ego never got in the way of his policies. He did not personalize political differences, and he did not bear grudges. Among the American people, his projection of strength and nonegomaniacal self-confidence engendered feelings of great trust. This was true even for those opposed to or skeptical of his policies. People liked him despite themselves.
Critics dismissed much of this as an actor’s tricks. The whole thing was scripted, they said. And so, in a sense, it was. All Presidents “play” the presidency as a role, some better and more believably than others. Reagan, as D’Souza rightly emphasizes, was among the best. When the occasion demanded—think of his speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy—he brought to the public functions of the presidency an eloquence, emotion, and charm that ennobled the occasion and the office alike. His enemies understood this, however much it may have chagrined them.
In the end, however, it was not Hollywood skills but real strength of character that made Reagan extraordinary, and that allowed him, in D’Souza’s nice phrase, to “run against the 20th century.” Blithely he contradicted the dominant assumption of contemporary political thought that ever-increasing government activity was both inexorable and beneficial, and blithely he ignored the near-universal belief that the U.S. had no choice but to live indefinitely with the Soviet empire. On the issues that mattered to him, he made his own decisions, even when—as in the case of the Strategic Defense Initiative—it meant going against the virtually unanimous opinion of his advisers. In shorthand terms, one might say that the key to Reagan’s success was that—contrary to virtually every other political figure of his age—he had the serenity genuinely not to care what the New York Times thought of him.
On most issues, most of the time, Reagan had extraordinary political judgment. And on most issues, most of the time, that judgment was in accord with the feelings of his fellow citizens. Indeed, to speak of Reagan’s political judgment is to remember what William F. Buckley, Jr. meant when he remarked that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. Reagan had an almost preternatural hold on the Middle American mind, and so it is hardly a wonder that despite the Iran-contra scandal shadowing the last years of his presidency, he left office, according to Gallup, as the most admired citizen of the nation, and with the highest approval ratings of any President in the modern era.
Dinesh D’Souza’s book touches on virtually everything that needs to be said about the Reagan presidency, but one wishes for more focus, tightness, and penetration. The moments of insight are unevenly scattered, the prose serviceable but for the most part unarresting; there is also a dying fall, in the form of a disjointed epilogue that bemoans to no particular effect the fate of post-Reagan conservatism. In the end, Ronald Reagan strikes one as either too short or too long: too short to offer historical depth or ballast, too long to justify its essay-length argument. But it is a useful book nonetheless, and its provocative argument for Reagan’s greatness opens a necessary and complicated debate.
Certainly, Reagan’s was an odd greatness, the greatness of one whose unprepossessing intelligence and uncluttered ego made him appear simpler than he was: they made him seem ordinary. But his extraordinary record of achievement suggests that in this apparently uncunning man, history nurtured a most cunning agent.