Conservative Bark, Pragmatic Bite


Reagan, by Lou Cannon, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982, 464 pp., $18.95.

For some time it has been fashionable for conservatives to blame the Reagan administration's faults on members of the cabinet or the White House staff rather than on President Reagan himself. It is alleged that James Baker or David Stockman or some lesser-known administration official has either duped or misled the president into endorsing policies that are contrary to conservative principles. The president himself has generally been exempted from criticism—even when he clearly takes a personal role in the formulation and implementation of an anticonservative policy, as in the case of the 1982 tax hike.

Unfortunately for conservatives, Lou Cannon's excellent biography of Ronald Reagan makes clear that his deviation from conservative principles is the norm rather than the exception. The reality is that Reagan is far more of a pragmatist and much less of an ideologue than some of his supporters would like to believe.

Lou Cannon, currently the White House correspondent for the Washington Post, has been covering Ronald Reagan since he first appeared on the national political scene in 1964, with his famous speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater's presidential bid. Cannon says that he likes and respects Ronald Reagan "while remaining skeptical that his actions will achieve the results he intends." It is difficult to tell which is dominant, his apparently genuine affection for Reagan or his skepticism. He would certainly lose credibility with the Washington press corps if he were to write an unabashedly positive biography of a president whose philosophy is totally contrary to theirs, but he would lose access to the president if he were to write a totally negative biography. The result is somewhat of a compromise but one that nevertheless provides an enormous amount of factual data about President Reagan that, I believe, tells us a great deal about him and what to expect in the future.

Cannon begins at the beginning, detailing Reagan's youth and upbringing in Illinois, education at Eureka College, early career in radio, and later career as a Hollywood film star. According to Cannon, Reagan was not nearly as much of an anti-Communist as head of the Screen Actors Guild as Reagan tends to portray himself and really did not begin to become a conservative until starting to work for General Electric in the mid-1950s, when his film career had essentially ended. Cannon says that Reagan's job giving speeches on behalf of GE swung him around from a middle-of-the-road Democrat to a conservative Republican.

Even so, the change was not as abrupt as it may appear. According to Cannon, Reagan merely changed the words corporate profits to big government in his speeches on the causes of our economic problems. Although Cannon implies that Reagan "sold out," trading his moderately liberal views for ones more in tune with his employer's, he also shows how Reagan's increase in income during the 1950s made him more conscious of the intrusion of government into his life, principally through high tax rates.

The really important part of Cannon's book, however, details Reagan's two terms as governor of California from 1966 to 1974. In many ways, his presidency seems almost a replay of his governorship.

For example, he came to office determined to impose radical conservative change, vowing to cut the state budget across the board. Ultimately, however, it proved impossible to achieve this goal, partly because of incompetent staff work and partly because of having unrealistic goals. He then turned around completely and pushed through the largest tax increase in California history.

By Reagan's second term he had become a fairly conventional governor, whose major attempt at radical change was an ill-fated effort to cap state government spending via a constitutional amendment. Interestingly, Cannon points out how moderate Proposition 1 was compared to California's later Proposition 13.

Cannon also details how Reagan bungled the abortion issue (from the perspective of his conservative constituents), ultimately signing into law legislation that for all intents and purposes established abortion on demand in California. Cannon also provides data showing that, for all his conservative rhetoric about cutting government spending, Reagan actually increased spending for most social programs at the fastest rate in California history—despite the savings from welfare reform, which Cannon actually credits more to changes in the population than to the effects of the legislation. In the end, he paints a fairly convincing picture of Reagan as a moderately liberal state governor whose rhetoric was far tougher than his actions and who was not unwilling to support liberal policies when his conservative policies met with resistance.

About a quarter of Cannon's book details the run for the presidency, beginning with Reagan's short-lived 1968 effort and covering the 1976 campaign as well as all the factors involved in the 1980 victory. Cannon paints a portrait of Reagan as a man with superb political instincts—far superior to his staff's—but a tendency to delegate too much responsibility to subordinates.

The discussion of John Sears, who ran the 1976 and 1980 campaigns until being fired, calls to mind the current controversy over Jim Baker. In each case Reagan put total control in the hands of someone from outside the California circle who held philosophical views different from his but who won the job by being a competent technician. In each case, however, the "technician" ultimately came to run the whole show. In Sears's case, his power even extended to the removal of Lyn Nofziger and Mike Deaver—two of Reagan's oldest and most loyal aides—before ultimately being removed himself. I strongly suspect that the same fate will befall Jim Baker.

Cannon's book closes with a brief review of Reagan's presidency up to late 1981. He notes correctly that Reagan has already changed direction, just as in the first year of his governorship. He concludes that Reagan's principal influence on policy has come largely from setting the agenda, rather than directly from his initiatives. He believes that Reagan will not run again in 1984 but that his influence will continue.

All in all, Lou Cannon's biography of Ronald Reagan is competent, informative, and unintentionally, disturbing. I am now far more concerned about the future course of the Reagan presidency than I was before, far less confident of his commitment to conservative principles and radical change, and fearful that we may have blown the best opportunity in a generation to change fundamentally the political and economic direction of the country.

Bruce Bartlett is the deputy director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and the author of Reaganomics: Supply Side Economics in Action.